By Dom Nozzi
Speaking as a 20-year city planner, American planners react to what private landowners and developers propose to the local government with regard to development along a roadway. Public sector planners have very little control as to densities or mixed uses or types of businesses that are proposed along a roadway.
Yes, public planners can write development regulations or corridor plans that call for walkable, mixed use, higher density design, but if the roadway is 5 lanes and designed for 45 mph (inattentive, talking-on-the-cellphone) speeds, such regulations will be a moot point, as property owners and developers tend to build to what the market seeks. And when you have a multi-lane, high-speed roadway, the market tends to seek low-density, drivable, single-use suburbia.
In other words, transportation determines (drives) land use.
Certainly such suburban areas can incrementally transform themselves to be more urban, compact, walkable, dense environments. We should not necessarily give up on them. But public planners, and their regulations and plans, will be almost entirely powerless to catalyze such a transformation.
The effective catalyst in the case of a suburban environment fed by high-speed, high-volume roadways is for state Departments of Transportation (DOT) to make amends for its earlier decision to build an oversized roadway (usually justified on the grounds that the 5 lanes are needed to reduce or avoid congestion—even though we should all know by now that we cannot build our way out of congestion).
Often, the DOT will claim that the proposed large, suburban road is needed because of the land uses allowed by local government in the area. “DOT is just meeting the demand created by the land uses on the ground.”
Again, however, such suburban markets (and subsequent development) would not have occurred had larger, higher-speed roads not been built elsewhere in the community (not to mention all the underpriced parking provided).
So yes, public planners can play a role in developing regulations or plans that call for walkable, urban, mixed use environments. But the road must first be redesigned to accommodate it and create the market for it (usually by removing travel lanes and introducing other slow-speed design tactics).
I don’t pretend to believe that we can do this in the near future. It took us over 80 years to build this car-friendly mess we are in. We are therefore unlikely to find our way out of this for quite a while.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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