Monthly Archives: June 2014

Ingredients for Walkability

By Dom Nozzi

How do we make a place walkable?

Proximity is crucial as a measure – perhaps reducing all other measures to insignificance by comparison. In nearly all of America, unfortunately, our car-centric history has dispersed destinations to a point where it will be nearly impossible to retrofit walkability into American cities. Tragically, it will require decades or generations Prague May 2014 (14)before we will see sufficient infill and densification in our communities for any semblance of area-wide walkability to be established.

In addition to lack of proximity, another enormous problem we face in striving to encourage more utilitarian walking (and bicycling and transit use) is that America is drowning in an over-abundance of free parking. When we know that plenty of free parking awaits us nearly everywhere we need to go, we are essentially being begged to drive a car, and we end up seeing many drive even when their destination is only a short distance away (and even though there may be wide sidewalks and vibrant, pulled-up-to-the-street buildings).

[As an aside, the fact that free and abundant parking is so strongly demanded and is such a powerful way to manipulate travel behavior is curious. Why? For most Americans, there is little that is more anathema than deliberate behavior modification. And free parking is a powerful form of such “social engineering.”]

It is therefore essential that we work to restrict the availability of free and ample parking. Some strategies: unbundling the price of parking from housing, parking maximums (instead of minimums) for new construction, applying a market-price to parking (being sure that the revenue is spent in the vicinity of such parking), and locating the parking on the side or rear of new buildings.

In November 2006, I enjoyed a two-week trip in southern Italy and Sicily. It was magnificent, charming, romantic, delicious, boisterous, and invigorating. We visited some of the world’s most walkable cities, and enjoyed the experience of walking in places filled with pedestrians (mostly local, as we were there off-season). We were immersed in a walking culture.

Guess what? Most all of the places we walked had no sidewalk at all (or had “sidewalks” only a meter or so wide). Is the “pedestrian level of service” (the quality of the walkability) high or low in these Italian cities? I believe so many walk in these wonderful Italian cities because of proximity, the difficulty in finding parking, and the expense of owning and driving a car. Very little (or none) of it is due to wide sidewalks or pleasant landscaping.

I believe that to promote walkability, many Americans call for the installation of wide sidewalks because truly effective strategies (proximity and restrained/priced parking) are too costly, too painful, too long-term, or not seen as realistic in any way at all. So we build sidewalks (sometimes) because we can. It helps many of us pay lip service to providing walkability. And when no one ends up using the sidewalks, skeptics point to them as confirmation that Americans will never be pedestrians in any meaningful way.

In this interim, grim time for pedestrians, we need to encourage compact, human-scaled, parking-restrained, place-making projects that can serve as shining examples of what we need on a broader scale.

We have spent enormous sums of public and private dollars, and several decades, to do all we can to enable car travel. For most of America, there will be no overnight path to walkability. Indeed, as Kunstler argues, much of America may not have a future.

 

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Finding the Political Will to Revolutionize Transportation and Land Use

By Dom Nozzi

Many of us have spent decades trying to identify the lynchpins that will catalyze needed reforms in our transportation system and our land use patterns. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that if we continue on our century-long path of making car travel the only reasonable way to travel, our future will be grimly unsustainable.

The most common solutions discussed? “Educating people” is perhaps the most common “solution.” Sadly, our education efforts to change behavior or values are fighting against decades of trillions of admin-ajax (4)dollars spent by the public and private sector to make cars (and suburbanites) happy. Every single day, a person drives their Lexus and a huge, blaring educational message screams at them: “Widen this arterial! Reduce gas prices!!! Make me happy driving my Lexus by allowing me to drive fast!!”

Other common “solutions”: Elect the “right” politicians.  Build more bike lanes and sidewalks. Improve our bus (transit) system.

But none of these tactics will be effective, because none of them will motivate the majority of citizens to change their views and desires about transportation and land use. Without a change in what a community desires, it seems to me that only a benign dictatorship can create changes needed for a better future.

I’m not optimistic at all that we can build much public support for transportation choice until traffic and parking congestion, high parking fees, scarcity of parking, or high gas prices force us to think and behave differently. We made progress on this in the 1970s because the oil price increases forced us to. Candidates for office that supported needed change were doomed from the start (i.e., had no chance of being elected) because it was too cheap and easy to drive a gas guzzler to rent a video across town.

