The Forgiving Road


By Dom Nozzi

January 23, 2002

Why does it seem that Americans have such poor driving skills?

I believe I have at least part of the answer.

For several decades we’ve been designing streets and roads and highways to be forgiving. The “forgiving road” is one that “forgives” the driver if the driver commits a driving error. That is, being reckless, or high-speed, or inattentive no longer is followed by the “punishment” of consequences such as crashing into something. We’ve done enormous forgivingwork pulling buildings, parked cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, trees and other “obstructions” out of the way so that even an unskilled motorist can travel at high speeds without crashing into something.

This was thought to be a way to promote “safety.”

The hidden agenda for many, I believe, is to promote high speed travel by large volumes of car traffic.

Of course, what many of us now realize is that such a design promotes reckless, high-speed, inattentive driving because human psychology is such that a person tends to drive at the highest speed that still feels safe.

Since we tend to be busy and in a hurry, forgiving roads deliver lots of motorists who drive as fast as they can and multi-task while driving (drink coffee, talk on the cell phone, read, etc).

The result is an increase in crashes due to speeding, inattentiveness, and recklessness. Ironically, motorist safety declines, because the forgiving road condition motorists to be less attentive.

Is it any wonder that we are seeing what I believe is a growing number of inept American motorists throughout the nation?


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Flawed Design Gives Compact Development a Black Eye

By Dom Nozzi

March 25, 2002

What stuns and scares me about so much of the recommended policies we hear from citizens these days is that so much of it is precisely OPPOSITE of what we should be doing to avoid a sprawling, auto-dependent, low-quality -of-life hell.

Such policies allegedly seek to avoid such a fate, yet call for strategies such as lowest possible densities (especially if it involves students), almost no infill, HUGE setbacks, HUGE parking lots, wide roads, aggressive regulatory protection of the most trivial, degraded wooded areas, NO mixed use. And on and on.

Excuse me, but such strategies will ENSURE that our quality of life in our neighborhoods will be ruined, our per capita car use will be extremely high, our taxes will be sky-high, our families will be financially struggling, and our cops will be overburdened.  These are EXACTLY the sorts of “solutions” that Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Houston, LA, Phoenix, and Detroit tried. Is there some reason why it destroyed those cities but will help ours? Am I missing something here? Oh, I forgot. “We’re different than them.”

Yes, let’s be irrational about this…

Tragically, it is common that a many proposed, higher density residential projects with conventional, car-dependent design are looked upon by many of NIMBY groups as a “model” of infill, walkable density, connectivity, mixed use, and new urbanism when, in Phoenix-Gated-Communityfact, such projects are nothing of the kind. The NIMBYs point to such projects and say, “See, those ideas don’t work!”

Flawed higher density projects that strive to make cars happy too often end up giving compact development a black eye because they build an in-town project in a very suburban, auto-oriented way, and use NONE of the quality urban design ideas, except being in-town instead of in sprawlsville.

We desperately need high-quality, on-the-ground models so that people can see, with their own eyes, that quality urban design delivers a pleasant outcome.

What really annoys me these days is the disingenuous, absurd argument that the walkable urbanist design tools I recommend will “chase people from the city and therefore promote sprawl.” If that is true, why do millions happily vacation in Charleston, Savannah, European cities, and other walkable towns, and growing millions across the nation seek to flee suburbia — a suburbia which contains the elements our NIMBYs seek: Big roads, big parking lots, big setbacks, low densities, no mixed use, no transit, no neighborhood sociability, no nightlife, no sidewalks, no bike paths?

Is Atlanta the model our NIMBYs aspire to, or is it Charleston? How many of our NIMBYs vacation in Atlanta to enjoy the walkable urbanism of that city?

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The Ruin of Frontage Roads


By Dom Nozzi

April 19, 2002

I’m getting ready to lead a transportation and land use “revival” in a coastal Florida town this weekend. Those folks are apparently drowning from sprawl and auto dependence, their elected officials don’t “get it” (as is true everywhere), and some of their activists have invited me to speak at a big growth management forum there to see if I can to open their eyes before they continue on their road-to-ruin path.

