Monthly Archives: April 2016

Traffic Congestion: Will Synchronized Traffic Signals Reduce It?


By Dom Nozzi

November 29, 2007

Traffic congestion.

We all hate it.

But it is extremely important to know that congestion occurs even when there are only a tiny number of cars on the road. Have a look at the images I’ve attached below. One shows 40 people walking and in bicycles. One shows 40 people in chairs. One shows 40 people on a bus. And the other shows 40 in cars.40-people

As you can see, the 40 in cars looks like gridlock.

When a road carries, say, 15,000 car trips per day, which is very common for a larger street in American communities, there are going to be a great many times when well over 40 cars will want to be on a given road at the same time. As an aside, in the year 2000, there were 217,955 people in the county I lived in while in Florida, and 239,621 motor vehicles registered.

The only possible way for nearly all county residents to travel ANYWHERE was to travel by car. So we had 220,000 residents owning 240,000 cars in the year 2000 in the county. On average, people make about 11 car trips per day. Even if the county I lived in saw an enormous number of motorists decide to drive less due to expensive gas, we would still have had an enormous number of motorists who would have continued to want to drive the local roads. It is hard for me to imagine that the drop could have been so substantial that we’ll rarely or never see 40 cars (or a similarly modest number of cars) on a major road at the same time.

Don’t forget induced demand. This theory, in part, tells us that a number of motorists are dissuaded from driving at rush hour, or on a congested road, or decide not to travel by car, when there is congestion. When we widen a road or, in this case where my county was proposing to synchronize traffic signals, congestion briefly declines. That motivates many of these dissuaded motorists to return to car travel on that road (the motorist has been “induced”). This is precisely why we cannot build (or time our traffic signals) out of congestion.

Anything that (temporarily) frees up traffic bottlenecks quickly gets filled up again by motorists who were previously dissuaded by the congestion.

For these reasons, I am thoroughly convinced that it is nearly impossible for us to escape congestion in a community that has more than a tiny number of motorists (as Anthony Downs has so clearly pointed out in Stuck in Traffic). As an economist would quickly note, any time you have an unpriced good or service that is in high demand, the inevitable result is over-consumption (or in this case, congestion). The only durable way to avoid congestion is to price roads properly with congestion fees. Widening roads, the economist will tell us, quickly results in congestion when those roads are underpriced (or in nearly all cases in America, “free”).

Similarly, we should not build a bigger coal power plant when we have electrical demand that exceeds supply – PARTICULARY if the electricity is unpriced or free (as is the case with roads and most parking). Instead, the only durable way to ensure that supply is adequate for demand is to induce more conservation via proper prices for electricity.

As a result of all this, an important part of my message in my books and speeches is that it is a tactical blunder to posit that better bicycle, transit, or pedestrian facilities will result in a meaningful reduction in congestion. When each of these “progressive” tactics or influences for congestion reduction fail to reduce congestion, as my observations above suggest is nearly certain, the pro sprawl lobby will quickly point out that all this effort to improve transit, bicycling, or pedestrian services or facilities were a complete waste of time and money. The pro sprawl folks are likely to scream, “Let’s get serious and realistic here! Let’s widen roads to reduce congestion!! Your soft-headed tactics have failed!”

The best tactic to address the pro-car, pro-sprawl folks is NOT to claim that bicycling, transit, and pedestrian services and facilities will reduce congestion. I don’t believe even in our wildest dreams will that happen. I firmly believe that instead, the winning tactic is to strongly urge that instead of trying to reduce congestion, we strive to establish ALTERNATIVES to the congestion, so that people who are unwilling to tolerate it can do something else: Use transit, ride a bike, live closer to work, travel at non-rush-hour times, etc. Transportation and lifestyle choice, not congestion reduction is, in my opinion, the best strategy.

The pro-car lobby will always win if we argue for congestion reduction (in other words, we will end up adopting the failed policies of widening, timing signal lights, etc.).

Two things are essential:

  1. I am thoroughly convinced that we cannot escape or meaningfully reduce congestion (at least in our lifetimes, and for the reasons I point out above).
  1. In cities, traffic congestion is our friend. Any city worth its salt has a congestion “problem.” Congestion is a sign of success. (As Yogi Berri once said, the place got so crowded that no one went there anymore.) We need to leverage congestion to effectively help us to reduce sprawl, encourage infill and more compact housing, reduce low-value car trips, reduce high-speed driving, promote mixed-use development, reduce noise pollution, reduce the number of severe car crashes, reduce gas consumption and air emissions, improve the health of local retail, promote non-car travel, and improve facilities and services for transit, bicycling and walking.

