Monthly Archives: June 2010

What is a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) and Why is FAR Important to Urban Design?

By Dom Nozzi

What is a “floor area ratio”? (sometimes called “FAR”)

Perhaps the best way to define an FAR is to give an example. An FAR of 1.0 means that the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a one-story building over her entire lot, or a 2-story over half the lot. An FAR of 2.0 means the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a two-story building over her entire lot, or a 4-story over half the lot.

An FAR of 0.5 means the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a one-story building over half her entire lot, or a 1-story over half the lot.

And so on.

I should hasten to point out that while the FAR examples given above that exceed 1.0 may seem very dense, keep in mind that in almost every case except in, say, the middle of a downtown, an FAR of 1.0 would not allow the developer to build one story over the entire lot, as other local development code regulations would also require space for landscaping/open space, parking, setbacks, etc. Thus, an FAR of 0.8 would almost never result in a one-story building over 80% of the lot. It would probably be a one-story over less than 80% to be able to fit in the landscaping, etc., or a two-story over even less of the lot. In effect, what FAR limits do is control the amount of building floor area, and often don’t really tell you how much of the site will be covered by a building.

Walkable urbanism and healthy transit require FARs to be at least 1.5 to 3.0. In Europe, those loveable cities we all love to walk have FARs that are probably well over 3.0. In America, as you can imagine, most of our commercial areas have tiny developed FARs of about 0.1 (with most space taken up by surface parking).

Therefore, if a community wishes to encourage more walking and vibrant, sociable urbanism, it should require at least 1.5 FAR. Anything less than about 1.0 locks a community into sprawl, unwalkable and unlovable design, extreme auto dependence and downwardly spiraling downtowns, because low FARs create unwalkably large spaces that are more car-scaled than people-scaled.

People feel more comfortable in the quaint, enclosed spaces created by, say, 2.0 FAR development patterns. They feel exposed and in a “no-man’s-land” when FARs are less than 1.0 (which is fine if you are inside an SUV…)

Note that I am not suggesting that we require more than 1.5 FAR everywhere in a community. Only in in-town places where more walking and urbanism are being promoted do we want to see 1.5 FAR or more. In suburban and rural locations (where less is better), it is generally okay to have an FAR of 0.5 or less—unless you are trying to create a walkable neighborhood center (a sea-of-asphalt shopping center that is to be transformed, for example) in the middle of a suburban location.

Here is an excerpt from the Urban Design Toolbox I wrote in 2003:

Higher densities make it possible for people to walk, bicycle, or use the bus.  One important way to increase development densities is to increase the allowable floor area ratio (FAR).  FAR is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land. In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0. In office/industrial & mixed use areas, it should be at least 1.25 (Snohomish County WA).

Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers, and 3.0 for office areas.  San Diego requires at least 0.5 FAR near bus stations.  To increase employment densities, Orlando requires both a minimum and maximum FAR for most commercial zoning.

Unfortunately, while an FAR of 1.0-2.0 is considered ideal for creating transportation choices, most towns allow less FAR than this in their town centers.  Every 20 percent increase in floor space in commercial centers developed as non-office uses is associated with a 4.5 percent increase in ride sharing and transit use, according to studies I have seen.

_________________________________________________

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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

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/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

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Tipping Point for Transportation and Land Use

By Dom Nozzi

Can America be reconfigured to be more sustainable with regard to land use patterns and transportation?

Tragically, too many planners and engineers have become too cynical about what is possible regarding land use and transportation design after several decades of single-minded focus on making cars happy. What might be needed as a tipping point for reversing such lowered expectations is for a leader to emerge who has the skill to inspire people and create on-the-ground models that can get people energized. To have people believe that “Yes We Can.”

It is a matter of figuring out how to “turn on the lightbulb” in a person’s head. Sometimes it is seeing a video speech by a Duany or Kunstler. Sometimes it is visiting a new urbanist town with skinny streets and experiencing it for yourself.

In my view, tipping points are commonly triggered by the prices of things we experience in our world. Unfortunately, most of us have no control over prices, so pricing catalysts tend to be overlooked, despite their historical effectiveness.

Instead, too many of us are reduced to proposing ineffective tactics, and wringing our hands in cynicism and pessimism.

 

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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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

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/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

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Filed under Economics, Politics, Urban Design

Our Painful Future

By Dom Nozzi

Our future, tragically, will need to include much bitter medicine to swallow as we must pay for the sins committed by our forefathers and foremothers over the past 80 or so years.

Primarily, those sins include the assumption that most all of us should forever commit ourselves to only one lifestyle: auto-dependent, energy-consuming, high-consumption suburban life.

