Suboptimizing Bicycling Part 2

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 28, 2003

I love bicycling. I have been a lifelong bicycle commuter, wrote my Master’s thesis on bicycle transportation, have been a member of several bicycle advocacy groups, worked professionally to promote bicycling as a town planner, and have had many books and articles published that promote bicycling.

But there is a problem I see here in my city all the time.

We are either removing on-street parking to install a bike lane, OR we are resisting on-street parking due to an existing bike lane. As an urbanist who strongly believes that in cities, the pedestrian is the design imperative, these street design decisions ENRAGE me.

Largely, what has happened in too many communities is that there emerges a strong, pro-bicycle lobby that suboptimizes on their needs to the detriment of other objectives. VERY FEW communities have a pro-pedestrian lobby to counter or at least balance the pro-bike lobby, and even fewer communities have engineers/designers who are well-schooled in pedestrian design.on-street-parking

In the low-speed town center environment, bike lanes tend to be inappropriate (what New Urbanists call a “transect violation”). They are inappropriate for such streets, in part because bicyclists can safely share the lane with motor vehicles. Bike lanes are suburban, large-street facilities.

Bike lanes in that environment are also a problem because they will increase the average motor vehicle speed and will create a street surface that is too wide for a human-scaled, walkable environment.

Ideally for pedestrians, the street cross-section is as narrow as possible. Bike lanes therefore degrade that ideal.

What I try to convince the bicycle advocates of is that an environment that is pleasant for pedestrians is an environment that benefits bicyclists as well. First, a pleasant pedestrian environment is one where car speeds are modest (which bicyclists prefer). Second, a pleasant pedestrian environment will improve the retail/office/housing markets so that those markets are less likely to abandon in-town locations for the remote locations in sprawlsville (which create excessive distances that bicyclists dislike).

It is only in the past 10 years that I have seen the light and realized that my design focus should be on pedestrians, not bicycles.

In the name of better cities (for both pedestrians AND cyclists), I hope a growing number of cities can win the battle to retain the on-street parking in the face of the over-zealous pro-bike lobby.

 

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Abuse from Motorists and Off-Street Bicycle Paths

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 29, 2003

I’ve been a regular bicycle commuter for about 25 years in a number of cities in the US. One of the many things I have learned as a bicycle commuter is that motorists enraged by things that slow them down (slow drivers, bicyclists, etc.) regularly honk their horn at me and other cyclists, throw things at me, or scream at me that I should get off the road and on to the sidewalk where you belong while I’m bicycling on the street.angry-motorist-yelling

And I say this as a bicyclist who essentially never “takes the travel lane,” but who instead hugs the curb.

It is common to hear calls for creating a separated bicycle path parallel to a roadway.

But I believe that there is a quite legitimate fear that should a path parallel and separated from the street were built, two things would happen:

  1. Nearly all motorists would angrily scream at me to get on the path; and
  2. Large numbers of politically-active motorists would begin attending city commission meetings demanding that bicyclists be prohibited from such streets and required to be on the path.

My experience is that even the most mild-mannered individuals are commonly transformed into red-faced ogres who are unable to tolerate anything that might slow them down once they get behind the wheel of a car. I cannot list them by name, but I have heard of a number of places which prohibit bicyclists on certain segments of street (usually bridges).

None of what I say above should be taken to mean that I oppose off-street paths. As Michael Ronkin points out, pro-bicycle communities need a blend of various bicycle facilities. I am a strong proponent of off-street paths when they do not parallel streets (usually, such paths follow rail ROW). Off-street paths are wonderful recreational paths, and “training ground” for novice bicyclists who might one day develop the confidence to become commuter/utilitarian bicyclists as a result. And to do that in America, one must ride in the street.

 

 

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A Line in the Sand for Road Size

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 30, 2003

I was having a conversation with someone who asked me if I agreed that a 4-lane road would ruin the rural character of a rural location. I agreed that a 4-laner would ruin rural character.

I would go beyond that: I don’t believe that a community should ever build a road bigger than 3 lanes.

At some point, a community must draw the line and say that enough is enough. That going beyond a certain road size is too destructive of our community.

Everyone has some idea of some limit. For some, it would be, say, 12 lanes as a limit. For others, it might be 6 lanes. For me, it is 3.street without on street parking

Indeed, when I was a long-range transportation planner for the City of Gainesville Florida, I succeeded in (briefly) having that City insert a policy in its long-range transportation plan that says the City shall never build a road again that is larger than 4 travel lanes (I would have preferred that we limit it to 2…).