I know of nothing that more effectively achieves the items in #2 more than congested roads in cities. It is no coincidence that some of cities have been known to openly state they are going to “let it be” when it comes to congestion, and will not use conventional strategies to try to (hopelessly) reduce it.

With regard to the idea of “solving” congestion by synchronizing traffic signals: Even if we assume that, somehow, the community in question can violate the Iron Laws of Physics by being the only community in the known universe to be able to escape Induced Car Travel Demand, and even if we therefore assume that traffic signal timing will forever result in motorists saving 12 seconds in their car trip, does this really justify our spending, in the case of the Florida county I lived in, $20 million in tax revenues? Since when does saving a few commuter seconds become the answer to my county achieving a gloriously high quality of life? Of course, in reality, what we are really doing is spending $20 million for a few years of saving a few seconds. After that brief time, induced demand will result in a return of the congestion we naively thought we could eliminate.

Given this, the decision of my county at that time to spend $20 million for traffic signal timing borders on being criminal, given what we now know.


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Town Planners as Doctors

By Dom Nozzi

December 29, 2007

I sometimes explain to someone who does not know what a town planner does by stating that town planners are like towns which have a team of doctors.images

One problem with the planner-as-physician analogy, is that the “medicine” we’ve been given by conventional American Planning Association planners over the past several decades has been mostly poisonous, and resulted in counterproductively ruining the health of a great many Americans.

In theory at least, planners have been trained in their schooling to diagnosis a community ailment brought to them, and to recommend a “cure” that will make the community more healthy. An unhealthy downtown, for example, can become more healthy if the “therapy” of the removal of excessive surface parking downtown occurs. A “sick” street experiencing excessive car crashes and vacant shops can be restored to “health” by removing excessive traffic lanes or installing on-street parking.

However, it seems to me that the analogy can be useful for planners who “get it.” I am convinced, for example, that new urbanist “doctoring” is needed to cure the hideous diseases that are killing so many American communities.

Andres Duany has made a similar analogy in the past. He noted that America is starting to see a phenomenon in which destroyed communities (either by natural disaster or car-happy design) must “call in the Marines” to win a battle and save the day (his reference was to the many new urbanists who were called in to help design destroyed communities post-Katrina in the South).

Sure, it is a bit corny. But I think both the “Marines” and “doctor” analogies can be a helpful educational tool when in the proper hands.


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Thoughts about the Virginia Department of Transportation Plans for Bicycling and Walking in Richmond VA

By Dom Nozzi

May 19, 2008

I’ve read over the review comments by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) bicycle and pedestrian coordinator pertaining to the bike and pedestrian elements of the draft Downtown Richmond Master Plan. Before I provide my thoughts about his comments, I’d like to point out that I met the coordinator recently at a VDOT complete streets workshop. In my brief chat with him, I found him to be likeable, informed, and smart. He seemed to “get it.” I enjoyed talking with him.

I agree with the coordinator that a shared, narrow outside lane proposed in the plan on the extremely wide, hostile, high-speed Broad Street will not be suitable for bicyclists (even commuter bicyclists). Broad Street would need fairly substantial redesign to induce low-speed motor vehicle travel in order for a shared lane to work on Broad. As far as I know, this sort of needed redesign has not been proposed by the plan. Until that happens, I agree with the coordinator that routes parallel to Broad need to be designated and designed, if necessary, for bicycling.

I agree with the coordinator that the Fan District needs more traffic calming mechanisms than are called for in the plan. The streets are overly wide, and encourage excessive motor vehicle speeds. On a related note, I agree with the coordinator that the frequent (and in my opinion, misguided) use of stop signs in the Fan for traffic calming is counter-productive. I agree with the coordinator that bulb-outs could be a better treatment for a number of intersections.

I strongly disagree with the coordinator that one-way streets are beneficial in the downtown area (he cites the benefits of reducing peak-hour congestion). In my view, he is speaking as a suburban motorist rather than a downtown bicycle commuter when he urges the use of one-ways. In my professional opinion (and as a life-long bicycle commuter and whose master’s thesis subject was bicycle travel), one-ways degrade property values, induce higher-speed car travel (due to reduced “friction”), reduce pedestrian comfort, increase motorist impatience with bicyclists and other motorists, harm retail, increase onewaystreetssidewalk bicycle riding, promote sprawl housing by speeding commuters into and out of downtown jobs, increase inconvenience for bicyclists and motorists (especially for visitors to the city), and increase wrong-way bicycle riding. I am a bicycle commuter in Richmond, and I find myself being obligated to wrong-way ride nearly every day.

