Forcing Wal-Mart to Increase the Size of Roads or Intersections

By Dom Nozzi

A common strategy for “mitigating” (“reducing,” for those of us who speak Plain English) the negative traffic impacts of a proposed Big Box retailer such as Wal-Mart is to require the retailer to pay to widen roads or intersections that serve the store. Doing so is thought to do two things. First, it is thought that such “improvements” will allow the community to avoid traffic congestion caused by the giant retailer. Second, there is a dream that doing so will stop the retailer because the company will not be able to afford to “improve” the road/intersection.

A quick aside: Calling a road or intersection widening an “improvement” is inappropriate. While there might be a brief improvement for motorists, such widening is a degradation for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users.

Is it a good idea to require a proposed Big Box retailer to pay for a bigger road or intersection? In my view, doing so is the worst possible thing that can be done for a proposed retailer. “Easing traffic flow” is precisely what a huge retailer wants and needs, since they are striving to serve a regional population of consumers. They are striving to make things as convenient as possible for as many motorists as possible. Therefore, anything which “eases” traffic flow is an enemy of nearby neighborhoods, the community, and overall quality of life (largely because it would induce huge volumes of new car trips from all over the region – car trips that would have never occurred had the road or intersection not been enlarged).

Especially in town centers, streets must be designed for modest, low-speed car travel. Traffic calming, on-street parking, landscaped bulb-outs and landscaped medians can be very useful. A connected street network is essential, as it slows car speeds and provides travel route choices.

Effective, quality low-speed design obligates motorists to pay attention when they drive. To be careful when they drive. Using the conventional, free-flowing design model, motorists are encouraged to drive too fast, too recklessly, too inattentively. While driving in such “forgiving” places, motorists are enabled to put on make-up. Talk on the cell phone. Eat a sandwich.

Why? Because the street design allows the motorists to pay less attention. The result is dangerous, inattentive, high-speed car traffic.

Oversized streets or intersections make an area totally unwalkable. Quite unsafe, particularly for seniors and children. It becomes much more of a car-only place. It becomes, ultimately, an Anywhere USA indistinguishable from any other strip commercial area in the nation.strip2

Essentially, the street design vision of a community – particularly its town center — should be to create a “Drive To” place that is walkable and safe, rather than a “Drive Through” place that enables large-volume, high speed traffic. Only big retailers want (and need) the latter.

As for the thought that big retailers will be stopped if expensive road and intersection widening is required, don’t fool yourself. Big retailers have big pockets. Typically, even relatively expensive road and intersection modifications are pocket change for the big retailer looking to cash in on a prime market.

 

 

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Fleeing from the Public Realm

By Dom Nozzi

Over the past several decades, Americans have increasingly cocooned themselves. As the fear of crime (and “strangers”) remains high, many spend more time than their parents and grandparents inside the private realm of their homes – homes that are increasingly becoming walled, fortified, burglar-alarmed fortresses on cul-de-sacs. Many have fled from the more communal, compact town center neighborhoods to dispersed, low-density sprawl neighborhoods. Some of us live within “gated” communities where a guard grants permission to visitors wanting to enter the “compound” of a walled-in neighborhood.Phoenix-Gated-Community

The move toward the private realm is a form of escape from public life. I believe the desire to escape is driven, at least in part, by the increasing misery, barren-ness, and danger associated with the relatively awful American public realm. As the public realm becomes increasingly dreadful in these ways, we have almost completely lost any sense of community, or the common good, or any form of civic pride. Of course, some might point to the jingoistic pride that is often exhibited (flag waving, “USA!!”chants, etc.), but I think that most of that sort of national “pride” is largely associated with the fact that our cheap energy economy is able to deliver a cornucopia of consumer goods (and political freedom, which has lost its meaning because there is no one worthy of our vote) to even those in the lower classes.

