Monthly Archives: January 2014

Will Showers at a Worksite Encourage Bike Commuting?

By Dom Nozzi

It is common for planners, activists and (some) elected officials to think that we should require an employer to install showers at a worksite to encourage bicycle commuting. In some instances, a proposed project that will generate large numbers of car trips will “greenwash” itself by voluntarily installing showers to make the point that they are effectively reducing the number of car trips their project will generate.

But as a lifelong bike commuter and someone who has spent much of his life researching bicycle encouragement literature, I can unequivocally state that showers have little if any impact on a person’s decision to bike or walk to a work place.

Sure, it would be nice to have showers at a work site. But I have never known ANYONE who decided to bike because a place had showers. Or decided not to because of an absence of showers. And the literature points this out.office

As an aside, I spent most of my adult life bike commuting in very hot Florida summers, and have never felt as if I was noticeably sweaty at the office (even though I sweat more than most).

I suspect that a reason why some people mistakenly believe that showers can influence large numbers of employees to become bike commuters is that as motorists, they imagine that bicycling in places like Florida is not possible because of how much sweating would occur (and that the employee would therefore be dripping with sweat at the place of work). Few realize, though, that bicycling just a few miles, even in the Florida summer, is not much of a sweat problem at all – particularly because it almost always happens in early morning hours when it is cooler.

For what it’s worth, the effective ways to convert larger numbers of motorists to bicycle or pedestrian (or transit) commuters include parking cash-out (giving employees the option of “cashing out” their work site parking space for a higher salary or a bus pass, or a free bike, etc.), priced parking for motorists at the work site, and creating more opportunities to live in proximity to the work place.

Besides showers at the work site, other ineffective — yet common — ways to create more non-car commuters include bike lanes, bike paths, bike parking, employee recognition certificates, and bike-to-work days.

Again, I am NOT suggesting that the above ineffective tactics should not be used. What I AM saying is that by themselves, they are much less effective than commonly thought.

I am certainly in favor of businesses installing showers. I might even recommend that larger employers be required to install showers. Similarly, I strongly support requiring the installation of sidewalks where they do not exist. Not because I think sidewalks will meaningfully increase walking. But because, like showers, it sends a message this the community supports and encourages walking and bicycling. And dignifies the bicyclist or pedestrian, who are otherwise marginalized, trivialized and otherwise treated like misfits and outcasts to be ignored.

Is it not time to start getting serious about transitioning to Plan B in anticipation of Peak Oil or other possible economic crises that loom on the horizon? An inevitable time when nearly all of us will be commuting without a car?

Isn’t it time to start installing the necessary Plan B infrastructure? In THAT sense, it makes sense to start requiring showers. But let’s not kid ourselves about their effectiveness in our current situation.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Peak Oil, Urban Design, Walking

A Pedestrian Call to Arms: A Manifesto

By Dom Nozzi

Each year, America experiences an outrageous carnage due to car crashes. In 2011, 4,432 pedestrians were killed and 69,000 were injured in traffic crashes.

Such bloodshed is incompatible with a civilized society. Are we too barbaric to do what is necessary to end this slaughter? Will we continue to blame the victim?

For several decades, there have been organized advocacy groups for bicycling. For transit. For environmental conservation. For local businesses.

But there is no group lobbying for the needs of pedestrians.

This is very bad news for the health of cities, because particularly in a town center, the pedestrian is the design imperative.

Below is a manifesto I have written that I hope is a step toward rectifying this ruinous disregard for the pedestrian.

 A Pedestrian Manifesto

Our community strives to protect and promote a walkable lifestyle as its design imperative. We believe that future development in areas of our community intended to be walkable should make walkability the primary emphasis of design. It is the lynchpin for the quality of life in the walkable areas of our community, for a quality transit system, for safety, for travel choice, for affordability, for human scale, for civic pride, for sustainability, for public health, for environmental conservation, and for the protection and enhancement of property values.admin-ajax (9)

Given these overwhelmingly beneficial outcomes for a walkable community, we have adopted the following manifesto which, to the extent possible, should be followed in all actions taken by the public and private sector for projects in the areas that out community intends to preserve and promote as walkable.

Most imperatively, improving walkability (and civic pride, comfort, convenience and sociability) means scaling down spaces in places we intend to be walkable. This “human-scaled” need acknowledges that in American cities, our walkability problem is that we have TOO MUCH space. Too much distance. Not that we have too much in the way of parks or squares or plazas or other “open spaces,” but that we have buildings that are set back too far from sidewalks. Too many “sea of asphalt” parking lots. Roads that contain too many travel and turn lanes. Too much distance between the home both neighbors and the corner store.

