Monthly Archives: February 2016

Why I Became a Town Planner

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2005

Several years ago, while I was an undergraduate in environmental science, I came across a study that sought to determine if there were correlations between a person being an environmental activist (or living a low-impact lifestyle) and childhood experiences. A vast number of experiences were analyzed. One experience stood out head and shoulders above any other experience to explain why a person was a conservationist as an adult.

The person, as a child, enjoyed free, unrestricted access to unstructured play in natural areas (open spaces, woodlands, etc.).

That finding motivated me to enter the field of urban planning, as I realized that in such a profession, I could perhaps help a community design itself so that children would not be denied such a crucially important childhood experience.

In recent years, I have come to learn that even if such places remain in or near neighborhoods, our car-happy culture has made it increasingly impossible for children (or adults, for that matter) to walk or bicycle to such places. Roads have become treacherous death zones that isolate children from their desired locations (unless Mom is able to serve as a taxi driver). boy biking low speed street

I have therefore turned much of my interest to the design of communities that employs traditional, timeless, walkable, human-scaled principles. Mostly embodied in the techniques used in the new urbanist, place-making movement, I have become convinced that a walkable community is an essential lynchpin in creating a high quality of life for all people—and, importantly, provides children with access to unstructured play.

 

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A Vision for Designing a Community

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 16, 2006

A Work in Progress

Because it is a matter of fairness and political viability, it is essential that we design for at least three community components: Urban, Suburban and Rural/Preservation.

The following are the examples of components, principles and assumptions for each of the three zones.

The overall objective for the community is equity, quality of life and sustainability.

As an aside, I recognize that the Suburban Zone is not sustainable. It is provided for because America is so overwhelmingly suburban that to not provide for it is politically unsustainable.

Urban

Principles: Sociability, equity, sustainability, supremacy of a quality public realm, compactness, mixed-use, walkability, sense of community, civic pride.

Streets. Low design speed, relatively narrow travel lanes. Maximum size is 2 lanes (major streets have turn pockets.) Roundabouts acceptable. Bulb-outs to increase landscape area, reduce car speeds and pedestrian crossing distance. Turning lanes are either not used or extremely rare. Relatively small dimensions for turning radii, sight triangle. Straight, rectilinear trajectory.Catania Italy walkable

Alleys. Common.

Congestion. Not considered a problem, in part because the Urban Zone is rich in features that allow relatively easy evasion of congestion. Indeed, congestion is seen as an ally to reduce regional air pollution, reduce fuel consumption, reduce car speeds, reduce low-value car trips, promote infill and higher-density residential, promote mixed use, promote compactness, promote trip dispersal.

Congestion fees. Electronic system. Used to recover costs (air pollution, noise, danger, public realm degradation, water pollution, etc.) imposed by motorists entering the Urban Zone. Revenues dedicated to Urban Zone public realm improvements. Revenue, by law, cannot be allocated to road capacity increases.

Signal Light Synchronization. Strongly discouraged, but if employed, timing is based on bus and bicyclist speed (15-20 mph).

Street lights. Structure is no taller than 20 feet — preferably less. Full-spectrum lighting is required.

Lot sizes. Relatively small.

Block size. Relatively small. No more than 200 feet long on a side.

Sidewalks. Required on both sides of street, due to high number of utilitarian and sociability walking trips. Rectilinear and parallel to streets, buildings. Curvilinear alignment not allowed.

Street connectivity. Maximized. High level of trip dispersal in the street network.

Parking.  On-street parking emphasized. Parking is market-priced. Off-street parking, when necessary, is relatively modest and on the side or rear of buildings. Off-street parking is never located at the street corner of a lot at an intersection.

Transit. High frequency and convenient access from residences and shops to stops.

Service vehicles. Fire trucks, delivery trucks and buses are relatively small.

Landscaping. Hardscape much more common than greenscape. Rectilinear rather than curvilinear placement of vegetation.

Street trees. Formally aligned large canopy trees forming street enclosing envelope. Trees are of same species along individual streets.

Land Development Regulations. Form-based (emphasis is on building location and design) rather than use-based. Promoting a quality public realm for pedestrians is the imperative.

Building setbacks. Little or none.

Accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”), home occupations, bed & breakfasts. Expressly allowed.

Drive-throughs, retailers over 30,000 sf of first floor area, parking lots as a primary use. Prohibited.

Maximum building height. 5 stories.

Housing types. Mixed.

Garages. Recessed.

Signs. Relatively small, unlit, subdued.

Building entrance. Faces street.

Land uses. Housing mixed with neighborhood-scaled retail, office, light industrial.

Neighborhood incomes. Mixed

Residential density maximum. No maximum. Market-driven.

Travel choice. Maximized. All forms of travel are provided for.

Schools. Exempt from requirements for outdoor ball fields.

Stormwater management. Relatively low concern for inconvenience flooding means that stormwater basins are relatively small in size. Basins are not placed in front or at the street corner of a lot at an intersection.

Interaction with others. Sociability, connection, interaction.

Public Realm. Aggressive efforts to maximize quality. Regular cleaning.

Suburban

Principles: Separation, privacy, equity, supremacy of private realm, landscaping to simulate nature, large open spaces and large parks, ease of free-flowing travel by car.