In my opinion, the most essential thing that Richmond can implement from the draft Master Plan is the conversion of one-ways to two-way. No other recommendation in the Plan is so important and so potentially beneficial to the city.

I would note, as an aside, that there are no one-way streets in suburbia, in part because they are considered undesirable for suburbanites to live on. “One-way streets are okay, but only in your neighborhood, not mine.”

Another aside: Having been a bicycle commuter since I was a boy, and having lived in a great many communities as a bicycle commuter, my assessment of Richmond is that the city street system is relatively hostile to bicyclists. I have found that, by far, the most important reason that Richmond is not bike-friendly is the one-way street system. I am therefore astonished that the bike/ped coordinator supports them.

I disagree that the draft plan does not adequately address the needs of bicyclists.

By the way, I’d like to note here that the consultants propose using a “transect” system for the regional design of land uses and streets. This is a wonderful idea that the City needs to heartily embrace. Such a system requires that design be context-sensitive, and provides designs for the full range of lifestyle choices. There is a rural/peripheral/conservation zone at the edge of a community, suburban zones, and compact, low-speed, walkable urban zones. Speeds and dimensions increase as one moves from the urban zones to the suburban to the rural zones. Promoting quality lifestyles for each of those zones therefore requires design that is calibrated for each zone. That is, design is context-sensitive. For bicycling, for example, this means that in properly low-speed downtowns, bicyclists tend to be comfortable sharing the lane with cars. Painted bike lanes are unnecessary (and often counter-productive to the low-speed, human-scaled ambience). As speeds and sizes increase in suburban zones, bike lanes become more necessary. In rural zones, the highest speeds here often require fully separated bike paths.

My speculation is that the coordinator is unfamiliar with this transect concept, and his comments seem to suggest that he supports use of designs which I will here call “transect violations.” That is, he seems to inappropriately call for the use of bike lanes in the low-speed Richmond downtown. In a low-speed downtown environment, the lifestyle and design imperative is the pedestrian. Bike lanes can degrade this walkable lifestyle design intent by subverting the potential for future (and needed) street narrowing, and increasing motor vehicle speeds.

I agree with the coordinator that the increased bike parking called for by the plan is not a meaningful way to promote increased bicycling. I would note, however, that despite the fact that bike parking does not significantly increase bicycling, bicycle parking is an important way for the community to send a visible public message that the community recognizes, respects and supports bicycling.

I disagree with the coordinator that the transportation consultant (HPE) “doesn’t ‘get it.'” Indeed, in my many years of looking over bike/ped plans, these are some of the very best I’ve seen, despite what the coordinator indicates. Again, I think the problem here is that while the consultant is designing for a low-speed, walkable environment (downtown), the coordinator is thinking about the design necessary in higher-speed suburban applications.

The coordinator points out that the plan is woefully inadequate in its bicycling recommendations for downtown Richmond. Speaking as an urban designer and bicycle commuter, I find the recommendations to be adequate, appropriate and impressive. As the consultant notes, in a compact, low-speed environment, bicycling does quite well without the need for special treatments such as bike lanes (bicyclists tend to be able to comfortably “fend for themselves,” so to speak, in compact, low-speed environments).

It is therefore appropriate that the plan, in designing for a high-quality, low-speed, pedestrian-oriented downtown, devotes nearly all of its design focus on the pedestrian. Happily, properly designing for a quality low-speed environment for pedestrians also happens to be an effective way, indirectly, to improve conditions for bicycle commuting.

I would note that the coordinator makes almost no substantive comments regarding pedestrian design needs.


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Direct Democracy a Good Idea for Land Development and Transportation?


By Dom Nozzi

January 11, 2008

Is it a good idea if Florida’s state constitution is changed to allow citizens to vote by referendum on proposed land use and zoning change?

This nation has suffered from several decades of artificially low energy costs and enormous subsidies of various sorts for drivable suburbia (with big roads leading the way). These factors have caused massive distortions to the market signals that most citizens (with the exception of a handful of urban design activists) respond to by preferring a car-based lifestyle. As a result, our cities have been abandoned as residential and commercial has decanted to remote, drivable locations.

Healthy cities require agglomeration economies to thrive. That is, cities become healthier when they become denser, more intensive and more concentrated in jobs, retail and housing (that is, more compact). The substantial and long-standing low-density land use dispersal, then, has been deadly to cities, which have mostly become emaciated, scary ghost towns populated by a dwindling number of dysfunctional people who have no other housing choice but to live in the squalor of abandonment, highway overpasses, auto pollution, and the poverty of a dying city downtown.