2012-garage-full-of-yard-saleIndeed, many, many people, in my opinion, mistake the ability to buy a bunch of consumer goods with political liberty, freedom, and quality of life. The end of cheap energy, I believe, will lead to big increases in political turmoil fueled by economic resentment and economic misery. Scarcity and the high costs associated with that will, I hope, compel us to be more interested in and drawn to community and the public realm, and less focused on an “all about me” attitude.

As a side note, I was horrified a number of years back to see a quote from a University of Florida student in the College Park neighborhood in Gainesville, Florida. The student was being cited by City Codes Enforcement for his unkempt, littered yard. He told the officer that he had a right to have his yard be a mess because of the political liberty that Americans enjoy.

WHAT??

In other words, a good many people apparently (and bizarrely) equate liberty with the right to litter or otherwise behave in an uncivil manner. “Screw others!”

In my travels in Europe, by stunning contrast, I am invariably completely astonished by the magnificent, ornamental, historic civic buildings, public squares, and shops that I see nearly everywhere I go. The public realm, unlike the downwardly spiraling and increasingly neglected place of misery that so many Americans are fleeing, consists — in the older parts of European cities — of places worth caring about.

In these charming, romantic, human-scaled sections of Europe, one finds it fantastically rewarding to walk the livable, human-scaled streets — many of which were bustling places filled with pedestrians and busy shops and outdoor cafes.

The vitality is contagious. And powerfully rewarding, because the human species is naturally sociable, yet as an American I so rarely can experience it in public – in American cities and suburbs. Nearly everyone on the European streets seem to be friendly and happy and sociable. It is so very exciting to me to see the enormous number of people walking and bicycling on very narrow, cozy streets. Traveling without a car is clearly and dramatically more humanizing for the Europeans.

In a car, even the most mild-mannered, friendly person is often compelled to get angry at “slow-pokes”, or to fume about pedestrians and other cars in the way, or how long it takes for the signal light to change. Blood pressure rises. Fellow citizens become enemies in a competition for road space. The ability to offer a friendly “hello” to your fellow citizen is lost inside a car, as is any real sense of SERENDIPITY, which is so important to a rewarding journey.

Inside a car, one usually feels as if he or she is always in a hurry.

Only as a pedestrian or bicyclist does one experience the unhurried pleasure of taking your time to smell the flowers and enjoy the morning sun. To stop to chat with an old friend you run into. To pop into a store because of something that caught your eye.

So the rich, rewarding experiences I so often joyously find in Europe are due to these human-scaled, slow-speed, pedestrian-oriented, activated streets I see there so regularly. Streets full of happy, sociable people, busy shops and cafes, and proud buildings lavishly ornamented.vibrancy stroget st

In America, most of what we experience is what Jim Kunstler calls an “auto slum.” Who wants to go for a walk in a place full of angry, high-speed motorists on 8-lane arterial roads, vast and empty asphalt parking lots?

The wretched, all-too-common experience of a strip corridor littered with auto repair shops and car dealerships, and buildings that are so far from the road that a person on the sidewalk would need a telescope to see into store windows? Assuming there even ARE windows, since growing numbers of buildings now turn their back to the street.

The natural, expected reaction for almost any sane person is to RUN FOR YOUR LIFE from such a place and safely cocoon yourself into your own little private realm, where you can endlessly, pathetically strive to be happy by buying flat-screen TVs, iPods, and luxurious furniture as a surrogate for living in a rewarding community. But how satisfying is it, in the end, to have a stupendous living room, when you don’t even know your neighbor? When all of your “friends” are simply characters in sit-coms you watch every night on TV? When your city is little more than a tangled, dangerous mess of stressed and hostile motorists, highways, parking lots, and fast food chains?

Our consumer economy thrives because it is simply not possible to buy things as a way to be happy, yet we feel compelled to buy, buy, buy in our endless, hopeless pursuit of happiness. There is, after all, no alternative, since we have no community or quality public realm to satisfy our gregarious human desires. Advertising constantly tells us that we will feel so much joy if we buy their product. But we learn that buying and owning the latest gadget is, ultimately, an empty, sterile way to live and enjoy life.