Streets. Moderate design speed. Maximum size is 4 lanes. Roundabouts acceptable. Turning lanes are common. Relatively large dimensions for turning radii, sight triangle. Tend to have curvilinear trajectory.huge turn radius for road

Alleys. Rare or non-existent.

Congestion. Considered a serious problem, in part because the Suburban Zone provide very few features that allow evasion of congestion. Congestion fees are therefore important.

Congestion fees. Electronic system. Used to discourage low-value car trips, retain free-flow conditions on at least one lane for emergency access. Revenues dedicated to capacity increases. Signal Light Synchronization. If employed, timing is based on motorist speed (35-45 mph).

Street lights. Structure is 30 feet (or whatever the existing suburban design standard happens to be).

Block size. Variable.

Sidewalks. Optional, due to high percentage of walking trips being recreational. Tend to be curvilinear.

Street connectivity. De-emphasized. Cul-de-sacs common. All neighborhood streets feed into sparse network of major streets.

Parking.  Off-street parking emphasized. Parking is free. Parking can be in front of buildings.

Transit. Low frequency (or no service) and poor access from residences and shops to stops.

Service vehicles. Fire trucks, delivery trucks and buses are relatively large.

Landscaping. Greenscape much more common than hardscape. Curvilinear alignment is most common.

Street trees. Few street trees. Clustered trees of variable sizes and species.

Land Development Regulations. Use-based rather than form-based. Separation of uses and provision for car travel are the imperatives.

Building setbacks. Relatively generous (existing suburban setback requirements).

Accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”), home occupations, bed & breakfasts. Discouraged or prohibited.

Drive-throughs, retailers over 30,000 sf of first floor area, parking lots as a primary use. Allowed.

Maximum building height. 5 stories.

Housing types. Mixed.

Garages. Protruding.

Signs. Relatively large, often lit and animated (due to higher speeds and larger setbacks).

Building entrance. Tend to faces rear parking.

Land uses. Strictly segregated, single-use areas. Areas are either all residential, all commercial, or all industrial.

Neighborhood incomes. Mixed

Residential density maximum. Relatively low maximum (existing suburban setback requirements).

Travel choice. Relatively little. Nearly all forms of travel must be by car.

Schools. Existing conventional standards.

Stormwater management. Relatively high concern for inconvenience flooding means that stormwater basins are relatively large in size. Basins are irregular in shape and incorporate native landscape.

Interaction with others. High levels of privacy, separation.

Public Realm. Relatively unimportant. Emphasis is on generous landscaping, setbacks.

Rural/Preservation

Principles: Extreme levels of separation and privacy, equity, farmlands, environmental preservation, small and compact villages, large open spaces and large parks, ease of free-flowing travel by car.

rural landscape

rural landscape

Streets. ?

Alleys. ?

Congestion. ?

Congestion fees. ?

Signal Light Synchronization. ??

Street lights. ??

Lot sizes. ??

Block size. ??

Sidewalks. Rare. When used, tend to be on only one side of road??

Street connectivity. ??

Parking.  ??

Transit. ??

Service vehicles. ??

Landscaping. ??

Street trees. ??

Land Development Regulations. ??

Building setbacks. ??

Accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”), home occupations, bed & breakfasts. Expressly allowed.

Drive-throughs, retailers over 30,000 sf of first floor area, parking lots as a primary use. Allowed.

Maximum building height. ??

Housing types. Mixed.

Building entrance. ??

Garages. ??

Land uses. Housing mixed with neighborhood-scaled retail, office, light industrial.

Neighborhood incomes. Mixed

Residential density maximum. ??

Travel choice. ??

Schools. ??

Stormwater management. ??

Interaction with others. High levels of privacy, separation.

Public Realm. ??

 

 

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Road Diets: Why Are They Not Used in Every Community?

 

by Dom Nozzi

September 13, 2006

Road diets involve removing unneeded, unnecessary travel lanes, travel lane width and turn lanes. If such “diets” are an affordable way to create a profoundly beneficial transformation in the communities that have found the courage and wisdom to try them, why are they not transforming roads in every city and town in America?Road-Diet

In general, there are at least five types of elected officials who do not direct their communities to put their overly-wide, over-capacitied, overweight roads on a diet:

  1. The Uninformed. This is the category of officials who have not been made aware of the benefits of road diets. Over the course of the past few decades, as evidence of the merits of road diets has become so overwhelming throughout the nation, this category is now a rapidly diminishing group. Those who don’t know are not paying attention.
  1. The Trapped. A great majority of our residents have chosen to live in a location that is so utterly car-dependent that nearly every trip must be made by car. Without transportation choices, such a resident has little choice but to rationalize their travel behavior. Excessive car travel becomes a god-given right to be defended at all costs, and the person becomes impervious to evidence showing harms associated with such travel.
  1. The Old School. As Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, some people have devoted so much time and effort into the old school of thought (the old paradigm) that even an avalanche of evidence supporting the new paradigm and rejecting the old paradigm is insufficient to convince members of The Old School. To reject the old paradigm is to reject everything they have believed and worked for during their entire lives. Often, to do so is to have to reject their entire life’s work as a waste of time. For most people, this concession would be too awful to accept. Instead, they stubbornly hold on to their old views. The new paradigm is only accepted when this old school dies off and is replaced by a new generation which has not been immersed in the old paradigm.
  1. The Motorist. This category includes the elected officials who “get it” with regard to the merits of road diets. But their suburban upbringing, their suburban lifestyle, or both, has convinced them that it is naïve or undesirable to strive for a return to a more traditional, walkable, compact community design. Of course, these car-happy views are not openly, publicly expressed. They are simply manifested in the votes such an official casts. It is perfectly acceptable for such a person to opt to continue living the car-dependent, suburban lifestyle (as long as they are paying their fair share of costs). But shouldn’t other citizens have an opportunity to live in and enjoy a different, more walkable lifestyle? One that is rapidly vanishing from America?
  1. The Spineless. There is another category of officials who “get it.” These are the officials who, while they are strongly supportive of road diets, always run for cover and cast a pro-car vote whenever the opportunity arises. Such a politician is terrified of the thought of an unhappy constituent – including those unhappy about the loss of those things that are detrimental to the community. These are the politicians who never make anyone unhappy.

