Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Enormous Irony: City and County Planners Are Increasingly the Biggest Obstacles to Beneficial Community Change

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 24, 2009

Wouldn’t it make sense that town planners employed by local government were the leading advocates for quality of life improvements in communities?

I believed that when I first entered the public sector planning profession (and explains why I chose the public versus private sector).

But I came to realize in my 21.5 years in public sector planning that public planning, ironically, is one of the biggest obstacles to what needs to be done. Nearly all planners, citizens and elected officials either don’t get it at all, or have become totally jaded and cynical. What I’ve therefore concluded is a few things:

  1. In a doomed society with a near consensus that effectively beneficial tactics must be vigorously opposed, the only safe havens (or places where I can find a satisfying town planning job) seem to be working for one of the few admired consulting firms that “get it,” lecturing to college students, or making “controversial” presentations in various communities. But I’ve not figured out a way to make a living with any of these three options.
  1. As a philosophical materialist, I’m thankful that I don’t find myself perplexed and beating my head against the wall over this gloomy state of affairs, because I know that the price signals we get in our society, and the communities we have built, make it certain that almost all of us will be aggressive promoters of happy cars and sprawl lifestyles (and Kunstler’s fat, lazy clowns). Bankrupting ourselves to save a few seconds while driving our speeding cars inattentively is EXACTLY what we should expect 99 percent of citizens to fight for, given the world they live in.

I feel very little anger or frustration because our dysfunctional world is entirely predictable — given the conditions. Of course, I regret not living in an age when conditions shape people and their communities to voluntarily seek a sustainable, high quality of life.

I’m therefore dedicated to working to change the price signals and how our communities are built. Short of that, I am resigned to bide my time until, say, high energy costs bring enlightenment. In the meantime, I do what I’m told and don’t feel much passion in my town planning work (unless I’m giving a speech).

Quite often, I am flattered to hear friends and family tell me that my ideas are good and that I should get hired by a community to “fix” things. Given the above, though, I’m typically left with responding by saying “If I were in charge, things would be different.” But would they really be different? Given the fact that our world compels Double-Left-Turn-Intersection-2-Pearl-n-28thnearly all of us want to use dysfunctional tactics (single-mindedly making cars happy, for example), there would probably be little I could do, even as a mayor or governor.

Much of my life satisfaction, then, comes from planning and engaging in travel and adventures, and giving presentations. My big question has become how to make enough money (in a tolerable job in a tolerable location) to do those things.

Not what I expected in grad school.

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Why Are American Cities Not Able to Encourage Large Numbers to Walk?

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2009

The conventional wisdom says that we can encourage large numbers of people to walk if we just provided a lot of well-designed sidewalks.

But after over 20 years, I’m still waiting for American cities to show this will happen. The city I worked for as a town planner had nearly 100 percent coverage of neighborhoods by sidewalks, but only a vanishingly small number of citizens walked – even though our population contained a large number of relatively healthy, young strip commercial sidewalkstudents.

Why are more not walking? Is there something we could do to sidewalks to make them more “enjoyable, comfortable, and safe”?

Could it maybe be that people prefer driving when all that free and abundant parking that awaits them everywhere, rather than walking 5 miles?

I’m still waiting for ONE example of a community in the US which has successfully employed the strategy of widespread sidewalk provision to encourage a lot of walking.

I know of none.

Even if there was a community which could afford the astronomical costs, sidewalks (and bike lanes and bike paths) are not likely to induce regular commuting or shopping trips by mom, kids and seniors (and healthy young people) when the distances are extreme, as they are in almost all of suburbia.

Fortunately for those of us who urge effective tactics, it doesn’t really matter if we have no elected officials who are willing to do what is necessary to effectively induce non-motorized travel (such as a big sales tax increase, or more compact development).

No matter how much most Americans love suburbia and car dependency, they will not be able to vote to escape the inevitable and substantial increase in gasoline prices, and other inevitably rising prices associated with car travel.

There will be a lot of pain, agony, wailing and gnashing of teeth when this happens — particularly in suburbia, where so many have thought that they were forever entitled to $2/gallon gas.