I’ve heard more than once that the Europeans are destined to a future quality of life that nearly everyone throughout the world will see as higher that the quality of life experienced in America. A recent book is titled “The European Dream” (an illuminating play on the “American Dream” we have grown up with).

I am convinced that this transition to looking at older Europe as the new dream is certain, because the European public realm is very high in quality (light years better than the miserable public realm in most all of America), and a quality public realm is the fountainhead to a high quality of life for the entire community. Quality of life is NOT found by buying the latest plasma TV set or SUV.

 

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Road Diet Bibliography

By Dom Nozzi

Recently, I prepared a “Transportation White Paper” for a local advocacy group. One question I got was whether I could cite any cities (either in the U.S. or abroad) that have downsized city streets via a “road diet,” where travel or turn lanes are removed?  The person noted it was always good to have precedents when something is newly proposed, and also good to know the results when the proposal was tried elsewhere.

With that request, I went ahead and prepared the following citations regarding studies pertaining to road diets in America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Welch, T. “The Conversion of Four-Lane Undivided Urban Roadways to Three-Lane Facilities.” Presented at the Transportation Research Board / Institute for Transportation Engineers Urban Street Symposium, Dallas, TX, June 28-30, 1999. http://nacto.org/docs/usdg/conversion_of_four_lane_undivided_urban_roadways.pdf [reduced crashes, traffic calming enhanced, improved emergency vehicle response times]

 

 

 

Another question someone asked me about my draft White Paper was whether there was any scientific data that shows that reducing a four-lane street to three lanes (a common form of road diet) has very little impact on congestion or traffic delays?  The questioner understood the argument, but I’d like to see some empirical data. Here is the list of studies I prepared for that question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Welch, T. “The Conversion of Four-Lane Undivided Urban Roadways to Three-Lane Facilities.” Presented at the Transportation Research Board / Institute for Transportation Engineers Urban Street Symposium, Dallas, TX, June 28-30, 1999. http://nacto.org/docs/usdg/conversion_of_four_lane_undivided_urban_roadways.pdf [reduced crashes, traffic calming enhanced, improved emergency vehicle response times]

 

A final question from the advocacy group regarding my draft White Paper road diet before and afterwas:  “Where do we go from here?”  This person noted that the group was likely to get enthusiastic support for road diets from bicyclists, but “may” lose credibility with the much-broader middle class of drivers in the community.   It’s going to be an uphill battle, according to this person, to convince drivers that less parking and more congestion is a good thing.

 

My response was as follows…

 

In my experience, right-sizing streets (or “re-purposing” streets) typically meets with opposition from business owners and other citizens – particularly regional commuters. However, right-sizing almost invariably results in such substantial, rapid improvements in business and residential climate, crash road_diet_examplereduction, absence of feared congestion increase, and improved quality of life that the initial opposition tends to quickly change to broad support. Indeed, In Seattle WA, road diets resulted in such obviously beneficial outcomes for businesses and residences along the dieted streets that property owners on two other arterial streets asked for the road diet treatment on their streets. Overall, Seattle has completed over 30 road diets, according to Peter Lagerwey. Therefore, right-sizing streets is a matter of political leadership. Those communities with leadership are successfully able to substantially improve their community. Those without such leadership fail to enjoy such success.

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Will Better Public Transit Reduce Traffic Congestion?

It is quite common for advocates of transit to argue that such improvements will reduce traffic congestion.

But advocates must be very careful when stating this.

While I am confident that quality transit coupled with effective transit incentives will take car trips off of roads, I am not at all sure that even the best transit can noticeably reduce congestion (a congestion reduction that is so substantial that motorists are easily able to see congested conditions become free-flowing conditions).

