How a lack of zoning messed up Houston in more ways than one

Wow. Pretty. Image: Getty.

No matter what city in you’re in, in pretty much any part of the world, there will be a similar structure of how buildings are laid out; skyscrapers close together, residential homes in certain areas, factories outside the centre, and so on. These very basic, very obvious rules are followed in most major cities because they help a) create a coherent flow that is logically easy to follow and b) keep cities from looking like pieces of shit.

But have you ever wondered what a city might look like if it said, you know what, why don’t we just build whatever we want wherever the hell we want?

Well, my friends, there's no need to wonder. Welcome to Houston, Texas: America’s biggest clusterfuck and home to vast pockets of organisational monstrosities such as this:

Image: Metro Matt/City-Data.

You may be asking, who the fuck would let this vile set-up happen? To catch you up, the US (and most of the western world, really) has this thing called zoning laws, which are the rules and regulations around how a city or town is sectioned off. It creates zones where you can only put up a certain type of building or structure – for example, residential zones for homes or commercial zones for businesses. The US started to see zoning laws crop up around the early twentieth century, and now almost every major city has them.

I say almost, of course, because there is just one exception. You guessed it: Houston, the only major city in America that has zero, and yes, I mean ZERO, zoning laws.

A lot has been written about Houston’s lack of zoning, including this CityMetric piece from a few years ago. These pieces largely focus on how Houston shows the danger of not zoning because it creates sprawl: cities without a proper centre that seem to go on endlessly because there aren’t any rules forcing them to stop.

What these pieces often fail to show you is what an absolute mess this major American city actually looks like on the ground. Sure, Houston is insane because it's pointlessly enormous – but the real freak show is found on the streets where you can witness these planning fuck-ups:

Image: Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons.

 

Image: Google Maps.

The lack of zoning means there are parts of Houston where homes sit next to skyscrapers next to malls next to factories. Placing buildings that should be miles apart be within a few metres of one another makes the city look terrible in more places than you would imagine.

That’s the other thing about zoning laws: not only do they select areas where only certain things should go, they also keep things that shouldn’t be near each other from actually being near each other. Like, for example, single-storey homes next to skyscrapers. Car parks next to playgrounds. Or, even, primary schools next to sex shops:

Image: Google Maps.

Behold one of Houston’s most famous no-zones nightmares. The Zone d’Erotica, a kink-friendly ‘adult’ store, is located in the car park of The Galleria shopping centre which houses a private pre-school as well as many other slightly more wholesome facilities. And not just that: many Houston residents have complained that it is directly across the road from a heavily populated residential area that is also packed with children.

It’s worth pointing out that Houston does have some land-regulation, that looks and smells like zoning. But you can tell it isn’t the real deal because of the endless municipal planning catastrophes.

Zoning is good and cities should have it. That’s my point here.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.