How Land Use Law Impedes Transportation Innovation

25 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2016 Last revised: 2 Aug 2016

David Schleicher

Yale University - Law School

Date Written: April 12, 2016


A certain breed of economists and techno-futurists regularly point to the potential for innovation in the transportation sector to spur economic growth. Such predictions, however, often fail to discuss why transportation innovation in the past was so central to economic changes. Innovations like the automobile or the elevator did not make it (much) easier to travel between and among existing homes, stores and offices. After all, existing developments had been built around previous technologies for moving people around, whether it was the streetcar suburb or the walk-up apartment building. Instead, most of the gains from new transportation technologies come from being able to move our homes, offices, and stores into more pleasing and efficient patterns. That is, to get the benefits from transportation technologies, we must change land use patterns.

But land uses in our cities and metropolitan areas do not simply follow changes market demand or technological progress. Laws and regulations from zoning codes to subdivision requirements to historic preservation limit the forms, densities, and uses of buildings. In order to understand the potential transportation technologies have to produce economic growth, we have to consider both how they will affect optimal land uses and whether the changes they suggest will be allowed and encouraged by local and state land use regulators. This Chapter will assess how well modern land use law has or might accommodate three major recent or soon-to-arrive transportation innovations: (1) Global Positioning Systems (GPS), mobile mapping, and real-time traffic information services (e.g. Google Maps, Apple Maps, TomTom, Garmin, and Waze); (2) e-hailing apps for taxis, shared rides, and shuttles (like Uber, Lyft, and their competitors); and (3) still-developing self-driving autonomous cars.

These technological innovations should allow two types of changes to land use patterns. First, they allow “distributed density” within urban areas. Each technology should allow for greater overall density in cities without requiring as much extreme density. These technologies permit nodes of extreme density of uses (e.g., stores along a high street, or tall apartments within a quarter of a mile of train station) to spread a bit further without losing the gains of agglomeration. Second, the innovations will allow development on the edges of metropolitan areas, as they – particularly GPS and potentially autonomous cars – reduce the costs of travelling substantial distances, both in time and in effort.

Land use law does not equally permit these types of development. While building on the edge of metropolitan areas is generally easy in the United States, land use law and politics is particularly ill-equipped to produce distributed density. Its deep procedural rules and the multiple ways current residents can block new construction make incremental housing growth – building the “missing middle” of the U.S. housing market – particularly difficult. The extreme separation of uses common in zoning in the U.S. makes distributing retail or commercial development difficult as well. Unless zoning procedure and policy is reformed, many of the gains from these technologies will not be realized. Further, by failing to accommodate distributed density, cities will bias how technologists develop products, reducing the potential for economic growth. The Chapter concludes with some thoughts on how land use procedure and policy could be reformed and how transportation technologists might play a role.

Keywords: zoning, innovation, technology, driverless cars, density, urban growth, agglomeration economics

JEL Classification: R40, R41, O18, R0, R11, R14, R21, R23, R31, R52

Suggested Citation

Schleicher, David, How Land Use Law Impedes Transportation Innovation (April 12, 2016). Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 565; Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 549. Available at SSRN:

David Schleicher (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States


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