And therefore never get anything done.

 

 

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Neighborhood Parking Permits in Boulder Colorado?

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 9, 2016

“Spillover” parking, where a nearby business, shop, school, or park draws so many cars that on-street parking spaces in a neighborhood are used by such visitors, is a problem in a great many neighborhoods around the nation — including Boulder, Colorado. The tool that Boulder has employed since the 1990s is one that is commonly used to by a great many cities to address spillover parking: neighborhood parking permits (NPP).635836379848447331-20151120-7665

However, the Neighborhood Parking Permit program is clumsy, complicated, convoluted, crude, and makes it too easy for people to cheat (by, for example, selling their permits). The program has created on-going headaches for neighborhoods, staff, and elected officials.

A great many parking problems neighborhoods experience can be much better solved by using what Donald Shoup calls “Parking Benefit Districts.” Parking is metered with hanging tags or in-vehicle meters and the revenue is used in the neighborhood where it is generated to provide neighborhood benefits such as landscaping or sidewalk repair (rather than funneling the revenue into the General Fund).

Benefit districts would result in reducing many housing and development problems in Boulder by minimizing neighborhood opposition to development (caused by fear of spillover parking and too many cars). There would be less opposition – opposition that is fierce in Boulder, despite a universal recognition of an affordable housing crisis in Boulder — to Accessory Dwelling Units, compact development, or increased occupancy limits.

The City would also have less need to require developers to provide excessive amounts of off-street parking. Parking would become more convenient in neighborhoods and nonresident commuters would be paying for neighborhood improvements.

NPP has worked well in a few Boulder neighborhoods, but going forward, Boulder should move toward Benefit Districts.

 

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A Dinosaur Piloting the Titanic

By Dom Nozzi

September 2, 2008

Car happy suburbanites must be bewildered that the costs to operate and maintain a car — as well as to build the road and parking facilities cars need — are skyrocketing in recent years.

After all, they have had a love affair with the “freedom” that they fervently believed the car delivered to people formerly trapped in the “dense and dirty central cities.” A freedom that allows them to flee to the bliss of the drivable suburbs.

But with exploding car travel prices, the suburban dream is rapidly becoming an unsustainable, unaffordable nightmare, because a car-based lifestyle is bankrupting governments, businesses and households, and leading to an national epidemic of outlying suburban homes rapidly losing their value and attractiveness, as large number of Americans are now flocking back to the more sustainable and more convenient walkability of compact, charming, historical downtowns (where housing values are rapidly increasing due to the growing demand for such housing).

The free-market libertarian variety of the drivable suburban resident should be ashamed of his- or herself for stubbornly supporting the most heavily subsidized (read: socialized) artifact in world history: the American car (largely due to free parking).

Why do suburbanites insist on enlarging this subsidy by calling for governments to force private businesses to provide even MORE excessive, often bankrupting, car-travel-inducing parking? Why do suburbanites loudly argue for road-widenings, traffic congestiondespite the fact that doing so amounts to extreme socialism for motorists?

Such suburbanites have become dinosaurs in a society teetering on the edge of economic collapse. Dinosaurs because we are in an enormous oil and gasoline predicament. Our nation must take action immediately to avoid costly, agonizing pain that soaring automotive costs are bringing to America.

Given the horrifying and unstoppable rise in car travel costs, a suburbanite must feel like the captain of The Titanic just after learning that icebergs will send his or her unsinkable ship to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Without delay, we must take steps to avoid societal icebergs. We must immediately start adopting effective mechanisms to reduce car dependence.

Such as reforming our local development regulations to make compact, mixed-use, walkable, low-speed lifestyles legal again (most all cities make such sustainable development largely illegal).

Such as starting to re-build a national train system.

Such as putting an end to the enormous government subsidies issued to cars and suburbs.

Such as providing a full range of lifestyle choices and travel choices, instead of only allowing one choice: car-dependent suburban living.

Are suburbanites willing to be part of the solution instead of part of the (obsolete, dinosaur-like) problem?

Do they naively think that oil would somehow miraculously be abundant forever, and that gas would always be cheap? How many future wars will America be forced to engage in to continue the desperate, hopeless struggle to keep oil abundant?

Far from being the source of “prosperity” and “freedom,” as many suburbanites assert, cars are rapidly becoming a dysfunctional millstone around the necks of large numbers of suburban Americans who are trapped in a world where they are now forced to take out a bank loan every time they buy gas. Their living arrangements don’t allow them the freedom to opt for walking, bicycling or using transit. Instead, they must cut corners to afford expensive gas. Less money for food. For health care. For entertainment. For housing. For savings. As Peter Maass writes in the 8/21/05 NYT, “[Dwindling oil supplies]…could bring on a global recession…The suburban…lifestyles, hinged on two-car families…might become unaffordable.”

