By Dom Nozzi
The following is an October 2007 interview with the Bloomington Alternative.
Bloomington Alternative (BA): While your book & work addresses broader issues of urban planning, your focus seems to be upon making cities more walkable or pedestrian-friendly. How do you keep bicyclists from being forsaken in the tension between motorists & walkers?
Dom Nozzi (DN): I should start by pointing out that I have a bachelor’s in environmental science and a masters in planning. My masters thesis was bicycle transportation. In my over 21 years as a professional city planner, I have been a regular bicycle commuter. In fact, I have never in my life driven a car to work, and have only owned a car for a year and a half (and that was a long time ago).
About 15 years ago, in my work as a planner, I had an astonishing, crucial epiphany: In a town center (or downtown), the pedestrian is the design imperative. Everything else is secondary, if we are to have a healthy community. In the town center, the pedestrian is the lynchpin. If we successfully design for a quality pedestrian environment, we synergistically and inevitably create a better environment for transit, for bicyclists, for seniors, for children, for businesses, for the environment, and, ultimately, even for motorists.
I am convinced, therefore, that bicyclists are not forsaken if we design well for peds. Indeed, I believe conditions for bicyclists are greatly improved. Two quick examples: Quality pedestrian design requires low-speed car travel and proximity to destinations. Both of those elements are essential for meaningful levels of high-quality bicycling to occur.
BA: As mentioned on your website, there is an emerging concept in urban design known as a “transect” that essentially is a way of classifying different kinds of neighborhoods along a continuum, from rural to suburban to city neighborhood to downtown that prescribes the idea that things that belong in one zone would be out of place in another.
DN: Yes, the transect is one of the most fertile, important concepts I have learned in my career as a planner. Another way of describing it: There is a place for everything and everything has its place (although this is not precisely true, as some of us may argue that there is NO place for, say, a nuclear power plant…).
BA: Among the features that you attribute to making the “urban core” more walkable are on-street parking & the absence or removal of bike lanes, as, “Bicycle lanes tend to increase the crossing distance for pedestrians, and are often incompatible with on-street parked cars unless an excessively wide bicycle lane is created.”
What would you define as an “excessively wide bicycle lane”? Is not the call for on-street parking centered around the idea that it is more convenient for motorists to become pedestrians when they can park on the street?
DN: An excessively wide bicycle lane in this context is one which creates a street width that results in motorists occasionally using the bicycle lane as a car travel lane. Excessive bicycle lane width in this context also occurs if the width creates a “racetrack” character (which results in a motorist tendency to engage in speeding). Finally, excessive width is a width that detracts from the “sense of enclosure” that is so important in creating a high-quality, walkable town center. As Gertrude Stein so famously said about a dead or dying downtown, “there is no ‘there’ there.” What she meant was that there was no sense of place. A sense of place is most effectively achieved by creating a human-scaled ambience in a town center (and perhaps elsewhere). Human scale, in part, means that streets and intersections are relatively narrow. One important result of creating a human-scaled town center is that streets are low-speed. Cars are obligated to travel slowly and attentively. One of the most powerful, beneficial ways to create a low-speed, human-scaled, walkable town center is to install as much on-street parking as is feasible. Some important benefits of on-street parking: They create friction, which slows cars. They create a human-scaled sense of enclosure (they are place-makers). They reduce dangerous, inattentive speeding by motorists.
BA: One of the excuses used by city planners when denying requests for more bikable streets is that not very many people ride bicycles as their primary mode of transit, but is that not the result of urban planning based around autos & the bi-peds in those autos?
DN: In a sense, it is absolutely true that nearly all city planners and traffic engineers are motorists who, as motorists, think and see as motorists (rather than being public servants who have the task of improving the community quality of life for all). By single-mindedly designing for happy motoring, planners and engineers (unintentionally?) make conditions more difficult for bicyclists, transit users and pedestrians. Economists call this the “barrier effect.” Roads have too many travel lanes and are too high-speed. There is too much auto parking. Homes are too far away from jobs and shops and parks and the street.
Note, however, that most planners and engineers have the knowledge about how to create more bikable streets. They fail to make bike-friendly recommendations not just because they are utterly dependent on car travel themselves, but also because they have not been given PERMISSION to make bike-friendly recommendations by their supervisors and their elected officials.
