Making Cars Happy in Gainesville Florida

By Dom Nozzi

April 20, 2005

The following is a heads up I issued to a local elected official friend and another friend, the local transit director regarding some of my observations while serving on the Advisory Board for the Gainesville Metropolitan Area Planning Organization (MTPO) Gardening Club (oops! I meant to say the MTPO Design Team).

There was an item that came before our Board regarding a resurfacing of State Road 20. SR 20 runs from the intersection of North Main Street and 8th Avenue to the intersection of NW 8th Avenue and NW 6th Street. It then runs north on 6th Street to where it intersects with NW 13th Street.

The proposed FDOT resurfacing of SR 20 presents us with a golden opportunity. A nearly cost-free, no-brainer improvement to this route. It is painfully obvious that both of these few blocks of 8th Avenue and the 6th Street section should be re-striped, like the County proposes to do from NW 8th Avenue to NW 16th Avenue on Main Street, so that 8th goes from 5 lanes to 3 and 6th goes from 4 lanes to 3.road-diet (3)

Here are some reasons why it is a no-brainer to re-stripe in this manner:

  • It is essentially cost-free, since the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) needs to re-stripe after re-surfacing anyway.
  • Perhaps the most important, a highly effective way to promote bicycle commuting in Gainesville at the moment is to add in-street bike lanes to NW 6th Street (6th is currently a horrifying experience for even me to bike because of the narrow lanes and the high-speed cars). By taking 6th from 4 lanes to 3, we create sufficient space for bike lanes (and maybe even on-street parking, which I would prefer over bike lanes if we needed to choose one or the other). I’m confident that an enormous number of people would take advantage of bike lanes here.
  • As is now well-known, going from 4 lanes to 3 does not meaningfully reduce the traffic volume capacity of the street. This is because on a 4-laner, the inside lane very regularly serves as a left turn lane when a car needs to turn left, which blocks the traffic behind it. Thus, 4-lane streets are nearly identical to 3-lane streets in terms of volume capacity.
  • Recent studies show that a 3-lane is significantly safer than a 4-lane, partly because it reduces average car speeds and partly because entrance to and exit from a 3 is less complex than a 4 — not to mention improved safety for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users.
  • It gives us a great opportunity to significantly beautify this route, because it enables us to install a lot of raised, landscaped medians (which, of course, add to pedestrian safety as well).
  • It allows us to correct the bizarre situation in which we have 3 or 4 blocks of 8th Avenue from Main to 6th Street as a 5-laner. 8th Avenue west of 6th Street and east of Main is 3 lanes. Why do we have a tiny section as 5 lanes? Particularly in a downtown location that is so intensively used by pedestrians?
  • It will surely result in a number of positive land use changes along SR 20, since it will become a more hospitable place for retail and residential.

Note that when I made one of my rare motions at the Garden Club on April 19th to re-stripe this route in this way, FDOT staff indicated, it goes without saying, that they would not support it. We were told that it would take 6th from LOS “C” to “E.” Of course, I’d welcome such a LOS change (since congestion is our friend), but I strongly question whether it is even true, since my understanding is that 3 lanes and 4 lanes have almost identical capacity.

FDOT also told us that if 6th went to 3 lanes, they would not be able to keep SR 20 there and would have to re-locate it to a parallel route. When I pointed out that a number of communities in Florida have been able to put state roads on a diet without having FDOT remove the state road designation, I was told that this is “District 2” policy. I bit my tongue and resisted the temptation to move that the Garden Club recommend Gainesville “cede” from District 2. Instead, I simply said that “I guess we are stuck with District 2.”

In any event, after just barely getting a second to my motion to re-stripe, the motion was shot down 7-2.

Cars, not people, will remain happy in Gainesville.

Postscript: While serving on this MTPO Design Team, I unsuccessfully proposed that South Main Street be taken from 5 lanes to 3 lanes for very similar reasons. The reaction from FDOT was similarly hostile, and the Design Team failed to even second my motion. In 2017, I learned that Gainesville went ahead and reduced South Main Street from 5 lanes to 3. I am confident the same thing will happen for the roads I describe in the above essay.