Since early in the 20th Century, no one thought to promote what ecology teaches us for survival: Provide for diverse and therefore adaptive lifestyles and travel choices for an inevitably changing environment. We failed to grasp and act on the Darwinian principle that those species which are not adaptive are in danger of extinction (as are societies/empires).

By not creating or allowing or promoting lifestyle choices such as rural or compact urban, we are in a precarious position. Because we are not diverse and adaptive in America—we are not resilient—a change in one fundamental element of our world—oil prices—means that many of us will be forced to feel a lot of pain in the coming years.

Because of how we have built our communities over the past century, most of us have living arrangements that don’t allow us to adapt to a change in oil prices painlessly.

For example, those who bought into the suburban American dream are seeing the value of their increasingly dysfunctional home value erode (much more so than housing in more walkable locations). And because they live in a remote place that requires a car for nearly every single trip, such people will have little choice but to suck it up and pay eternally increasing gas prices.

This is not to mention the enormous household expense of having to finance multiple cars for the household—average annual cost for a car is now over $7,500 per year, I believe. I can think of a lot of things that would be better, financially, for a 2-car household to spend $15,000 per year on than depreciating cars.

A trip to Rome? A better house?

Are there ways to regain the wisdom of sustainability outside of higher energy costs? I don’t know of any. I DO know of a number of civilizations which have collapsed because they were not able to adapt quickly.

As was once said by someone who’s name escapes me, whenever a civilization in history has had to make a choice between making a fundamental change in their behavior and extinction, they have nearly always chosen extinction.

I’m committed to NOT choosing extinction, but am realistic enough to sadly conclude that avoiding extinction will mean pain for an unprepared society such as ours.

A society with no rail system, and a society with insufficient housing set in compact, walkable, mixed use neighborhoods, for example.

I am committed to transitioning, for example, to a society with rail and walkable communities in the coming decades. The United States needs to immediately commit itself to be on that path (in a “Manhattan Project” sort of way). The sooner we set on that path, the less pain we will feel. But some pain is unavoidable.

Much of our future will be about demolishing white elephant mistakes we’ve made over the past several decades, and building or adaptively re-using more sustainable and more localized patterns. Probably much more re-using rather than new building, as we seem incapable of building walkable, lovable, charming development anymore. And because it will be too costly, energy-wise, to build new.

We must also find the leadership to raise gas taxes NOW, while gas prices are low (and while we can leverage the rage induced by the Gulf Deepwater Oil Spill—a rage that is a near consensus).

Gas taxes are an excellent way for us to see effective demand destruction. By reducing gas consumption, we incrementally make ourselves less unsustainably dependent on increasingly hostile and unreliable oil producers, not to mention our dangerous efforts to exploit domestic resources (such as off-shore oil).

Higher gas taxes make us more interested in changing our lives to be less car-dependent. And gas taxes keep a lot more of our dollars here in the US, rather than enriching “petro-dictators.” My fear about gas tax revenue, though, is that it is likely to be used by DOT dinosaurs to have us continue to bankrupt and ruin ourselves by widening roads.

Where is Al Gore’s “lock box” when you need it?

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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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

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/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

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Filed under Economics, Environment, Peak Oil, Urban Design, Walking

A Curious Profession

By Dom Nozzi

City planners toil in a curious profession. The vast majority of the work they do at the office consists of two things. First, they work tirelessly to make it easier to drive a car. They often pride themselves in urging excessive amounts of off-street parking for a proposed development (see Shoup, 2005, who notes that abundant, free and required parking is a fertility drug for cars). City planners also insist that roadways, turns and driveways should be as gentle and wide as can be (thereby ensuring that motorists drive excessive, inattentive speeds, which discourages walkers and bicyclists). Planners regularly request that residential densities and commercial intensities be kept low (which space-consuming cars must have to avoid gridlock). The second thing with which planners spend so much of their work day are efforts to reduce the negative impacts of excessive car travel. They call for buffers and berms and walls and screens and sound attenuation and building setbacks—each of which is necessitated by cars. They insist on rigid separation of residential from non-residential development in the zoning codes they administer. The promotion of car travel, which consumes a vast amount of the city planners day, tragically works at cross-purposes with efforts to improve the community. Facilitating car travel promotes more car travel, which induces more car-based negative impacts. The planner must then work extra hard to undo the very impacts that she or he was at least partially responsible for creating. One wonders if even the most conscientious and skilled planner ever makes any progress at all in promoting the community welfare. Or are they just running in circles? Chasing their own tails, so to speak, in an ever-losing battle to keep ahead of the car-based community insults they are charged with professionally multiplying by promoting cars.   _________________________________________________ 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. Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF 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/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290 My Adventures blog http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/ Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/ My Town & Transportation Planning website http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/ My Plan B blog https://domz60.wordpress.com/ My Facebook profile http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi My YouTube video library http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi My Picasa Photo library https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534 My Author spotlight http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

