Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Overriding Need for Quality Pedestrian Design

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

There is much well-deserved talk in recent years of the pressing importance of creating “Complete Streets” in communities. That is, streets designed not just for cars, but also for bicyclists, pedestrians, transit users, and the handicapped.

But if we were to select one form of travel to efficiently and effectively improve community quality of life, public health, civic pride, conviviality, happiness, our local economy, achieving a lower tax burden, as well as safety and independence for seniors, young children and the handicapped, that form of travel —that lynchpin—would be walking. Indeed, the pedestrian is the design imperative – particularly in town centers, but also in all other parts of a community.

A quality transit system is nearly impossible without a high-quality walking environment. Lovable building architecture inevitably slips away when a community is not walkable. Walkability inevitably delivers human-scaled design, which town designers have long recommended as a recipe for place-making. For convenient, sustainable town design.

It is no coincidence that nearly all of the greatest cities in the world boast a high quality pedestrian environment. One could go as far as to say that the walkability of such cities is the fundamental reason why these cities are superb, and loved the world over.

It is no coincidence that studies have recently found that those societies which walk regularly are those societies whose citizens are the most long-lived on earth.

It is no coincidence that the most walkable communities were those which best weathered the recent housing and economic downturns.

If you seek to make your city great, the first place to start is by making your city exceptionally walkable. Walkability creates communities we are compelled to cherish, celebrate and protect.

_________________________________________________

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 Urban Design, Walking

Does Energy Efficiency INCREASE Energy Consumption?

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

David Owen, in the December 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, wrote a superb, highly counterintuitive article regarding the “efficiency” paradox. His thesis: Making cars and appliances more energy efficient results in an overall increase in gas and energy consumption.

According to Charles Komanoff, who reviewed the Owen article (http://www.grist.org/article/2010-12-15-if-efficiency-hasnt-cut-energy-use-then-what), we need to couple efficiency with higher gas and energy taxes if we expect to see meaningful, enduring conservation.

A colleague of mine (let’s call him “Greg”) challenged much of Owen’s thesis.  He noted that at the extremely progressive, green university he works for, the University has cut total energy use on campus by 23 percent in five years by using efficiency and incentives that were not price-based (ie, by not increasing, say, taxes or fees for energy).

Another friend of mine countered Greg by noting that “[a] 100-watt incandescent bulb turned off uses less energy than an energy-efficient 20 watt bulb left on all day. Clothes hanging on a line use less energy that an energy-efficient drier. A mid-90s American sedan sitting in the garage while you walk, bike or use transit for short trips uses less gas than an energy-efficient hybrid. A 5-minute shower using a conventional water heater uses less energy than a 20-minute shower hooked to an energy-efficient water heater.”

Greg responded with the observation that “this is not rocket science: conservation first, then efficiency, then renewables. If you follow that batting order—which is why we were able to drop 23 percent total energy use on campus while growing 14 percent new facilities—you can’t use more energy.”

I then pointed out to Greg that throughout the nation, as any first-year economics student can easily predict, more efficient appliances, cars, etc., did not drop per capita energy use (mostly, energy use increased). It is simple economics: Decrease per unit cost tends to increase consumption. This principle is known as “Jevon’s Paradox.”

Why did Greg’s progressive university see a decrease in energy use? Almost certainly because of self-selection, primarily. People who are already convinced of the need for conservation migrate to the progressive community (or in this case, the progressive university). That largely explains why there is so much transit and bicycle use in many university towns. It is largely not because of education campaigns or bike parking or lots of buses (people who migrate to a progressive place tend to already have a strong interest in bicycling or using transit).

I told Greg he was absolutely correct that it is conservation first, then efficiency, then renewables. The point of the Owen article is that even in enlightened places, there are no serious efforts to conserve. I formerly lived in Alachua County, which contains the relatively progressive college town of Gainesville FL. But despite the enlightened nature of the county, county government steadfastly refused to engage in serious conservation by increasing gas taxes for quite a long time (I was surprised and impressed to learn, however, that the County DID manage to increase their gas tax in 2006 or 2007). How many counties in the US have increased gas taxes in the past 10-15 yrs? I suspect the number is close to zero.