Once this inevitable increase sends gas over $10/gallon, Jim Kunstler and I (who discussed this yesterday at a cafe) are certain that there will be a miraculous “enlightenment.” Suddenly, even committed suburbanites will want transit, compact development, scarce and priced parking, mixed use, buildings at the sidewalk, and road diets. Such community features will become wildly popular (rather than there being vigorously opposed as they are today).

The problem, of course, is that if we’ve not installed quality transit, compact development, scarce and priced parking, mixed use, buildings at the sidewalk, and road diets in advance of the big rise in gas costs (because we are, as Jim Kunstler likes to say, wicked, fat, stupid, lazy, overfed clowns), there will be a lot of pain and violence.

Widening streets will not be possible in the future. We won’t have the money. And even today’s car cheerleaders and sprawl promoters will see that 8-lane roads don’t make sense when gas costs $15/gallon.

As for kids playing in the streets, I recommend reading Fighting Traffic (Norton). One hundred years ago, parents, teachers, and police officers insisted that kids had the right to freely play in the streets. Those days will return when gas prices skyrocket.

As a side note, even though NO ONE thought that university students in my Florida community would EVER ride the bus when I was a planner there in the 1980s, that city saw a HUGE numbers using the bus starting in the late 1990s.

Was it because we used the carrots of enjoyable, comfortable, and safe buses?

Nope.

It was because we used effective tactics that I also recommend for biking and walking: Parking at the university campus is scarce and priced (and a big pain in the ass).

I am fully and sadly aware that the effective tactics I recommend are extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve in most of the US, politically. But opting for other more feasible tactics (bike lanes, bike parking, bike showers, sidewalks) doesn’t make them effective simply because we can achieve them more easily.

Let’s be honest: Most American communities are doomed because we have spent several decades building communities that have no future because it is nearly impossible to retrofit them for transportation choice and other forms of sustainability.

I’m building a bomb shelter for the coming empire collapse…

 

 

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On-Street Parking Should be Calibrated Based on Community Location

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 10, 2010

Town centers are fundamentally different in character, purpose, and objectives. Distances and setbacks are smaller. Speeds are more modest. There is more walking and less driving.

Therefore, design and development regulations should be calibrated so that town centers do not see the application of inappropriate suburban design.

For example, in town centers, in nearly all cases, residential single-family, residential multi-family, commercial and civic uses should all have on-street parking.

In a healthy town center, there are three design imperatives:

  1. Pedestrians.
  2. Low speeds.
  3. Modest dimensions for streets, destination distances and building setbacks.

One of the most effective, low-cost ways to do that is to provide as much on-street parking in a town center as possible, for all land use categories.asheville

As one moves out of the town center, design starts incrementally changing. In the first few rings outside of the town center, transit and bicycling become the imperative. Speeds increase and dimensions, distances, and setbacks are larger. Bike lanes become more appropriate and on-street parking becomes less appropriate.

In the more drivable outer suburban rings, cars become the design imperative. Speeds are relatively high, as are sizes. On-street parking is largely non-existent, and bike lanes become rather important and appropriate.

 

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Gigantism is the Key to Our Downfall

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 11, 2010

I believe that gigantism — exemplified by excessive distances, building setbacks, parking, and excessive speeds – is the primary agent destroying community Safeway-July-2015-smsustainability and quality of life.

And the primary cause of the sickness of gigantism is our over-reliance on motorized travel. While it is not necessary to eliminate car travel completely, it is essential that we end the century-long practice of making too many of our trips by car – trips that can often be made in other ways – and overdesigning for convenient car travel, to the extreme detriment of the needs of human beings.

We must return to the timeless tradition of making people happy, not cars, by designing for modest sizes and speeds.

This is the core message in my writings and speeches.

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We Need Slower AND Smaller Vehicles

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2010

I love the idea of designing cars for a maximum speed of 30 or 35 mph. High speed car travel is extremely toxic to cities and neighborhoods, partly because they powerfully induce community dispersal, isolation of people from others, promote non-local Big Box retail, and catastrophically degrade community and neighborhood quality of life.