How ironic. And how tragic that the suburbanite’s support of socialism for cars and hostility to transit is akin to The Titanic captain not ensuring enough lifeboats on his ship and ordering “all engines full ahead.”

And by the way, if, as many suburbanites say, cars are not detrimental to our quality of life, why do we not find Detroit and Houston and Atlanta to be a paradise, where cars and highways have long been king? Why are they, instead, an awful place to live? (and where housing prices plunged most steeply during the 2008 real estate crash).

Why do people the world over flock to enjoy the timeless charm of the great European cities, built before the emergence of the car?

 

 

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Housing Affordability Crisis in Boulder

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2016

Having been in the market to buy a house in Boulder for over a year now, an article that was published in the 2/21/16 Boulder Daily Camera about the housing affordability crisis for middle-income households struck a chord with me.

Boulder needs to find ways to allow for the growth in the number of houses that consume relatively little land, since land is so expensive. I would love to find an affordable attached townhouse or rowhouse in Boulder. Or even a condo over a store (so that the store is paying for the land).

One thing I’ve learned/confirmed in my search is that way too many houses in Boulder have a very low walkscore. Such houses make the cost of housing very expensive in an indirect way, because the household tends to need more cars.

It will be interesting to see if there is a decline in opposition to compact/dense housing, a decline in opposition to mixed use, or both, in response to the severe and growing housing affordability crisis in Boulder.

I’m also wondering if Boulder is in a “housing bubble.”

A few factors keep some housing in Boulder fairly affordable: (1) proximity to very genMid.755216_2noisy and high-speed roads; (2) low walk scores; and (3) the many “modernist” houses in town (which tend to be ugly, unlovable places for many of us).

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Transportation and Land Use Reforms in Alachua County Florida

By Dom Nozzi

September 16, 2008

Florida Statutes (§163.3180) requires that land use and transportation facilities be coordinated to ensure there is adequate transportation capacity to support the future land use adopted in the Comprehensive Plan. Policy 1.1.8 in the Transportation Element of the Alachua County Comprehensive Plan requires that adequate roadway capacity needed to support new development shall be required to be available “concurrent” with the impact from development.

This statute is perhaps the most disastrous ever adopted by any state in the US, which is bitterly ironic, given how the 1985 state growth management law is touted nationally as a model. It is a hideous example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The primary objective of the framers of this language was to discourage costly sprawl and promote quality of life. Yet this language powerfully states that there is a state law requiring all communities in Florida to establish a mechanism that profoundly promotes suburban sprawl and an eradication of a quality of life. It enshrines the ruinous hypothesis that “free-flowing traffic” is the be-all and end-all of quality of life and the means of discouraging sprawl. Because cars and people have strongly clashing habitat needs (the world that makes a Ford happy is nearly opposite of the world that makes Fred happy), and because “adequate roadway capacity” tends to be in remote sprawl locations, this statute is exactly the opposite of what FL communities should strive to adopt.

Objective 1.1 of the Transportation Mobility Element requires that “Level of service standards, in accordance with the latest version of the Level of Service Handbook developed by the Florida Department of Transportation Systems Planning Office, shall be adopted in order to maximize the efficient use and safety of roadway facilities in order to coordinate capital improvement planning with land use decisions to meet the requirement that adequate roadway facilities be available concurrent with the impacts of development.”

Transportation Mobility Element is a profound blunder in word choice for this Element. I lost this battle when I tried to name the long-range transportation plan I wrote for Gainesville FL the Transportation Accessibility Element. I was over-ruled by my supervisors. As Reid Ewing points out, it wrongly puts the focus on moving motor vehicles, rather than the word access, which properly puts the focus on moving people. Indeed, high mobility is an effective way of reducing access for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users (due to what Todd Litman calls “The Barrier Effect”). High mobility also destroys quality of life (even for a Ford, in the long term).

As Ian Lockwood points out, “efficient use” and “safety of roadway facilities” are biased terms that put the emphasis on high-speed motor vehicle roadway design (“free-flowing traffic” enshrinement) and promoting “safety” for driving at 80 mph, rather than safety for Suzy and Bobby. They are, in other words, counterproductive code words leveraged by traffic engineers to suboptimize happy cars instead of a better community.

This wording is also backwards. “…adequate roadway facilities be available concurrent with the impacts of development” should instead state that “roadways shall be designed in such a way as to be compatible with the community development vision.” In other words, if the community vision is a walkable, charming, low-speed, mixed-use, human-scaled main street corridor, the roadway should be built no larger than two lanes and should use low-speed street dimensions. The street should not be widened or speeded up or scaled for cars to be made “adequate for proposed development” because such an “improved” road undercuts the community vision for development along the street. Instead of walkable charm, the “improved” street will inevitably deliver unsafe, high-speed strip commercial, retail and office vacancies, and loss of civic pride.

