Monthly Archives: June 2012

Incrementally Reducing Excessive Car Use

By Dom Nozzi

Recently, a colleague and friend of mine noted that he felt that a new residential development proposed for my compact, walkable, historic neighborhood should provide more parking than would be offered in my vision (I recommended that the new development only provide metered on-street parking, and no off-street parking). He indicated that if he were buying at that location, he would want at least one garage space (but wouldn’t want it on the front of the house). He added that alley garages are good compromises, presuming there are alleys. Overall, he agreed with my position about reducing the excessive American pampering of car use as a long-term strategy. His reservation was that in the near term, during the transition to walkable places, “97 percent of us are stuck needing cars, and alienating 97 percent of potential buyers is a problem.” I responded by pointing out that with regard to metered parking, I agree with parking guru Donald Shoup (author of the influential, must-read book The High Cost of Free Parking): For both new and existing residential developments, install parking meters that are free to use by the adjacent residents. Because the meter revenue can (and should) be spent only for improvements to that vicinity, residents would have a choice: Either use those spaces and lose revenue that would have otherwise been used to improve their neighborhood, or don’t use those spaces and increase that neighborhood improvement revenue. I told him that I agreed with him that one alley-loaded garage space is acceptable, and that front-of-house off-street parking is not. I apologized for the fact that my comments sometimes seem, undiplomatically, so blatantly “anti-car.” It is not my intent to “get rid of all cars” or to alienate those who must use a car, I told him. I fully understand that most of us must have the option of using a car. I also understand that transitioning to a world of less excessive car use needs to be incremental. I therefore favor price signals and compactness. Neither of those tactics prohibit cars. But pricing car use and car storage adds equity and signals to the motorist that the car has significant negative impacts (those impacts are mostly hidden in the US because we have over-allocated space to cars and have underpriced car use). Compactness is a companion tactic that adds a needed inconvenience signal. Again, the option of using a car is maintained, but the increased inconvenience (from tighter parking or more narrow streets and roads) sends another needed signal to the motorist: In this case, that the motorist (at least in a town center) is in a PEOPLE habitat (and should therefore feel somewhat inconvenienced and uncomfortable). It is in the drivable suburbs where it becomes more appropriate for the motorist to feel convenienced and comfortable. I reiterate: My suggestions retain the option to use a car. But I believe my approach can incrementally move us in the direction of providing a needed wider range of lifestyle and travel choices. The status quo of underpriced, convenienced cars in town centers undercuts the important need to provide more and better lifestyle and travel choices for those who seek a more walkable lifestyle. Yes, my tactics would be politically unpopular (and perhaps unpopular in some of our housing markets as well). But I know of no other effective ways to engage in what I believe is the essential task of creating more and better lifestyle and travel choices. The good news is that the approaches I support ARE working successfully elsewhere, so we know it is not impossible. Shoup’s book, The High Cost of Free Parking, is a book that I highly recommend. It is the best book I’ve ever read about planning in America. It is telling that the book contains so many powerful, important messages that many professional planners and architects are highly respectful of his work, and he is regularly hired throughout the nation to consult on parking problems. I told my friend that I was puzzled by his noticeable disdain for pricing parking, and his calling it “punishing drivers.” Punishing? Really? Is it “punishing to charge people to rent a hotel room, or should staying in a hotel room be free? What about those priced lockers at airports and ski resorts? Is it punishment to charge people to use those? Should we give rooms and lockers (and real estate) to people for free if those people are poor? (to avoid “Lexus” hotel rooms and “Lexus” lockers – in reference to his disparagingly calling toll lanes “Lexus” lanes) I asked my friend if he disagreed when Shoup points out that “free” parking is not free? Is there a way, I asked, to avoid full parking lots and an absence of available on-street parking other than pricing it? The only ways I know of other than pricing are building WAY too much parking so that you have a lunar landscape of endless parking (and kill the community in the process). Or you keep residential densities and commercial intensities at very low cow town levels. How do we avoid congestion on major congested roads in Colorado without tolling them, I asked. We have known for several decades that road widening is bankrupting and counterproductive (and is like solving obesity by loosening your belt). Sure, it is easier for the rich to pay for tolls than the middle class. But isn’t that true with all goods and services in our society? Does it reward the rich and punish the middle class (who have no choice but to use utilities) to charge a price to use electricity or water? Or should those be free so that we don’t have Lexus Sewers? I’m fairly sure that even the middle class would much prefer to drive on uncongested major roads in Colorado by paying a “punishing” $1.50 than to sit in gridlock on those highways for free. I did that for years when I lived in Richmond VA, and was happy to pay the toll in exchange for having uncongested urban highways, even though I was unemployed there and hardly even had a middle class income. Shoup makes an essential point that those of us who advocate for much higher densities should be fully aware of. That the provision of excessive provision of parking (which is inevitable when the parking is free and the intent is to avoid parking congestion) will utterly prevent the provision of higher residential densities. Counterproductively, most all local governments require enormous amounts of parking — parking required by land development codes. Again, this is possibly the most powerful way local governments establish and maintain low residential and commercial densities. Shoup correctly notes that it is impossible to create walkable densities when conventional parking (read: excessive) standards are used. He rightly blasts the great many new urbanists who don’t “get it” regarding parking. New urbanists who insist on excessive, suburban and free parking supply in many developments. I believe parking is the biggest blind spot that many new urbanists have. Therefore, “fixing the zoning” to allow higher residential densities is not our first task, despite what my friend suggested as a solution. We could have the best in compact, walkable, higher density zoning, but if the zoning is coupled with conventional parking requirements, that higher density zoning has a hidden consequence: It may look like it will deliver higher densities on paper, but when coupled with the parking rules, one finds that the developer typically cannot get anywhere near the allowable density because so much of the site must consist of parking. Side note for libertarians: It is socialist, top-down, centralized government planning to have parking be required by law. Instead, libertarians should be leading the charge to eliminate government-mandated parking and replace it with parking maximums. This does two things: It allows the private sector to decide on its own how much parking to provide (rather than being forced to provide at least X number of spaces per square foot of building), and rightfully inverts the standard parking rule by calling for a MAXIMUM. Why is it proper for government to have a maximum? Because constitutionally, government laws must promote the health, safety and welfare, and a very important way governments can do that is by not allowing people to install excessive amounts of parking (ie, parking that substantially reduces densities – see above – and parking that harms quality of life, in part by establishing asphalt, gap-toothed moonscapes that kill the agglomeration economies necessary for a healthy town center economy, and dramatically reduces walking, bicycling and transit). The big problem in a world of underpriced gas and excessive/underpriced roads is the provision of too much parking, not too little (both underpriced gas and underpriced/overprovided roads artificially induce extremely high levels of car use, which induces excessive parking demand). While I’m one of those who desires pricing car use (punishing them?), I strongly object when my neighbors attack traffic congestion. Any city worth its salt, I say, has congestion. Why? Because cars take up an enormous amount of space, which means only a few drivers are needed to congest a road or a parking lot. If your road or parking lot is not congested, then, we’ve got “ghost town” problems. I also strongly object when neighbors in my compact, walkable, town center neighborhood attack new development as being “too dense.” One key thing I’ve learned in the profession of town and transportation planning is that “happy cars” MUST have low densities to be happy. Cars are a huge pain in the ass – inevitably – when there is any level of density, or any amount of pleasing, charming, attractive walkablility. You can have happy cars or walkable densities, but you can’t have both. _________________________________________________ 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: Or email me at: dom[AT] 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = Hardcover = My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: My Adventures blog Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog My Town & Transportation Planning website My Plan B blog My Facebook profile My YouTube video library My Picasa Photo library My Author spotlight