How is that permission most likely to be granted? One way is by electing a courageous leader who has the wisdom to create a better community (I know, I know. This is nearly impossible). Another way is to create a growing army of former motorists who are now (or would like to be) bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users. How is such an army created? Not with bike lanes, or sidewalks or free transit passes. While those things may help a bit, the most significant way to create more bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users is, by far, to ensure that the car parking in your community is scarce and properly priced (ie, provided efficiently). That you have sufficiently higher density, mixed-use development. And that your streets are low-speed and no more than 3 lanes in size. These tactics are not easy and will not happen overnight. Which helps explain why nearly all Americans travel by car, and why we too often use relatively ineffective, path-of-least-resistance strategies such as installing bike parking or sidewalks.
BA: Why the concern about bike lanes making pedestrian crossings a few feet longer & not on-street parking making pedestrian crosswalks wider?
DN: On-street parking typically reduces the width of pavement containing moving cars. By contrast, in a town center that we hope to make more walkable, bike lanes can increase the width of pavement containing moving cars (or will create the “racetrack” which induces motorists to drive at higher, more inattentive speeds). Furthermore, as I noted above, on-street parking increases the “friction” that motorists perceive, which slows them. In a town center, a bike lane can reduce friction, which can induce speeding.
BA: On your website, you acknowledge that when a walkable, compact urban location contains major (arterial) streets that such streets generally require the installation of in-street bicycle lanes, but you state that, “When such major streets require bike lanes, it is a strong indication that the street itself is a transect violation. Also incompatible in this location are bicycle paths separate from the street. Such paths are not only unaffordable to install in this location, but significantly increase bicyclist danger.”
As stated elsewhere in your work, you attribute this hightened danger both to inattentiveness on the part of motorists & the invisibility & false sense of security of the bicyclists.
Are not these psychological dimensions of driver & rider attentiveness at the core of many traffic accidents, irrespective of road conditions?
DN: Road conditions are, by far, the primary origin of driver behavior. The attentiveness, skill and safety of motorists is largely the result of how the road is designed. It is NOT because “Americans” or [fill in the name of your community] are genetically predisposed to poor or unsafe driving. As I note in my forthcoming book, this erroneous assumption that Americans are poor and dangerous drivers has resulted in the catastrophic mistake of the traffic engineering profession adopting the “forgiving road” paradigm — which, ironically, creates less safe roads.
BA: Is not the “affordability” of infrastructural changes very subjective, given the great disparity of respective annual expenditures for bike-centered & auto-centric design?
DN: Absolutely. Only an inequitably tiny amount of public dollars are allocated to bikes/peds/transit compared to cars. But this unfortunate situation is extremely unlikely to change unless, again, we have courageous leadership or we establish the controlling, independent variables (the lynchpins) I mention above, such as scarce/priced car parking, modest roads, etc. Only those things will lead to a meaningful change in funding.
BA: Riding bikes on sidewalks is technically illegal, though rarely enforced, & bicyclists are expected to ride with traffic in the right third of the auto traffic lane & often keep to the very right of the lane since it is difficult for cyclists to tell whether the drivers see them or not, often subjecting cyclists to navigating debris, sewage grates & the opening of doors & the backing out of motorists using on-street parking.
What about these concerns, common to the average cyclist?
DN: In a town center, biking on a sidewalk is dangerous. In addition, unless the bicyclist is riding at a pedestrian speed, bikes and peds don’t mix well. In this part of the community, if it is properly designed for low-speed walkability, it is perfectly safe and comfortable for the bicyclist to “share the lane” with the motorist. In such riding, there is no need for concern about road debris, since it has been swept by cars. In higher speed suburbs, a wide curb lane (14-16 feet wide) w/o a painted bike lane line is best, since this ensures periodic motorist sweeping of the area bicyclists ride in. Less desirable is a painted bike lane, which is hardly ever swept by motorists. I am somewhat sympathetic to painted bike lanes, however, because they are more likely to encourage novice bicyclists to become bike commuters. Bike lanes also send the important message that “this is a bike-friendly community.” (they can also reduce the “racetrack” problem, BTW).
BA: You state that you also generally oppose bike lanes in suburban areas, thusly, “In general, bicycle lanes are not necessary on intermediate (collector) streets, due to low traffic volumes. Like walkable urban locations, bicycle paths separate from the street are generally incompatible in this location.” Why is the mode of bicycling always subjugated to the needs of motorists?
DN: In general, I believe that the most appropriate place for bike lanes is in suburbs (particularly higher speed arterial — major — streets). In suburban, lower-speed neighborhoods, bike lanes usually become superfluous, as it is perfectly safe for the bicyclist to share the lane with cars. And yes, in suburbs we find a relatively large number of intersections and driveways (more so than in rural/preservation areas), which makes off-street bicycle paths less appropriate. It is not clear to me how any of this pertains to the “needs of motorists”.