Motor vehicles consume such an immense amount of space, per traveler, that even a tiny number of motorists can quickly fill a road to congestion (see image photo 40PeopleFig7.3Insertedseries). Therefore, it seems to me that if a city does NOT have congestion, there must be something terribly wrong with the city, since it only takes about 40 motorists to gridlock a street – not a lot of people.

Even if large percentages were using transit/carpools/bicycles, etc., and only a small percent are single-occupant vehicles (SOVs), it only takes a small number of SOVs to create congestion.

Even if it were true that transit could noticeably reduce congestion, induced demand and the triple convergence would quickly fill up the newly free-flowing roads. The triple convergence informs us that in any reasonably healthy community, roadway space that is freed up will quickly be filled again because the newly-available road space induces new car trips that would not have occurred had the road not been made free-flowing. Those new trips come from motorists converging on the new road space who were formerly driving at non-rush hour times, using alternative routes, or traveling by bicycle, walking or transit.

I therefore believe that it is strategically problematic to claim in a debate with those who oppose improvements for transit (and who instead want to spend money to make motor vehicle travel easier) that transit reduces congestion. The motor vehicle advocates are placed in a strong debate position when the argument is framed in such a way as to suggest transit reduces congestion, because almost no one is able to point to a single community where transit has noticeably reduced congestion, even where there is good transit. Are the great cities of the world – Rome, Paris, DC, NYC – free of congestion because they have quality transit? I think most everyone perceives each of those wonderful cities to be grid-locked.

Therefore, argues the motor vehicle advocate, transit is wastefully ineffective.

I think we are in a much better debate position when we don’t get caught up in that sort of debate framing. Instead, the point I try to make is not that transit will significantly reduce congestion, but that it will provide choices. One can choose to get stuck in traffic by stubbornly continuing to drive a car. Or one can decide they are unwilling to tolerate the congestion, and instead choose to use transit (or better yet, live closer to their destination). Or avoid rush hour. Or take an alternative route.

Are there effective tactic for reducing congestion? Yes. I am supportive of congestion-pricing and proper parking management as an effective, if politically unrealistic, strategies to reduce congestion.

The key, in my opinion, for a healthy community is not to fight against congestion. Fighting against congestion too often leads even the most progressive communities to not only set up ineffective, “empty bus syndrome,” transit systems – which gives transit a black eye, but also encourages the default solution: road widening. While I don’t tend to say this publicly, I am passively supportive of congestion because it delivers compact, higher density development, more transit use, and less severe crashes, among other community benefits.

In sum, my vision for a healthy community is not to strive to reduce congestion (which may not be possible at the local level, anyway, and can easily be counter-productive), but to ensure that there are transportation and lifestyle choices so that one can choose to opt out of what is probably intractable congestion. I believe it is a mistake, tactically, to suggest that transit will reduce congestion.

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Ingredients for Walkability

By Dom Nozzi

How do we make a place walkable?

Proximity is crucial as a measure – perhaps reducing all other measures to insignificance by comparison. In nearly all of America, unfortunately, our car-centric history has dispersed destinations to a point where it will be nearly impossible to retrofit walkability into American cities. Tragically, it will require decades or generations Prague May 2014 (14)before we will see sufficient infill and densification in our communities for any semblance of area-wide walkability to be established.

In addition to lack of proximity, another enormous problem we face in striving to encourage more utilitarian walking (and bicycling and transit use) is that America is drowning in an over-abundance of free parking. When we know that plenty of free parking awaits us nearly everywhere we need to go, we are essentially being begged to drive a car, and we end up seeing many drive even when their destination is only a short distance away (and even though there may be wide sidewalks and vibrant, pulled-up-to-the-street buildings).

[As an aside, the fact that free and abundant parking is so strongly demanded and is such a powerful way to manipulate travel behavior is curious. Why? For most Americans, there is little that is more anathema than deliberate behavior modification. And free parking is a powerful form of such “social engineering.”]