My core message in my writings and speeches is that we must return to the tradition of slow(er) speed travel. An essential companion to the crucial need for slower speed travel, however, is that we need substantially SMALLER vehicles. A golf cart would be a good start…

The gargantuan space consumption of motor vehicles destroys the intimate, human-scaled, charming, romantic, walkable dimensions and spacing that nearly all humans Big Firetruckfind lovable (as shown, partly, by the places we most love to visit as tourists). The huge space consumption by cars (a person in a car takes up 17 times more space than a person in a chair) inevitably causes cities to become afflicted by the GIGANTISM disease.

Massive parking lots. Massive building setbacks. Massive highways. Massive distance from Point A to Point B. Result: A dangerous, unsustainable world that no one can love.

 

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Why American Drivers Seem To Be So Hostile to Bicyclists

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 23, 2010

Why do so many American bicyclists seem to be so paranoid about motor vehicles?

I’d speculate that it has to do with the fact that more so than any other nation, Americans have placed motor vehicles (and their “rights”) on a pedestal. The inevitable outcome has been twofold:

  • American motorists are EXTREME in their expectation of happy, free-flowing, high speed, free driving. There is a high level of entitlement. Since the enormousRoad-Rage_1689375c
    size of cars makes such a thing nearly impossible, road rage/driver hostility is high.
  • American bicyclists experience this motorist rage both as bicyclists (American motorists are less courteous and more reckless), and on the occasions that bicyclists become motorists (when they then feel those American Happy Motoring expectations).

The working assumption for bicyclists, then, is that nearly all American motorists are high speed, hostile, homicidal, enraged maniacs. Only a tiny number of us (the very rare individuals that never drive a car) are able to escape such irrational, counterproductive conclusions.

 

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Promoting Bicycling, Walking or Transit Will Not Reduce Congestion

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 3, 2010

In my opinion, it is a tactical mistake for those promoting “active (generally non-motorized) transportation” to seek to demonstrate (or otherwise argue) that promoting bicycling, walking, or transit will result in congestion reduction, as my book (The Car is the Enemy of the City) points out.

First, cars consume an enormous amount of space (a person in a car consumes 17 times more space than a person in a chair). That means that only a tiny handful of motorists are needed to congest a street. Which means that nearly all cities worth their salt have a “congestion problem.” And those cities which don’t have such a problem are showing a sign of being sick or otherwise dying, or at least losing attractiveness.

It has been shown over and over again by researchers such as Anthony Downs and Todd Litman that (in any city that is not in decline) we see space freed up when motorists become non-motorists. This freed up space is almost immediately taken by newly-recruited motorists who had previously been diverted by the congestion (via induced demand, or as Downs would say, the “triple convergence”).

And when the congestion fails to decline despite lots of time and money spent on non-car travel, the pro-car/pro-sprawl advocates quickly point out that these non-car efforts are a naïve waste of time and money. And that we should get serious and opt for the default solution: road widening.

Given all of the above, it seems to me that the progressive tactic is not to claim that promotion of non-car travel will REDUCE congestion. No, I believe it is much better, tactically, to point out that we need to establish ALTERNATIVES for those who wish to escape the congestion: rail trails, connected streets, compact and higher-density housing near jobs, HOT lanes, flex-time work schedules, etc.

The Car is the Enemy of the City also describes the many benefits of congestion for cities (benefits that are undercut when we fight to reduce congestion via the traditional tactics of widenings or signal timing, etc.). But I’ll not get into that now.

…Induced traffic and the triple convergence informs us that many travelers opt not to travel certain routes, opt not to travel at rush hour, or opt not to drive a car IF a route is congested. If the route is less congested (widening or mode shift, for example), those discouraged travelers “converge” back on the route, on rush hour and on car travel. The road congests again. And rather quickly. Unless the community is losing population.

Another way of putting this is that in our world, there will pretty much always be a latent demand for more driving. Much of that demand is discouraged or diverted by congestion. Much of the discouragement goes away when the road is less congested. Roads are not like pipes carrying water. They are more like pipes carrying gas. Expand the pipe and the gas expands to fill the larger pipe. We cannot loosen our belts to traffic congestionavoid obesity. We cannot widen our way (or shift modes) out of congestion.

