By Dom Nozzi
February 3, 2004
In 2004, I came across the following comments on an email list I subscribed to regarding urban design. The comment were written by Seth Harry:
“No, we can’t expect commercial to stay off them [big roads], and that is all the more reason to be mindful of how we design our arterial networks, both in terms of specific design of the actual street, and the network itself, such that we don’t automatically load all of our trips onto a few, overscaled arterials that represent an irresistible invitation to the huge box retailers.”
“The other part of the equation, however, is that fact that all of our housing developments also now typically empty out directly onto those same large scale arterials, with no intermediate street networks to diffuse and disseminate that traffic (and thereby creating more viable opportunities for smaller, more locally-focused retail to occur). By putting all of those cars directly out there on the highway, we are inadvertently sending them out there at the mercy of those same mega-boxes. As I referred to the occupants of those cars during a recent regional planning initiative — Those aren’t just cars, those things represent self propelled “free-ranging consumers…” just looking for place to land and spend their money. And there are all too many mega-retailers just waiting to accommodate them…”
Here are my thoughts about Seth’s comments, including my concerns about 4-lane vs 2-lane streets and the influence they have on future development:
Over the years, I have seen countless studies and books that touch on this crucial question of whether the size and character of roads (and intersections) determines the land uses that develop along it. Indeed, I find the question so crucial that I put a great deal of effort into trying to clearly show how road design DOES drive land uses adjacent to it, and start off with this point in my speeches.
Nearly all transportation engineers, chambers of commerce, citizen activists, and elected officials DENY that roads determine land use. Instead, most people naively believe that land use plans or development regulations or elected officials or enlightened staff can save us from ruin even if we build a monster road.
Here is what Walter Kulash, one of my heroes, has to say on this question:
Containing this type of use of 50/50 [50 mph and 50,000 cars per day] streets is far beyond the will and ability of the typical local government. The 50/50 arterial is a gift-wrapped, gold-plated, gift to strip development. Once in place, almost no power on earth will stop its march toward strip commercial. Time spent berating local governments (counties and cities) for not doing better with these monstrosities (and I’ve done my share of this) is satisfying to the critic, but is unproductive. Once in place, it is too late to do much about the 50/50 arterial. – Walter Kulash
Walter Kulash was formerly a principal and Senior Traffic Engineer with the Orlando-based community-planning firm of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Lopez Rinehart, Inc. A licensed professional engineer with an academic background in engineering at North Carolina State University and Northwestern University, Mr. Kulash has worked on traffic and transit planning projects throughout the U.S. and Canada. Clients include private developers, local and state governments and non-governmental agencies.
Since the early 1990’s, Mr. Kulash has specialized in the rapidly emerging field of “livable traffic” design. This view of traffic engineering recognizes that the narrow traffic planning goals of the past few decades—moving the most traffic at the greatest possible speed—are giving way to a far more inclusive view. In the new view of traffic engineering, traffic performance is balanced against other desired qualities of the street, such as its value as an “address”, its retail friendliness, and its role as a premiere public space of the community.
Some recent projects for private developments that incorporate principles of livable traffic include neotraditional communities throughout the U.S. and Canada, community shopping centers that serve as centers of walk-in communities, resort villages, outdoor shopping villages and “park once” districts. Some recent projects for public agencies include city-wide mobility plans and reintroducing walking to formerly automobile-blighted areas.
Recent projects for non-governmental agencies include downsizing of road plans, re-introduction of on-street parking in shopping environments, substituting the improvement of existing streets for new freeways, and university campus mobility plans.
My observation as a planner (and that of Kulash and many others) is that big, multi-lane, high-speed roads make it CERTAIN that the road will be forever hostile to residences and transportation choices. The only things that can emerge and thrive along such “car sewers” is single-occupant vehicle travel and strip commercial development (with accompanying billboards, glaring lights, etc.).
By stark contrast, roads that are 2 or 3 lanes and designed for slower car travel will inevitably deliver residential development, higher densities, more locally-owned retail, less Big Box retail, and transportation choice. Big Box is only possible when big roads are built. Big roads ENABLE Big Box.
Indeed, Big Box can only survive if it has the 4- and 6- and 8-lane roads that allow them to take advantage of a HUGE regional “consumer-shed.”