It is therefore essential that we work to restrict the availability of free and ample parking. Some strategies: unbundling the price of parking from housing, parking maximums (instead of minimums) for new construction, applying a market-price to parking (being sure that the revenue is spent in the vicinity of such parking), and locating the parking on the side or rear of new buildings.

In November 2006, I enjoyed a two-week trip in southern Italy and Sicily. It was magnificent, charming, romantic, delicious, boisterous, and invigorating. We visited some of the world’s most walkable cities, and enjoyed the experience of walking in places filled with pedestrians (mostly local, as we were there off-season). We were immersed in a walking culture.

Guess what? Most all of the places we walked had no sidewalk at all (or had “sidewalks” only a meter or so wide). Is the “pedestrian level of service” (the quality of the walkability) high or low in these Italian cities? I believe so many walk in these wonderful Italian cities because of proximity, the difficulty in finding parking, and the expense of owning and driving a car. Very little (or none) of it is due to wide sidewalks or pleasant landscaping.

I believe that to promote walkability, many Americans call for the installation of wide sidewalks because truly effective strategies (proximity and restrained/priced parking) are too costly, too painful, too long-term, or not seen as realistic in any way at all. So we build sidewalks (sometimes) because we can. It helps many of us pay lip service to providing walkability. And when no one ends up using the sidewalks, skeptics point to them as confirmation that Americans will never be pedestrians in any meaningful way.

In this interim, grim time for pedestrians, we need to encourage compact, human-scaled, parking-restrained, place-making projects that can serve as shining examples of what we need on a broader scale.

We have spent enormous sums of public and private dollars, and several decades, to do all we can to enable car travel. For most of America, there will be no overnight path to walkability. Indeed, as Kunstler argues, much of America may not have a future.

 

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The Impoverishment of the Public Realm

By Dom Nozzi

In November of 2006, when my wife and I were enjoying the magnificence of the public realm in Italy, I remarked that the stupendous buildings and streets and piazzas we observed were built by communities that were quite poor compared to most American communities, yet these Italian villages were building public facilities that even
parking_sea
hundreds of years later make American communities look like slums in comparison.

I suggested that an important reason for this state of affairs is that American communities have impoverished themselves by pouring enormous public dollars into their ruinous road system. Indeed, a crucial reason for the financial dire straits was that even in the early days of the car, motorists were powerful enough (even though there was only a handful of them) to successfully stop government from getting road modification dollars from user fees such as the gas tax (a gas tax was sometimes established, but it was a tiny fraction of what was needed). Instead, much of the road modification dollars come from “general” taxes such as property taxes and sales taxes, which we all pay, regardless of how much we drive (or don’t drive) on roads.

The result is that those of us who rarely, if ever, drive a car are subsidizing those who drive a car frequently. A strikingly unfair way to pay for transportation.

Here is an observation about the early years of cars in Colorado from a book I was reading at the time: “…three-quarters of the state’s outstanding debt [in the 1920s] was for highways and about a third of the state’s annual budget went to the Highway Department.”

“[In 1930], the state spent 50 percent more on highways each year than it did on education. Only one-third of this state money was raised from motorists.”

It does not require rocket science to figure out why most every US community builds boxy, low-budget, embarrassing public buildings and pathetic, tiny, uncared for public parks, instead of building a Piazza Navona or a Duomo Catania.Piazza Navona in Rome

 

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“Punishing” Developers: Are We Actually Punishing Ourselves?

By Dom Nozzi

It is no secret that a great many Americans HATE land developers.

They try to find as many ways as possible to punish developers and stop them. But too often, the tactics of those opposing new development request that the developer do the OPPOSITE of what a developer should be doing to promote quality of life or sustainability.