The State’s Growth Management Act calls for implementation of the mandate know as concurrency through a combination of regulation and capital improvement programming. As applied to roadway-based level of service standards, the regulatory component consists of a review of the impact of new development to determine if there is adequate roadway capacity to serve the traffic generated by the new development. Concurrency approval is granted to the new development if there is sufficient roadway capacity available at the time of approval or if new capacity is fully funded for construction within three years of development approval (see s.163.3180 (2)(c), F.S.). Local governments are also required to adopt a financially feasible Capital Improvements Element (CIE) to provide the roadway capacity needed to maintain adopted roadway level of service standards. The State’s Growth Management Act has included a longstanding requirement that a local government include a Capital Improvement Element (CIE) in the adopted Comprehensive Plan that identifies capacity enhancing transportation projects required to serve the impact of future land uses. Local governments have been required to show in the five year Capital Improvements Program (CIP) that needed transportation capacity can be fully funded and constructed in a five-year period to meet projected demand needs. The legislature has put added emphasis on the requirement for a financially feasible Comprehensive Plan, mandating that local governments update their CIE to ensure it is financially feasible by December 2008 (emphasis added) or be subject to various sanctions (see s.163.3177(2)(b)(1), F.S.), such as prohibitions on the ability to amend the future land use map.

The Concurrency Management System in Alachua County, especially in the western urban area, has been under an increasing level of stress as a number of roadways in the western urban area are operating either near or over capacity.

This is a good thing, despite this biased wording.

The majority of roadways over capacity are operating below the adopted level of service (LOS) due to reserved trips from already approved development.

Adopted “level of service” should not be a measure of free-flowing traffic, as is done by the County. It should be based on the health of retail, offices, and residential along the street, the quality and extent of transportation choices provided along the street, and the health of property values along the street.

Proposed developments along portions of Archer Road and Newberry Road are currently unable to receive final development plan approval due to a lack of available roadway capacity.

When development in areas intended for higher densities is unable to receive plan approval due to state law, we have an excellent example of the unintended consequences of the law.

The County does not currently have a transportation plan to address roadway concurrency within the Urban Cluster.

Which is fortunate, since the “plan” would undoubtedly be to widen. Widening and speeding up roadways powerfully disperses the lifeblood of an area. Densities and intensities plummet. I suspect this is not what the County would like to see in an “Urban Cluster.” (Congestion and low-speed streets, by contrast, promote clustering, huge turn radius for roaddensification and intensification. So why does the State and County have laws requiring that roads disperse development away from Clusters by making sure the road capacity is “adequate” — i.e., widened?)

The concept of concurrency was well intended, but the application of it has led to unintended and unsustainable consequences.

Why did it take over 20 years to realize this? Why did it take so long for an enormous number of NIMBY, environmental, progressive and no-growth groups to see this?

Instead of ensuring that adequate roadway capacity is available concurrent with development, as urban areas approach build-out, new development in those areas is restricted under the regulatory component of concurrency management, creating pressure to allow more development in rural areas where capacity is available. The end result of this approach to concurrency is that denser development within urban service areas is stopped or significantly delayed due to a lack of capacity, while a favorable climate is created for sprawling development in rural and agricultural areas.

It is becoming increasingly evident that local governments and the state cannot build their way out of congestion by adding more roadway capacity.

Once local governments stops development through concurrency and begins accepting proportionate fair-share contributions to add roadway capacity; they can find themselves going down the slippery slope of continuously having to add new capacity to mitigate the impact of new development. This unsustainable pattern has proven to be an ineffective means to provide mobility.

Change “mobility” to “access.”

Please.

Arlington County rightly emphasizes accessibility over mobility. Part of their plan is a strong call for moving people, not just vehicles.

And by the way, it is telling that I was marginalized and essentially run out of town for saying these things over and over again for the last 10 years of my career in city planning in Gainesville.

It is also telling that Florida communities must engage in complex, costly, time-consuming planning in order to set up “special exception” districts such as MMTDs, TCEAs, and TCMAs as a way to avoid the unintended sprawl consequences I note above.

In Urban Clusters, urban areas and town centers, this should be the law, not the special exception requiring costly studies. Urbanized and urbanizing areas are incompatible with concerns for “adequate road capacity.” In urbanized and urbanizing areas, the default rules should be an absence of concern for adequate road capacity. In such areas, the complex and costly studies for special exceptions should be required to show why such places are not urbanized or urbanizing.

By putting the onus of burdensome calculations and justifications on urbanized or urbanizing areas, the County and State have it backwards. It should be easy to do the right thing and difficult to promote sprawl. Right? Requiring special districts and “Transportation Concurrency Exception Area” studies in urbanized or urbanizing areas does the reverse. State law, in other words, needs to have context-sensitive concurrency rules. In urban or urbanizing areas, LOS is focused on making people happy. In suburban areas, the focus is more toward conventional (car happy) LOS rules.

There was draft legislation proposed in Florida to correct some of this mischief through the creation of a mobility fee based on vehicle miles of travel that would potentially replace both proportionate share and transportation impact fees. It ultimately failed to be adopted.

This was an excellent idea already being used in other parts of the nation, I believe. With such a system, well-designed walkable neighborhood/town center development would pay dramatically lower fees. We need the transportation system to move substantially in the direction of user fees (via road fees and parking fees), instead of keeping motorists on welfare.

If the County were to actually find funding to start improving walking, bicycling, and transit trips, most all of the money would be wasted by building quality facilities that would be almost entirely unused, and the under-use would be a unforgivable waste of public dollars. These facilities, by themselves, will not deliver more bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users. They must be coupled with the “Four S” ingredients: Less Space for cars, less Speed for cars, less Subsidies for cars, and Shorter distances to destinations.