How can anyone claim “conservation first” if they don’t employ increased energy costs as a tactic?

In general, Americans tend to aggressively push efficiency and pay only lip service to conservation because it is a lot easier, politically, to adopt efficient light bulb standards than to increase gas/energy taxes.

“Demand destruction” (where effective tactics such as energy taxes are used to reduce energy consumption) is what we desperately need, but the US has almost entirely paid lip service to doing that (or, in the case of the political right, are violently opposed).

Until we start using increased gas taxes and other energy/carbon taxes, we are not seriously pursuing conservation.

What is most likely is that because the US has not seriously pursued demand destruction, we will have no Plan B in place (such as a train system) when energy prices start to dramatically increase. We’ll see a lot of demand destruction forced on us by $10/gallon gasoline, but because we did nothing so long to prepare for that, it will be accompanied by a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Lots of pain. Lots of people in future generations wondering why our generation didn’t get off our ass and put Plan B in place (instead, our generation squandered the national wealth on things like wars and highway widenings).

To get back to my friend Greg, when conservation incentive programs are used at relatively well-educated or progressive universities or towns, such programs are being applied to a population that is already tending to be susceptible to the conservation message, which makes the incentive programs much more successful. But with less progressive towns, using non-price incentive programs within a town, as opposed to an enlightened university population, is unlikely to have much success in inducing meaningful conservation. Unless price signals are used.

It is no coincidence that higher gas prices ramp up non-car travel, as we have seen in recent years. The high prices ramp up conservation behavior far more than any non-price tactic. And far more sustainably (if the gas prices stayed high).

If all we have is a hammer, all our problems look like nails. In general, all we have are non-price tactics (because price tactics are nearly impossible, politically). So we are mostly stuck with non-price tactics as our (often ineffective) hammer.

But to be intellectually honest, we need to understand and admit the limitations of non-price tactics.

Basic economics clearly informs us that if we make driving more convenient, cheaper or faster by widening roads and highways, or by providing abundant free parking, we can be certain that a great many people will make the rational decision to drive more (and live in more remote locations) because the cost of doing so has shrunk. The prices are relatively low, which signals us to use more of it.

Simple cost-benefit analysis.

Similarly, if a person enjoys efficiency gains with better insulation or more efficient appliances, their price signals will nudge them towards using air conditioning and heat more often, not being as careful about keeping doors shut, and leaving lights on longer, because now it is cheaper to do so.

I am very concerned that too many of us have a tendency to “rest on our laurels” if we, say, engage in curbside recycling or drive a Prius. I have heard people, countless times, sanctimoniously state that they are living “sustainably” or “green” because they recycle newspapers and their car gets 45 mpg.

And yet they live in a sprawl location and drive everywhere.

They drive so much that they use a lot more gas than a person who lives in the town center. A town center resident who is chastised for having a car (which he hardly ever uses) that gets 20 mpg.

The guy in sprawl is enabled or otherwise encouraged to live in sprawl because his more efficient car means his gas costs less.  And he parks in a free parking spot for every trip he makes.

But he parks in a parking lot that uses native xeriscape, so he has done enough to live a “green” life.

Too many of us only fight the battle of making cars more efficient. And providing xeriscape parking lot landscaping.

We won those battles.

But we lost the war, because we naively congratulated ourselves when we used efficiency and xeriscaping, and ended up with more per capita gas consumption (albeit with people driving 45 mpg cars). We ended up with more people living in sprawl and driving everywhere. People who sanctimoniously tell us they are “green” because they have an efficient Prius and successfully lobbied elected officials to install xeriscape in parking lots.

