American Cities are NOT Overcrowded

By Dom Nozzi

Despite the conventional wisdom, American cities are not “overcrowded” with people. And yet we hear this complaint over and over again.

American cities are only perceived to be overcrowded, but that is only because nearly all of us travel IN CARS.

Speaking as a town and transportation planner (40 years of academic and professional work), there are countless and effective ways to design cities so that there is a much-needed increase in population while at the same time dramatically decreasing per capita car ownership and car dependence.

Design that achieves this (and such tactics have been well-known for decades) would enrich city affordability, sustainability, quality of life, choice in goods/services/culture available to residents, innovation, public safety, and public health.

We achieve this by realizing that well-designed higher and gentler density is the new green.

Decades of fighting against density and growth in nearly all American cities is a counterproductive, outdated relic from the 1960s and goes a long way toward explaining why American cities have extremely high and destructive ecological footprints by its citizens.

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Traffic Congestion: Stop Fighting to Reduce It!

By Dom Nozzi

The most important task (for residents, their planners, their engineers, and their elected officials) when it comes to city and neighborhood design is to keep the size of streets human-scaled (that is, small in size).

The most effective (ie, ruinous) way to have streets get too big is to strive for “free-flowing traffic.”

The fact that nearly all cities, their residents, and their elected officials put “free-flowing traffic” and “reducing congestion” above any other objective explains why all American cities have loud, unsafe, unloved, unwalkable town centers riddled with oversized streets.

The first task, then, for all cities wishing to improve themselves is to road diet (narrow) their streets (and parking lots and intersections) and to recognize that all great cities have “traffic problem.” That enlarging streets or parking or intersections worsens traffic, quality of life, and safety.

That as these images show, a sign of a healthy city is one that knows it cannot widen its way out of congestion (because it only takes a few cars to congest a street, and widening artificially induces new car trips).

A healthy city knows that the only way to stay healthy is keeping its streets small, and provide alternatives for those who wish to avoid the inevitable congestion.

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Why Are American City Planners Not Calling for Changes?

By Dom Nozzi

I agree that improving transportation and community design in America has been painfully slow and much of the change that has occurred has actually made things worse.

Why are city planners not showing leadership by recommending effective change?

Speaking as a 20-year city planner, I would say that part of the problem is that nearly all “planners” have a strong vested interest in continuing the ruinous, century-long effort of enabling extreme motor vehicle dependence in our society (and all that entails).

Living in a motor vehicle-dependent world, nearly all “planners” are motorists first and “planners” second (after all, nearly all “planners” must be motorists in their personal lives outside of work). That means such “planners” must favor policies that promote (or at least not hinder) drivable lifestyles. If “planners” did not do that, they would be endangering their own lifestyles. In other words, nearly all of them are obligated by their lifestyles to strenuously maintain the status quo — which means the “planning” profession has become a failed profession where professionals work hard to keep our society in its downward spiral of designing for motor vehicles rather than people.

I must point out, however, that even if “planners” did not have a vested interest in the status quo and actually wanted to be change agents for a better world — a world where we return to timeless traditions — city “planners” in the US have almost no power to be change agents.

Up to about 100 years ago, planners of American cities did not tend to have advanced academic degrees. But they DID tend to be visionaries who were well-versed in timeless town design principles, and many of them could sketch out buildings and neighborhood plans. Sadly, at about the time that the motor vehicle emerged in cities a century ago, “planners” (like architects) began to lose or set aside the timeless knowledge and skills handed down from the past. “Planners” stopped making plans (which is why, in these comments, I put quotes around the word “planners”). They lost the ability to draw. They no longer were urban designers, in other words. Instead, “planners” increasingly became mindless, bureaucratic, low-level, bean-counting issuers of permits.

A “planner” today could not prepare an urban design plan, or draw a building or neighborhood to save his or her life.