Because the County saw much of its development occur in a world of huge and high-speed roads, massive amounts of free parking, and cheap gas, low-density dispersal is the only form of development available. Rapidly rising motor vehicle costs are beneficially changing the price signals, but major portions of the “Four S” ingredients will remain unused for a very long time (which makes the popularity of bike lanes, buses and sidewalks extremely unlikely). It is irresponsible, therefore, for the County to spend large sums of public dollars for these needed facilities until essential tasks are completed:

  1. Lots of road diets to reclaim street space. In general, no road in the county should exceed three lanes in size.
  2. Removal of an enormous amount of off-street parking (converting it to residential and commercial buildings) and properly pricing the parking that remains. An essential County task: require that the price of parking be unbundled from the price of the residence or commercial building. And in urban or urbanizing areas, convert parking minimums to maximums.
  3. A substantial effort to use traffic calming (speed lowering) street design.
  4. A lot more mixed-use, compact development.

Without congestion, lower speeds, proximity and proper prices for roads and parking, it will be irrational to use even high-quality buses, bike lanes and sidewalks. Indeed, elected officials and its professional staff get a well-deserved black eye if they spend millions and billions of public dollars for buses, bike lanes and sidewalks that no one uses.

When the County sets up these more walkable places, the County land development regulations must be tailored to be compact and human-scaled (rather than suburban). There should be no Floor Area Ratio max. Landscaping should not be required (except for formally-aligned street trees). Stormwater basins should not be allowed to consume land at-grade (when needed, it should be underground or on roofs, as basins powerfully reduce walkable compactness). Front facades of buildings must be required to be built up to the sidewalk (instead of set back). Off-street parking is not required, but if it is provided, the price must be unbundled and special studies must be performed to show why it is needed. It also must be behind or at the side of buildings. (fee-in-lieu of parking should be made an option, by the way). All buildings within such urban places are allowed to contain all types of residential and non-residential uses (in other words, there is no use-based zoning). However, certain uses are prohibited from the urban place, because they are inherently detrimental to compact walkability: Gas pumps, car washes, parking as a primary use, garden centers).

Any adopted transportation fee must strongly de-emphasize motorized travel. Western Alachua County has way too much road capacity, and needs a number of road diets. For a transportation fee to actually improve the community, it is absolutely essential that there is no possible way that any of this revenue can be used to widen roads, or add turn lanes, or synchronize traffic signals, or build bus bays, etc.

The County needs to openly state that it will not widen roads to try to reduce congestion.

The County and its citizens face decades of costly pain as a result of its blunderous past: big roads, abundant free parking, and low-density suburban development. Bike lanes, sidewalks and transit will do very little to change that unsustainable environment—until the changes I mention above are in place.

 

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Planners Recommending Road Widening?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 29, 2008

The author of “Our Daunting To-Do List” (Planning Magazine, October 2008) rightly points out the pressing need to address the staggering and neglected backlog of infrastructure repair needs throughout the U.S.—particularly with regard to roads and bridges. But in the next sentence, he informs us that our failure to widen roadways has resulted in growing congestion.

Am I to understand that “sufficient” road widening would allow us to avoid this costly congestion? That a growing amount of “induced demand” research is wrong? That we can, in fact, build our way out of congestion?Carmageddon highway

And even if widening could eliminate congestion, where would this debt-ridden nation find the revenue? Furthermore, given the scarcity of public revenue, is it advisable to continue expanding infrastructure when we cannot come close to maintaining the infrastructure we already have?

The last time I checked, we have entered the 21st Century. Don’t we know by now that widening does not ease congestion? That widening will induce catastrophic, unaffordable and unsustainable sprawl? That widening results in substantial increases in motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions and gasoline consumption? That wider roads make it more difficult to walk, bicycle or use transit. That widening subverts quality of life?

Shouldn’t planners be urging travel choices, sustainable and lovable communities, environmental conservation and fiscal responsibility? Don’t we have a professional responsibility to point out that widening results in the undercutting of these essential objectives?

Is there anything worse, in other words, for American planners to advocate than widening roads?

 

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The Gigantism Disease

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 17, 2008

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

American cities, like most others in the world, are dying. Despite an emerging downtown renaissance being led by a notable growth in downtown residential development, changing demographics, and escalating gasoline prices.

Cities are dying due to an affliction I call “Gigantism.”

Like overeating, inactivity and obesity, gigantism is not being imposed on us by an evil outside force. It is largely self-inflicted.

We have become our own worst enemy because we have spent over 80 years building a world in which it is nearly impossible to navigate without a car. The Barrier Effect, as described by Todd Litman, when applied to transportation planning, refers to the “barriers” that over-design for car travel creates for other forms of travel. To put it simply, designing an “incomplete” street (a street that is designed exclusively or predominately for cars) makes travel by walking, bicycling and transit extremely difficult, if not impossible. In effect, an incomplete street creates a self-perpetuating vicious cycle because the travel barriers created by incomplete streets tend to continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly non-motorists—non-motorists who now find that on the incomplete street, travel by walking, bicycling or transit is unacceptably unsafe, inconvenient or otherwise unattractive.