Let’s put conservation before efficiency, like we say all the time. I’m very eager to do so, and have been pushing for decades that we adopt conservation tools that effectively sprawl reduction and car mileage reduction tactics. I’m much less eager to put efficiency first, as we so often seem to do.

Let’s not start with more efficient cars. I’m not interested in having us rest on our laurels when we have a guy live in sprawl with a Prius, and parking at a place using native landscaping.

Sustainability and “putting conservation first” means that guy is living in the town center. And our not “needing” that parking lot at all.

So this is where much of my frustration comes from. I am so tired of our saying “conservation first, then efficiency,” when all I ever see is “efficiency” efforts and ignoring effect demand destruction tactics.

We’ve been seeing aggressive efficiency efforts for over 40 years. It has been 40 years of brief gains in efficiency, followed by a return to unsustainable consumption when price signals led us to quickly forget about being efficient. We have therefore spent over 40 years failing to see durable gains in demand destruction, because we always seem to put efficiency first, and always seem to forget about effective conservation tactics.

There were at least three major economic events that substantially changed price signals over the past few years: A crash in the value of housing, a big jump in the price of gasoline, and fiscal woes for the nation and the world (largely caused by the most severe recession in several decades).

As an aside, with regard to the recession, it has been pointed out that the most effective way to reduce energy and resource consumption, and related pollution impacts, is to orchestrate (or suffer through) an economic recession. Indeed, there was a dramatic decline in per capita energy use, consumption, and driving in the US in recent years—which clearly illustrated the power of price signals in motivating conservation.

Given these enormous economic influences, we need to be extremely cautious about claiming that non-price incentives (such as building insulation, education campaigns urging folks to shut the lights off or recycle newspapers) are the primary cause of efficiency and conservation gains over the past 3-5 years. Instead, it seems nearly certain that price signals have been the primary cause of such gains when we observe what has happened historically: Several decades of aggressive, non-price education campaigns have only succeeded when we’ve seen big jumps in energy prices or big recession troubles with our economy.

In other words, it is going to take more than our urging people to shut off the lights to see durable, sustainable conservation behavior. Once (or if) the economy ramps up again, it is quite likely that the old, more wasteful behavior will return. Unless long-term price increases in energy and resource consumption are adopted and sustained.

Surely, more energy efficient buildings with, for example, better insulation, can reduce energy consumption in the long run. One needs to ask, though, why so many building owners who have recently installed such conservation measures waited for several decades to install efficiency measures in their buildings? Why were their buildings leaky for so long? Efforts to aggressively promote conservation by shutting off lights and using better building insulation have been in place since at least the Sixties. That is over 40 years of using non-price educational incentives. Why did those tactics not work for 40 years? I strongly suspect that the primary explanation for recent installation of conservation measures in older buildings is that we saw a spike in gasoline prices recently (which has a ripple effect for a great many energy and resource product prices), and, as I mentioned above, we experienced a painful recession/housing value crash.

Those factors caused substantial changes in price signals throughout the nation.

That, in turn, ramped up efforts to conserve and be more efficient (leading, in part, to the first decline in vehicle miles traveled that we have ever seen in the US). Combined with that, we’ve had quite a bit of media hysteria over these energy, resource and economic woes. All of us have therefore been sensitized to conserve and be more efficient as a simple matter of survival.

Note, by the way, that the media attention we’ve been seeing in recent years regarding efficiency and conservation have certainly helped somewhat, but again, I question whether the media will give such attention to these matters in the long term. Given the short attention span of the US media and American citizens, I suspect all this attention will soon fade away if/when the economy recovers and price signals inform us to be more wasteful.

What troubles me is that we may fool ourselves, as I said above, regarding causation. The conservation and efficiency gains we’ve seen over the past 3-5 were almost surely motivated by the price signals generated by the housing crash, the gasoline price spike, and fiscal woes for the overall local/national/international economy. Providing such things as better-insulated buildings and education campaigns to urge people to “shut off the lights” were leveraging these price signals and the resulting media frenzy.