Of course, as one would expect in a car-happy city such as Gainesville, that sort of policy only lasted a year or two before it was hastily expunged from the plan by our beloved defenders of cars…

It is not inevitable that a growing community must forever enlarge its roads. If more car volume capacity is felt to be essential, that added capacity can come from more community-sensitive means than conventional widening. Or, I see no reason why a community could not say “We have decided, as a community, that we will NOT go beyond a certain road size in order to protect our health, safety and welfare. If that means that our roads cannot accommodate any additional cars, so be it.”

Such cars can self-regulate themselves by choosing a different route, traveling at a non-rush hour time, or selecting another way to travel.

There is no law that says a community must accommodate an endless stream of forever increasing numbers of cars.

 

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Parks and Recreation Planning for a City

By Dom Nozzi

September 9, 2003

A friend of mine asked if I could help a person with an interesting question: Are there any standards, codes, recommendations for number, location, density of parks? Specifically as it helps with creating more active community environments?

The following is what I told my friend…

Having authored a long-range recreation and parks plan for a college town in Florida about 14 years ago, I can add a few comments about this issue:

  1. A huge percentage of communities can only find the political will to allocate a tiny, token pittance to public parks and recreation — while pouring millions into parking, roads, police, and fire protection. A number of these cities prepare a parks plan that is overly ambitious, thinking that an aggressive parks plan will magically create the money and political will to pay for a decent park program without any political pain such as cutting other services or raising taxes. Such plans are better than nothing, since, on VERY rare occasions, a community might be shocked to learn that a pot of money has come from somewhere – such as a benefactor, a state or federal grant, or a drug forfeiture, etc. A plan in place — even if financially infeasible at the time — would allow such an extremely fortunate community to spend that new money wisely. Mostly though, such plans just collect dust on the shelf because no miraculous Sugar Daddy ever arrives.
  1. Another approach is to define “parks” creatively. I am a big supporter of having a park within walking distance of most homes in neighborhoods. But since communities have spent several decades forgetting about parks (and the public realm generally), there are hardly any neighborhoods that have parks within them. It is unbelievably expensive to retrofit parks into existing neighborhoods. The “creative” approach is to call schools, cemeteries, private fitness clubs, YMCAs, churches and similar facilities “parks.” After all, such places can often be used by the public for recreation. Public schools are particularly appropriate for being called public parks, for a number of reasons. The biggest problem is that public schools tend to be extremely hesitant to have school grounds be considered public parks, since that raises liability and maintenance cost issues.
  1. Perhaps the best hope are these options:

(a) Elect people who sincerely prioritize recreation (i.e., are willing to cut police and fire department budgets, raise taxes, or both.

(b) Establish level of service standards that at least require NEW subdivisions or neighborhoods to incorporate the proper amounts of parks and recreation that is then dedicated to the local government.

National standards from the National Parks and Recreation Association are not very helpful with regard to having parks and recreation facilities within walking distance of parks-161homes. They simply state the nationally-recognized standards for amount per 1,000 people (only quantity is addressed, not location). I do not believe that there are any national recreation standards for walking distance. I suspect that there are only standards at the neighborhood level that have been prepared by some new urbanist design firms, since the new urbanist design is so admirably focused on walkability.

In the end, I’ve concluded that the only real way to have a community properly prioritize recreation in a reactive democracy like ours is to somehow “create the proper crisis.” That is, attempt to convince the community that crime rates are exploding due to lack of parks. Or start calling parks something like the Detroit Police Department Park to leverage dollars from a municipal budget that is bloated already.

 

 

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The Human Habitat is ALSO Important for Environmental Conservation

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 11, 2003

Environmentalism should be considered a subset of new urbanist design principles.

This is because in recent years, New Urbanism has made — as its centerpiece — the “transect” concept. The urban to rural transect stipulates that community design and the land development regulations implemented to achieve that design must vary as one moves from urban to suburban to rural to nature preserve.

Environmentalism, while in theory taking in the entire universe, in practice tends to be a concept that only looks at the protection of natural, non-human ecosystems. Important as that is, it leaves out any guidance or direction for how the human habitat is best designed. Indeed, as some have pointed out, if a person intends to best promote environmental conservation, she or he must broaden their perspective because if they don’t understand french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1and successfully advocate for quality, walkable design for humans, efforts to protect non-human habitats are ultimately doomed, as growing numbers of humans flee the low quality human habitat for the promise of bliss in the undeveloped, unspoiled regions. By contrast, urbanists using the transect methodology have a tool that instructs on what must be done in all habitats — be they urban/human, suburban/sub-human, or ecosystem/non-human. The transect recognizes that one size does not fit all. Environmental scientists often (not always) act as if one size does fit all.

Unfortunately, there tends to be an anti-human attitude of many (not all) environmental advocates. This attitude tends to include the belief that all that is natural is equally valuable, no matter where it is located. It is better to preserve a vacant, weed-choked lot in the middle of a city (to protect, say, squirrel habitat) than to let it become an urban building. Compact, walkable, mixed use development is always evil, no matter where it is located, because it does not include oak forests or grasslands. Ultimately, by taking this position (which only concerns itself with the non-human habitat), we make high-quality human habitat illegal. We are forbidden to build a Charleston. Or a Venice. Or a Sienna. We must save every possible dandelion. Every toxic mud puddle in our city is a precious wetland.  Why are we puzzled when so few want to live in American cities and so many want to live in (cocooned) woodlands surrounding a city?

Why are we not allowed to build pristine human habitats? Are we only allowed to preserve (or restore) pristine panther habitats? Are humans and their activity always to be considered evil or polluting? Is the idealized world one in which there are no humans and no human habitat?

When building compact, walkable, in-town projects in already developed, urbanized areas, the urbanist is simply looking for the same acceptance and societal admiration as the ecologist who preserves a wetland. The urbanist building a walkable, compact town center should not be attacked for not saving every weedy tree or degraded wetland in that location.

And I’ve seen that sort of thing from environmental activists all the time. Seems like an act of desperation to me. “We are losing so much woodland in sprawlsville. We therefore must make a stand to save every blade of grass everywhere.” Which, of course, ultimately speeds up environmental destruction due to how rarely we consequently build walkable places.

Should we attack the ecologist for not building sidewalks through every preserved wetland? If not, why is it okay to attack the urbanist for not preserving “nature” in every walkable place he or she builds? Why is only nature sacred, and never human urbanism?

We need to let the city be a city and let nature be nature.

Yes, I agree that we need to “push the market logic back to redevelopment.” But we live in a society that has poured trillions of dollars into building big roads that lock the market into fighting for remote sprawl. I believe it is naive to think that we can avoid a massive tidal wave of suburban sprawl when we have big roads and lots of free parking. No other tools, short of system-wide road diets and priced parking, can slow greenfield sprawl. Not environmental regulations. Not NIMBYs. Not no-growth commissioners. Not no-growth comprehensive plans. As long as we have lots of big roads and free parking in our community (and an absence of walkable places), we’ll see the vast majority of development proposals being made in greenfield areas. While I much prefer that those outlying greenfields be spared from development, I RELUCTANTLY accept the fact that I cannot stop the sprawl tidal wave that big roads bring. Given that agonizing reality, I much prefer that at least some of that tidal wave be in the form of walkable, compact, stand-alone villages (such as Haile Village Center in Gainesville FL).

And I eagerly await the revolution, when we move back from making cars happy to making people happy. Only then can we realistically expect to have a chance of stopping most greenfield development.

We have seen how extremely difficult it is to stop the tidal wave of drivable suburban development with a strong comprehensive plan — even with a majority of anti-sprawl commissioners. Such commissioners won’t stay in office forever. Not that it would matter, because even if they did, they would still be steamrollered.

To me, it is essential in this (hopefully) interim period of car-happy, big roads madness that we put walkable village standards into our code. In the end, if we don’t do that, we may win a few skirmishes by protecting a oak tree here and a weed-choked lot there, but we’ll still end up with the agony of the downward spiral of car-happy suburbia with no future. Will it be any consolation if there are tiny, degraded, preserved wetlands in the middle of a gigantic Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lots in a car happy community?

Should we just throw up our hands and give up in the only fight that really matters: stopping car-happiness and the road industry?

 

 

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“Hometown Democracy” in Florida

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 10, 2004

In 2004, there was a voter referendum proposed in Florida called “Hometown Democracy.” It was an effort to substantially increase the use of direct democracy over representative democracy (due largely to many Florida residents feeling as if their elected officials were not listening).

This is my take on this constitutional amendment to go to direct democracy…

In general, I am quite uncomfortable with the idea. In some ways, the amendment would be an obstacle to the “re-use of vacant/abandoned lands” efforts that have become an important issue, because citizens would have a high likelihood of voting against nearly all proposals to intensify a land use designation on a property — and such “upzoning” is often needed to make it viable to re-use abandoned lands.