Should be a lot of fun. Say hallelujah!!

A friend recently asked what I thought of “frontage roads.” (roads paraldownloadlel and flanking a larger, typically strip commercial road designed to keep local shopping trips from slowing more regional trips on the main road).

The following is what I told her.

Walter Kulash – a traffic engineer who strongly shaped my views over much of my career – briefly addressed frontage roads in a famous speech he gave a number of years ago. He didn’t say much about them in the speech, but did indicate that he thought they were a bad idea.

I told her I didn’t have anything else in my files about frontage roads, but I did know enough o warn her that from an urban design and transportation perspective, frontage roads must be avoided at all costs.

For the uninformed, they seem like a common sense, obvious solution to avert a congested strip commercial future. But as I will say until I am blue in the face, we cannot build our way out of congestion!

In fact, trying to add more capacity to hopelessly try to avoid congestion (which is an important justification for frontage roads) will lock us into a downward spiral of accelerated suburban sprawl, extreme auto dependence, unbearably high taxes, declining in-town (and locally-owned) businesses, a miserable quality of life, bankrupted households and local governments, a loss of a unique community identity, a loss of civic pride, higher levels of congestion (which is helpful in a town center but generally a problem in suburbia), less walking/bicycling/transit, and worsened safety conditions.

From an urban design perspective, frontage roads are a disaster. To be convenient for bikes/ped/transit and to promote a quality ambience, buildings must be as close to facing buildings across the street as possible. Frontage roads spread buildings further apart, destroy any sense of human scale, and make it impossible to cross the “street” to go from one building to a building across from it. Every trip where you have frontage roads and big parking lots in front of buildings set way back from the road MUST be by car.

The inevitable result of frontage roads, like every single other urbanizing or strip commercial area where they have been tried, is worsened transportation and quality of life. It is impossible to EVER build enough capacity to handle the demand for car travel in any place besides a declining rural farm town with no growth foreseen. In fact, adding more road capacity with frontage roads will INDUCE car trips that would have never occurred had the capacity not been added.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Traffic engineers urge more road capacity. When the capacity is added, the widened road induces new car trips above and beyond the number of trips before the widening. The result is that the widened road quickly gets choked with car gridlock, and the engineers say, “See! We told you! It was a good thing we widened or the traffic would be ‘worse’!!!” Actually, what would really happen without the widening is that there would be a lower demand for car trips — congestion regulates itself unless we let road widening short-circuit the process…

In sum, frontage roads are a wonderful way to spend millions of public dollars to destroy a community. What a bargain! We are essentially bankrupting ourselves to foul our own nest. Have we lost our minds?

Work to stop the frontage road idea at all costs.

Hope that helps, and hope you are well.



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Timelessness versus Change


By Dom Nozzi

May 13, 2002

I am thoroughly convinced that our era of extremely auto-dependent design is a brief, failed, dysfunctional aberration in the course of human history. We are now starting to turn back toward timeless, HUMAN-SCALED, pedestrian-oriented design techniques that worked for several centuries (and remain our most lovable cities — Florence, Siena, Tetro_Student_Village_Renderings_003Charleston, etc. — cities that will NEVER go out of style). It will ALWAYS make sense for us to design for people instead of cars. The age of huge parking lots and multi-lane roads is a dinosaur age. Either we jettison that mistaken age, or we will lock ourselves into a downwardly spiraling path toward extinction.

Is there a reason that the pedestrian design that has worked so well for thousands of years will one day not make sense? I doubt it, UNLESS the planet is populated only by robotic cars, instead of people.

While there are certain fundamental, timeless design principles, there will also be, within those principles, some shifting about in societal desires. That is why so much of my work focuses on designing for housing and transportation choice. Like in ecosystems, human habitats that are able to adapt to change will better survive than those that cannot adopt to change. The latter are more likely to become extinct.

The car-based design I work so tirelessly against is PRECISELY the kind of approach we need to avoid if we are to adapt to these inevitable changes. We must be able to deal with change on a regular basis. We cannot afford to live in a world where EVERYONE is forced to drive a car and live in suburban, single-family housing. To be able to adapt to change, our communities MUST be designed for transportation and housing choice. Auto-based design does not give us any choices.