Today, by the way, nearly all of the permits that “planners” issue are those that certify that a proposed development will provide “adequate” parking for cars (indeed, nearly all of what “planners” and city regulations seek to achieve is a city that accommodates car travel — be it setbacks, parking dimensions, zoning, density, or building heights). Tellingly, requiring new developments to provide “adequate” parking is perhaps the most detrimental thing a city can do, because parking requirements end up destroying community quality of life, community affordability, community public safety, community travel choice, and community environmental sustainability. That explains why a growing number of more enlightened communities are finally eliminating required parking rules in recent years.

There are a small handful of planners who do want to move our society in a better direction, but for the past century they have not been given any political power to enact any of that sort of change.

The few who promote beneficial change (ie, urging a return to the timeless tradition of designing for people rather than cars) will sometimes find the courage to write recommendations or give presentations that call for such change, but they do so knowing that nearly everything they recommend will be ignored or opposed.

This is because the only recommendations, by default, that are acceptable to citizens and elected officials are those that promote — or do not hinder — motor vehicle travel. This is completely understandable, as citizens and elected officials in the motor vehicle-dependent world we live in do not want their drivable lifestyles endangered.

Not only that.

“Planners” must make such beneficial recommendations (designing for people rather than cars) knowing full well that doing so will threaten their jobs. Or at a minimum, will marginalize them at the office. For example, they will in the future only be assigned safe, trivial, entry-level-planner tasks.

These, then, are the reasons American city planners are not leading the charge for a better world.

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Should We Fear Niwot’s Curse?

By Dom Nozzi

In Boulder CO, according to local lore, Chief Niwot said, “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”

This is known as Niwot’s Curse.

One of my Boulder friends wholeheartedly subscribes to this adage, and regularly laments the nearly monthly ranking of Boulder as the city with the highest quality of life in the nation. She worries that Boulder being top-ranked for quality of life on a regular basis will mean evermore people will move to Boulder and ruin its stellar beauty.

I chide her by letting her know that it appears her dream is to have Boulder regularly ranked as having the LOWEST quality of life in the nation.

The fact is, I inform her, that to this day, Boulder is nearly always ranked number one for being the best city. This is exemplified by the rankings and the crazy high housing prices – which happens to be a very reliable indicator that Boulder is experiencing anything BUT “destruction.”

After all the “destructive” growth over the past 20 or 30 years, Boulder is a much more pleasant city today than it was 20 or 30 years ago: More and better restaurants, more and better retail, more and better trails and paths, better urbanism, more people on sidewalks and bicycling, and more and better cultural events.

In its misguided obsession with stopping “growth” or “density” or “tall buildings” and easing car travel (thinking, wrongly, that doing that is the key to protecting quality of life), what Boulder is failing to do to protect itself is to guard against the REAL threats: enlarged roads and intersections, and land development regulations that continue to allow various and sundry modernist crapola (ie, hideous buildings that no one loves and everyone wants to see demolished as soon as possible).

And it is not just Boulder. All cities have failed to do this since about the 1940s.

If Boulder Council gained the wisdom and leadership to do the effective things I cite above, it would put those protections in place. By doing so, it would not matter one bit that top rankings were inducing more and more to move to Boulder. Indeed, a lot more in-migration would dramatically improve the city quality of life when coupled with such development regulations.

I’d go even further. Having more and more moving to Boulder would actually help Boulder quality even WITHOUT those protections, as we know from city growth around the nation. All cities that become more compact due to growth see less per capita car trips, more small and locally owned shops and restaurants, more intellectual firepower, better transit, and better culture. This has not only been shown throughout the US, but much more clearly in countless European cities – cities that are FAR more dense — and yet have far higher quality of life.

A common worry: people not liking the idea of Boulder “losing its small town feel” and seeming more like a “congested big city” if its population doubled or tripled? I and millions of others agree that “small town” is better than “big city.” But losing “small town feel” and feeling like a “big city” does NOT come from population growth. It comes from the consensus in Boulder and nearly all other cities that we must widen our roads, enlarge our intersections and replace historic charm with butt-ugly modernism.