As to the question of reducing emissions (a commonly cited benefit of reducing congestion), Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman convincingly showed about 20 years ago that congestion REDUCES emissions and gas consumption, despite what we’ve always believed (one of the great many benefits of urban congestion). Why? Because as implied above, congestion imposes what Ian Lockwood calls a “time tax.” And “low-value” car trips (driving across town to rent a video at rush hour on a major arterial, for example) decline.

Again, the key is not to REDUCE congestion. Congestion is a sign of city vitality. A healthy city cannot (nor should it) reduce congestion. A healthy city must provide ALTERNATIVES to congestion: convenient bicycling, walking, and transit, compact development, pricing roads and parking, etc. And all of these healthy alternatives are much more likely, politically, when there is a lot of congestion. It is no coincidence that those cities with the worst congestion have the best transit.

Congestion, in cities, is our friend. When we make it our “enemy,” we unintentionally join forces with the sprawl/road/car lobby, since the default solution for reducing congestion (the only one that works in the short run) is road widening.

One reason that congestion in cities is our friend is that, as Michael Ronkin notes, the most essential and effective way to reduce excessive car dependence (and promote walking/bicycling/transit) is to inconvenience cars. The most feasible way to inconvenience cars is to “let it be” when it comes to congestion. To NOT bankrupt ourselves and destroy our communities by widening roads/parking lots to reduce traffic/parking congestion.

Increasing the number of trips made by bicycling, walking, or transit not only will not reduce congestion. Such claims that increasing bicycling, walking, or transit will reduce congestion also perpetuates the downwardly spiraling, counterproductive EFFORTS to try to reduce congestion.

Those seeking a better community must end their (unintended) alliance with the sprawl lobby. Doing that means letting go of efforts to promote “congestion reduction.” And embracing efforts to provide ways to avoid the (inevitable) congestion.

 

 

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Using a Car Level of Service Standard is Counterproductive

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 3, 2010

The conventional car level of service standard nearly all communities have used for several decades is almost entirely designed to measure the ease of car travel.

But when we take actions to ease car travel, there is no win-win. Providing for cars is a zero-sum game. That is, each time we make car travel easier, we make travel more difficult for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users. Providing for cars is also a recipe for downwardly spiraling quality of life for the community.

Using a car level of service (LOS) standard as our measure of transportation “success” implicitly assumes that congestion is an accurate assessment of quality of life (and quality transportation).

However, using a conventional car LOS standard, which nearly all communities have done for decades, perpetuates a ruinous assumption that free-flowing traffic and quality of life are one in the same.

In fact, when one observes which cities have the worst congestion, it would seem that the reverse is the case. That higher congestion levels commonly means a more impressive, attractive community.

co-boulder-pearlst-01We need to ask other, more appropriate questions to measure quality of life (and transportation): How healthy is the retail? The downtown? Are large numbers of tourists interested in visiting? Are there lots of bicyclists? Transit users? Pedestrians? How expensive is downtown housing compared to similarly-sized cities? Are residents proud and protective of their city?

In my view, asking about LOS is nearly irrelevant to the question of healthy transportation and quality of life. Indeed, a good argument can be made that there is a negative correlation between using LOS as a measure and the quality of the transportation and community.monstor hwy

An unintended consequence of using LOS is, as I mention above, perpetuating the asking of the wrong question. Asking about LOS distracts us from asking better questions along the lines of those questions I suggest above.

Asking the right question is often the crucial first step in taking beneficial actions (or, in science, solving puzzles in the field of research). Long ago, for example, we didn’t reduce the cholera epidemic by measuring how many prayers were said.

We asked how we could reduce contamination by bacteria.

 

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Promoting Free Flowing Traffic is a Bad Idea for Boulder Colorado

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 16, 2013

Despite its reputation, Boulder CO is a long way away from where it needs to be on an over-arching position on transportation and land use. In particular, I remain deeply concerned that City policy is that it is essential to promote free-flowing car travel (by adding turn lanes, generally opposing road diets, establishing continuous left-turn lanes, synchronizing traffic signals for cars, etc.) in order to reduce emissions and fuel use.