Therefore, I am convinced that the most responsible, durable method is for us to select designs that expand our choices, and to draw quite heavily from time-tested designs that have worked for thousands of years — tempered with a dose of pragmatism that incorporates contemporary lifestyle needs.

Adaptability is crucial in the face of such inevitable uncertainty about the future. We need to proceed with caution (and, I might add, with a sense of modesty, rather than the arrogance of, say, modernists, who arrogantly believe we can cavalierly jettison timeless design principles from our past).

The 911 attack on the World Trade Center buildings has influenced a move toward shorter buildings. I am sympathetic, as one of the time-tested design features I am supportive of is the idea that (non-civic) buildings should not exceed 5 stories in height. Above that height, we lose a human scale. For example, it is said that one cannot easily converse with someone on a sidewalk if one is on a balcony higher than five stories.

I think there are certain things we’ve tried in the past that we can say with a fair amount of confidence will NEVER be a good idea. I think that the Triple Convergence demonstrates that road widening will NEVER be a good idea in the future (to solve congestion). Studies in environmental science show that it will NEVER be a good idea to return to an age when we spewed hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. Medical science shows that it will NEVER be a good idea for humans to smoke three packs of cigarettes each day.


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The European Dream


By Dom Nozzi

May 17, 2002

Americans have grown up to believe in the desirability of The American Dream. How it is so desirable that living in America is believed by people around the world to be the best place to enjoy the highest quality of life.

But when it comes to quality of life, there is a fundamental, crucial difference between America and Europe. In America, we seek quality of life by working long, stressful hours in a high-paying job. We then purchase a lot of “stuff,” such as luxury homes (“McMansions”) and luxury cars filled with high-tech gadgets.

Yet we spend enormous amounts of time in our shiny metal boxes — our expensive BMWs and SUVs — stuck in traffic congestion on our gold-plated highways as we angrily battle with our fellow citizens to rush back to our remote, sprawlsville homes after a long day at the office, where we collapse in our moated, cul-de-sac’d cocoons.

By striking contrast, the public realm in America — the streets, the sidewalks, the spaces between buildings, the public parks — are the most miserable and empty in the developed world.

What I found in Europe on a recent (and first) visit is starkly different.

The inside of homes and hotels are mediocre at best. People have “siestas” during the workday. The European car is quite modest in size and interior gadgets.

Yet the public realm in Europe — available to all, regardless of economic status or ranking — is stupendous, lively, sociable, picturesque, romantic, and memorable. The streets, sidewalks, and squares are very quaint and human-scaled. You feel wonderfully alive as Catania Italy walkableyou walk amongst the large number of friendly residents who are happily outside enjoying their compact, walkable community — a community surrounded by forests and farms, instead of sprawling residential subdivisions and Big Box retail strips.

The citizens of European cities enjoy interaction with their community and their fellow citizens, instead of being isolated and cooped up with expensive entertainment equipment inside luxury homes. They enjoy longer, more relaxed, more fun, and more enjoyable breakfasts, lunches and dinners at their countless outdoor cafes that are found throughout their cities.

When it comes to quality of life, the Europeans do it right. The standard of living in America may be higher.

But the quality of life in Europe is unmatched.


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Conditions Motivate Lifestyle Values in Community Design


By Dom Nozzi

June 5, 2002

Which comes first? Transportation choice and compact, walkable urbanism, or traffic congestion?

I continue to insist that we will NEVER find the political motivation to require the private sector to provide transportation choices, or the motivation to obtain public dollars to create such choices, UNLESS we create the material conditions that force LARGE numbers of citizens to DEMAND that such choices be created.

Congestion in America MUST precede the creation of transportation choices, as we have seen in so many of our bigger cities. We will never be able to create transportation choices in advance of congestion, because without congestion or the pricing of parking (or roads), it is absolutely rational for everyone to drive a car, even if there are quality alternatives available.