Our first and most important task for creating the walkability that people the world over love in places like Rome, Siena, Paris, and Venice, is to create human-scaled city spaces – particularly in our town centers. A large number of roads need to be put on a “road diet” by removing travel lanes and calming down (slowing) the speed of cars so that streets are welcoming, safe and sociable. Buildings need to be pulled up to the streetside sidewalk. Parking lots need to be shrunk in size—preferably by replacing some of them with active buildings, and moving more of them to on-street parking spaces. Streets need to be gracefully enveloped by street trees. Houses need to be mixed with shops and offices.

Most of these design practices were followed for most of human history (in America, up until approximately World War II). It is time to start returning to that tradition.

Neighborhood Streets

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. Streets should be two-way. Existing one-way streets should be restored to two-way operation.

B. Streets should be modest in width. Turning radii should be modest in size.

C. On-street parking should be encouraged to the extent possible over off-street parking.

D. Design speeds should be relatively modest.

E. Emergency service and public service vehicle needs should be secondary to the quality of life and life safety needs.admin-ajax (10)

F. Particularly in areas affected by spillover parking, parking should be priced (metered) or allowed only by permit. Pricing should be calibrated for 85% occupancy, and the revenue returned to neighborhoods for neighborhood improvements.

Larger Regional and Main Streets

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. Streets should be a maximum of 3 lanes in size, and those which are larger should be reduced to 3 lanes.

B. To promote permeability and walkability, mid-block crossings should be designed at regular intervals in locations near walkable neighborhoods and in town centers.

C. Traffic signals are preferably post-mounted and should be relatively modest in height.

D. Design speeds should be relatively modest.

E. Turning radii for these streets should be relatively modest.

F. On-street parking is the preferred form of parking, and parking meters used to achieve an 85% occupancy rate. Revenues from these meters should be used for the neighborhood where the meters are placed.admin-ajax (11)

G. To the extent possible, these streets should contain raised, low-maintenance medians.

Street Lights

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. Street lights should be relatively modest in height and historic in character.

B. Street lights should be full cut-off.

C. Street lights should maximize full color spectrum, such as Halogen.

D. Because they are the most invisible color in the landscape, street light structures (and other public equipment) should typically be black in color.admin-ajax (12)

Sidewalks

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. As soon possible, the community should fill remaining sidewalk gaps in neighborhoods.

B. Sidewalk gap filling should be a significantly higher priority than sidewalk repair.

C. In town centers, the trajectory of sidewalks should be rectilinear rather than curvilinear.

Building Disposition in Town Centers

In general, the following principles shall be used:admin-ajax (13)

A. Buildings should butt up to the sidewalk, face the sidewalk with a main entrance, contain sufficient windows along the sidewalk, and have a first floor that is at least 10 feet in height.

B. Buildings should be parallel to the street, rather than rotated.admin-ajax (14)

C. Buildings should be encouraged to be at least two stories in height and mixed in use (retail, office and residential).

D. High levels of building ornamentation should be encouraged.

E. Auto parking should never be in front of a building.

 Homeless Population

In general, because the homeless/panhandling population is an important impediment to walking, the following practices should be employed:

A. Minimize or reduce the number of free meals provided in town centers.

B. Enforce the “no sleeping in public parks” law.

C. Use park facilities that discourage sleeping.

D. Consider adopting a “no smoking” law for parks and other public spaces.

Street Trees

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. The community should install and maintain a dense, formally aligned, large, canopy trees along streets.

B. Trees of the same species or at least the same size and shape should be used along individual streets. Tree diversity should only be established, if necessary, from street to street.

C. Tree pruning along power lines should be consistent with practices described in “Trees in Urban admin-ajax (15)Design,” by Henry Arnold (1985).

Parking

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. To the extent possible, and as soon as possible, existing surface parking lots in and near town center neighborhoods should be converted to buildings.

B. Multi-family housing developments in and near walkable neighborhoods should “unbundle” the price of parking from the cost of the housing so that those who choose not to own a car are not forced to pay for expensive, unneeded, ugly, unwalkable parking.

C. Parking requirements should be relaxed in and near walkable neighborhoods. “Minimum” parking regulations for new development should be converted to “maximum” parking requirements, for example.

