Land Use Is a Choice And The U.S. Chose Poorly

Luca Gattoni-Celli
7 min readAug 28, 2021


“Not sure if you knew him but I suspect you might through libertarian circles? And I know you’re less online than you used to be,” a friend messaged me April 11th. “Jim Pagels died in a bike accident this weekend.” I never met Jim Pagels, but he changed my life. To honor his memory, I want to share that experience.

Jim Pagels touched a lot of people. The Washington Post published an obituary for him. His death led me to a series of realizations that, especially in the past few weeks, radically altered how I see the human world. In the United States and around the world, choices about how we build cities and towns have left all of us who live in them less prosperous, less healthy, and as his violent death illustrates, less safe. Those choices may have even left us less socially connected, as I will try to explain.

My phrasing is borrowed from another friend who likes to say that failure is a choice, with regard to institutions ranging from the public education system, failing to equip children with useful academic and life skills, to the army lowering physical fitness standards to widen its recruiting pool. Land use in the United States of America is an institutional failure so dramatic, with consequences so profound and far reaching, it genuinely beggars belief. To be sure, I share this sermon with the zeal of a new convert, but simple economic logic leads to some inescapable conclusions about how we all could live better, even though I know full well I am not qualified to tell the whole story.

For a few years, I had understood (in some sense) that single-family zoning and other land use restrictions, regulations, and rules were largely responsible for the housing shortage that makes buying or even renting a place to live exorbitantly expensive, at least in the United States. This has knock-on effects on geographic mobility that may have reduced U.S. GDP roughly by a full third over the past few decades, according to one prominent study (which I am struggling to dig up). I also grasped that our tax code and government systematically subsidize and support home ownership through a sclerotic arrangement accurately compared to a sinkhole. But I did not realize artificial housing scarcity was part of a package deal that I had never signed up for or even been consciously aware of: Car dependency. Americans drive everywhere because they have to, because of how we use land. Jim Pagels’ entirely unnecessary killing by a chain reaction car crash tragically encapsulates the architecture and cost of those land use choices. Mere hours before being run down on April 9th, Jim Pagels tweeted:

This abomination is technically a rotary, with traffic signals, multiple high-speed car lanes, and a dizzying number of conflict points, making it especially dangerous for cyclists.

Very obviously, learning of his death was sad, especially since I was sure we had mutual acquaintances, plus he was apparently a wonderful human being and only about a year younger than me. But I was intrigued, by the fact that he was a market-oriented urbanist. I, like many Americans with less exotic political outlooks, had always assumed that someone advocating bike lanes was asking to spend public money on a fairly expensive piece of infrastructure dubious in value. Amsterdamers bike everywhere because they live in a social democracy with high taxes and spending on extravagant public goods, or for cultural reasons, or maybe because the Netherlands is flat, so I thought. I conceived of bike lanes as something extra, not a sound investment and certainly nothing approaching a necessity. By contrast, a network of highways and roads to let cars cruise between metro areas and zip into the hearts of cities made abundant sense. How else to travel fast and far with complete independence? But Jim Pagels had libertarian friends. He was a scholar of economics, which I remain a student of. And the way he had predicted his own death made me realize … car lanes are essentially just as arbitrary a choice as bike lanes, and are not inherently superior. It became obvious to me that the optimal number of bike lanes was not zero, and their absence was not the result of anything resembling market competition. Cities choose to make driving the only safe, convenient way to travel, even fairly short distances, largely defeating the point of living in a small geographic area with lots of other people.

Without navel gazing too deeply, my own experience probably shaped my thinking. Cars are one of my great passions — I am obsessed with them. But I also love cycling, and I miss it. A major reason I cut back was road safety. When I met my wife, I stopped biking down M Street Northwest in DC — Georgetown’s main commercial drag — because it was dangerous. For a young single guy, that was the appeal. It was exciting and mentally engaging to dodge cars pulling in and out of parallel street parking or changing lanes to turn right, always having to keep my head on a swivel. DC after dark was my favorite biking destination, not just the national mall, but the city itself: neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan. Even the ride through north Arlington to Key Bridge into Georgetown was a thrill. Bombing down the big hill of Wilson Boulevard, only a few feet away from traffic. It was awesome … stupid … horribly dangerous. Because it was all designed for cars. I still love cars, but I no longer see them as the only reasonable way to get around. To the extent we lack viable alternatives, that reality was imposed on residents of towns and cities by the force of law.