In sum, if Boulder put its many big, oversized roads and parking lots on a diet; shrank its oversized intersections; eliminated the requirement that requires new developments to provide parking; used remote, electronic parking meters to price nearly all free parking in Boulder – particularly on-street parking; kept new residential and commercial growth in human-scaled, compact, mixed-use patterns; and replaced its blighting modernist buildings with lovable traditional design (not to mention adding a requirement that all new buildings must use traditional design); it could have four or five times more people and still be loved by the entire community because it is thereby able to retain its small town feel. It’s traditional charm. It’s romantic human scale.

This is not rocket science. All we need is the political will. Which, tragically, is likely to only come from a HUGE crisis like a staggering economic depression, a massive housing affordability crisis, a crushing medical obesity epidemic, or a major roadway death epidemic.

Sadly, none of these will likely be significant enough to give Boulder a huge, much-needed kick in the ass in our lifetimes.

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Siren Noise Reduction Strategies

By Dom Nozzi

Emergency vehicle sirens (such as firetrucks and ambulances) have become an enormous source of town center noise pollution. So much so as to have created a 24/7 “war zone” atmosphere which is so intolerable that it chases untold numbers of otherwise interested town center residents to suburban locations. Such sirens are, of course, highly detrimental to the quality of life of those who remain in the town center.

Siren noise pollution has grown exponentially in recent times in part because of the ever-higher decibel levels of the sirens, the absence of leadership in elected office throughout the US (in this case exemplified by elected officials not having the wisdom or courage to control excessive siren use), and the growth in the number of events that lead such vehicle occupants to deploy sirens.

Another important factor that leads to siren overuse is the “safetyism” sickness. “Safetyism” is a term used by sociologist Jonathan Haidt to describe the concept of extreme suboptimizing on safety that we see particularly in the US. So extreme that in important ways overemphasis on safety has – ironically – undermined safety (for example, by reducing natural human defense/immune systems) and so destroyed community peace and quiet that it has severely degraded quality of life.

An important reason why sirens are used excessively in our communities is that almost none of us think we can do anything about it (or that we think doing so will harm public safety).

In fact, many communities have shown that it IS possible to limit siren noise to tolerable levels, and that doing so has no impact on public safety.

Emergency vehicles can use alternating high pitch/low pitch sirens, as is done in much of Europe.

Government regulation can obligate a reduction in the maximum allowable decibel level for sirens (decibel levels are much higher now than they were in the past), or set an upper limit on how loud sirens can be.

Local government policy can require that no continuous siren use is allowed during the entirety of an emergency vehicle run. Sirens are only allowed when there is a vehicle ahead which is obstructing the emergency vehicle, or when the emergency vehicle is approaching a red light at a signalized intersection.

Local government policy can require that no siren be used by an ambulance when transporting a patient that does not have a medical emergency.

Local government policy can require that emergency vehicles are only allowed to use major access routes when such routes contain few or no residences along the route.

To create disincentives for emergency vehicles to overuse their sirens, local government policy can require that emergency vehicles have siren decibel levels be as high inside the vehicle as outside the vehicle.

If there is insufficient leadership in elected office, a half-step toward siren sanity is to keep the status quo, but implement some or all of above tactics between 10 pm and 6 am.

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Greenville’s Impressive Transformation Faces a Severe Challenge

By Dom Nozzi

Greenville SC — the city we moved to in June 2021 — was brought back to life over the past decades. Before 1980, Greenville’s oversized main street had led to many abandonments, much crime, a lot of drug and prostitute activity, many vehicle crashes, and an overall flight of citizens away from what had become an awful town center. Since then, the downtown has seen an astonishing rejuvenation — so impressive that the City has won several national awards and those selling property in or near downtown boast about the property being near main street.

This, in sum, is the story of how an American city can be brought back to life by reversing its century-long design direction: Designing primarily for people walking and bicycling rather than designing for happy cars. In large part, this meant undoing the century of damage done to the city by the engineers and planners the City had hired — ironically — to “fix” problems.

