Sprawl, Traffic, Taxes and Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

We live in troubled times. Times that require wise, courageous leadership. Here is what I see in our communities, and what we should do about it.

Taxation

Taxes are high and are constantly rising because new growth is not paying its own way.

All levels of government are financially strapped. Households are struggling to be able to afford the skyrocketing costs of transportation and rising property taxes.

Aren’t you tired of high and rising taxes?

Transportation

Automakers keep producing gas-guzzling cars. There is no quality transit system. We have no transportation choices. Little Billy and little Suzie cannot safely go for a walk or ride a bike in their neighborhoods because traffic is too dangerous.

Our hard-earned money and national wealth is vanishing. Our money (and the lives of soldiers and civilians in wars instigated by the Pentagon) is being used to enrich Middle Eastern oil-producing nations—many of which are not our friends.

Aren’t you tired of our unhealthy transportation system?

The Quality of Our Neighborhoods and Communities

Our farms are vanishing because they are being paved over by sprawling subdivisions.

We keep getting DUMB growth instead of SMART growth. Our neighborhoods are afflicted by rising levels of noise pollution. We’ve lost the tradition of having neighborhood-based schools, which means our kids cannot get to school on their own. We have forgotten that a high quality of life is a powerful economic engine.

Aren’t you tired of the sprawl? The ugly, dangerous, costly, “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development that keeps popping up in our communities?

My Vision

Let’s restore our communities.

  • Imagine communities rich in transportation choice. A place where we and our kids can get around safely by car, by transit, by walking and by bicycle. A place where cost of living is much more affordable for households because they are not required to spend an enormous percentage of their incomes to buy and maintain several cars. Communities, in other words, where one has the choice to be able to walk to get a loaf of bread, instead of being forced to drive four miles to get that loaf.
  • Imagine communities where our property taxes are reasonable and our government is able to afford to build quality public facilities and provide quality public services.
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our beautiful forests, natural areas and farms bulldozed, acre-by-acre, day-by-day, to build endless, sprawling subdivisions.
  • Imagine communities where streets are not choked by rapidly growing numbers of cars (containing people who are driving to get a loaf of bread).
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our roads torn up and widened every year, causing infuriating road construction delays.
  • Imagine communities with pleasant, safe, beautiful, slow-speed shopping streets instead of communities full of 10-lane strip commercial monster roads.
  • Imagine communities with healthy air and water, and neighborhoods that place public parks a short distance from our homes.
  • Imagine communities that provide choices about how to live. Communities where one can happily live an urban, suburban or rural lifestyle.
  • Imagine communities where it is actually LEGAL to build smartly. Traditionally. Sustainably. Where building smartly is the rule, rather than the exception. Local government regulations encourage smart growth, and are not an obstacle to it.  Communities that makes it fast and easy to build smartly, and makes it more difficult and costly to build unlovable crap.
  • Imagine communities full of energy-efficient homes and offices.
  • Imagine communities that are QUIET. Where one can sleep peacefully each night without being awoken by endless sirens and the roar of traffic.
  • Imagine places with a strong sense of community. Places that are A COMMUNITY, not a crowd.

villageImagine communities, in other words, that we can be PROUD of.

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Some New Urbanist Developments are NOT Walkable!

By Dom Nozzi

Admirably, “new urbanist” developments strive first and foremost to be walkable (and human-scaled). Indeed, the movement started a few decades ago as a reaction against the fact that nearly all development that has been built over the past century is utterly car-oriented and unwalkable.

But as a correspondent pointed out to me eight years ago, a number of new urbanist developments are not particularly walkable.

How can that be?

In my view, this should not be surprising. After all, America has been aggressively ANTI-pedestrian for several decades. Not necessarily intentionally, but certainly inevitably. Why?

Because for nearly 100 years, we have been compelled to be obsessed about making cars happy. The emergence of the car (and the existence of cheap oil) has led to the inevitable degradation of conditions for all other forms of travel. Economists call this the “barrier effect.”

Designing for car travel almost inevitably makes all other forms of travel more difficult. And that sets up a powerfully vicious cycle. Cars consume an enormous amount of space, because of their size and the speeds they attain when driven. Motorists therefore have a strong interest in seeing that the community be designed to accommodate their form of travel.

The result is that development must be dispersed, low-density, and served by wide roads and large parking lots. Houses must be separated from workplaces, shopping areas, parks, offices and schools.

Because this form of community design increases the difficulty of non-car travel, new motorists are continuously recruited (transit users, pedestrians and bicyclists increasingly find that car travel is safer and more convenient). Those new motorists join existing motorists to form an ever-growing army of cheerleaders demanding that conditions be improved for cars.

Which, of course, ends up recruiting even MORE new motorists…

New urbanist developers in America must build their projects within such a strongly pro-car environment. In nearly every community, therefore, almost all of the government regulators, political activists, lending institutions, insurance companies, elected officials, citizens, retail establishments, and buyers of new homes have been conditioned to believe that the only reasonable way for 99 percent of the population to travel is by car.

Consequently, even though new urbanists are essentially the only group of developers in America who are sincerely seeking to build traditional, walkable communities (and know how to do it), they are almost always faced with a tidal wave of opposition. Regulations, financing, citizens, and elected officials are implicitly shouting: “Walkability is unrealistic! It is illegal to build that way! Babies will die in burning buildings if you design in a compact manner! We will not lend money to you for your project! Quality of life is dependent on free-flowing traffic and lots of parking! What you propose will make our cars unhappy”!

As a result, building something truly compact, mixed use and walkable is nearly impossible for mere mortals in America today. When it is (rarely) done, it is usually because it was somehow able to overcome GARGANTUAN obstacles.

It should be no surprise, then, that even committed, sincere new urbanists often end up being compelled to build compromised developments that are not walkable.

And the problem grows worse each year, due to the vicious cycle I mention above. Even older, suburban developments can sometimes be more walkable than newer “new urbanist” developments, as my correspondent pointed out regarding the “Rio Vista West” development in Florida.

While the situation is grim today (even some of the new urbanist plans prepared by Peter Calthorpe are compromised and not very walkable), I am optimistic about the long term.

Our car-centric development patterns are not sustainable, and we are reaching the day in which we cannot afford to keep pampering car travel. Even state departments of transportation are starting to be forced to realize that they can no longer afford to try to build their way out of congestion. It is getting too costly to widen roads. A growing number of people (particularly younger generations) are starting to see the merits and lower costs associated with living in walkable places. The rising oil prices are certainly helpful.

In my humble opinion, there will be an enormous growth in jobs that are involved in healing our communities to make them more sustainable and walkable, because rising costs (particularly energy costs) will make such work essential if our unsustainable culture and cities are to avoid extinction and collapse. Roads will need to be put on a diet. Parking lots will need to be redeveloped and activated as buildings. road diet before and after

Residential-only neighborhoods will need to start accommodating corner stores and jobs.

Tragically, a large percentage of places will be too costly to retrofit in such a way. They will become the white elephants of the future that will be abandoned.

“Re-localizing” will be an overwhelmingly important task. I increasingly wonder if our society will be able to adjust to such a world.

The future will be more pleasant for those of us that can adapt, as our world will be more walkable and less car-centric. But I fear our transition to such a world will be slow, painful and not possible for a great many.

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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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