The promotional efforts to get people to conserve have been pushed, again, since the Sixties. They are suddenly effective not because they work better than price signals. They worked, suddenly, because of concurrent changes in price signals (and the short term media attention).

If we desire durable, sustainable conservation and efficiency, we need durable price signals that clearly show us that saving energy and reducing consumption makes financial sense. That means higher gas taxes, carbon taxes, road fees, etc. Such price signals can help us overcome Jevon’s Paradox by masking price reductions that would induce us to consume more. Without those price signals, I don’t believe we’ll see durable improvements in efficiency and conservation. We’ll be back to leaving the lights on and driving SUVs. Back to a media focused on Paris Hilton instead of efficient light bulbs. Back to non-price education campaigns that fail to produce the conservation and efficiency gains we so desperately need.

_________________________________________________

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, Energy, Environment, Politics

The Threat of Suburbanization

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

 

“Suburbanization is the biggest threat to cities in North America.” — Paul Bedford,TorontoPlanning Director, 1997.

What are the features of suburbs that Mr. Bedford is referring to as threats to our town centers? The litany will sound familiar, because it has metastasized everywhere in America.

Segregation, homogenization and isolation of land uses. Substantial building setbacks—from streets and other buildings. Wide, high-speed roads, disconnected with dead-ends and cul-de-sacs. Sidewalks an afterthought—as a result, they are often not installed, or too narrow and cluttered with smelly, unsightly dumpsters, mechanical equipment, blank walls and poles. Street blocks are too long for easy walking.  Lots of parking for cars—usually in front of the building. Buildings turning their backs to the street and sidewalk. Big buffers. Compared to a healthy, convivial, sociable city, the ambiance is barren, monotonous and sterile. Generous amounts of randomly placed clumps and bands of landscaping. One-story “icon architecture” or “look-at-me” buildings. Drive-thru’s, auto sales, and auto repair. Glaring, excessive lighting on tall, highway-oriented light poles. Excessive signage. “Anywhere USA” character. No sense of place (no “there there”). Low densities—too low to make transit or walking possible. Important civic buildings placed in out-of-the-way, low-visibility, unimportant locations.

The reason such mind-numbing suburbanization is such a threat to our town centers is that many of the above-listed suburban features seem to be “good” features that anyone would want.

In the suburbs.

As a result, many well-informed, well-intentioned people are often easily seduced into agreeing that detrimental, anti-town center features would be helpful to the city. Elected officials are regularly convinced to opt for anti-city actions by those who are on a moral crusade to “save” our cities.

By suburbanizing them.

Crusaders for drivable suburban features sincerely believe that to incorporate their “pet” suburban features in the city will save the city from becoming an ugly, unpleasant, concrete- and skyscraper-filled megalopolis.

I am convinced, however, that if our cities are to again become attractive places to live in, shop in, and work in—if we are to reverse the “flight” to the outlying suburbs—our cities must build on their strengths. Among the strengths of the city are walkability, unique character, sociability, ambiance, vibrancy, diversity, civic pride, transportation choice, and buildings and streets scaled for people instead of cars.

The suburbs will always win if the city tries to compete on suburban terms—by attempting to incorporate elements of suburbia that can always be done cheaper and better in the suburbs. To attract investment, houses, jobs, and retail back to our city, we need to build on the inherent leverage of cities—those things that make cities wonderful.

And distinct from the suburbs.

Here is my idea of the strengths of a city—strengths that, when protected and promoted—will ensure our town center has a healthy future that will attract, rather than repel, those seeking a walkable lifestyle.

Retail buildings that are pulled up to, and face, the street and sidewalk so that the building gives its vitality to the sidewalk, and thereby makes our walks safe, pleasant and interesting.

Proximity of destinations, so that it is possible for us to walk, bicycle or use transit to get from our house to our job, city parks, the library and other public buildings, and retailers. In other words, we have a choice about how we will travel, instead of being forced to drive a car to get to anything.

