Monthly Archives: June 2005

Protecting Local Government Land Development Regulations from being “Watered Down”

By Dom Nozzi

An important point is often made that for effective, durable implementation, land development codes (the rules that local developers need to abide by) need to be “bullet-proofed” to survive subversion (being “watered down”) from staff, elected officials, or citizen review boards.

While I agree with the need for bullet-proofing (and always strive to achieve it in the codes I write), my experience over the years has been that even the best land development regulations we adopted in the city I worked for in Florida were frequently unable to survive significant suburbanizing pressure from staff, officials and board members (which ends up giving projects and urbanism a black eye).

By “suburbanizing,” I am referring to the century-long American tradition of revising land development regulations to make it easier, more convenient, and less costly to drive a car. Densities, Floor Area Ratios, and building heights are reduced. parking_seaRequirements for the amount of car parking are increased. Setbacks are enlarged. Streets are widened. Intersection turning radii are increased. Sidewalk requirements are weakened. Mixing housing with offices or retail is minimized. Car parking is allowed in front of buildings.

Besides the graphics-supported, relatively objective urban codes I prepared, my city had urban land development regulation “overlays” prepared over the past 10-15 years by Dover-Kohl and DPZ (“overlays” are regulations that are applied to unique locations which “overlay” the underlying development regulations that apply elsewhere in the city). In my opinion, many of those overlay codes were better than average.

But because most all of the planners and engineers working for the Florida city I was employed at (as well as elected officials and board members) were rather “suburban” in their preferences, the City often ended up with development site plans that were degraded by appalling, transect-violating suburban design strategies in walkable, town center overlay areas (places where compact, walkable design is appropriate and dispersed, drivable design is inappropriate).

These modifications to the design requirements were clearly are in conflict with the compact, walkable standards within the overlay. For example, excessive car parking and excessive building setbacks were regularly imposed on the proposed development, which were shockingly in conflict with the walkable intent of the overlay regulations.

Note that sometimes, it is not so much a clear (objective) violation of a development standard so much as a “creative (subjective) interpretation” of the standard.

It is true that a potentially useful tool is to write a code that does not allow variances or exceptions for the crucial walkability standards. But there end up being so many conditions that allow relief by variance (such as oak trees, which I found I was the only one in my community willing to sometimes sacrifice for better walkability), that it was very difficult to protect walkability standards from variance in the code. The suburbanite insurgents nearly always found many ways, in other words, to suburbanize a proposed development as a way to ease car travel. Even in a location proposed for walkability.

The question, therefore, is this: Is it even possible to “bullet- proof” walkability codes from suburban pressure? Or is it perhaps necessary that a community establish TWO SETS of staff reviewers and citizen boards? One set would be villagewalkability staff reviewers and a walkability citizen board which would only review site plans in town center locations, and another set which would be suburban, drivable staff reviewers and a suburban citizen board which would only review site plans in the suburban transect zones.

Note that I find it enormously undesirable to create two sets of these groups, due to costly administrative and bureaucratic nightmares a dual system would amplify. However, I don’t know if there is another option if we seek to effectively protect compact, walkable development regulations from being watered down in the name of easier car travel (and, therefore, worse conditions for walking).

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Is a Road Toll a Form of Social Darwinism?

By Dom Nozzi

I believe I am strongly, sincerely concerned about improving the conditions of the poor. And that is PRECISELY why I am strongly supportive of such tools as road pricing (tolling). I don’t buy the common argument that such a position is social Darwinist (as many on the political left often claim, not to mention many on the right, who prefer to keep this form of socialism for driving a car).NA-AY730_TOLLus_G_20090702145736

Such an argument is within the same family of thought that one of the most effective ways to help the poor is to buy them all a car so they can get to a job in the drivable suburbs.

Nonsense.

Any pricing/gift mechanism that promotes car use (such as a free car or free highways) is particularly onerous to the poor — even in the short term. In fact, in the article I read recently about road pricing experiences in California and Minnesota, advocates for the poor were initially opposed to road pricing, but now that they see it working so well (and low and behold, the priced lane being frequently used by the poor), they changed their tune and are now supporters. Their support is due in part to the fact that in both states, a good chunk of the road pricing revenue is being used to enhance transit, which is mostly used by the poor.

Imagine that.

This may be hard to believe, but even the poor value their time, which means that even the poor are more than willing to pay a few bucks to drive a congestion-free travel lane if the consequences of being late for something will be quite costly if they are running late.

Is it not patronizing to assume that the poor do not value their time?

Anything that promotes auto dependence, such as free highways, is extremely harmful to the poor — even in the short term. One hundred years ago, most transportation was socialized in the sense that it was primarily paid for by the entire community when public transit was provided. When it was publicly provided, the poor benefited from the fact that they did not have to own their own car. Today, we’ve foisted the lion’s share of transportation costs on private households, instead of the community, by largely privatizing transportation.

That’s fine if you are wealthy. But if a poor household must now buy and maintain expensive cars, the proportion of household income going to transportation shoots upward exponentially. Instead of 2 percent of household income 100 years ago, transportation now consumes over 20 percent of the income of a low-income household (income that COULD have been directed to better transit and better housing, food, education, etc., but instead is being directed to GM and OPEC).

Would it not be better if the poor lived in a world where there was high-quality transit (paid for at least in part by road pricing) and the OPTION of being able to pay to use a congestion-free travel lane when they are running late for something? No one is FORCING the poor to use priced lanes. They always have the option of using unpriced lanes.

It should also be noted that policies artificially promoting car use (via such things as free parking or toll-free roads) promote community dispersal, which leads to a loss of retail health and jobs in low-income areas as that retail and that job base moves to sprawl.

“Policy-driven, lopsided” distribution of wealth (as many opponents of tolls proclaim)? You bet. EXACTLY why such tools as road pricing are needed. There is nothing more economically inequitable, policy-driven, lopsided, and physically segregating than having all of us forced to travel by car.

Toll roads are perhaps the most effective, equitable way to have motorists pay their own way instead of being subsidized by free roads. Nationally, who has opposed congestion pricing (toll roads)? In places like California and Minnesota, when congestion pricing has been proposed, it has been wealth-cheerleading conservatives such as Milton Friedman and the Reason Foundation who have pushed it, not the political left.

The left has been the major political obstacle, with their bleeding heart concern that road pricing would be affordable only to the rich, would hurt the poor, and would thereby create “Lexus Lanes.” In the US, environmentalists are FINALLY getting on board with road pricing.

Why is the left finally getting on board?

Desperation.

The congestion has gotten so bad, so unaffordable to correct in conventional ways, and so seemingly intractable that even the bleeding hearts are being forced to acknowledge that road pricing is one of the very few effective tools we have.

One last thing: Ken Livingston, the mayor in London who is now world-famous for instituting the very successful road pricing in London, is known as “Red Ken” because of his socialist views. Curious that so many on the political left in America, then, are opposed to road pricing.

This from Michael Moore:

“…Liberals have acted and voted conservatively so often that they have redefined the term ‘wimp.’ This is why Americans usually hate to vote for liberals. A ‘liberal leader’ is often an oxymoron — liberals don’t lead, they follow. Conservatives are the real leaders. They have the courage of their convictions. They don’t bend, they don’t break, and they never give in. They are relentless in pursuit of their ideals. They are fearless and they take shit from no one. In other words, they actually BELIEVE in something. When’s the last time you ran into a liberal or a Democrat who stuck to a principle just because it was right?”

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Filed under Transportation