Concurrently, there is substantial market pressure to grow houses (instead of corn or panthers) in formerly remote cornfields and natural areas (ie, big profits due to big demand for such housing — demand that would be nearly non-existent without free-to-use big roads and parking). So much pressure that corruption of elected officials is

rural landscape

rural landscape

nearly inevitable, as developers have an enormous vested interest in “contributing to” [bribing?] elected officials willing to enable a growth in low-density markets (through bigger roads, more parking, more farm-to-suburbia upzoning, etc.).

What is to be done to save valuable outlying areas, reduce the pressure to disperse, and restore the city? (which is clearly needed if our civilization is to have any future at all)

Personally, I am encouraged to know that cities across the nation are seeing substantial rejuvenation in recent years. Lots of new downtown housing, which is bringing the health-giving increases in density, intensity and 24/7 walkable vibrancy. This rejuvenation is probably due, in part, to a rise in transportation costs,  Boomers (who are often childless) moving into adulthood and senior years, an increasing disillusionment with the car-based lifestyle (which many have found to be rather sterile), and the growing recognition that the lifestyle of walkable urbanity is exciting, interesting, diverse, fun and convenient.

And safer than the drivable suburban lifestyle, I should add, since your chances of being hurt or killed in a car crash in suburbia are much higher than your chances of being mugged.

This trend is certainly quite helpful in reducing the pressure/profit/desire to sprawl into important peripheral locations. Cities, after all, are now attracting people instead of chasing them to drivable suburban areas (clearly the case as we see how increasingly unaffordable it has become to find central city housing – unaffordable because of the exploding demand for town center housing).

A remaining problem, however, is the market-distorting drivable suburban juggernaut, which continues to chug along at break-neck speed due to on-going massive public subsidies and the inertia associated with our long history of these ruinous subsidies. Not to mention the gigantic problem of all of the white elephant, low-density development patterns and suburban-inducing big roads/big parking we’ve built over the past 70 years — all of which will induce drivable suburbia even after we experience a long period of high transportation costs and the inevitable ratcheting down of public subsidies for suburbs. There will be, in other words, a lag period once the foundations of suburbia start subsiding.

Again, what is to be done, given the above?

It scares me that the promoters of citizen land use/zoning referendums may be correct with regard to the drivable suburbia problem: We need to move toward more of a direct (instead of representative) democracy (ie, Mob Rule) when it comes to proposed local government land use/zoning changes.  Have a referendum vote of citizens each time land use or zoning for a property is proposed to be changed in the community, instead of just letting elected officials decide.

Given the above, it is hard to imagine that we can insulate elected officials from the corruption that inevitably results when there is a lot of money to be made in building suburbs.

I should also note here that it is not just corruption that would lead elected officials to vote for low-density suburbia. It is also the fact that an elected official who is not a wise and courageous leader can take the easy route to getting and staying elected by being what I call a Motorist Populist. Making cars happy is nearly always a crowd pleaser — even at Sierra Club meetings.

Therefore, maybe it is true that we are left with this direct democracy idea of letting citizens decide on zoning/land use changes, because we have lost trust in our elected officials to escape corruption.

Maybe we must pay for the sins of our foremothers and forefathers who created a car-happy world in the past, in other words, by opting for direct democracy.

It is probably true, given the above, that the best way to end suburbia-inducing upzonings and land use changes in peripheral locations is to bypass corrupt elected officials and give citizens the ability to decide through referendum.

However, the idea of direct democracy is rather terrifying to me. It seems to me that there is a strong likelihood of unintended consequences when we shift community decision-making to every voting citizen in a community. Even if the citizens are relatively well-educated, the Law of Large Numbers means that such votes will inevitably lead to lowest-common-denominator mediocrity. The reality is far worse, though. Instead of being “relatively well-educated,” most citizens will be entirely ignorant of what they are asked to vote on. That scares the hell out of me.

Are we safer with a couple of corrupt (or populist) elected officials? Or Mob Rule?

As Richard Layman points out, citizens living in car-centric, car-happy America will inevitably vote parochially and counterproductively when it comes to votes for in-town development proposals, because the market-distorting subsidies have compelled most citizens to vote for drivable suburbia, and against the community-wide interests of more density and intensity within city central areas. Citizens are often, in other words, their own worst enemies when it comes to in-town development.

I think it is clear, then, that Mob Rule is counter-productive to making cities more healthy and attractive, because they would typically vote against beneficial in-town development.