It happened at the University of Florida in Gainesville with parking shortages and priced parking. We would have NEVER seen such a big increase in student bus use if we tried to demand transit improvements from private developers, or fought to have public dollars be used for more transit (in other words, if we fought to have good transit in place before on-campus congestion occurred).

Since it is unrealistic for local government to create toll roads or establish priced parking or create parking supply shortages, we only have one option to create that political will: Not letting roads crowded with motor vehicles compel us to add road capacity or otherwise widen roads.

It is the price we MUST pay to pay for the road-widening, car-subsidizing sins of our predecessors. I do not have a worry that not widening a crowded road will, later on, create the political pressure to widen. I am confident that we will soon be unable to afford widenings. Even if the state and federal dollars could somehow be found (increasingly unlikely), it would still require a LONG time to do the construction, and the longer it takes, the more likely we’ll have a change in politics.

I’m quite willing to take the risk that being passive about congestion will deliver us transit and compact urbanism, not widenings. Even the road-happy California DOT now says widenings are over as a congestion-fighting tool.

Frankly, I don’t believe we should stop walkable projects in our urban area if it will further congest an already congested road. Or if transit is not available to serve the infill. We must keep in mind that congestion is a fundamental, helpful part of a healthy, walkable city rich in transportation choice. Fighting a walkable, mixed-use project for fear of congestion is therefore anti-city and pro-sprawl.

The WORST thing we can do about a proposed mega-project is to demand bigger roads and30th-and-arapahoe-double-lefts bigger intersections to deal with expected increases in car trips. Congestion is our friend, and if we fight against it by using the “bigger road capacity” tool, we are digging our own grave and ensuring a south Florida future. Bigger roads at larger proposed projects simply means more auto dependence and more sprawl. Why spend a bunch of public dollars for THAT?

It makes perfect sense that the sprawl and auto lobbies fight planned congestion. I don’t understand why conservationists sometimes seem to join them in that fight.

Our leverage in getting transportation choices should come from congestion, NOT from the threat of withholding approval of a project — particularly a walkable project.



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Suboptimizing on Trees

By Dom Nozzi

June 14, 2002

“Suboptimizing” occurs when one objective is so single-mindedly and aggressively pursued that other important objectives are neglected.

I observed a stark example of this when I was a town planner for Gainesville, Florida. Gainesville strongly suboptimized trees, to the substantial detriment of walkable urbanism.

For example, few years ago, I was forced by my supervisors to insert in several confusing, silly sentences into a “traditional neighborhood development” (TND) ordinance I had written to promote compact, walkable, human-scaled neighborhood development.

The inserted language needed to describe “engineered soil.”

Not only was the definition inherently confusing and complex. I was told by a number of local landscape architects that (a) they have never heard of such soil and/or (b) that such soil would be quite expensive to install. So the TND ordinance I had drafted — which was already too onerous for a rational developer to use to build a subdivision — became even more difficult to use by developers because Gainesville’s elected officials wanted big trees.

This is yet another reason why it is rare for developers to build walkable places. In this case, this unfortunate state of affairs persists because big trees are quite often incompatible with a modest, walkable, human-scaled building-street-sidewalk design.

All of the above is not to say that street trees are expendable. No, street trees are essential for a great street, but are not sufficient. And it is important that when street trees are selected that they not be too large to undercut the essential, human-scaled needs of the pedestrian.

In another example, I had been directed to amend my “Traditional City” ordinance (also designed to promote compact, walkable, human-scaled design) to make street trees required in the Gainesville town center (landscaping was currently not required in the town center). The rules would require that the City require town center developers to jam street trees into all developments and redevelopments. This would add additional complexity, burden, and confusion to the ordinance, and add another disincentive to build or infill in the town center.

A third example was when I heard there was a very good chance that for a proposed new county courthouse parking garage, the town center would not be getting desperately needed on-street parking (one of the most crucial amenities needed for a quality pedestrian experience) along the courthouse street frontages.


Well it was not, at least, for the goofy reason that stopped the designer from installing on-street parking in front of the new courthouse itself. In that case, the reason was that there is a childish fear of truck-bombers.