By striking contrast, I am of the opposite view.

I am firmly convinced of two things on this issue:

Car travel is a zero-sum game. Nearly always, when car travel is made more convenient or free-flowing (usually by giving cars more space), bicycling, walking and transit decline (due to “barrier effect” problems). Promoting free-flowing traffic shifts many trips from non-car travel to car travel as a result.

Low-value car trips. When roads and nearly all car parking is free, we are begging people to drive a car with those big subsidies. After all, there are so many rational reasons to drive a car: cargo carrying, convenience, security, speed, status, flexibility, protection from weather, etc.). Since motoring appears to be “free” when roads and parking are free, there are little if any disincentives to driving. First-year economists know quite well what the inevitable result will be: Over-use of roads and parking due to the INDUCEMENT of new car trips (particularly “low-value” trips such as driving a car to rent a video at rush hour) that were formerly discouraged from happening at rush hour or on certain roads. In other words, if a road in Boulder is carrying, say, 20,000 vehicles per day, and the City or State opts to make the road more free-flowing, that road will NOT continue to carry 20,000 ADT. It will now carry, say, 25,000. The 5,000 new (latent, induced) trips were formerly discouraged by the less free-flowing conditions in the past.

An example of latent demand: I hear friends say over and over again that they are not going to drive at such and such a time or on such and such a road because those times or roads are too crowded with cars. It does not take rocket science to know what will happen if we make those times or roads more free-flowing…

The combination of the above two factors therefore means that free-flowing cars produce MORE car emissions and gasoline consumption, not less (as the advocates of free-flowing traffic would have us believe). Yes, in free-flow conditions, an INDIVIDUAL CAR produces less emissions and uses less fuel, but on a community-wide basis, the induced new trips result in more emissions and fuel use overall. In 30th-and-arapahoe-double-leftseffect, engineers in this case fail to understand simple economics and changes in human behavior (economics and psychology, again) when they strive for free-flowing conditions. They fail, in other words, to realize that free-flow induces new car trips that would not have occurred had the free-flow conditions not been promoted. This inducement, again, is inevitable when we have free-to-use roads and (mostly) free parking. Largely because there is a great deal of latent demand for more car travel if conditions are made more convenient or pleasant for car travel.

By the way, the concept of induced car travel has been quite well-established for a number of decades. A great many traffic engineers know it exists. But almost no conventional traffic engineer will act on their awareness of induced demand – probably because they have not been given permission to do so.

The above also illustrates why, even in theory, it is impossible to build (widen) our way out of congestion. Induced demand for car trips is the bugaboo elephant in the bedroom that Boulder seems to be ignoring.

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Maximum Heights for Buildings in Smaller Cities

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 2014

I believe that five stories generally makes sense as a maximum height for a smaller city such as Boulder CO. I wouldn’t be rigidly opposed to taller buildings, but I think taller buildings in Boulder should be extremely rare (and probably clad in brick or stone to reduce the jarring nature of a relatively tall building).

Besides the human scale that is lost when a building gets taller than five stories, there are other important concerns I have.

Speaking from experience (and particularly in a city such as Boulder where transit service is good but not great, as it is in many big cities), when a building has a lot of stories, it is very likely that there will be an enormous amount of financial, political, imagesemployee, and resident pressure to serve that building with massive surface parking lots, and monstrous (and monstrously expensive) parking garages (and underground parking).

There will, in other words, be huge expenses associated with storing the huge number of cars, and the taller building will therefore be drawing a rather large number of cars — which is generally not good for a relatively small city or a place that seeks to be walkable.

Relatively tall buildings can generally avoid this problem if served by very frequent bus or rail transit. In addition, that huge influx of cars can put a LOT of pressure on local and state government to add a lot of toxic, ruinous roadway capacity to the existing street system in order to serve that influx of cars — not at all good for a small city wanting to be walkable.

Another point I’ve made in the past about taller buildings is that it is probably true that a given city can only expect to support “X” number of jobs or housing or retail space. I think it is much preferable for a city that wishes to be walkable, vibrant and interesting to have, say, 50 buildings that are five stories tall than to have 25 buildings that are 10 stories tall.

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