What can be done at the local level that are effective in nudging behaviors and desires toward those which will give us a brighter future?

Gas price increases can be extremely beneficial. Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to increase gas prices locally.

The things we can change are things I often push for:

1. Scarcity of parking. We can revise our land development regulations to make it much easier and less costly to replace deadening asphalt surface parking lots with offices, shops, and residences. We can also change our local regulations to eliminate “minimum parking” requirements (by converting them to “maximum parking” requirements. “Minimum” requirements require developers to provide excessive amounts of free parking as part of their development. Requiring this is ruinous to a city and undermines housing and business affordability – not to mention increasing our cost of living, increasing our taxes, and reducing our quality of life.

2. Increased parking charges. Similarly, we can convert free parking in our community to priced parking. Currently, nearly all of our parking is free. That state of affairs induces “low-value” car trips, increases the costs of goods and services we buy (because “free” parking ends up being paid by the business owner), and forces us to make a vast percentage of our community land area to consist of awful asphalt parking. Besides making our driving and parking more efficient, properly priced parking will provide us with new revenues we can use to improve our transit system and the landscaping along our streets, among many other pressing community needs.

3. Travel lane removal. Too many of our roads and highways are over-sized. Like free parking, free roads have induced too many “low-value” car trips, which have congested our roads and compelled us to excessively widen our roadways in a hopeless, bankrupting, never-ending process of trying to “build our way out of congestion.” As a result of this state of affairs, a great many of our roads and highways are too big, and can be substantially improved by being put on a “road diet” (converting the road from, say, a four-lane to a three-lane roadway).

4. Moratorium on street widening. Coupled with road diets, we should put a stop to future widening of roads and intersections. Widening roads and intersections is extremely costly initially, and leads to gigantic future costs due to increased operation and maintenance expenses, increased car crashes, degraded public health (due to increased car emissions and reduced bicycling, walking, and transit), worsened household/government/business finances, degraded community aesthetics, and worsened suburban sprawl (among many other problems associated with road and intersection widening).

5. Local models. It is also beneficial to revise counterproductive local development regulations to make “smart” development (development that is walkable, compact, and sustainable) more likely. Too often, local development regulations make us our own worst enemy because they require unsustainable, ruinous, car-dependent development, and make sustainable, lovable development illegal. If we revise our local development regulations to make the lovable and sustainable development the default, and make the unsustainable, car-dependent development hard to do (in other words, reverse the current approach we use), we can more quickly see a proliferation of on-the-ground models — models where we can see with our own eyes that sustainable, walkable design is not only popular, but highly profitable.

In each of the above five tactics, we have local control to effectively nudge our community behaviors and desires toward those that are consistent with a better future.

In my opinion, it will only be then that we can find success in achieving the changes we have so long desired.

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

The Impoverishment of the Public Realm

By Dom Nozzi

In November of 2006, when my wife and I were enjoying the magnificence of the public realm in Italy, I remarked that the stupendous buildings and streets and piazzas we observed were built by communities that were quite poor compared to most American communities, yet these Italian villages were building public facilities that even
parking_sea
hundreds of years later make American communities look like slums in comparison.

I suggested that an important reason for this state of affairs is that American communities have impoverished themselves by pouring enormous public dollars into their ruinous road system. Indeed, a crucial reason for the financial dire straits was that even in the early days of the car, motorists were powerful enough (even though there was only a handful of them) to successfully stop government from getting road modification dollars from user fees such as the gas tax (a gas tax was sometimes established, but it was a tiny fraction of what was needed). Instead, much of the road modification dollars come from “general” taxes such as property taxes and sales taxes, which we all pay, regardless of how much we drive (or don’t drive) on roads.

The result is that those of us who rarely, if ever, drive a car are subsidizing those who drive a car frequently. A strikingly unfair way to pay for transportation.

Here is an observation about the early years of cars in Colorado from a book I was reading at the time: “…three-quarters of the state’s outstanding debt [in the 1920s] was for highways and about a third of the state’s annual budget went to the Highway Department.”

“[In 1930], the state spent 50 percent more on highways each year than it did on education. Only one-third of this state money was raised from motorists.”

It does not require rocket science to figure out why most every US community builds boxy, low-budget, embarrassing public buildings and pathetic, tiny, uncared for public parks, instead of building a Piazza Navona or a Duomo Catania.Piazza Navona in Rome

 

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“Punishing” Developers: Are We Actually Punishing Ourselves?