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Escaping Traffic Congestion

By Dom Nozzi

Many motorists inevitably engage in behavior that subverts our best efforts to reduce traffic congestion. “Induced traffic,” as Todd Litman points out, consists of three changes that motorists make when, for example, a road is modified by widening it: (1)  New car trips that occur as a result of road modifications that seek to reduce congestion, such as road widening. They are trips that would not have occurred had we not made the road modification; (2) Longer-distance car trips. These longer trips are caused, in one example, from a road change that speeds up car traffic (a longer trip can be made in the same period of time that a shorter trip was previously made); (3) Shifting from transit, bicycling or walking to car travel. “Generated traffic” occurs when a road modification such as a widening leads some motorists to shift to the newly-widened road, or shift to rush hour travel from non-rush hour travel (some motorists had previously avoided driving at rush hour due to congestion). Anthony Downs calls the above changes the “triple convergence,” which is the inevitable result of road widening. When a road is widened, three things inevitably happen: First, some motorists who were driving another route due to prior congestion converge back on the newly widened road. Second, some motorists who were avoiding rush hour driving converge back on rush hour driving. Third, some motorists who were using transit, were bicycling, or were walking converge back on car travel. One thing that the triple convergence informs us of is that motorist behavior works in reverse to self-regulate congestion (so that at a certain point, many motorists reach a tolerance level and opt to do something else). The triple convergence, therefore, works in reverse to self-regulate congestion. But only if we don’t undercut this self-regulation by, for example, widening a road. Or “timing traffic signals.” Or adding turn lanes. For example, self-regulation occurs because many travelers opt not to travel certain routes, opt not to travel at rush hour, or opt not to drive a car if a route is congested. If the route is less congested (widening or successfully encouraging some motorists to use transit or a bicycle, for example), those discouraged travelers “converge” back on the now less congested route. They also converge back on rush hour driving. Finally, some converge back on car travel. The road congests again. And rather quickly. Unless the community is losing population. Another way of putting this is that in our world, there will pretty much always be a latent demand for more driving. Much of that demand is discouraged or diverted by congestion. Much of the discouragement goes away when the road is less congested. Roads are not like pipes carrying water. They are more like pipes carrying gas. Expand the pipe and the gas expands to fill the larger pipe. We cannot loosen our belts to avoid obesity. We cannot widen our way (or shift to non-car travel) out of congestion. Many believe that “easing traffic congestion” will reduce emissions. However, Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman convincingly showed about 20 years ago that congestion reduces emissions and gas consumption, despite what we’ve always believed (one of the great many benefits of urban congestion). Why? Because as implied above, congestion imposes what Ian Lockwood calls a “time tax.” And “low-value” car trips (driving across town to rent a video at rush hour on a major arterial, for example) decline. Again, the key is not to strive to reduce congestion. Congestion, after all, is a sign of city vitality. A healthy city cannot (nor should it) reduce congestion. A healthy city must provide alternatives to congestion: convenient bicycling/walking/transit, compact development, pricing roads/parking, etc. And all of these healthy alternatives are much more likely, politically, when there is a lot of congestion. It is no coincidence that those cities with the worst congestion have the best transit. Congestion, in cities, is our friend. When we make it our “enemy,” we unintentionally join forces with the sprawl, road, and car lobby, since the default solution for reducing congestion (the only one that works in the short run) is road widening. One reason that congestion in cities is our friend is that, as Michael Ronkin notes, the most essential and effective way to reduce excessive car dependence (and promote walking/bicycling/transit) is to inconvenience cars. The most feasible way to inconvenience cars is to “let it be” when it comes to congestion. To not bankrupt ourselves and destroy our communities by widening roads or parking lots to reduce traffic or parking congestion. Increasing the number of people bicycling or walking not only will not reduce congestion. Such claims that increasing bicycling or walking will reduce congestion also perpetuates the downwardly spiraling, counterproductive efforts to try to reduce congestion. Those seeking a better community must end their (unintended) alliance with the sprawl lobby. Doing that means letting go of efforts to promote “congestion reduction.” And embracing efforts to provide ways to avoid the (inevitable) congestion.   _________________________________________________ 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. Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF 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/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290 My Adventures blog http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/ Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/ My Town & Transportation Planning website http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/ My Plan B blog https://domz60.wordpress.com/ My Facebook profile http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi My YouTube video library http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi My Picasa Photo library https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534 My Author spotlight http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

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Filed under Bicycling, Urban Design, Walking