In 1968, citizens and community leaders commissioned a downtown development plan to help direct efforts to revive a struggling business district. The plan recommended what is now a key element of downtown — making Main Street a pedestrian-friendly environment.

Max Heller, who is known as the “Father of Modern Greenville,” was the 29th mayor of Greenville for almost a decade from 1971-1979. The sidewalk and café-lined downtown enjoyed in Greenville today is a result of Heller’s vision for the city and his European heritage. Under his guidance, Main Street was converted from a four-lane thoroughfare to a two-lane oasis complete with trees, streetlights, flowers, and green spaces.

In 1979, implementation began on a new streetscape plan, which included narrowing Main Street from four lanes to two and creating angled parking. Trees and decorative light fixtures were also added, and sidewalks were widened to 18 feet, providing space for outdoor dining. The streetscape was extended from South Main into the West End and the improvements were completed in 1981.

While the framework for revitalizing downtown was in place, in 1987 community leaders contracted with Land Design/Research, Inc. (LDR) to identify additional development opportunities and create a Downtown Development Strategy. The LDR plan recommended focusing development efforts in three key areas, including the Reedy River Falls area. This was the first time the often ignored Reedy River and Reedy River Falls were identified as significant assets for downtown. The plan further suggested that future developments should open to and engage the riverfront, and removal of the Camperdown Way Bridge was mentioned as a way to highlight the distinctive natural feature of the falls. In the ensuing years, these ideas would come to fruition and help create what is now a centerpiece of Greenville’s downtown.

A transportation consultant and colleague of mine gave me additional insight into the history I provided above. He noted that while the main Street is a great story, there are 10 large parking garages on the downtown grid, within 3 blocks east or west. The “B” Streets feeding these garages, he noted, are very slow to mature into even average walkability. When will the parking demand diminish, he asked?

Hearing these thoughts, I let him know that I am fully and painfully aware of how Greenville has a long, long way to go to engage in an essential reform of its transportation system.

The City — while taking bold steps that nearly all other US cities are unable to take due to lack of wisdom or political courage — has barely scratched the surface on crucial reforms needed. After moving here, I immediately noticed that while main street has wonderfully walkable urbanism, it is a tiny sliver of urbanism in a downtown that has been excessively given over to enabling motor vehicles — thereby degrading walkability, bikeability, retail health, and residential health.

As my colleague indicated, the City does not get it regarding parking. I’ve spoken with the mayor and a number of residents, and while the mayor openly supports road dieting for near term and long term projects, he seems opposed to on-street parking (a great many streets suitable for on-street parking do not have it) and he also seems to strongly oppose — tragically — priced on-street parking.

There are many roads in town center Greenville that are oversized “stroads” (oversized roadways that also try to be streets, but fail as both a road and a street).

Each is in crying need of a diet: Augusta, Pete Hollis, McDaniel, Academy, Stone, Buncombe, Wade Hampton, Rutherford, Richardson, Poinsett, Pleasantburg, Laurens, Mills, and Church.

A significant obstacle for all South Carolina cities is that the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) owns nearly all roads, and SCDOT has only two objectives: maximizing motor vehicle speeds and maximizing motor vehicle volumes – such objectives are deadly for the health of a city.

Given the above, I’d say the top three transportation objectives for Greenville are taking ownership of many roads owned by SCDOT, road diets for the 14 oversized stroads, and Shoupian parking reform (which emphasizes properly priced on-street parking).

I have a growing sense, however, that like nearly everywhere else, even Greenville has passed the point of no return on transportation. Barring an unprecedented economic collapse, there is no turning back on the self-perpetuating downward spiral we’ve spent several decades getting ourselves in regarding transportation.

https://domz60.wordpress.com/…/17/the-point-of-no-return/

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Civility Needs to Go Viral

By Dom Nozzi

Civility needs to “go viral.”