Summary

By adhering to these design guidelines, our community will be dramatically safer, more pleasant, more instilled with civic pride, more physically fit, more sustainable, more equitable, more affordable and more prosperous. These guidelines are essential if we ever hope to be able to dramatically reduce the utterly barbaric, unacceptable number of pedestrian injuries and deaths we experience each year.

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Filed under Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Parking and Urban Design Tactics for Creating a New Urban Village

By Dom Nozzi

A large percentage of American communities have experienced an enormous amount of dispersed suburban sprawl. Unless we are to eventually need to abandon and perhaps bulldoze such unsustainable development (probably a more likely outcome than most realize), we need to talk about retrofitting drivable, unsustainable sprawl development with something more compact, walkable, transit-friendly and sustainable.

Indeed, the creation of “activity centers” (an utterly terrible yet common term referring to efforts to create multiple downtowns or town centers in a community, rather than the traditional, centrally-located downtown) is being discussed by academics and city councils throughout the nation.

Commonly, the vision is to transform a conventional, car-based strip commercial shopping center (that largely consists of a huge surface parking lot and giant roadways serving it) into a walkable, mixed use places (what I will call an “urban village”).

One of the first questions that tends to come up in such discussions is “What about the parking??”

First, it needs to be understood that it is not an immutable law that all residents living at such a newly-created urban village will forever want or need a parking space for a car (or even have a car).

As a matter of fact, we are seeing car ownership and use leveling off and sometime declining around the nation – particularly with the “Millennium” (younger) generation.

Believing that the provision of suburban parking is forever necessary is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we provide that level of excessive parking, we actually induce many to want more parking and more cars than they would have wanted had we not enabled such car ownership and use with excessive “free” parking. After all, surface parking makes walking less likely, and the resident has a vested interest because they have already paid for the parking spots we have forced them to own. Excessive suburban parking regulations also kill any chance of having the developer provide the necessary compact residential development, because more compact residential development is, by definition, no longer compact when we must add the enormous amounts of acreage required to fulfill suburban parking rules.

Walkability is impossible when seas of asphalt separate destinations. Surface parking dramatically increases walking distances, and obliterates vibrant and walkable urbanity by creating dead zone gap tooth “no man’s lands.”

“Unbundling” the price of parking from the price of residences in a new neighborhood is an effective financial incentive for reducing car ownership and use, because some residents will opt not to own or use a car if they are able to opt for housing that is lower in cost due to the lack of provided parking.

Some argue that unbundling the price of parking from the price of the housing is impractical, because there will be “spillover” parking by people using a space they did not pay for. But there is an easy solution for this concern: Enforcement of parking regulations at the development via parking permits or parking meters. Despite the conventional wisdom, there are a surprisingly large (and growing) number of citizens who want the option of being able to pay less for housing in exchange for not having parking provided. This is particularly true in cities where a healthy supply of bicycling, walking and transit options are provided. It will also be true if the new urban village is properly designed with human-scaled mixed use, walkable design.

Any “minimum” parking requirements that a community uses (for example, many communities require at least four parking spaces per 100 square feet of retail development) should be converted to parking MAXIMUMS. Why? Because the big risk over the past several decades has not been that a developer will provide too little parking. In large part because most financers for new development insist on the provision of abundant parking as a condition for financing a proposed development, developers tend to provide TOO MUCH parking. Too much parking is particularly a problem if the design objective is to create compact walkability and reduce neighborhood car use.

On-street parking is desirable and tends to be priced in an urban village.

The new urban village should liberally allow shared use of parking by multiple residential and commercial developments in the village. One way to do this is to create parking that can be leased, rather than obligating all land residences and commercial to have their own parking.

If a developer insists on wanting to provide excessive amounts of suburban surface parking, they must be denied approval in the same way as a developer proposing to, say, develop a smokestack industrial use in their residential neighborhood.

For the relatively modest amounts of parking that must be provided at a new urban village, nearly all (if not all) parking should be in multi-story garages that are wrapped with residential, retail, and office “liner” buildings. Any surface parking that needs to be provided should be behind buildings, and buildings pulled up to the streetside sidewalk.

If a prospective resident of a new urban village wants free and abundant parking, they should be told that there are plenty of other, more suburban places where they can opt for that lifestyle in the community.

 Other Essential Ingredients for a Walkable, Compact Village

Streets should have shorter blocks (200 to 500 feet). For relatively long blocks, cross-access pedestrian ways between buildings can be created. Streets also benefit by being paired with alleys. Proactively overlay a street grid with small block sizes before development is proposed. Another way to keep walking distances relatively short is to not allow fences to cut off non-street access to adjacent parcels. Fences used should not exceed three or 4 feet in height along a sidewalk (anything higher inhibits neighborly conversation and pedestrian enjoyment of street-facing building facades).