BA: Are not the higher vehicle speeds & “low traffic volumes” (affecting sense of security/driver attentiveness) of suburban roadways actually more dangerous for bicyclists?
DN: Yes, as speeds increase in suburban locations, bike lanes become more important and appropriate. It all depends on context and the design speed of the road.
BA: Would not bicycle lanes in semi-urban & suburban areas grant greater safety to cyclists due to their separation from commuting motorists with cell-phones & in-car DVD players?
DN: Yes. See above.
BA: Aside from downtown merchantile districts, sprawl malls & school routes, what other areas really need greater walkability?
DN: Other than in a town center, walkability should be provided whenever and wherever the residential and non-residential market call for it. This can include inner (and older) suburbs and new urbanist neighborhoods built in suburban locations. Should a suburban neighborhood desire it, suburban areas can also be retrofitted to a small degree by being more walkable.
Note that once the significant market distorting subsidies (large and “free” roads, “free” and abundant parking, etc.) whither away, the societal interest in walkability will grow substantially. Large numbers will either try to move to walkable town centers or see that their suburban areas are retrofitted to be more walkable.
BA: Have you ever considered that one dimension that intersects these “transects” or planning zones is that of people in wheel chairs, who regularly encounter curbs without ramps & obstacles to sight lines at intersections & impediments to wheeled travel along sidewalks. What can be done to make streets & sidewalks more wheelchair accessible?
DN: Engineers and planners need to do a “wheelchair audit” by trying to get around in a wheelchair so they can see how many obstacles people face when using a wheelchair. I am fully supportive of most curb intersection ramps and being sure that sidewalk/crosswalk surfaces contain smoothness.
Note that wheelchair users are significantly better off when high-quality, compact, walkable town centers are built, since nearly all destinations become proximate and therefore more accessible. And cars move more slowly.
BA: Would you favor more sidewalks, crosswalks & bridges over by-passes & around retail plazas & hotels along interstates?
DN: I am always supportive of filling sidewalk gaps in town center and suburban locations. And I am a firm supporter of creating more complete streets. Pedestrian overpasses are rarely a good idea, unless we are talking about a roadway that is too dangerous to cross at-grade, such as an Interstate. Such overpasses in other locations tend to be expensive, particularly when they go mostly unused (largely because it is easier and quicker to cross at-grade).
In addition, there is little that American communities need more than an increase in pedestrians. It therefore seems to me to be a strategic blunder to remove even more of the few pedestrians we have in our towns from our nearly empty sidewalks and putting them in overpasses. Pedestrians, as AASHTO points out, are the lifeblood of a city. People by their very nature enjoy the sociability of a sidewalk bustling with pedestrians (as do small retailers). Finally, an overpass tells us that we have given up on restoring the livability and quality of our street. We shall forever give it over to the car.
BA: How do you feel about cul-de-sacs & obstacles at intersections as traffic abatement?
DN: Cul-de-sacs are extremely undesirable and should only be permitted when it is impossible to create a connected street (due to environmental factors). Such design externalizes costs on other streets, because cul-de-sac residents must drive more (and do so on streets other than the one they live on). They reduce trips by bicycle, walking and transit, because they tend to increase travel distances. They increase driver inattentiveness. They reduce child “street skills.” They increase the cost of public service delivery.
As for “obstacles,” I am not clear what you mean. If you are referring to treatments such as roundabouts or traffic circles, I am enormously supportive of them in places (mostly suburban) where there is sufficient room. They slow cars, increase motorist attentiveness and significantly reduce major crashes.
BA: How about so-called “gated communities” that restrict pedestrian & auto access?
DN: Gated communities share many of the problems I mention above with cul-de-sacs. They are almost never justified, and should be regulated against by the community land development code. They are an undesirable symbol of our “cocooning” or inwardly turning nature as Americans.
BA: Have you ever heard about cases of alleviating the death of wildlife by re-designing places where migrating frogs, crabs, ducks & deer can travel without crossing auto traffic, & do critters deserve walkability as well?
DN: Yes, in the county I just moved from in FL (Alachua), a wildlife underpass/crossing was installed along a state highway that crosses a major 22,000-acre preserve (Paynes Prairie). I understand that it is effective. I am not academically trained in such features, but it seems to me that it would be a challenge to design such crossings to ensure that a high percentage of your wildlife is using the crossing. I would nevertheless support such “permeability” enhancements to increase habitat connectivity.