No, on-street parking next to the new garage was not going to be stopped because of a fear of a terrorist boogie monster like Timothy McVeigh.

On-street parking was not going to be possible because Gainesville was requesting big trees. The city could have both on-street parking and trees, but trees such as palm trees were unacceptable…

The end result was predictable and nearly certain: Gainesville would soon amend its walkablility codes (in particular, walkability regulations for TND, Traditional City, University Heights, and College Park) for the all-important suboptimizer of big trees. Doing that would push buildings back from the street, discourage desperately needed in-town, infill, walkable development, and substantially increase the cost of infill development. Thereby creating less-walkable streets.

By suboptimizing on big trees, Gainesville misses an essential design principle: In the town center, the needs of pedestrians come first. Not the needs of live oak trees. By neglecting this principle, Gainesville shows either a lack of awareness of the important needs of a town center. Or has no real interest in creating a healthy town center.

The lush, big-tree landscaping looks wonderful from your windshield as you whiz by in your car in Atlanta and Gainesville. But where are the pedestrians? Why are they not img_0263out walking? Isn’t it enough that we provided a lot of shading live oaks?

Has there been a time over the past 30-40 years when Gainesville has not suboptimized on big trees as the number one priority? Has that done anything to stop Gainesville from taking big steps toward becoming a sprawling, car-happy place? Has that done anything to promote walking on Gainesville’s sidewalks?

Lessons from Other Parts of the World

Which cities and streets are the most popular tourist destinations in the world? Are they the cities with streets that look like a forest due to being lined with oaks? Nope. They are the cities with narrow, treeless streets. Why? If it were true that street trees were the most essential element to a street that the world loves to flock to, we’d find everyone flocking to the streets with the most incredible canopy.

But it is very rare for one of the most popular, famous, loved streets in the world are famed because of their tree canopy.

Again, while street trees are nearly always essential for a quality street, they are not sufficient and are not the top priority for designing a street that the world loves. The top priorities for creating a great street are these:

  1. Higher residential density along the street.
  2. A mix of residences, offices, and shops along the street.
  3. Modest dimensions for street widths and building setbacks.

The “3 Ds” — density, diversity, dimensions — when in place together, are usually sufficient. They are the first things we must require of a street when looking for the ingredients to create a great street. Only then do we worry about installing those important street trees.

A number of great Italian cities demonstrate this — Florence, Venice, Siena, Rome. The 3 Ds are therefore the first things we must require of a street. Only then do we think about installing trees, and maybe more ample sidewalks.

The problem all over America: We always put in way too much space on our streets, we prohibit density, and we separate homes from offices and shops. We then wonder why streetscape tactics such as street furniture, street trees and wide sidewalks don’t “fix” such a street. Unless we install the 3 Ds up front, street trees and wide sidewalks are a trivial band-aid for a terminally ill patient.

The issue is not whether we could fit shade trees within our most narrow streets. That is a given. In a city where it is all about trees, it is a given that we will find a way to retrofit trees on such streets. No, the real issue is what our land development codes require for new development. That is the battle I’m interested in here. It is very difficult for me to live in a city (Gainesville) in which so much auto-oriented slum has been built so consistently for so many decades.

This was somewhat mitigated for me as a town planner for Gainesville, as I was able to find I had a marginal amount of influence in not seeing car-happy design dominate all development in Gainesville. What drove me to persist was that I did everything I could to see that the new stuff that was built without making the same suburban mistakes — at least in zones I mentioned above (such as Traditional City and TND).

And that is the rub. Gainesville was consistently watering down and suburbanizing their codes. Staff, commissioners, and citizens see to it that any time modest, walkable, human-scaled dimensional standards are proposed that we immediately emasculate the regulations by enlarging the dimensions for our fire trucks and live oaks. In other words, the new stuff will continue to march us towards being an Atlanta instead of a Florence.

An enormous problem all over America: We always put in way too much space, we prohibit density, and we separate uses. We then wonder why street trees and wide sidewalks don’t “fix” such a street. Unless we do density/mixed use/modest dimensions up front, street trees and wide sidewalks are a trivial band-aid for a terminally ill patient.


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