Because so many of us have come to conclude that quality of life means abundant free parking or free-flowing roads, and because so many of the buildings built over the past several decades have been so utterly unlovable (largely due to the epidemic of “modernist” architecture), development opponents force developers to build huge parking lots, huge building setbacks, and a strict separation of residential and non-residential land uses. At the same time, dsc03864government spends billions to widen roads and intersections to “accommodate” the new development.

By insisting on these development “concessions,” we ensure that everyone is FORCED to drive a car for every trip they make, and guarantees that the development will be loved by cars and despised by people. In other words, our demands trap us in a downwardly spiraling vicious cycle. The more we scream that new development provide MORE PARKING or BIGGER ROADS or LOWER DENSITY or BIGGER SETBACKS or SEPARATION OF HOMES FROM BUSINESSES, the more likely it is that we will be trapped in a future of unsustainable car dependency, loss of civic pride, and a dwindling quality of life.

Is it any wonder we have a nationwide NIMBY (not in my backyard) epidemic where neighborhoods fear ALL new developments? Is it any wonder that we have intolerable traffic congestion that gets worse and worse every year? Is it any wonder our governments are bankrupt? Is it any wonder our public planners have no credibility and our developers are the most hated people on earth?

How Can We Convert This Downward Spiral Into a Virtuous Cycle?

A virtuous cycle, the opposite of the downward spiral of a vicious cycle, is a self-perpetuating advantageous situation in which a successful solution or design leads to more of a desired result or another success which generates still more desired results or successes in a chain.

How can we create a virtuous cycle in the development and maintenance of our community?

The most effective way to create a virtuous cycle for our community is to insist that developers, planners, and government officials return to the timeless, traditional ways of building communities that are designed to make school neighborhood basedpeople, instead of cars, happy.

Hard as it might be to believe, there are a growing number of “enlightened” developers who are realizing that it is now quite profitable to build such people happy (instead of car happy) places. Places that are walkable, sociable, safe, and charming.

We need to welcome such developers (instead of the knee-jerk response of opposing ALL developers). We can do that by updating our local development regulations so that they make it easy to do the right thing (i.e., building for people rather than cars).

I am strongly pro-growth if the new development is designed to make people happy by using timeless principles, rather than using conventional, out-dated car-happy tactics.

We have workable solutions to our growth and development problems. Solutions that go beyond STOPPING GROWTH. They mostly focus on having growth pay its own way, that it be sustainable, and that it be focused on making people happy and not cars.

Instead, in too many instances, too many new developments and suburban lifestyles EXTERNALIZE and EXPORT their costly, negatively-impacting behaviors on all of the rest of us with their cocooned “McMansions” on isolated cul-de-sacs (which belch a relatively high number of car trips on the rest of us, and make it more costly to serve).

I do NOT say that certain lifestyles should be prohibited. I just want to see that those that enjoy those lifestyles are paying the full cost for them, instead of having me pay some of the cost through higher taxes or a lower quality of life. We also need more CHOICES in housing and transportation, since increasingly, our only choice is the isolating, community- and environment-destroying auto-dependent suburbs, where everyone enjoys subsidies not in the public interest, and everyone is forced to drive a car for every trip.

Americans have built far too much low-density, drivable, suburban housing. So much that we are glutted by this option – an option that is now declining in preference, as demographic and financial shifts are now resulting in a growing interest in compact, walkable housing options. At the same time, we have built far too little compact, walkable housing options. There is a serious mismatch regarding the supply of and demand for these two forms of housing.

Because we have over-built car-dependent, unwalkable suburban housing, and the interest in such housing is now declining, such housing is losing value and is comparatively troubled financially.  Conversely, because we have built too little compact, walkable, town center housing, and the interest in such housing is now growing, such housing is becoming extremely expensive.

We need to build a lot more compact, walkable housing. And do so quickly.

To make such housing more available and affordable, to restore the development community to the admired status they once had a century ago, and to make our future both more lovable and sustainable, let’s return to the days of lifestyle and travel choices. To the days when we insisted on building to create a quality of life for PEOPLE, not cars.

 

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