When streets passing through the proposed center are 4 lanes or more in size, they need to be necked down (road dieted) to no more than 3 lanes.

Intersections must be kept relatively small in size so that they are pedestrian-scaled. No more than one turn lane in a given direction, relatively narrow travel lanes, and small turning radii.

Continuous left turn lanes are to be discouraged in the village. Raised medians with turn pockets are to be encouraged.

Raised crosswalks, when feasible and appropriate, are desirable to slow car speeds and increase pedestrian visibility.

Street (including lane width) and turning radii dimensions are small and slow-speed.

Street lights should be pedestrian-scaled so that light bulbs are no more than 14 feet in height. Taller lights create a highway ambience and induce higher car speeds.

Bus bays are inappropriate in a compact, walkable center due to loss of pedestrian scale and increased pedestrian crossing distance.

Sidewalks have straight, rectilinear trajectories rather than curvilinear, suburban trajectories. Curvilinear trajectories, by adding unnecessary distances to walking, are annoying and patronizing to pedestrians. They are mainly benefitting motorists, who obtain a more pleasing view as they drive along a street with curving sidewalks. They also increase the likelihood of dirt cowpaths being formed by pedestrians seeking the shortest route.

Visually prominent gateway features at the entrances to centers are highly desirable to clearly signal to motorists that they are entering a low-speed, walkable setting that requires attentiveness.

Mixing residences with offices, retail, recreational and cultural activities substantially reduces walking and biking distances, and increase 24-hour vibrancy and safety. Relatively high residential densities and commercial intensities are also important, and for the same reasons. Emphasize attached housing rather than detached, single-family housing in centers and along major streets.

Buildings should be at least two-stories in height for more of a sense of place, a sense of enclosure, mixed use opportunities, and better adaptability to change over time.

Should the community have any regulatory barriers to infilling existing parking with buildings, those barriers need to be removed. Similarly, the community needs to exempt the proposed new urban village from landscaping requirements, as such requirements tend to require too much spacing for compact walkability. Ample landscaping belongs in the drivable suburbs.

While common because of their high visibility nature, gas stations should not be allowed at street intersections.

Building setbacks need to be modest in size. At intersections, a sense of place is achieved by requiring buildings to abut the back of sidewalks. Lot sizes should be relatively small in size, which often requires the community to reduce the minimum lot size required in its land development code. Each of these design features is an important way to create charming human scale that pedestrians tend to insist on and enjoy.

The community sign ordinance should require relatively small signs for retail and office development. Small signs help signal a low-speed, pedestrian scaled setting.

Summary

People that desire to live in walkable, compact living arrangements seek a setting that is conducive to such a lifestyle. That setting features low-speed, narrow and human-scaled streets and intersections, very short walking distances to most destinations, buildings pulled up to the sidewalk to create enclosure, and a vibrant experience (in contrast to deadening expanses of parking and large building setbacks). The market for higher density housing will be very weak and unsustainable if such a walkable setting is not provided.

Existing housing, employment, or land use patterns should not necessarily dictate visions for a new urban village if such patterns conflict with community objectives for such a compact village. Similarly, the needs or villageconvenience of regional commuters should not trump the low-speed, vibrancy, pedestrian scaled needs of these new village centers.

Overall, the objective for centers is a drive to rather than drive through experience, a park-once setting, and a design that makes the pedestrian the design imperative.

In the Urban Village, we should be firmly committed to walkable urbanity, where car use is optional, not required.

 

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Filed under Economics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Is It a Good Idea to “Get Out the Vote”?

By Dom Nozzi

After reading Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture (2000, 2006), I found myself asking:.

Is it a good idea to “get out the vote?” To work on voter registration drives to maximize the number of US citizens who vote?ballot-box-graphic

Thomas Jefferson once said that “If we’re going to have a successful democratic society, we have to have a well educated and healthy citizenry.” Along these lines, he also stated that “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

How well-informed are American citizens? Are they educated enough to enjoy a successful democracy? To be trusted with their own government?

The following information is cited by Berman’s book:

• 42 percent of American adults cannot locate Japan on a world map. (1997)

• 15 percent of American adults cannot locate the US on a map.

• 10 percent of all American voters, in October 1996, did not know who the Republican and Democratic nominees for president were (one of the questions traditionally asked in psychiatric wards as part of the test for sanity: “Who is the president of the US?”)