Over time, the incomplete street increases the proportion of community members who are now traveling by car. Tragically, this on-going recruitment of new motorists compels many communities to spend large sums of public dollars to widen and speed up roads to (unsuccessfully) strive to accommodate the growing number of motorists. And these newly widened, higher speed roads create an even larger barrier effect. Which recruits even more motorists (“induced demand”), which then builds pressure for even wider roads, resulting in roads that drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users find unpleasant and unsatisfactory, fueling the demand for further “improvement,” usually widening.

We are therefore compelled to insist, at every opportunity, that new development promote car travel. Yet cars and people have vastly different needs. Due to their large size, motor vehicles require vastly over-sized parking lots, large building setbacks and wide, multi-lane roads reasonably free of other motor vehicles (despite the conventional wisdom, most cities actually have too much open space — but this open space is for cars, not people). To achieve that, widely dispersed, low-density, single-use patterns of development are necessary. Street lighting must be tall and bright, and retail signage must be enormous to promote visibility and readability in high-speed motor vehicles.

Because motor vehicles enable us to travel greater distances more conveniently, growing regional “consumer-sheds” are created, which has enabled the rise of gigantic “big box” retail development which takes advantage of such retail regionalism.

We are left with an overwhelming and disheartening amount of auto-centric architecture. Architecture that no one can be proud of.

This brutalization of our everyday world, amplified by the over-sizing of roads and parking lots, leaves a public realm that Americans have understandably fled. Instead, we are compelled to increasingly turn inward into the private realm of our accessorized, huge turn radius for roadluxurious homes and cars. Without a public realm worth caring about and participating in, we seek alternative outlets for a meaningful life. And this is exemplified by the substantial growth in the average size of the now gigantic American house, which has enlarged from 1,385 square feet to 2,140 square feet (a 54-percent increase) from 1970 to 2000.

Our over-sized world stands in stark contrast to what many people tend to prefer, which is smaller building setbacks, human-scaled and low-speed streets, modest lighting, signage and parking. People feel exposed and uncomfortable in gargantuan spaces—spaces over-designed for motor vehicles.

On average, a person in a car consumes 17 times more space than a person in a chair, which means that cars devour an enormous amount of space. The average car is 14 feet long by 6.2 feet wide = 55 square feet. The average person in a chair is 2.25 feet by 2.25 feet = 5 square feet.  Thus, a car consumes 17 times more space than a person sitting in a chair (even more if person is standing). By multiplying the number of cars in Florida in 2005 by 17 square feet, we can estimate that cars consume 1,581,100 square feet or 35,677 acres or about 27,444 football fields.

Planner Victor Gruen, in 1973, estimated that every American car is provided with four parking spaces.

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup estimates about 1 billion parking spaces for cars in the U.S.  If this were all surface parking, parking lots would consume approximately 12,375 square miles (roughly the size of Maryland). As a rule of thumb, a parking lot typically requires an additional 10 to 20 percent of its land area as stormwater basin area, although this can vary rather significantly based on such factors as soil type. Therefore, we can assume that a 300 square-foot parking space (the amount of space a typical car needs for parking, as well as maneuver space in the parking lot) would require 300 x 0.15 = 45 square feet of stormwater basin. In other words, if we include both space taken up by the typical parked car, maneuver space, and stormwater basin space, each car requires 345 square feet of land area just for parking.

The above means that to promote ease of motor vehicle travel, there is no alternative but to build sprawling, dispersed, low-density cities.

Of course, the growing size of American vehicles—particularly the SUV phenomenon—has fueled a need to build bloated roads and parking areas to accommodate these over-sized vehicles. Making matters much worse, however, is the decades-long trend of the growing size of trucks—particularly fire trucks.

Unfortunately, some fire chiefs are choosing to purchase larger and often less maneuverable fire apparatus. An unintended consequence is that such choices will dictate future community decisions about street dimensions. Larger truck decisions can prevent a community from designing safer, more human-scaled streets.  Fortunately, wise fire chiefs who are aware of a need for a more charming, safe, human-scaled community are able to make fire apparatus choices that are in line with such objectives (buy purchasing smaller fire vehicles, for example, or at least buying “articulated” vehicles that allow maneuvering in tight streets). If some parts of a community must have larger, less maneuverable fire apparatus for safety reasons, it would be wise to consider having both larger and smaller vehicles. One size, after all, does not fit all when one considers both the larger dimensions found in suburbia and the more modest dimensions found in urban settings.

For engineers, therefore, the design vehicle obligates the design of colossal lane widths and turning radii, which moves cities further from a livable human scale.

Where has the charm gone?

When we look for charming locations in our communities, we find that this charm is invariably found in our historic districts—places built, in general, over 100 years ago. We Catania Italy walkablelove to visit places like Paris and Geneva, with their ancient, intimate architecture, their layout of streets and neighborhoods, and their romantic ambience. And newer places are most valued when they mimic that style. We find that the more contemporary development—the more contemporary streets and roads—are invariably not charming. We have apparently lost the ability to build lovable places.

Why?

Is it because of the need to promote public safety? Is cost an issue?

Hardly.

It is because charm is impossible when we must design for the colossal spaces required to accommodate the car. Buildings must be set back enormous distances from the street to accommodate vast fields of parking (even the turning movements of the motor vehicle require that a building be pulled back from the street intersection to create the “vision triangle” and turning radius necessitated by a large, high-speed vehicle).

One unintended consequence of this dispersal and pulling back of buildings is that buildings lose the ability to “hold” an intersection. Or frame an “outdoor room” ambience on a street. Place-making is not possible when these human-scaled spaces are lost. There is no “there there” anymore.