Citizen referendums on proposed zoning and land use changes would maybe be good in stopping farm-to-suburban upzonings. But it would work against a needed companion that is highly unlikely to be approved by poorly-informed, car happy citizens: Compact, walkable developments that make cities more healthy and attractive (which indirectly reduces the desire for low-density suburbia).

Can we conclude that Mob Rule is the best way to fight drivable suburbia and loss of important peripheral areas? If so, is it so beneficial that it more than compensates for the enormous obstacles that Mob Rule would have for creating more compact, healthy and attractive cities? Is the citizen referendum stick so powerful that on balance, there is less suburbia with it, even if we have diminished the carrot of attracting people to healthy cities by impeding city improvement?

I guess it comes down to this: Which is more urgent? Which is more powerful? Which is more sustainable? Which is more self-perpetuating? Which is more of a lynchpin? Saving the last vestiges of (relatively) pristine wildlands via citizen referendum? Or restoring walkable urbanity in our long-decimated cities? (a restoration which is inhibited by the car-happy Mob)

It is not clear to me what the answer would be.




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Conversation with the VDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator About Transportation and Land Use

By Dom Nozzi

December 10, 2008

In late 2008, I had an email conversation with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator about which comes first: transportation or land use.

VDOT Coordinator: “This particular issue raised quite a storm on the [Bicycle/Pedestrian professionals email] list and it then continued when I raised the issue here at VDOT.  But the bottom line is this (and it reflects what I mentioned in my previous posts), we at VDOT react to what localities do in terms of land use and planning.   …”

“… Another issue that was raised,” noted the Coordinator, “was that of suburban environments that urbanize over time and become areas with greater need for transit, pedestrian, and bicycle travel.  My response then … was that the shortfall is with local planning, both for having created these environments in the first place, and also for not revisiting these environments when the roadway is no longer compatible with the context of land use that has developed.  Under the new [regulations], localities have the option, and are being encouraged to develop corridor plans which will then be submitted to VDOT with exceptions to the standards.  …”

I responded by pointing out that I enjoyed, agreed with, and often learned from what he posted on the email list.

However, I said, speaking as a 20-year senior city planner, I need to point out here that “we in city planning” react to what private landowners and developers propose to us with regard to development along a roadway. Public sector planners have very little control as to densities or mixed uses or types of businesses that are proposed along a roadway. Yes, publicRichmond Cary St downtown Jun06 planners can write development regulations or corridor plans that call for walkable, mixed use, higher density design, but if the roadway is 5 lanes and designed for 45 mph (inattentive, talking-on-the-cellphone) speeds, such regulations will be a moot point, as property owners and developers tend to build to what the market seeks. And when you have a multi-lane, high-speed roadway, the market tends to seek low-density, drivable, single-use suburbia.

In other words, transportation determines (drives) land use.huge turn radius for road

Yes, such suburban areas can incrementally transform themselves to be more urban, compact, walkable, dense environments. But public planners and their regulations and plans will be almost entirely powerless to catalyze such a transformation. The effective catalyst in the case of a suburban environment fed by high-speed, high-volume roadways is for the DOT to make amends for its earlier decision to build an oversized roadway (usually justified on the grounds that the 5 lanes are needed to reduce or avoid congestion — even though we should all know by now that we cannot build our way out of congestion).

Often, the DOT will claim that the proposed large, suburban road is needed because of the land uses allowed by local government in the area. “DOT is just meeting the demand created by the land uses on the ground.”

Again, however, such suburban markets (and subsequent development) would not have occurred had larger, higher-speed roads not been built elsewhere in the community (not to mention all the underpriced parking provided).

So yes, public planners can play a role in developing regulations or plans that call for walkable, urban, mixed use environments. But the road must first be redesigned to accommodate it and create the market for it (usually by removing travel lanes and introducing other slow-speed design tactics).

I don’t pretend to believe that we can do this in the near future. It took us over 80 years to build this car-friendly mess we are in. We are therefore unlikely to find our way out of this for quite a while.

Here is a December 2008 article by Christopher Leinberger on the transportation/land use “chicken & egg” issue:

Transportation drives development

Dear President-elect Obama:

There is a “chicken and egg” question many people ask about building the built environment; which comes first, the transportation system or the buildings. This is asked about rail transit in particular. I can now definitively give you an answer to that question: transportation drives development. The transportation system a society selects dictates the form of the built environment. The current car/truck transportation system means most US metropolitan areas only have one development option, the familiar drivable sub-urbanism.