• 70 percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels.

• 50 percent of Americans believe in the presence of UFOs and space aliens on earth.

• 30 percent of Americans believe they have made contact with the dead.

• 40 percent of American adults do not know that Germany was our enemy in WWII.

• 58 percent of American high school seniors cannot understand a newspaper editorial in ANY newspaper.

• 50 percent of all students in America were unaware of the Cold War. (1995)

• 60 percent of all students in America had no idea of how the US came into existence. (1995)

• 59 percent of American teenagers cannot name the three branches of the US government, but 59 percent can name the Three Stooges. (1998)

• 98 percent of American teenagers cannot name the chief justice of the Supreme Court. (1998)

• 74 percent of American teenagers cannot name the Vice President of the US. (1998)

• 50 percent of American 17-year olds could not express 9/100 as a percentage. (early 1990s)

• 56 percent of all American adults believe that electrons are larger than atoms. (1995)

• 63 percent of all American adults believe that the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs (off by more than 60 million years, BTW). (1995)

• 53 percent of all American adults believe the earth revolves around the sun in a day or a month. (1995)

• 21 percent of all American adults believe the sun revolves around the earth. An additional seven percent said they did not know which revolved around which.

• Of the 158 countries in the United Nations, the US ranks 49th in literacy.

• 60 percent of all American adults have never read a single book in their lives. [I checked this shocking number on the Internet and it appears that this should state that 60 percent of all American adults have not read a single book AFTER HIGH SCHOOL.]

• 6 percent of all American adults read as much as a single book in a year.

• Among American readers age 21-35, 67 percent regularly read a daily newspaper in 1965. By 1998, it was 31 percent.

In 1998, the Massachusetts Board of Education instituted a literacy test for teachers, pegged at the level of an exam for a high school equivalency diploma. Of the 1,800 prospective teachers who took it, 59 percent failed. In response, the interim commissioner of education announced that the passing grade would be lowered.

It appears, from the above, that the last thing we should be doing is to “get out the vote.” An essential, unachieved task that Jefferson would urge us to engage in, before we “get out the vote,” is to first educate our population. Uneducated people, it seems likely, would vote against their own interests, or vote for those who are incapable of achieving the objectives of a healthy society.

I think that an important reason why fear is leveraged and used so significantly in America (both for candidates to get votes and to motivate people to buy things) is that Americans are so poorly educated and lazy (and watch too much TV). It is certainly true that in the 1930s, had a lot more people (especially poor people) voted, we would have elected communists and other left-wing items or candidates on the ballot. However, in contemporary times, low-income Americans are much more right wing than then, and would NEVER vote for a communist today (probably due, at least in part, to being a lot better educated in the 1930s).

I agree that education is not the only way to make better decisions. Education makes it more likely, but there is no certainty that this would be the case.

This is especially when it comes to, say, roads. Why? Because high subsidies means that even brilliant people think that wider roads are good.

My position on this issue, though, is that it seems important, if we are to have a healthy democratic society, that we have reasonably educated voters. I think our society is in big trouble if our population remains as ignorant as it is (particularly in comparison to other developed nations, and largely due to our relatively high religiosity and our anti-intellectual attitudes).

The political right in the US hit upon a brilliant political tactic in the Reagan years: get out the religious vote. We now see a lot of lower-income, poorly educated, blue collar people voting for the right wing issues and candidates. Curious, since the Republican agenda is rather openly pro-wealthy people and less supportive of lower-income people. In my view, this is at least partly because many lower-income folks are now single-issue voters: they use a narrow religious litmus test. It has been said that blue collar Catholics were largely responsible for electing Reagan and the Bushes (it is no coincidence that Reagan, in particular, nominated an enormous number of Catholics to top government posts).

In the book, Berman notes chilling parallels between the time at which the Roman Empire fell, and the US today. In both cases, there is extreme economic disparity between rich and poor. The middle class was significantly shrunk in size. The cost of bureaucracy and the military had become so enormous that in both cases, the government teeters on bankruptcy. Literacy and classical knowledge was replaced by a kind of New Age thinking (in the case of Rome, the classical knowledge lost was Greek learning, in the case of the US, the disparagement of learning from “dead white guys”).

Berman is nearly certain the US empire will collapse before the 22nd Century, and like monasteries that sheltered and bridged classical knowledge during the Dark Ages to protect it for future generations, he calls for a secular “monastic option” for contemporary times so that today’s storehouse of knowledge is protected from the coming decline into barbarism.

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