Modest street sizes and parking lots, fairly priced car travel (ie, motorists are charged to park and to drive on a road), traffic calming and other techniques to ensure that cars behave themselves. There is nothing more critical than this to make our community sustainable, to make our neighborhoods safe and livable, and to make locally-owned retailers viable.

A vibrant, romantic, people-scaled, unique, prideful, diverse town center that thrives with pedestrian activity and therefore creates sociability, conviviality, safety, and fun, and makes downtown businesses profitable.

Buildings and street trees that are lined up along and near the street to form a pleasant, cozy “outdoor room”—the wonderful “public realm” that we admire in Charleston, Savannah, and the many walkable European cities.

A mixture of housing types and household incomes so that we do not live in a homogenized, upper-income or low-income enclave.

A neighborhood where we can “retire in place,” instead of being forced, as seniors, to be warehoused in a retirement village when we can no longer drive a car.

Streets with alleys, so that driveways, dumpsters, service vehicles, utilities, and garages can be moved away from the sidewalk.

On-street parking, so that our walks are safe and enjoyable, so that our small retailers do well, so that cars do not speed, and so that we can find a convenient parking space when we go to the town center.

Street vistas terminated with important buildings so that we are filled with pride because of all of our picturesque views.

Finally, let me hasten to add that this is not a clarion call to “eliminate” suburbs. There is no danger that we will lose the suburban option, nor do I think we should “get rid of” a lifestyle that so many enjoy. Since the vast majority of America is suburban, and the threat of our suburbanizing our small slivers of quality urbanism is so serious, there is, on the other hand, a real danger that we will soon lose a lifestyle choice for those of us who enjoy quality: walkability.

The solution is not to suburbanize our remaining remnants of walkability. To do so is akin to “destroying the city to save it.”

Because so many of our cities have been harmed by suburbanizing them, there is a substantial, untapped market for the strengths that make the city livable. We can best fight unsustainable sprawl and the flight from the city if we protect and promote our city as a place that we and our children, as lovers of the city, want to live in, shop in, school in, work in, and entertain ourselves in.

Let’s capitalize on the competitive leverage and “wealth” of the city.

Let the city be a city.

_________________________________________________

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, Economics, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Where Are We on Neighborhood Noise Pollution?

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

  As a city planner and as a homeowner, I’ve come to understand how critically important—yet hidden as a “dirty little secret”—noise pollution control has become for protecting and promoting the quality of life of a neighborhood. Often, we hear people say that they desire to live in an outlying part of the city—in contrast to a downtown neighborhood—because they seek a “quieter” residential area.

In essence, uncontrolled noise pollution can not only harm our quality of life, but reduce our property values as our neighborhood becomes a less sought after place to live.

Noise pollution is not visible to the eye, tends to be highly subjective, frequently occurs when the “perpetrator” is not home to control it, and often goes away before it can be confirmed by the police. In addition, it is inherently a low priority for a police department (the majority of complaints are for barking dogs, which are usually not seen as important compared to, say, a burglary). As a result, many suffer noise pollution in silence, thinking that it does no good to complain or that others will not agree that it is a problem. Yet studies show that people consistently rank noise as an important quality of life issue. When noise levels are consistently high, humans suffer from stress and stress-related illness.

Perhaps our biggest concern is that over time, as noise pollution becomes more prevalent, our expectations of how quiet our neighborhood should be will go down. We complain less, and just try to live with it—to the detriment of our quality of life, our health, and our neighborhood.

Throughout my life, and despite (because of?) coming from a large, noisy family, I’ve always been deeply appreciative of the peaceful, relaxing, enjoyable experience of a quiet place. Perhaps as a result of this background, and my education in environmental science, I was selected a few years ago to re-write the City of Gainesville, Florida noise ordinance.

While re-writing, I learned quite a bit about the types of noise problems being experienced in Gainesville.