Why?

Because in my experience, there has been a steep decline in civility in American society for several decades. And civility is one of the most essential elements for a culture that seeks to survive and thrive into the future. Without civility, a culture is on the road to collapse.

The first and most powerful step in restoring a reasonable level of societal civility in American society is to put our “stroads” on a road diet. This is necessary in several instances for every city in America.

 A “stroad” is a delightful term coined by Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, and refers to those dangerous, multi-laned thoroughfares you encounter in nearly every city, town, and suburb in America. They’re what happens when a street (a place where people interact with businesses and residences, and where wealth is produced) is ruinously also designed to serve as a road (a high-speed route between productive places). They are enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive. They’re also very dangerous. And they are the futon of transportation” because, just as a futon is neither a particularly good bed nor a particularly good couch, a stroad is neither a particularly good road or a particularly good street.

Greenville makes this step obvious. Motorists are obligated to drive 15-25 mph smoothly on appropriately road dieted Main Street. This is contrasted with the 45-55 mph speeds motorists are allowed and enabled to drive on Greenville’s many stroads. Of course, on a stroad a motorist is not driving at those higher speeds smoothly. Instead, the stroad inevitably forces motorists to engage in “jack rabbit stop and go” travel, where motorists engage in short bursts of excessive speeds followed by frequently repeated stops and slow downs.

Despite the fact that nearly everyone expects a slow speed road to be frustrating and unpleasant to drive on (“WE ARE VERY BUSY AND NEED TO BE ABLE TO DRIVE FASTER!”), driving on Main Street in Greenville versus driving on the Greenville stroads leads to far better and more enjoyable motorist experiences.

On slow speed Main Street, nearly all drivers are more courteous, more calm, more relaxed, more happy and smiling, more polite, more well-mannered, more patient, and filled with civic pride.

The drive, even though slow in speed, FEELS like it goes by relatively quickly. This is because the drive is more aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable. Some drivers don’t want the driving experience to end.

On higher speed stroads, by striking contrast, drivers are more hostile, angry, stressed, impatient, hot-tempered, and enraged at any fellow citizen who DARES to get in the way by driving or turning too slowly, and ashamed to live in a city with such an oversized, strip-commercial roadway blight (this is exemplified by the fact that no one in Greenville takes their out-of-town guests to show off the higher speed stroad, whereas many show off Main Street to their guests).

The drive, even though higher in speed, FEELS like it takes a relatively long time. This is because the drive is ugly, frustrating, and stressful. Drivers can’t wait to get off the stroad.

The unpleasant, stressful, angering, impatient, hostile, uncivil, short-tempered emotions induced by stroads spills over into the stroad-driving motorist’s life beyond the unpleasant stroad experience and into the realm of family life, work life, social life, and interactions with fellow neighbors and other citizens.

Stroads in Greenville include – but are not limited to – the following:

Augusta Avenue

Peter Hollis Boulevard

McDaniel Avenue

Academy Street

Stone Avenue

Buncombe Street

Rutherford Street

Richardson Street

Poinsett Highway

Pleasantburg Drive

Laurens Road

Mills Avenue

Church Street

In sum, converting stroads to streets is an effective way to substantially promote civility (and happiness!) in American society.

We start doing that by removing excessive numbers of lanes on stroads. In other words, treating the failing stroad with a life-giving road diet.

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Speed Humps Not a Good Traffic Calming Solution

By Dom Nozzi

Speed humps are a commonly used tool by cities to calm (slow down) car traffic.

In response, many bicycle activists rightly request that when speed humps are installed on a street that they be channeled so as not to be a hindrance to cyclists.

The best solution in the long run, however, is to end the installation of vertical interventions such as speed humps and remove all existing humps.

Horizontal interventions such as road diets, landscaped bulb-outs, raised and landscaped medians, canopy street trees, and on-street pocket parking are far better for quality of life, safety, noise pollution reduction, avoidance of emergency vehicle disruption, beautification, human-scale, reduction of speeding, and avoidance of vehicle damage.