Certainly, millions of Americans eagerly embraced the post-war vision of a house, a yard, two cars, and a white picket fence — in an all-white neighborhood, it should be noted. But, and it is a huge but once you step back and take it in, how consciously have the greatest generation’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren embraced that vision? I argue we are choosing to continue on this path without really thinking about it, or even realizing that we are on one path among various possibilities.

This is not a call for revolution. Cars and single-family homes are not going to disappear. But high housing prices are just one highly visible cost of municipalities worshiping at the altar of low-density, single-family, single-purpose zoning. Imagine briefly life in a more mixed, medium-density neighborhood that included duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes (the term favored inexplicably over the fun, futuristic sounding “quadriplex”), along with a sprinkling of small, low-rise apartment buildings and maybe even some small businesses if the planning board got out of its own way. Schools and places of worship could be built within the community, where people actually live. This neighborhood would be pretty much as quiet as the archetypical suburban wasteland of cookie cutter ranch homes or godless mcmansions. In every other way I can imagine, it would be superior.

Daydream with me: Less driving would mean fewer cars on the road, less traffic, less pollution, less money spent on fuel and insurance and road maintenance. It would also make life without a car a realistic possibility for more people, namely those who cannot really afford one. Denser housing would use electricity and other utilities more efficiently. People would walk or bike to shop, eat out, worship, go to school, maybe even to go to work. And maybe, just maybe, they would spend more time on the sidewalks and streets with their neighbors, building deeper relationships and a truer sense of community.

The final possibility may be a bit of a reach, but I think it bears considering. The 1950s are remembered fondly by those who grew up during them, at least with white skin. But for adults, post-war America was an unsettled period. Art of the time explored feelings of existential dread, ennui, and alienation. And I cannot help but wonder how much of that was because people suddenly went from walking through their neighborhoods on sidewalks teeming with other people, or popping down the hall to ask Mrs. Moskowitz for a cup of sugar, to driving across town for burgers and shakes with the family. Perfectly together, perfectly alone. I bet it was a shock for a lot of people, whether or not they fully realized it. To be honest, I could be totally off-base.

Not to say that we can or should all be living in some kind of hippie dippy walkable paradise. People have various preferences, but the fundamental problem is that right now, most of us have only one or two choices for where to live: A car-dependent suburb or a city designed for cars.

Walkability is currently thought of almost as a luxury consumer good, which is a shame. Washington, D.C., the capital of the most powerful, wealthiest civilization in human history, killed a brilliant young urbanist on a bike, despite being rated one of the most walkable cities in America. The status quo, seen for what it is, is totally unacceptable. It does not have to be this way. Land use is a choice, and we are choosing one narrow vision. That vision has failed for millions of Americans. Municipalities must provide their citizens the opportunity to choose something else. I will say it one last time: Cities and towns are strictly required to use land the way they do. Alternatives are literally outlawed.

Cities can be built for cars as well as cyclists and pedestrians. Even if bike lanes and sidewalk improvements cost hundreds of millions of dollars, do we really want to keep living in places where the mere act of crossing the street is a deadly gamble? If that sounds ridiculous, note that pedestrian deaths are increasing in the U.S. as car buyers increasingly favor SUVs over sedans.

All of this can be frustrating to contemplate, even setting aside the insanity of literally not having enough places for people to live. On the other hand, it offers possibilities for a much better life, economically and perhaps spiritually. Some of these ideas are becoming mainstream. I am absolutely not someone who gets his news from YouTube, but video essays are a great way to see how different urban and suburban spaces function. Not Just Bikes and City Beautiful are two YouTube channels that opened my eyes to these alternate realities. But I reserve the lionshare of my gratitude for the person who started me on this journey. Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.

If you are interested in joining this cause in Northern Virginia, please consider becoming a member of our local YIMBY Facebook Group.



Luca Gattoni-Celli

Recovered federal tax reporter currently working as a management consultant. Catholic, husband, father, student of economics. SDG