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Filed under Transportation

Can Emerging Nations Avoid the Unsustainable, Ruinous Path the US has taken with Regard to Transportation?

By Dom Nozzi

Since the emergence and rapid spread of car ownership and use in America since the early part of the 20th Century, the United States has taken a large number of ruinous, unsustainable actions to make life happy for cars rather than people.

While it is true that car travel initially resulted in many positive improvements in our society, those improvements are now increasingly overwhelmed by negatives, as the continued provision of infrastructure, programs and finances to promote car travel is now experiencing severely diminishing returns that started later on in the 20th Century.

We are now at a point that each “improvement” for car travel – an “improvement” that is increasingly unaffordable – provides fewer and fewer benefits. And the costs of such “improvements” provide increasingly enormous decimation. A classic case, in other words, of diminishing returns.

Tragically, the US is largely trapped in this downward spiral, even as growing numbers of us see that transportation “improvements” are, on balance, increasingly ruinous.

The over-emphasis on providing for cars has destroyed the severely hampered the financial condition of households, as well as the finances of local, state and federal governments. This over-emphasis has also significantly increased the number of injuries and deaths in the US, has significantly degraded quality of life and civic pride, has substantially harmed the natural environment, has drained the lifeblood out of most American town centers (downtowns), has taken away travel independence for seniors, children and others without the ability to drive a car, has wiped out smaller and locally-owned businesses in the face of emerging Big Box retailers, has promoted unsustainable suburban sprawl, has resulted in countless wildlife deaths, and has substantially contributed to the US becoming a nation of loners – a nation where we barely even know our neighbors, and much more rarely bump into friends and family.

The following is a list of actions a nation should consider if it seeks to avoid this catastrophic path taken by the United States with regard to transportation – a path, tragically, that many emerging nations have eagerly sought to follow over the past several decades.