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Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design

The Appropriateness of a Neighborhood Association President Expressing an Opinion

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2005

In early 2005, while serving as the president of my neighborhood association, I sent the following letter to a resident of the neighborhood who had expressed concerns about my comments in a recent Association newsletter:

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and concerns about the views I have expressed recently (and over the years) in the “President’s Corner” of the Neighborhood Association (NA) newsletter. I firmly believe that it is healthy for a community and its neighborhood residents to openly express differences of opinion. I am also pleased to know that you have contributed to the NA in the past. Support for the Association is important and appreciated.

Note that I saw your kind email comments to another neighborhood resident about the work I do for the NA, and I appreciate those comments.

To respond to your comments…

First, you note concern about the NA president expressing views as if they were the views of the entire neighborhood, and treating the column as if it were a soapbox. Let me start by saying that the NA is not a gardening club. The initial, on-going, and primary purpose of the NA is to look out for the interests and welfare of the neighborhood, and this inevitably entails that the NA and its officers should and do openly express viewpoints about governmental and private sector plans and actions. Indeed, the NA was formed, in part, to hold forums for candidates running for political office (our 2/22/05 city commission candidate forum is an example of a long-standing tradition of the NA holding candidate forums), and, when necessary, to appear before the City Commission to make appeals for neighborhood interests. In addition, there has been a long NA tradition of inviting elected officials, local government staff, and local developers to NA general meetings to discuss issues, plans and proposed developments in or near the neighborhood (primarily to urge that such issues, plans and developments proceed in a way that is compatible with the neighborhood).

Furthermore, an essential role played by the NA president (both currently and in the past) is to serve as the official spokesperson for the neighborhood. And to do so in a way that, in the judgment of the president and its officers, is promoting the interests and welfare of the neighborhood. This often requires that controversial, highly-charged opinions be openly expressed. Inevitably, in a healthy community, these opinions will not necessarily be shared by all members of the community (in which case, dissent should be expressed). However, it is important that the president provides a viewpoint that is believed to promote the welfare of the neighborhood, rather than be silent on issues that are important to the neighborhood welfare. Should the neighborhood be silent on such issues, there is great danger that the neighborhood will convey the implied message that it has no concerns or viewpoints about its welfare.

Neighborhood silence can easily lead to quite inappropriate, harmful actions being taken by elected officials, public staff, or private developers with regard to neighborhood interests.

In sum, it is entirely appropriate for the NA president to use her or his judgment to frequently and openly express viewpoints believed to be in the interests of the neighborhood, even if those viewpoints are considered “controversial,” or if it is known that the opinion is not shared by everyone in the neighborhood.  Limiting the views of the NA president to only those in which there is a known neighborhood consensus would not be practical or desirable as it would be exceptionally difficult to ascertain what views are considered a consensus. And even if it were possible to know when consensus was reached, the consensus views would be almost exclusively composed of trivial, unhelpful, non-statements (the neighborhood, after all, has residents with widely differing opinions on nearly all important issues — as it should).

You note that the NA president suggests that the neighborhood “insist” that a new nearby business be designed in a way that is compatible with the neighborhood. You indicate that it is not appropriate for a neighborhood to tell a private property owner how to design their private property.

On the contrary, I believe it is extremely appropriate (indeed, I would call it an obligation) for the neighborhood and its elected representatives to express opinions about how developments near and within the neighborhood are designed.

Why?

Because developments in or near a neighborhood can have a very direct, significant impact on the welfare (the property values or quality of life or civic pride) of the neighborhood. The US Supreme Court acknowledged this approximately 80 years ago (and continues to affirm this in its decisions since then) by granting local governments the power to zone private land and apply land development regulations to such land. By doing so, the Court clearly acknowledges that such power is both appropriate and necessary “to protect the health, safety and welfare” of the community. Examples of these constitutionally permissible, appropriate powers applying to private property include sign regulations, zoning regulations stating which uses are allowed on which private properties in a community, building setbacks, noise regulations, building height limits, parking regulations, controlling access to public roads, building and electrical code safety regulations, stormwater control regulations, fire regulations, utility regulations, etc.

Community public safety would be dangerously compromised if this regulation and oversight were not in place. Only if the development of the site would have no affect on the health, safety and welfare of those who visit the site or those who live near the site should the property owner be granted the ability to “do anything she or he pleases to do with their private property.” A long-recognized ethical principal states that your right to swing your fist ends at the beginning of my nose.