For example, an important motivating factor in the city writing its first noise ordinance in 1972 was the problem of roaring motorcycles. Today, however, the technologies and lifestyles in the 21st Century have created new and growing noise control challenges that we must contend with.

When I re-wrote the noise ordinance in 1992, an important reason for the need for an updated ordinance was the noise being created by live band music at local nightclubs.

But there are several additional noise sources emerging.

Loud car and home stereos are becoming popular, as are power tools for landscaping or other home improvements. These sorts of noises are especially annoying early in the morning or late at night, which is why the ordinance I wrote is more stringent at those hours.

Other recent sources that are now more commonly affecting our neighborhoods are police helicopters, emergency vehicle sirens, shopping center parking lot vacuum trucks, banner planes for football games (and other events assembling tens of thousands of people), burglar alarms, and barking dogs (the latter two a growing problem as a result of the growing concerns about crime).

Certainly, when we live in or near the town center of a city, we should naturally expect higher noise levels than in outlying areas. It comes with the territory. However, I do not think that we should passively accept all forms of increased noise pollution in our neighborhoods, because some of the increased noise problem is not an inherent part of city life, nor is it impractical to control. For example, vacuum trucks—a pet peeve of mine—are not an essential part of shopping centers and will not lead to the downfall of the shopping center (or the city) if better controlled.

In my research of what other communities around the country are doing to control noise, I learned that it is not realistic to expect your law enforcement agency to give much priority to noise control. As a result, communities that are serious about noise control and quality of life will establish a special noise enforcement department staffed with people who work full-time to control noise.

_________________________________________________

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 Environment, Politics, Urban Design

Conversation With a Traffic Engineer

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Sometime in 2010, I had the great pleasure to watch a highly amusing, and for me, an extremely accurate, portrayal of a mother having a conversation with conventional traffic engineer about a proposed “improvement” to her neighborhood street.

The video can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9BUyWVg1xI

The engineer uses a lot of common transportation jargon and euphemisms to describe how the proposed road modification would be an “improvement,” but the mother rightly questions how widening a road and speeding up traffic would be an “improvement” or “increase safety” and be helpful economically.

A good friend of mine, who is a traffic engineer who “gets it” (he is one of the good guys), watched the video, and noted that “this was sort of true 10 or 15 years ago, but not anymore, except perhaps in a small number of places.”  He felt that “the biggest villains here are the planners (both land use and  transportation), not the engineer.” That “engineers simply serve to ‘solve the problem given,’” and “the problem is given to them by elected officials and planners.”

He admitted that “it will take some time to retrain engineers” to solve a transportation problem that is more sustainable and conducive to quality of life, but he insisted that the root of this issue is planning, not engineering.

I responded to his comments by first pointing out that I was quite surprised on the one hand, and encouraged on the other.

In my 20 years as a senior planner (a few years of which were spent writing the long-range city transportation plan) for Gainesville FL, I never once worked with or spoke with a traffic engineer at the city, county, regional planning council, or Florida Dept of Transportation who did not sound precisely like the engineer in the video.

I told my friend I wish I had been working in the places he had been.

I served on the Gainesville Metropolitan Transportation Organization’s “Design Team” for a few years, and each time I voted in a way that was contrary to the views by the engineer in the video, I lost on 9 to 1 or 10 to 1 votes.

My draft transportation plan was largely gutted before it was adopted so that it could express more strongly the views of the engineer in the video.

While none of the traffic engineers I worked with ever sounded different than this cartoon engineer, the planners at the allegedly “progressive” city and county didn’t “get it” either.

Of course, in my experience, the recommendations from the traffic engineers always trumped planner recommendations. Planners don’t have any credibility anymore. Whenever I mentioned that traffic engineers were the de facto planners for Gainesville and most other places, most everyone nodded in agreement.

I told my friend that I understand his point that traffic engineers are typically given the wrong problems to solve. I’m not sure, however, that I know of instances where city planners ever had an opportunity to give traffic engineers problems to solve – maybe they did for site planning. I was a long-range plan/policy/zoning planner.