Much research has shown that there is now pent up demand for the opposite of drivable sub-urbanism; walkable urbanism, where most of daily needs can be met on floor, bike or by transit. The extra-ordinary price premiums per square foot being achieved for walkable urban development, whether in high density Manhattan, lower density Bethesda in DC or the newly developed Pike Market area in Seattle, shows that people are voting with their feet and pocketbooks for the ability to live and work in mixed-use, walkable places.

However, the bulk of the country is stuck with only a 20th century transportation system, completely car and truck dependent for all residential and commercial transportation. The majority of Americans are stuck with only the drivable sub-urban option for how to live and work.

For the US to become competitive with the market, economic and environmental demands of the 21st century knowledge-based economy, a more balanced transportation system with vastly increased options is crucial…that means more rail, bike and walking options. It also means a national high speed rail system connecting out major metropolitan areas to complement the Interstate Highway system and the national air system.

The 2009 reauthorization of the federal transportation bill is the country’s opportunity to put in the 21st century infrastructure we so desperately need. Funding a balanced system, rather than a highway-biased system, will do more than give the people what we want. It will also allow for the development of a way of living and working that is far more energy efficient and far less green house gas emitting. An upcoming Brookings study will show what is intuitively obvious; walkable urban households use about ¼ of the energy and emit ¼ the green house gases of drivable sub-urban households. Encouraging walkable urban development will also make the US far more energy secure, reduce the hundreds of billions of dollars we send to hostile countries abroad and will spark a huge boom in real estate development which will help drive the economy out of our current economic crisis.

The new Obama administration has the opportunity to fundamentally alter how we built the built environment; which accounts for over 35% of our country’s assets. The 2009 transportation bill will be the most important domestic legislation of the new century and will put the country on the road to development that is sustainable in so many ways. It is as important to the country from economic, environmental and social perspectives in the 21st Century as the highway and air systems in the 20th Century were. President Obama could preside over transportation legislation as important to the country’s future as President Eisenhower’s with the building of the Interstate Highway system.

Christopher B. Leinberger

Leinberger is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, director and professor of the graduate real estate program at the University of Michigan, partner in Arcadia Land Company and president of LOCUS, a national real estate organization.

This article is available in the December 2008 issue of New Urban News, along with images and many more articles not available online. Subscribe or order the individual issue.

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On-Street Parking, Town Centers, Pedestrians and Bicyclists


By Dom Nozzi

December 30, 2008

If we are talking about the creation (or restoration and revival) of a town center, the litmus test for which strategies to use must consider whether the strategy will create a low-speed “park once” environment. For a healthy town center, the pedestrian must be the design imperative.

A common and effective way to create such an environment is with on-street parking. On-street parking, by itself, is not necessarily sufficient in creating a better environment for retail, bicyclists or pedestrians. But on-street parking is one of the most beneficial tactics that can be leveraged in an existing or up-and-comashevilleing low-speed town center. On-street parking should therefore be included whenever

Too commonly, a place that a community seeks to transform into a walkable town center is fronted by a six-lane corridor. But such a “stroad” design (as Charles Marohn calls a street that is designed poorly for both urbanism and suburbanism) is anything but low-speed or park once, typically. Such a “drive-through” design, to be transformed into a healthy town center, must do what it can to ratchet down speeds and the width of the street. On-street parking and travel lane removal tend to be the most effective ways to do that.

Note that when town centers are designed well, bike lanes can be incompatible with a low-speed walkable town center design. Even though bike lanes ARE usually a good idea in other settings.

In other words, street design must be context-sensitive. We need to be careful not to suboptimize certain forms of travel (such as bicycling) in inappropriate locations.

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Improving Richmond Virginia

By Dom Nozzi

April 23, 2008

In the spring of 2008, I served on a volunteer citizen team offering suggestions to the city of Richmond about improving the city.

As I noted at one of the meetings, I wanted the team to consider recommending strategies that would attract and retain a high-quality workforce.

I urged the team, among other things, to “think outside the box” a bit, as was stated by someone during the introductory comments at an earlier meeting.

I am interested in promoting the attraction and retention of a quality workforce (along the lines of Richard Florida and his Creative Class) via quality urban design. I believe one important way that can be effectively done, as Florida would surely agree, is by restoring and nurturing a charming, walkable, hip, vibrant urban experience for those who might consider living and working in Richmond.

I wanted the team to recommend what I would call a “Think Outside the Box Urban Design Toolkit”. Elements could be such things as:

  1. Have the City start incrementally uncovering the goldmine that is found under many of the asphalt streets in the urban area. Namely, daylighting the brick and cobblestone that remains hidden by asphalt.
  1. Urge a speedy and comprehensive implementation of the impressive, quality-inducing downtown master plan prepared by the Dover-Kohl consultants.
  1. Identification, restoration, protection, or creation of a charming, walkable, community-building, civic pride-promoting town center or neighborhood. Is Richmond Cary St downtown Jun06there, in other words, a “there there” in Richmond and its surrounding “Edge Cities” that is unique, and a source of civic pride?

