By Dom Nozzi
I learned over my 20 years as a city planner that city planners react to what private landowners and developers propose to us 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, parking-lot rich, single-use suburbia.
In other words, transportation determines (drives) land use.
Yes, such suburban areas can incrementally transform themselves to be more urban, compact, walkable, dense environments. 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 the State and Local Departments of Transportation to make amends for their earlier decisions to build oversized roadways (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 traffic engineer will claim that the proposed large, suburban road is needed because of the land uses allowed by local government in the area. “I’m just meeting the demand created by the land uses on the ground.”
To be fair, some engineers understand that one cannot widen a road to eliminate congestion, but are compelled by their supervisor or elected officials to make recommendations that assume that building out of congestion is, in fact, possible. In this case, the remedy is that supervisors and elected officials must give the engineer the permission to make innovative, effective design recommendations.
Suburban markets (and subsequent strip commercial development) would not have occurred had larger, higher-speed roads not been built in the area in question or elsewhere in the community (not to mention all the underpriced parking provided throughout the community).
So yes, public planners can play a role in proposing regulations or plans that call for walkable, urban, mixed use environments (if their supervisors and elected officials grant permission, that is). But the road must first be redesigned to accommodate walkable, charming transportation choices. A road designed to be conducive to walkable charm creates a market for the construction of buildings and other elements of land use that support walkable charm.
That means, usually, that existing over-sized roads suboptimized for cars go on a “road diet” by having travel lanes removed. It is also quite helpful to supplement the road diet by introducing various slow-speed design tactics such as landscaped or hard-scaped bulb-outs, landscaped or hard-scaped medians, and on-street parking.
I don’t pretend to believe that we can do this sort of road transformation throughout a community 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.
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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