But I would also say that on quite a few occasions, I was giving planning problems to solve, and often chose to solve what I believed were the real problems, not the problems handed to me. The transportation plan I wrote for Gainesville was an example of that.

I fought and lost a long battle with traffic engineers to convert a one-way pair in Gainesville’s historic downtown neighborhood back to two-way. I also fought and lost battles with city traffic engineers to adopt traditional, walkable, low-speed neighborhood street dimensions adopted by other communities. On a number of occasions, I fought and lost battles with city traffic engineers on turning radii and vision triangles.

Other lost battles: (1) Proximity of trees or street furniture to the curb (the traffic engineers always prevailed to have the trees pulled way back from the street and to usually use quite small trees instead of canopy oak trees). (2) On-street parking on Main Street and University Avenue (the engineers succeeded in mostly keeping such parking off those streets). (3) Trip generation and the “need” for turn lanes (engineers always prevailed in arguing that conventional/excessive car trip generation formulas should be relied on and that detrimental turn lanes at intersections were a necessity – even in low-speed, walkable, compact locations).

I never even made an effort to take on traffic engineers regarding the excessive and counterproductive lane widths they nearly always requested. My pal Mike Byerly, currently a commissioner for Alachua County, regularly loses battles with county traffic engineers on efforts to narrow travel lanes, use roundabouts, or other traffic calming efforts.

I should note as well that Andres Duany and Victor Dover, two of the leading new urban town planners in the nation, had a number of unsuccessful clashes with Gainesville and Alachua County traffic engineers.

I’m deeply sorry that I was working in the transportation Dark Ages during my stint in Gainesville, and told my friend that I envied his opportunity to do otherwise.

But given all this, do traffic engineers carry all the blame for the mess our transportation system has  become, as I suggest in the above few paragraphs?

No.

It is the same old litany I repeat over and over. Elected officials are sworn to represent their community to make it a better place. They have a fair amount of power to request their (planning and traffic engineering) staff make recommendations that are in the public interest (in other words, more power than staff or citizens). They give engineers and planners PERMISSION to make important recommendations. Elected officials, when they are leaders, are willing to take actions that they know will make some (not all) people unhappy. Those who don’t make such decisions generally don’t make anything meaningful happen.

Citizens are responsible for keeping themselves informed on important community issues, and voting for quality elected officials. Ultimately, it is voters who decide if the community will elect people who “get it” regarding transportation (and other issues). Since elected officials, in turn, have a fair amount of power to direct the actions pursued by staff, one could say that it all starts with citizens.

As many have noted, all three groups (staff, citizens, elected officials) are powerfully affected by an overall system that creates strong influences to perpetuate the ruinous, car-happy world we find ourselves in. The enormous number of car-related corporations shows that much of our economy depends on our being utterly dependent on perpetuating car-dependent sprawl. Engineers, planners, politicians, and citizens are all powerfully influenced by this sprawl machine via advertising, huge campaign contributions, funding for research, local land development regulations, the price of gas and parking for motorists, taxes, subsidies, etc.

Given all of this, we will need to see enormous and often quite painful changes in our world if we expect any meaningful, sustainable, positive transportation actions on the part of citizens, elected officials or engineers/planners. Gasoline, road use and parking prices will need to be a LOT higher, for starters. The cost of widening roads must also be a lot higher, although we are starting to see some parts of the country be “enlightened” about doing the right thing with transportation. Not so much because they were educated by brilliant people or brilliant ideas, but because, for example, there is no longer an ability to be able to afford to widen a road from 6 to 8 lanes.

In summary, I told him, my thoughts are that we are all part of the problem.

Fortunately, I believe that some of the costs of our unsustainable transportation paradigm are starting to influence thinking and actions in a positive way. There are faint hints that a tipping point is starting to be reached.

Only then will mothers, traffic engineers, planners, and elected officials start talking the same language and recommending the same things when discussing road “improvements.”

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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

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