The first item might entail meeting with, say, the City traffic engineer to determine the practicality of incrementally doing this in appropriate locations. The second item perhaps involves meeting with City Planning Staff. The third item would possibly mean having the team visit examples of a walkable town center or urban neighborhood that may exist or be planned in Richmond and surrounding Edge Cities.

For Richmond, as the Crupi report indicates, this could include Shokoe Slip and Shokoe Bottom. Additionally, it could include the Fan District, perhaps.

Richmond can have a wonderful future. If it focuses on promoting walkable charm.

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In Town Centers the Pedestrian is the Imperative, NOT Bicyclists or Cars or Transit or the Disabled


By Dom Nozzi

January 6, 2009

I applaud the desire to provide for all forms of travel. This is particularly important in (what should be) a low-speed town center environment.

For a town center to be healthy for retail and all forms of travel, low-speed car travel is essential, and a “park once” environment must be created. Here, the pedestrian, not the bicyclist or car or transit, must be the design imperative. If we “get it right” for the pedestrian in the town center, every stakeholder tends to benefit: not just Céret,_France,_main_street_2pedestrians, but bicyclists, transit, retail, residential, children, seniors, well-behaved motorists, the disabled and everyone else.

However, if we suboptimize bicycling, transit or cars to the detriment of other community objectives, the unintended consequence is that most everyone loses.

Too often, eager bicycling advocates loudly proclaim that a town center needs bike lanes and a removal of on-street car parking. But I believe that bike lanes and the removal of on-street parking in a town center serve to suboptimize bicycling — and I speak as a bicycle commuter.

How do we make the pedestrian the design imperative in a town center? Some of the more important tactics include reducing dimensions (such as street widths, building setbacks and the size of parking), increasing commercial and residential compactness, and obligating slow, attentive speeds by motorists.

Probably the most powerful, affordable way to achieve the above-mentioned tactics is on-street parking. Such parking effectively slows cars and obligates attentiveness by adding friction to the street. Such parking is also essential for healthy town center retail. And such parking sometimes dramatically improves pedestrian safety by reducing the street crossing distance.

In a town center, bike lanes tend to undercut each of those design objectives.

Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking” is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read in the field of planning/transportation (a must-read for all planners, designers and elected folks). In that book, Shoup identifies excessive parking as an enormous problem in nearly all American communities.

However, he points out that it is subsidized, underpriced OFF-STREET parking, required in excess by nearly all local governments, that is one of the most important problems in American cities. Shoup is a strong advocate of on-street parking (especially when it is properly priced and therefore efficiently used). I believe he would agree with me that for nearly all cities (even those with too much parking), an extremely important objective is to substantially INCREASE the amount of on-street parking and substantially reduce the amount of off-street parking. And that as much town center street frontage as possible be lined with on-street parking.

In a properly designed town center, car speeds are low enough that it is not only safe and pleasant for pedestrians and retailers and residences. Car speeds are also low enough to permit safe and pleasant sharing of the travel lane by bicyclists. And in a town center, for those bicyclists who are uncomfortable sharing even a slow-speed travel lane with cars, there tends to be nearby parallel lanes off the main street for the bicyclist.

Important downsides for removing town center on-street parking:

*Smaller retailers tend to suffer so much that empty storefronts result and retailers flee to more remote locations that are inconvenient/unsafe to walk or bicycle or bus to. In other words, bicyclists should be strong supporters of a healthy town center retail/residential environment, in part because it promotes a compact community with short travel distances.

*Unless travel lane width is dramatically reduced, bike lanes tend to add asphalt width to the main street. That can mean longer, more dangerous crossing distances for pedestrians, and higher speed and less attentive (and therefore more dangerous) car travel.

Again, town center designers must be careful not to suboptimize bicycle, transit or car travel in the town center, since doing so tends to be detrimental to the pedestrian, which is the town center design imperative. The irony for bicyclists calling for the removal of on-street parking in a town center is not only that it is detrimental to bicycling. On-street parking removal in a town center was (and still is) most loudly called for by the motorist lobby (which fought to increase town center street widths and car speeds beginning about 85 years ago).

And for the record, I am a strong advocate of in-street bicycle lanes on most all major streets in a city. I believe, however, that they tend to be incompatible with a low-speed, human-scaled ped-friendly town center.