This list is not ordered by priority.

Road size. In urban areas, roads should be no larger than three lanes in size. Those that are larger should be “road dieted” down to three lanes.

Parking for Cars. Excessive asphalt surface parking significantly promotes excessive car travel and car ownership, reduces walking, bicycling and transit use, reduces quality of life, increases crime, hurts town center economics, and reduces housing choice, housing affordability, and housing availability. Parking supply must be scarce, mostly on-street, and properly priced to achieve a parking use of about 85 percent of spaces at any given time of day. Residential and commercial development must provide owners and renters with the option of paying less for their building space in exchange for not having parking provided (parking cash-out).

Provide for the full range of lifestyle and travel choices. Land development regulations and transportation funding by government must be tailored and calibrated to ensure that regulations vary based on geographic location (compactness is the objective in town center regulations and drivable lower densities is the objective for more dispersed locations, for example). Government funding should be balanced so that excessive amounts of public money is not devoted to car travel.

Proximity. Town centers must be relatively dense and mixed in use. Building setbacks should be relatively small, and important community-serving facilities should remain in the town center.

Street network design. Streets must be well-connected. Dead ends and cul-de-sacs should be rare or non-existent. Street block length should be no longer than 200 feet in distance.

Low Speed Design. Streets in town centers must be designed to obligate motorists to drive slowly and attentively. There are many effective traffic calming tactics to do this.

One-Way Streets. Avoid creating one-way streets. Such streets are detrimental to transportation choice, retail and residential quality of life, and overall quality of life – particularly in town centers.

Gas Tax. Needs to be high enough to compensate for motorist costs, and discourage excessive car use. A properly high gas tax is a key way to achieve energy sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and financial health (the US gas tax has been so low that it fails to achieve these aims, and ends of transferring enormous national wealth to oil-producing nations).

Full-Time Staff. Hire and maintain full-time staff who are highly skilled in providing transportation choices. Too often, government transportation departments have staff who are only skilled in designing for easy car travel.

Strive for “24-Hour City” design. This is mostly achieved by providing for higher density mixed-use development in town centers. Such design promotes safety, quality of life, and economic health. It is also important in promoting travel and lifestyle choices.

Safety in Numbers. Strive for a community design that results in large numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users, in part to promote much higher levels of safety for the community.

Happiness and Celebration. Consider occasional and permanent street closures to promote sociability, quality of life, and transportation choice. Design city infrastructure, programs, and festivals that celebrate and promote happy people rather than happy cars. Economic success should be measured not be a rising Gross National Product but by a rising Gross National Happiness.


When a developing nation starts enjoying a relatively large household income, it becomes very difficult to avoid the ruinous steps (or achieve the useful steps) associated with the above actions. Travel by car is extremely seductive, and the zero-sum, self-perpetuating nature of providing for car travel is almost certain to occur once household wealth reaches its tipping point and car ownership is in reach.

Over-providing for car travel is zero-sum in the sense that providing for car travel inevitably makes travel by transit, walking or bicycling more difficult. Over-providing for car travel is self-perpetuating in the sense that, as just noted, non-car travel becomes increasingly impractical when we provide for car travel. Providing for car travel is also self-perpetuating because it inevitably creates a growing army of motorists who demand their elected officials single-mindedly provide for the enormous road and parking design changes, and provide for the sprawling, low-density land development patterns that car dependence requires.

The inevitable result of the zero-sum game and the self-perpetuating trap is the over-emphasis on providing for car travel.

Short of major resource (particularly oil) disruption, then, there is no turning back on a world of car over-emphasis, once growing wealth brings car ownership to a society.

At first, the enormous costs that inevitably follow the nearly impossible-to-avoid scenario of over-emphasizing car travel tend to be invisible due to the seemingly wondrous glare of the joys that car travel seems – at least initially — to promise. Avoiding the false glory of a car-based society requires immense wisdom and leadership on the part of the elected officials of a society.

The near impossibility of a nation successfully avoiding the transportation trap the US has fallen into suggests to me that the best hope for emerging nations in our era is the rapid onset of Peak Oil and other car-based resource constraints — constraints that make following the car-happy path of the US a path that is financially and politically impossible to follow. Unless such constraints emerge quickly and aggressively, the seductive lure of a car-based world may be too difficult to avoid.

If a nation is not able to learn from history, it is doomed to repeat it. And the seductiveness of car travel may blind emerging nations from the lessons of US transportation. Perhaps all nations, then, will be doomed to follow the US transportation path and be forced to learn for themselves.


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]

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = Hardcover =

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: is the Enemy book cover

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

My Adventures blog

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

My Town & Transportation Planning website

My Plan B blog

My Facebook profile

My YouTube video library

My Picasa Photo library

My Author spotlight


Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Peak Oil, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking