Monthly Archives: June 2011

Creating Authentic, Healthy Neighborhoods

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

A friend recently asserted that a few New Urbanist neighborhoods in his town were “fake” or in other ways not to his liking. I was quite surprised, as I am extremely impressed by the quality of these new neighborhoods – particularly in comparison to every other neighborhood built in his town over the past several decades. Neighborhoods that are conventionally suburban, heavily car-dependent, sterile, unsociable, and utterly unlovable.

We went back and forth a number of times in our conversation. He pointed out the many flaws he saw. I argued that these neighborhoods were quite impressive in various ways.

Ultimately, I consolidated my thoughts. What ARE the crucial elements of an authentic, healthy neighborhood?

Here is what I came up with. My list of essential ingredients for creating a town or neighborhood…

1. First, houses need to be within a short walking or bicycling distance of the most important regular tasks of the household. Those tasks (or trips) include jobs, shops, services, culture, public meeting places (such as parks, squares or plazas) and civic institutions. The geographic size of the place is such that it is safe, convenient and pleasant to walk, bicycle, use transit or drive a car to get to
most or all of the important needs in day-to-day life.

2. Places conducive to true towns and neighborhoods provide “Third Places” (think of a neighborhood pub, or the TV show “Cheers”). Neighborhoods and towns also provide “social condensers” and other features which nurture a sense of community and sociable conviviality and neighborliness. Sidewalks – the most common form of social condenser — are therefore found on both sides of most or all streets. Each day, people interact with many others in their vicinity, and regularly enough so that a resident typically knows a large number of people on a “first name” basis. As Jane Jacobs famously noted, lowly, unpurposeful and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.

3. Neighborhoods and towns have connected streets with short block lengths, and the streets have low design speeds. Such design is essential for minimizing trip distances and maximizing travel safety, both of which are extremely important in inducing travel by foot, bicycle, and transit. By contrast, places without such street design tend to induce exceptionally high levels of car travel, which isolates people from their fellow citizen, increases travel dangers, and harms residential property values.

4. Finally, residents of real towns and neighborhoods tend to know the boundaries of their town or neighborhood, which gives their place an identity. One result is the possibility of feeling civic pride, which is essential in creating the all-important desire to protect and improve your town or neighborhood.

My friend was critical of the “plastic” nature of the new urbanist neighborhoods he disliked in his town. And the small trees. I pointed out, however, that by their nature, new neighborhoods are unable to show a pleasant, graceful “aging” that so many
of us love in older, historic neighborhoods. The building materials in new neighborhoods need time to age and show some character-building “rough edges.” Clothing manufacturers strive to show such aging in new jeans by selling “pre-stressed”
jeans. But it is much more difficult to pre-stress a new neighborhood.

As for the relatively small trees in the new urbanist neighborhoods, it is again the case that we must give newly-planted trees many years to mature into large, impressive canopy street trees.

Do the neighborhoods that my friend vigorously criticized contain the four features I list above? In my view, those neighborhoods excel in offering such design. The neighborhoods are therefore to be celebrated and used as models for other neighborhoods,
rather than ridiculed.

With time, these new urbanist neighborhoods will get better with age.

_________________________________________________

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

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What Lessons Are to be Learned From the Dutch on Bicycling?

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

 Last year, I was sent a video showing the misery of driving a car in LA. By contrast, the video shows the large number of Dutch bicyclists enjoying travel in a healthy way.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9RATQKiOZE

The lessons many Americans get from scenes such as this is that the key for inducing a large number of Americans to ride a bicycle is to build facilities such as bike paths, bike routes, bike lanes, bike parking, and traffic signals designed for bicyclists.

But this misses the main ingredients for transforming motorists into bicyclists.

We do NOT recruit large numbers of bicyclists (who were formerly motorists) by building bicycle-friendly facilities. No, the key is not that simple.

Increasing the Cost and Inconvenience of Driving a Car

The key lies with the vastly successful effort of many European cities to make car travel highly inconvenient and financially costly.

Parking for cars in such cities is extremely scarce and the few spaces that are available are expensive to use. Dimensions for streets and intersections are often quite small, which requires relatively slow, careful, attentive driving. And the price of gasoline is extremely high.

Some of the best, most common tactics American cities can use to achieve car inconvenience and higher car costs include:

1. Road dieting, where, for example, a four-lane road is reduced to three lanes. Particularly as a way to install new bike lanes or separated bike paths (do NOT install new bike facilities by widening a road).

2. An increased gas tax.

3. Conversion of town center off-street surface parking to on-street parking (and converting the off-street parking to buildings).

4. Increasing residential densities in the town center.

5. Reforming local government parking regulations, particularly within the town center, so that parking is not required as a condition for new development. One way to do this is to turn upside down the common requirement stating that a developer must install AT LEAST “X” number of car spaces per square foot of building. A much better rule: A developer is not required to install ANY parking spaces for cars. Instead, the previous minimum required number of spaces is now the MAXIMUM number of spaces that are allowed.

6. Traffic calming, where the street is designed with “horizontal interventions” such as on-street parking or sidewalk bulb-outs (or road diets) to narrow the street and obligate the motorist to slow down and drive more attentively.

7. Increased parking fees (to achieve an 85 percent parking space occupancy rate) or the introduction of parking fees where parking is now free.

As an aside, making driving more inconvenient or more costly in these ways is also the key for significantly increasing the number of pedestrians and transit users.

All cities in the world where the levels of bicycling, walking and transit use are high share this characteristic: driving and parking a car is inconvenient and costly.

Another thing such cities share is that the large numbers of bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users create a “virtuous cycle” – a self-perpetuating phenomenon where the sight of large numbers of citizens safely enjoying non-car travel induces others to realize that such travel is hip, safe and fun. “If they can do it, so can I!!”

A recent study has found that people are much more likely to engage in a socially desirable behavior if they see (or are told) that many others are ALSO engaging in the behavior. Not doing so induces a feeling of shame or guilt. It is a form of “herd mentality.” This strategy is much more effective than “public education” campaigns, for example. Campaigns that inform us that we will “protect the environment” or “save energy” or “promote better health” if we do a desirable thing such as turning off unused lights.

Make It Clear that Bicycling is Safe

Creating the impression that bicycling is safe is an essential tool for recruiting new bicyclists.

In the video, only 2-3 bicyclists (out of the several hundred shown) were wearing a helmet. It is quite interesting that of the many Americans who go to Europe to learn lessons about why European bike ridership is high and what the US can do to increase biking, not a single person I know of suggests the US bicycle advocates need to ratchet down the hysterical, single-minded “wear a bike helmet at all times!” campaign.

More importantly, as noted above, not a single “lessons from Europe and what the US should do” person mentions that by far, the most effective way to increase bicycling and reduce car dependence is to make it difficult and expensive to drive and park a car.

Too many are quick to attribute most or all success in Europe to bike parking, bike sharing, and separated bike paths.

I believe that is at least in part due to the fact that very few of us have any control over the effective tools (some of which I listed above). When all we have is a hammer, all our problems look like nails…

One reason so many like to tell us we need to install bicycle facilities is that bike parking and separated bike paths are very visibly obvious, whereas the effective tools (pricing and inconveniencing cars) is mostly invisible. Not to mention the fact that pricing and inconveniencing cars is unacceptable to the vast majority of bike advocates in the US, who are also, in most cases, primarily motorists. The handy thing about bike parking and separated paths is that bike advocates – when they push for such things — can avoid the unpleasant need to fight battles with motorists (paths and bike parking are not in the way of our Fords), and that they don’t have to advocate something that would increase their own costs and inconvenience when they drive a car.

Yes, bike facilities are an important component in a bike-friendly community — a community seeking to create a much larger number of bicyclists (not to mention pedestrians and transit users). But in many cities in the US and around the world, the starting point was not to create new bike paths or buy more buses or install light rail.

The starting point is to create the political will. To create the community where large numbers of citizens are eager to bicycle, walk or use transit for their daily trips.

This is not achieved by building new bike paths or buying more buses. The desire – the political will — to do that comes AFTER we make it costly and inconvenient to drive a car. If driving a car is not extremely costly and inconvenient, even the best bike paths and buses in the world will lead to unused bike paths and empty buses.

And the last thing we want is for the motorist and road-building lobbies to be able to sanctimoniously point to expensive bike or transit facilities as wasteful of public dollars because they are unused.

_________________________________________________

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

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The Abrupt and Ironic Reversal

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

 For most of my adult life, I have lived in or near “downtowns,” or what I like to call “town centers.” Over and over again, I’ve had friends and family members express astonishment that I would somehow enjoy living in such a location. They’d say things like “I would hate to live where you live. Downtowns are full of pollution and crime and minorities and drugs and noise and filth!” Or “It is too dangerous, crowded, congested and unpleasant to live downtown!” Or “I much prefer to live in the safe, quiet, green suburbs!”

None of my expressed reasons for enjoying life in a town center were persuasive. I was just considered odd or kooky or recklessly risky.

Then in the late 90s and more recently, something curious started happening.

Suddenly, living in a town center was becoming hip and attractive for a rather broad and growing range of people – even families.

There are many reasons for this. Increasing concerns about sustainability, and the supply and price of oil, is making a car-dependent suburban lifestyle less sustainable, and therefore less attractive. Demographics are changing so that there are now a much smaller number of “conventional” households of parents and children. Instead, there is a significant growth in what Richard Florida calls “the Creative Class” – those who are younger, more highly educated, and seeking to live closer to a vibrant nightlife and a place of convivial sociability (and seeking to use a car less often, increasingly preferring to walk, bicycle or use transit).

There is also a noticeable growth in senior citizens, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to drive a car and are, more and more, hoping to be able to walk or use transit to get around.

In general, all age groups today are seeking a more CONVENIENT lifestyle. The irony is that the suburbs have long been touted as a place to find convenience, yet it is now strikingly obvious that town centers provide much more convenience than suburbs. The convenience of a short walk to get a cup of coffee or a box of nails. The time saved in biking a block or two to get to work. Or the ease of taking transit to the theatre.

One aspect of the changing fortunes of suburbs and town centers is that the crime, drugs, pollution and traffic congestion is migrating to the suburbs. And a growing number of wealthy individuals are migrating to live in town centers.

Another consequence of the above trends is that there is a reversal in the financial value of town center land and housing compared to suburban land and housing. Town center housing is now becoming extremely expensive due to the explosive growth in demand for such housing. Conversely, suburban housing is in a downward spiral of declining values. We saw this most recently and spectacularly when the housing bubble burst in the first decade of the 21st Century. Suburban homes plummeted significantly in value, while town center housing either held their value or increased in value.

There is now a complete reversal in what I hear from friends and family today.

“Dom, you are being elitist when you mention suburban problems or praise town center living.” Or “Dom, don’t you feel ashamed to be living in the ‘lily white’ town center instead of the diverse suburbs I live in?”

I found myself being criticized in the past for living in a town center. Now I am finding myself being criticized for NOT living in the suburbs.

Not only that. I also find that my suburban friends and family were, in the past, more than happy to criticize town centers and sing the praises of suburbs. Now, due to the reversal in fortunes, many of these same suburban friends and family find it entirely unacceptable for me point of the problems of suburbs in the same way that they previously pointed out the problems of town centers.

Strange days indeed.

_________________________________________________

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, Peak Oil, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

The Leadership Vacuum

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

 Consensus is the absence of leadership – Margaret Thatcher

How do we know when a community is suffering from an absence of leadership?

A lack of leadership is exemplified by four pillars of floundering. First, there is a pattern of “decision-paralysis.” Second, there is an inability to stand up to powerful interests. Third, popularity contests carry more weight than wisdom. Fourth, like popularity, fear and hysteria are too often reasons for decisions.

A number of communities, despite (or because of?) their reputation as “progressive,” are infamous for talking an issue to death. Doing so is a sign that elected officials are terrified of making enemies. They are seeking “consensus” to avoid making anyone unhappy. Such a community is paralyzed because there is insufficient courage to make important decisions.

In almost every case, there are prevailing forces in a community who seek measures that are detrimental to the interests of the community. Therefore, if one intends to engage in beneficial community actions, enemy-making is nearly always necessary. A leader is willing to stand up and say that a beneficial action needs to be taken, even if there are one or two objections. A leader is willing to create opponents in the short term if that is what it takes for long-term community well-being. As Margaret Thatcher once said, consensus is the absence of leadership.

At the local government level, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and the city Police Department tend to be powerful actors. Too often, the DOT is narrowly focused on striving to promote high-speed regional car and large truck traffic. Within cities, such actions are profoundly detrimental to the quality of life of the community. Yet because of a leadership vacuum, almost all cities are well known for not standing up to DOT. Cities regularly agree to be a doormat to DOT plans to turn formerly livable streets and neighborhoods into sterile, dangerous, place-less superhighways.

As an aside, many elected officials, shamefully and tragically, don’t even have the wisdom to realize that such transportation modifications are detrimental. To them, such a change is “progress.”

In most cities, the Police Department budget has been so large and growing for a number of decades that other essential city programs have been starved. Again, where is the leadership to stand up and say that enough is enough? Leadership that has the wisdom and courage to insist that transit, sidewalks, recreation, environmental restoration and culture, for example, must also be adequately funded?

Without leadership, these floundering cities regularly pander to popularity. But what is popular is not necessarily what is right for the community. If it were, we should have computers run the city, as all we would need to do is accurately conduct opinion surveys. Due to enormous, distorting government subsidies, for example, making cars happy is wildly popular. Authentic leaders, however, have begun to recognize that excessive catering to cars is toxic to community health. Such leaders insist on slower, more modest roads, motorist user fees, and efficient provision of parking. They don’t cave in when the state department of transportation proposes expensive road widening. They draw a line in the sand and instead insist that they are protecting and striving for a community that is designed for happy people, not happy cars.

Finally, a leadership vacuum is exemplified by making decisions based on hysteria rather than the interests of community health. Screaming emergency vehicle sirens all day, all night, and all week plague many city town centers. Not because murders and fires occur each night, but because quality of life has taken a back seat to fear. For a great many cities – particularly those in the south — mosquito spraying continues each summer. Not because it effectively controls mosquitoes. As any first-year biology student knows, spraying water vapor is as effective in suppressing nuisance insects as spraying toxins into our air (Not because water vapor controls mosquitoes, but because it creates the perception that the community is doing something about it.) And water is a lot better for people and our ecosystem. No, we spray poisons because we have no leaders willing or able to stand up to fear and put a stop counter-productive spraying.

We live in increasingly perilous, challenging times. Times calling, increasingly, for wise and courageous leadership. Will our communities muster the wisdom and courage to elect leaders for a change? Will the city opt for hope and vision, rather than fear?

_________________________________________________

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, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design