Nothing to induce civic pride.

The gigantism disease is also aggravated by our decades-long road design efforts to maximize vehicle speeds, and to implement the related “forgiving streets” design paradigm. High-speed road geometries create enormous dimensions for intersection turning radii, lane width, shoulder recover zones, and size of roadside signage.

Forgiving street design delivers tree-less streets, over-sized vision triangles, and a removal of on-street parking, among other things. The motorist is “forgiven” for not paying attention while driving. Forgiven for driving at excessive speeds. Forgiven for careening off the road.

An unintended consequence of such design is that a large and ever-growing number of motorists are found to be driving too fast, too inattentively and too recklessly. Ironically, the intended safety improvements from the forgiving street actually result in less road safety.

High-speed design and forgiving streets, then, result in a loss of human-scaled streets, and the promotion of speeding, inattentive, road-raged motorists completely incompatible with quality urban areas.

Buildings must also be dispersed from each other to accommodate car travel, as the placement and agglomeration of buildings in a walkable, human-scaled pattern quickly creates intolerable vehicle congestion that gridlocks an area.

Induced demand, where a road widening breeds new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened, locks us into a never-ending cycle of congestion, widening, more congestion, and more widening. Endlessly.

Or until we run out of public dollars.

This vicious cycle brings us 4-lane roads. Then 5. Then 6. Then 8. Ultimately, we are left with dangerous, high-speed, overly wide, increasingly unaffordable roads that we dread and are repelled from. Roads that, again, are car-scaled and not human-scaled. Ironically, the roads we hate most are those we’ve spent the most of our tax dollars to build. What does that say about what we are doing to ourselves?

Agglomeration Economies

Cities, to be healthy, must leverage “agglomeration economies.” That is, thriving, vigorous cities are characterized by densification, concentration, compactness and clustering of people, buildings, and activities. As Steve Belmont points out in Cities in Full (2002), an intensification of property is a sign of city fitness and dynamism. As city property is converted to a less intense activity such as parking, widened roads or over-sized building setbacks, the energy of the city is dissipated, and is a sign of a city in decline. Therefore, the gigantism borne from the gap-tooth dead zones created when property is cleared for vehicular parking or roads is toxic to a city.

The vehicle “habitat” in cities (parking and highways) drains the lifeblood from the metropolis.

It is not only the directly deadening effect of replacing buildings and activities with roads and parking that kills a city. Highways and parking also indirectly eviscerate a city by powerfully fueling the residential and commercial dispersal of communities through sprawl.

Finding Our Way Back to the Future

It is said that both the dinosaurs and the Roman Empire collapsed due to gigantism. For our society to avoid that fate—to restore safety and quality of life to our cities in the future—will require us to return to the timeless tradition we have abandoned for several decades. For cities to become sustainable, safe, enjoyable places to live, we must return to the tradition of designing for people first, not cars. In cities, that means that we return to low-speed street geometries and compact building placements.

We already have models. The historic districts of our cities. The charming, lovable places that tourists flock to the world over. As James Howard Kunstler noted in 1996, “[From]  1950 to 1990…we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings, particularly civic buildings. Look at any richly embellished 1904 firehouse or post office and look at its dreary concrete box counterpart today.” “The everyday environments of our time, the places where we live and work, are composed of dead patterns…They violate human scale. They are devoid of charm. Our streets used to be charming and beautiful…[in] Saratoga Springs, New York, there once existed a magnificent building called the Grand Union Hotel…”

One element of this return is that the “forgiving street” design paradigm be replaced by the “attentive street” paradigm in cities. That is, streets must be designed not to “forgive” reckless driving, but to instead obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively, which, as European demonstration projects have found, improves traffic safety. Doing so will also restore human scale.

Ideally, given the enormous space consumed by motor vehicles and the much smaller spaces that most people (as pedestrians) prefer, the motor vehicle must feel squeezed and inconvenienced when it finds itself within the city.

Only then will quality of life for people, not cars, flourish.

References

Belmont, Steve. (2002). Cities In Full. APA Planners Press.

Downs, A. (1992). Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak Hour Traffic Congestion.  Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Kunstler, J. (1996). Home from Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 88, 90.

Litman, Todd. (2002). “Evaluating Nonmotorized Transport.” TDM Encyclopedia. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm63.htm

McNichol, Tom (2004). “Roads Gone Wild.” Wired Magazine. December.

 

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Should We Prioritize More Efficient Buildings?

By Dom Nozzi

February 13, 2013

A few days ago, an architect made the point that buildings contribute much more to global warming than motor vehicles.

My response was that even though that may be true, it does not suggest that we should prioritize the creation of “green” (efficient) buildings over reducing per capita travel by car.

Why?

Because our quality of life, our neighborhoods, and our bank accounts will be significantly improved if we employ effective tactics (we know of many effective, equitable tactics) to reduce car use. By contrast, there will be little noticeable improvement in quality of our thaibiosolarhousecommunities if we create more “green gizmo” buildings. In my opinion, then, our number one priority, by far, is to design our neighborhoods to reduce car use.

I should also note that while cars contribute less to global warming than buildings, they nevertheless are significant contributors to the problem.

And I am not suggesting that we disregard the problem of inefficient buildings. Just that we should properly prioritize our efforts.

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