By Dom Nozzi

It is no secret that a great many Americans HATE land developers.

They try to find as many ways as possible to punish developers and stop them. But too often, the tactics of those opposing new development request that the developer do the OPPOSITE of what a developer should be doing to promote quality of life or sustainability.

Because so many of us have come to conclude that quality of life means abundant free parking or free-flowing roads, and because so many of the buildings built over the past several decades have been so utterly unlovable (largely due to the epidemic of “modernist” architecture), development opponents force developers to build huge parking lots, huge building setbacks, and a strict separation of residential and non-residential land uses. At the same time, dsc03864government spends billions to widen roads and intersections to “accommodate” the new development.

By insisting on these development “concessions,” we ensure that everyone is FORCED to drive a car for every trip they make, and guarantees that the development will be loved by cars and despised by people. In other words, our demands trap us in a downwardly spiraling vicious cycle. The more we scream that new development provide MORE PARKING or BIGGER ROADS or LOWER DENSITY or BIGGER SETBACKS or SEPARATION OF HOMES FROM BUSINESSES, the more likely it is that we will be trapped in a future of unsustainable car dependency, loss of civic pride, and a dwindling quality of life.

Is it any wonder we have a nationwide NIMBY (not in my backyard) epidemic where neighborhoods fear ALL new developments? Is it any wonder that we have intolerable traffic congestion that gets worse and worse every year? Is it any wonder our governments are bankrupt? Is it any wonder our public planners have no credibility and our developers are the most hated people on earth?

How Can We Convert This Downward Spiral Into a Virtuous Cycle?

A virtuous cycle, the opposite of the downward spiral of a vicious cycle, is a self-perpetuating advantageous situation in which a successful solution or design leads to more of a desired result or another success which generates still more desired results or successes in a chain.

How can we create a virtuous cycle in the development and maintenance of our community?

The most effective way to create a virtuous cycle for our community is to insist that developers, planners, and government officials return to the timeless, traditional ways of building communities that are designed to make school neighborhood basedpeople, instead of cars, happy.

Hard as it might be to believe, there are a growing number of “enlightened” developers who are realizing that it is now quite profitable to build such people happy (instead of car happy) places. Places that are walkable, sociable, safe, and charming.

We need to welcome such developers (instead of the knee-jerk response of opposing ALL developers). We can do that by updating our local development regulations so that they make it easy to do the right thing (i.e., building for people rather than cars).

I am strongly pro-growth if the new development is designed to make people happy by using timeless principles, rather than using conventional, out-dated car-happy tactics.

We have workable solutions to our growth and development problems. Solutions that go beyond STOPPING GROWTH. They mostly focus on having growth pay its own way, that it be sustainable, and that it be focused on making people happy and not cars.

Instead, in too many instances, too many new developments and suburban lifestyles EXTERNALIZE and EXPORT their costly, negatively-impacting behaviors on all of the rest of us with their cocooned “McMansions” on isolated cul-de-sacs (which belch a relatively high number of car trips on the rest of us, and make it more costly to serve).

I do NOT say that certain lifestyles should be prohibited. I just want to see that those that enjoy those lifestyles are paying the full cost for them, instead of having me pay some of the cost through higher taxes or a lower quality of life. We also need more CHOICES in housing and transportation, since increasingly, our only choice is the isolating, community- and environment-destroying auto-dependent suburbs, where everyone enjoys subsidies not in the public interest, and everyone is forced to drive a car for every trip.

Americans have built far too much low-density, drivable, suburban housing. So much that we are glutted by this option – an option that is now declining in preference, as demographic and financial shifts are now resulting in a growing interest in compact, walkable housing options. At the same time, we have built far too little compact, walkable housing options. There is a serious mismatch regarding the supply of and demand for these two forms of housing.

Because we have over-built car-dependent, unwalkable suburban housing, and the interest in such housing is now declining, such housing is losing value and is comparatively troubled financially.  Conversely, because we have built too little compact, walkable, town center housing, and the interest in such housing is now growing, such housing is becoming extremely expensive.

We need to build a lot more compact, walkable housing. And do so quickly.

To make such housing more available and affordable, to restore the development community to the admired status they once had a century ago, and to make our future both more lovable and sustainable, let’s return to the days of lifestyle and travel choices. To the days when we insisted on building to create a quality of life for PEOPLE, not cars.

 

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