BA: How do you feel about the proliferation of parking garages?
DN: Parking garages can be a positive sign for a community, since such structures substantially reduce the amount of land devoted to auto parking (as long as surface parking is concurrently removed so that there is no net increase in parking). It is essential, however, that garages be properly priced so that they are paid for by the motorists who use them (rather than all of us). They must also be wrapped by vibrant, active retail shops, residences, and services so that they do not deaden a town center.
Cities should be careful when they think about creating a garage. Often, a parking “shortage” is a misperception. The “shortage” is commonly just a poorly-designed, inefficient parking arrangement. Usually, the “shortage” is due to too much free or underpriced parking. There are a great many cheaper, more efficient ways to solve this “shortage” problem short of building an expensive garage. Often, a garage is built and is underused, much to the astonishment of the community. Typically, such a surprise occurs because the area actually had too much parking to begin with, but the community didn’t properly design it.
BA: What do you think about parking garages for cyclists & scooter users with showers & changing rooms or structures that combine bus-stops & covered bike shelters?
DN: Designing a garage to allow cyclist use is usually not terribly useful as such parking would typically be rarely used by bicyclists (except those looking for sheltered, long-term parking). Bicyclists almost always will opt for more convenient short-term parking outside of the garage. Certainly it is a good idea, generally, to provide for scooter parking in garages. I would expect that showers and changing rooms would be little-used in garages. I believe that covered bike parking at bus stops would be a good “inter-modal link,” because it expands the range of non-motorists that the bus can attract, and those who arrive at the bus stop by bicycle will need the long-term parking that a covered facility provides. However, one caution: Such parking may not get much use except in areas where parking is scarce/priced and where residential densities are high.
BA: Could pre-existing & improved alleyway systems be used as bicycle boulevards that utilize bridges or tunnels (over or under-passes) where they cross major streets?
DN: Yes, this is can be a very good, low-cost way to provide accessibility and connectivity for bicyclists. However, to be useful for bicycle commuters, they would need to be faster than in-street travel, and I would suspect that this would rarely be the case. In general, however, such facilities are a very good idea for the recreational or novice bicyclist.
BA: Do you have a position on controlling emissions from vehicles whose exhaust impacts the palate, health & eyes of pedestrians & cyclists alike?
DN: I have not spoken or written about this, even though I acknowledge that it is a worrisome problem. Certainly there is a need for better auto emission control, although we have made great improvements over the past few decades. The problem now is that while we have improved tailpipe emissions, the exponential growth in per capita and overall driving is swamping those gains.
I would point out, however, that studies show those who walk or bicycle are healthier than those who drive, despite having to breath fumes.
One aspect of an “externalized cost” that motorists don’t pay when they drive is the great environmental costs they impose on society when they drive. To be equitable, gas taxes should be increased substantially to compensate for the air emissions coming from cars, and that revenue should be dedicated to effective car travel reduction strategies, rather than increases in road capacity or parking.
BA: How should global warming, peak oil & climate change impact the planning of transit systems?
DN: These alarming concerns should certainly be causing all levels of government to engage in highest-level emergency measures to significantly reduce car subsidies and significantly increase transit subsidies. As Kunstler points out, America has a transit system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. As a result, this nation has a grim future. We are so trapped in utter car dependence that we have very little ability to adapt to the coming, inevitable travel changes we will face in the future. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the days of enormous car subsidies and unrealistically low gas prices comes to an end. Will we, as Kunstler fears, experience substantial political horrors such as political support for increased US militarism to secure dwindling oil supplies?
I am deeply troubled that this nation has not taken radical measures to substantially change the course we are on with regard to our transportation system. And how we design our communities.
BA: How do you feel about increasing funding for trolleys, trams, pedi-cab rickshaws & magnetic mono-rail train travel?
DN: It is absolutely essential that we significantly increase our funding of these and all other alternatives to car travel. And much of that funding must come from gas tax revenue, as it does in other parts of the world (here in the US, states have passed laws forbidding such revenue to be used for anything other than roads, which is a colossal, self-perpetuating blunder).
Note again, however, that before we increase funding for non-auto travel, we must first reduce huge car subsidies (roads, parking, gas, etc.). Without doing so, few would use such non-car travel services, even if they were high-quality and frequent. And it would be extremely unlikely that the political will would exist to make such a major shift in funding priorities.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My 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/10905607
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