I don’t believe it is fair to describe my comments about the proposed 16th Avenue and Main Street development to be comments of “disdain.” Indeed, I am largely impressed by what is proposed and what the designers are willing to do to create a higher quality project. My comments were intended to simply have the neighborhood residents be vigilant about the proposed design of the site so that it can perhaps become an evenco better design (from the point of view of neighborhood interests), and to be on guard against design revisions that would be undesirable to neighborhood welfare. I apologize if the wording of my comments suggested otherwise.

Note, as an aside, that with regard to equity, the public has every right to have a say as to how the property at 16th Avenue and Main Street is developed, as a substantial amount of the commercial value embodied in that property is due to road and utility improvements which were paid for by public tax revenues.

As for the Main Street views I expressed, I offer no apologies for the position I proudly take (and publicly express). While my views are not necessarily those of the City of Gainesville, they are views that are consistent with a recent vote of our city and county commission sitting as the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO).

In addition, I have been a senior city planner in Gainesville for nearly 18 years with a master’s degree in city planning. A few years ago, I wrote the long-range transportation plan for the City, and served, professionally, on a design team for the reconstruction of Main Street.

In preparation for much of that work, I conducted substantial, thorough research of published literature and analyzed the work done in communities throughout America. What I have learned is that in countless communities (many of which are quite similar to this city), a courageous decision was made to reduce the number of travel lanes on large community roads within the community. Invariably, this sort of road “restoration” in cities in all parts of the nation lead to dramatic, nearly overnight improvements in street safety (for motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users), retail and residential health, and civic pride. It is quite astonishing to see how many communities have experienced such a substantial improvement in these community factors so quickly and inexpensively. Far from “making it more difficult to travel,” these “diets” usually improve not only motorist safety but also improve driving pleasure and convenience.

Which helps explain why our MTPO voted in favor of the idea.

All of this helps explain why I recently wrote a book entitled “Road to Ruin,” published in October 2003 by a national publisher (Praeger Publishers in Connecticut), and why I am regularly invited to speak throughout Florida and the nation about the viewpoints expressed in the book.

The above observations help explain why I believe I know a thing or two about the proper design of streets such as Main Street, and partly why I believed it was appropriate for me to make my viewpoint known in the NA newsletter.

You should know that on a number of occasions, I have remained silent on issues that troubled me and were related to the neighborhood. Largely, these are issues where I don’t believe I have sufficient information or knowledge about the topic, or don’t believe there is sufficient neighborhood support for the view which I hold about the topic. In general, I strive to have the views I express at NA meetings and in the newsletter be tempered by what I believe are acceptable (or officially approved) by the NA Board of Directors and the majority of neighborhood residents.

In closing, let me point out that you are more than welcome to run for president, vice-president, or Board of Directors of the NA so that you would have a larger voice in what views are expressed by the NA. Or to urge others to do so, should you feel the desire to influence the viewpoints expressed by the NA. Having the NA be silent — even if silence is only applied to issues considered “controversial” — is, I believe, a recipe for neighborhood decline, and a dereliction of duties for its duly-elected office-holders.

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Problems Associated with Car Happy Community Design

By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

As a general point, low density locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible.

A sense of community is non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there is no “there there.”large lot subdivision

Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around.

Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car.

Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because all trips are forced onto one or two major roads. Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded,” even when we are talking about “cow town” numbers.

The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Note that increasingly what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting against smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.

 

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NIMBYs and the Environmentalists Fighting the Wrong Battle

By Dom Nozzi

November 26, 2000

While I agree that it is nearly always suburbanites who are cloaking their NIMBY arguments under the moral-high-ground mantle of environmentalism, it is far too often the case that strong, intelligent environmentalists (who perhaps should know better) often get caught up in the NIMBY hysteria. It has only been recently that the national Sierra Club has started to stop (at least in some of their public statements) their widespread NIMBY efforts and focused more attention on the real culprit — sprawl.

In the Florida town where I worked as a town planner, a number of in-town projects were hammered by intelligent environmentalists — environmentalists who were comparatively silent in the face of the incremental, relentless, profound, larger-scale ecological destruction that happens in outlying (sprawl) areas.

In the grander scheme of things, the natural environment is much better off if a few urban trees are lost, a disturbed urban woodland is replaced by housing, or the habitat for a few raccoons and squirrels is removed rather than the common alternative: the loss of hundreds of acres of nearly pristine woodlands, and high-quality habitat that is home to, say, eagles, fox squirrels, and gopher tortoise.

I honestly don’t believe there is a third choice: Loss of neither. I believe that south Florida and southern California are testaments to the belief that there was a third choice.

I continue to remain highly annoyed (but not surprised) that for many intelligent environmentalists, minimizing residential densities is the be-all-and-end-all of NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341environmental conservation when it comes to urban development. I shall not name names, but there are local environmentalists who were guilty of this just this past week. There is little that I can think of that is a more ruinous strategy for our future in this county than to persist in the strategy of thinking that low densities will save us.

Environmentalists must get on board with the idea that we need higher, livable densities (or to give it a less controversial name, “compact development”) in proper locations. If this does not happen, we will have no chance of averting a car-happy south Florida future…

My experience, in other words, is that it is not just suburbanites cloaked as environmentalists.

The key to a future rich in sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and civic pride is modest size. Modestly sized street dimensions. Modest distances between land uses (and, implicitly, modest community and neighborhood size). Modest building setbacks. By stark contrast, sprawl is most accurately defined by large size. Big setbacks, large distances to destinations, tall lights, massive parking lots, and huge street dimensions. In other words, sprawl is characterized by being scaled for cars, not people.

Far too many environmentalists fight, ironically, for excessive sizes in their advocacy regarding local development.

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Generalists versus Specialists

By Dom Nozzi

August 12, 2000

An important reason why bureaucrats tend to drown in minutia, get caught up in jargon and details, and become specialists (rather than much-preferred Big Picture generalists) is that bureaucrats lack power, trust, credibility, and respect. And loss of those things, as Duany points out, is in many ways due to our flight from traditional neighborhood design principles.

The result for many bureaucrats is to delve into details and promote mystification (jargon, models, etc.) in a desperate effort to remain relevant or somehow needed. Of course, such an approach is merely a downward spiral for planners and designers.bu

Another obstacle to public town planners being more than just milquetoast bureaucrats — and again, this relates to the flight from traditionalism — is that the level of civility is at an all-time low and NIMBYism is at an all-time high. Part of the result is a widespread fear and paranoia on the part of elected officials, which leads the officials to lay down the law that bureaucrats (including planners) shall not have any opinions, and especially not say anything that might possibly make someone unhappy.

And of course, such an approach delivers lowest common denominator milquetoast and mediocrity in how we build our communities.

 

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Fixing Florida Growth Management Law with a TCEA Exception Area

By Dom Nozzi

February 25, 2000

The Florida Growth Management law adopted in 1985 had a serious flaw regarding its “concurrency” rules that stated that new development could not lower adopted levels of service. The rule sounded wonderful, but had a serious, unintended consequence when applied to roads because it strongly promoted new development to occur in outlying areas where road capacity was plentiful. Such capacity is quite scarce in the in-town locations where new development is more desirable from the point of view of a community.

In other words, the law was strongly promoting sprawl and strongly discouraging infill development in town centers – the opposite of the intent of the law.

The major fix attempted for this flaw was for the State of Florida to adopt what it called “transportation concurrency exception areas” (TCEA) that communities could establish if they demonstrated to the State that they had factors in place to make such an exception work better (such as the provision of transit service in the exception area). To adopt TCEA as a tweak of the State growth law was essential to avoid the enormous unintended consequence of promoting sprawl and discouraging infill.

The TCEA has achieved two critical goals: Allowing communities to avoid having to enforce road concurrency where infill is desired, and removing a powerful sprawl incentive. Because road concurrency is the only level of service standard that matters,large lot subdivision because urban roads just outside the city are filling up, and because we need to reverse the fact that growth is much more rapid in such unincorporated urban areas around Florida cities than within cities (which is highly detrimental for a number of reasons), we need to be careful. Because even a paper tiger TCEA (ie, a TCEA that has weak conditions for being granted) is significantly better than no TCEA.

Having said all that, here are some tools for strengthening the TCEA rule, off the top of my head, to use TCEA to incentivize infill and discourage sprawl.

  • Be sure the TCEA is modest in size so that we can focus more on those areas where we truly want to encourage development. The TCEA area, in other words, should not extend out to suburban, drivable locations where transportation choice will not arise for several decades, if ever. Another benefit to a more modest TCEA size is that a smaller TCEA allows us to have stronger standards, since we inherently have to water TCEA down if it applies to an overly large area that captures suburbs.
  • Prevent the County from adopting their own TCEA in unincorporated urban areas around the city, since that would obviously would apply the TCEA to suburban sprawl locations where transportation choice is unlikely or impossible.
  • Within the TCEA, allow no net increase in road capacity: No new travel lanes or turn lanes.
  • Remove the parking minimum requirement within the TCEA. Requiring the provision of [free] parking as a condition for development approval is a fertility drug for cars.
  • Establish a high level of service for transit in the TCEA—say, a 10-minute transit frequency.
  • Do not allow drive-throughs.
  • If a project is over, say, 5 dwelling units or 10,000 square feet, require that the building be at least 2 stories high.
  • Allow no new cul-de-sacs.
  • Within a TCEA town or neighborhood center, require a minimum number of residential units per “X” square feet of non-residential floor area.
  • Require the commercial building front facade to be 0-20 feet from the front property line (for both streets if on a corner), and allow no car parking in front of the building.
  • Allow no block faces greater than 400-500 feet.
  • Require curb and gutter.
  • Pay RTS so that each employee or resident in the project is given a free transit pass.

Only with such meaningful requirements can a TCEA achieve growth management goals and not promote undesirable unintended consequences.

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TCEA and Not Engaging in Real Town Planning

By Dom Nozzi

12/15/99

The policies of the Transportation Concurrency Exception Area (TCEA) used by the Florida city I work for as a long-range town planner are rather mushy because nearly all of them are optional or are simply insignificant window-dressing. Will we really have transportation choice if a developer installs more bike parking or sidewalks or bus stops?

Please.

It is highly disappointing and embarrassing to realize that there are people that actually believe such facilities will reduce car trips.

I wrote the Urban Design portion of the long-range comprehensive plan for this city, but the director of the department watered it down severely. He threw out a third of it (which included my prized “toolbox” describing the benefits and mechanisms for nearly all of the critical urban design features). He also put in a large number of policies that merely state that the City shall do things that have already been agreed to (i.e., the City shall implement the previously adopted special area plan for a neighborhood in the city).

While there is some merit to doing that, since a new commission majority would find it a bit harder to throw out the plan, doing so is not really planning at all. All it says is that we will do what we’ve already agreed to do.

A secretary could have written such policies. Why does the City need professional planners if we’re not doing any planning? Also note that policies in this long-range plan mostly do not get translated into land development code requirements, especially if they are mushy policies, as ours are.sprawl-development

I was forced to chop out numbers in the policies of the plan, since I was told that numbers need to be left for the code-writing stage.

In other words, don’t expect much meaningful revision to our land development code.

Through this watering down, it is fairly easy to claim to the Florida Department of Community Affairs that we’ve implemented policies, even though we have not meaningfully done so.

The comprehensive plan and code changes will give us almost nothing, and it bothers me, since we’re giving away the store and getting nothing in return when we exempt proposed development from concurrency requirements. This is the one big chance the City has to finally stop acting like a doormat. We should say, “yes, we’ll exempt you from our concurrency requirements, but only if you give us some meaningful concessions.”

For example, the City should (but doesn’t) require such design in the town center in exchange for concurrency exemption:

  1. Buildings must be pulled up to the streetside sidewalk.
  2. No parking is allowed in front of your building.
  3. On-street parking is required.
  4. At least 80 percent of your units must be within 1/4 mile of a bus stop if you are residential, and transit passes and parking fees are required for your employees if you are non-residential.
  5. Your building must be a minimum of 2 stories for non-residential buildings.
  6. Walkable town center design is required (above rules, plus mixed use, gridded street pattern, connections to surrounding residential neighborhoods, etc.).
  7. No more than 4 fueling positions are allowed for a proposed gas station.
  8. You must contribute to greenway trail construction, or cash-in-lieu if your project is not near a trail system.

Only with such conditional requirements does a City avoid giving away the store when exempting a proposed development from state concurrency requirements.

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