It is long past time to end the use of speed humps in cities. Existing speed humps need to be removed, and replaced with design features mentioned above.

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Suggestions for Accessibility for a New Town Center Conference Center

By Dom Nozzi

Introduction

An essential ingredient for a town center to be healthy is to be compact, human-scaled, and accessible. For the town center, then, this means that the pedestrian must be the design imperative. By deploying this objective, transportation accessibility and therefore transportation choice is maximized for bicyclists and transit users as well as pedestrians.

Accessibility is an essential objective, since essential destinations – when they feature good accessibility – can be safely and conveniently enjoyed by all citizens, including children, seniors, the handicapped, the poor and others without access to a car. This principle guards against a development design that can only be reached by those with the use of a car.

High accessibility is therefore inclusive and community-building.  Low accessibility is exclusive and isolating.

Accessibility Tactics

Consider, below, a proposed new conference center in Greenville, South Carolina. These are some of the design features we must strive for if we expect to achieve adequate accessibility for the development.

*The conference center must be required to lease parking spaces it needs from the underused bank parking garage [as an aside, for Greenville to promote a compact, walkable town center, it needs to own and lease parking spaces within a multi-story parking garage to a large range of town center private uses such as offices, retail, and culture]. The conference center should not be allowed to create any new off-street surface parking. If the center builds a multi-story parking garage, the first floor must be wrapped with retail.

*The conference center must be designed to keep blocks relatively modest in length (a maximum length of 300 to 500 feet). If this cannot be achieved with driveways or streets created by the center, mid-block cross-access must be created for pedestrians and bicyclists.

*The conference center first floor must be faced with ample window space at eye level. Large expanses of blank wall should not be allowed.

*The conference center needs to be exempt from landscape requirements, car parking requirements, and setbacks. Buildings for the center must be brought to a build-to line no further than 20 feet from the street curb. No motor vehicle parking, blank walls, or HVAC equipment is allowed to front the public sidewalk. Building facades that abut the public sidewalk must use weather-protective awnings.

*Floor area ratio (FAR) must be relatively high. Building height for actively used floors should not exceed five stories.

*Streets serving the center must contain priced on-street parking, shall be no more than two lanes in width, must be two-way in operation, and shall not include turning lanes. Very low design speed geometry must be used for streets serving the center. For streets not built or controlled by the center, the center shall provide assistance such as funding to retrofit existing streets serving the center but not under the control of the center. Retrofitting shall be as described in this section. In addition to street and turning radius dimensions being low speed, other infrastructure shall also induce low speeds. For example, any traffic signals (preferably post-mounted), signage, or street lights shall be relatively short (at a human scale of no more than 10 feet in height). Street trees shall be used for shade and enclosure canopies. Alignment of street trees, other vegetation, sidewalks, and streets shall be formally rectilinear rather than informally curvilinear. Any use of plazas or squares shall be hardscaped (rather than grass-surface) and flanked on all sides by active retail. Low-speed street design shall not include speed humps.

*Public art sculpture is strongly encouraged.

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Who Needs Enemies?

By Dom Nozzi

I have noticed something tragic about the many, many concerns I’ve heard from neighborhood residents all over the nation about proposed development – including Boulder (of course). And now in the historic neighborhood in Greenville, South Carolina where I currently live. EVERY neighbor seems to think they know EXACTLY what should be done regarding the development to “protect” the neighborhood.

And EVERY angrily demanded change leads to one or more of the following for the residents at the new development: More per capita car ownership, more per capita car travel, higher speed car travel, and housing that is more expensive.

They do this by DEMANDING more parking. Bigger setbacks. Shorter buildings. Less density. No on-street parking.

In their rush to achieve those “victories,” they forget to demand one of the most important design features: buildings that are compatible with the traditional design of the neighborhood. This is an especially sad thing to neglect when the neighborhood is historic. Oops.

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

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