It also strikes me that the direct democracy folks are an extreme form of NIMBYism (the Hogtown Greenway Bike/Pedestrian Path Debacle is a good, infamous example of the dangers of direct democracy in Gainesville). While I am sympathetic to the thought that nearly all upzonings in the past have delivered us bad development (auto-oriented national chains and big box retailers and huge asphalt parking lagoons), and that it would therefore be handy to have citizens be able to trump weak-kneed politicians who so often cave in to Supercenters and Drive-Throughs (etc.) by reversing a zoning or land use decision, it seems to me that this is a sledgehammer rule that would lead to a lot of unfortunate, unintended consequences.

Indeed, in so many places (including Gainesville), if we were to lock in the status quo by having NIMBY citizens always voting against upzonings, we’d be locking ourselves into a dispersed, suburban, auto-oriented downward spiral that we are in today. Often, we need to have selected properties upzoned from residential to non-residential so that we can have a more walkable, compact community that is vibrant, sociable, and less dominated by excessive car travel. But it would seem that with direct democracy, about 99 percent of all such upzonings would be voted down.

It strikes me that the crucial change we need is to revamp the land development codes for places like Gainesville so that in-town developments deliver us walkable, pleasant, friendly projects that don’t overwhelm neighborhoods with big roads, big traffic, big noise pollution, and big light pollution. In other words, requiring that development build in a neighborhood-friendly, traditional manner.

The key to a better future does not lie in stopping all growth and development. The key is stopping auto-oriented development, rapid land consumption at the periphery, and BIG roads. We desperately need well-designed, walkable, in-town development.

Gainesville’s land development regulations require project design that delivers suburban, auto-oriented development everywhere. In my opinion, we must move away from that destructive, one-size-fits-all approach that says everyone should live the suburban lifestyle. Some of us should have the option of living a walkable urban lifestyle or even a rural lifestyle. The Gainesville code largely says we have only one choice: suburban.

I say we should revise our codes so that we set up at least 3 lifestyle zones, with accompanying regulations. Urban Zone gets compact, walkable design regulations, Suburban Zone gets big setbacks and other car-oriented dimensions. The Rural Zone gets small village cluster and farm/woodland regulations. That way, citizens will increasingly urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-smbe accepting of new development projects in their neighborhoods. They will hopefully live in their lifestyle zone of choice, and will eventually find that the 3-tiered development code results in new projects that promote their lifestyle. The nearly universal desire to fear the next proposed development in the neighborhood (no matter what it might be) can transform to that happy time in our decades ago past when we actually looked forward to the new development proposal.

As Padriac Steinschneider once said, the opposite of bad development is good development, not no development.

However, I might be sympathetic to the idea if it were somehow restricted to unincorporated areas remote from cities where we don’t want any development.

 

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Using the Urban to Rural Transect to Make Urbanists and Environmentalists Allies

 

By Dom  Nozzi

September 12, 2004

Urbanists and environmentalists are natural allies. Instead of attacking each other, urbanists and environmentalists need to be saving energy to fight real enemies (The Making Cars Happy behemoth).

Speaking as someone schooled in both environmental science and urbanism, I must say that the new urbanist transect concept is one of the most powerful concepts I have ever come across, because its proper application informs us about how the entire spectrum of habitats — be they Charleston or the Everglades — is best designed. Neither the traditional discipline of urbanism or the traditional discipline of ecology incorporates the full spectrum of habitats and their needs. In principle, the transect achieves that.

The transect concept asks this question: What elements are immersive in the habitat we are working in — be it Charleston or the Everglades? For example, the transect instructs that a sidewalk is immersive in Charleston, and a “transect violation” when within the everglades-inlets_2026_600x450Everglades (at least the inner core wetland area of the Prairie). Conversely, a 200-acre marsh is immersive in the Everglades and a transect violation in Charleston. In other words, something is immersive if it promotes the quality of the habitat being designed. It is a violation if it harms the quality of the habitat being designed.

And frankly, this is where some of the conflict and impatience comes between new urbanists and many environmentalists. A good number of environmental advocates don’t have a conception of a transect or immersiveness. To such advocates, it is always a good idea to incorporate more nature EVERYWHERE — which fails to acknowledge that a 200-acre marsh in the middle of an in-town urban neighborhood harms the quality of a walkable Charleston. Natural features are not always immersive in all locations (it took me a while to realize that, since I came from an environmental academic background).french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1

Let the city be a city and let nature be nature. It goes both ways. Yes, many urbanists are guilty of not taking proper care of sensitive ecosystems in their projects. But it is also true that a many environmental scientists are guilty of not taking proper care of urbanism in THEIR advocacy. Both can harm the other.

Much of our culture fails to realize that nature can, in a sense, pollute urbanism in the same way that human development can pollute nature.

 

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