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Improving Safety for Bicyclists and Our Future Prospects


By Dom Nozzi

January 30, 2009

Improving safety for bicyclists is importantly about the number of people bicycling. This is often called “Safety in Numbers.”

An important reason why safety in numbers is so powerful is that motorists are obligated to drive more slowly and more attentively. That is essential for safety. They also tend to expect bicyclists on a regular basis, and therefore learn how to drive more safely near them. Unexpected surprises are always unsafe at higher speeds.

I’m open to the idea that “protected” on-street bike lanes (which have physical barriers between cyclists and cars), and off-street paths next to a street can attract a lot of new bicyclists. As I understand it, one of the most important — if not most important — reasons people don’t bike is perceived safety problems. I don’t wear a helmet when doing low-speed town center bike commuting in part because I want to Cyclists-in-Copenhagen-001send the message that biking is not deadly — helmets send the very bad message that your life is at risk on a bike.

However, I remain unconvinced that protected bike lanes or off-street paths will draw large numbers in the US. Boulder CO is perhaps closer to doing that than any smaller city I know here in the US, and while they have a relatively large number of residents biking, it is still a tiny fraction of the total. I think the European situation doesn’t give us much accuracy on the impact of protected lanes or off-street path inducement because Europe is so different than us. There, the parking is comparatively scarce and expensive. Densities and mixed-use is high. Destinations tend to be comparatively proximate. And gas is expensive. All of those factors tend to induce high levels of biking, walking and transit use.

I guess that means I’d like to see a demonstration project in the US to find out if a comprehensive protected lane or off-street path system would induce high levels of biking. But the cost would be huge. And it is perhaps unwise to spend a lot of dollars on something that is not extremely likely to succeed. For example, I don’t believe even extremely high quality, frequent transit service would induce lots of transit use in non-large cities in the US.

There is too much free parking. Development is too dispersed. Gas is too cheap. And destinations are too far from each other.

Given these rather intractable problems in the US, we are probably a long way off from seeing large numbers of bicyclists or transit users. Probably the obstacle that is most difficult to overcome in the near term is our dispersed land use pattern. Even if gas is, say, $30/gallon, a lot of us will be forced to drive cars (even if we have a full network of protected bike lanes or off-street bike paths).

I continue to mostly adhere to the objective of taking back our streets from high-speed motoring, and urging compact mixing of housing, jobs, shops, and civic. We need to make transit, walking and biking feasible. I think movement in that direction is inevitable because higher gas prices are inevitable, as is the cost of continuing to try to add road capacity for suburbia.

I can envision, in the near future, various DOTs pursuing more aggressive non-auto projects as the cost of driving continues to mount. I’m sure that will mean that some state DOTs will decide to try the protected bike lane or off-street idea, at least as a demo on one or two corridors.

Ultimately, high-speed roads have no future. And if protected bike lanes or off-street paths are necessary because of high-speed roads (which I believe is true), it doesn’t seem like protected bike lanes or off-street paths are where we should be putting our energies right now. I’m concerned that “Plan B” for transportation and land use might need to be in place very quickly, so we probably need Manhattan project urgency RIGHT NOW to start getting us there. We need a train system. We need to build more compact, more localized communities. We need slower-speed and more human-scaled streets.

What this might all come down to is how much of an emergency we believe we are in. Do we have 10 years before gas is $50/gallon? Or 100 years? If the former, I don’t believe protected bike lanes or off-street paths make a lot of sense.

How do you see our future?

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Fighting Traffic: A Review of a Book by Peter Norton

February 3, 2009

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

By Peter D. Norton.

Published 2008 by MIT.

Review by Dom Nozzi

This book is provocative, exceptionally enlightening, and a must-read for all pedestrian and bicycle professionals, urban designers, traffic engineers, elected and appointed officials.

Another title that the author could have considered to accurately describe the message of this book is “The Fall of the Pedestrian Street.”

The book is an analysis of how the American street, its perceived purpose, and its design paradigm has been transformed over the past century. Up until the dawn of the 20th Century, the rights of and sympathy for the pedestrian were supreme. Street rules (to the extent that any existed) and street design were focused on pedestrian travel.

The emergence of the motor vehicle, however, radically changed all of this.

Motorists and auto makers united and organized in the first few decades of the 20th Century to overthrow the prevailing paradigm of the street. As motor vehicles started to be found on streets, they were quickly seen as inefficiently consuming an enormous amount of space. And combined with their horsepower, weight, and high speeds, motor vehicles were soon killing an alarmingly high number of pedestrians—particularly children and seniors.

Huge numbers of citizens at this time rallied to fight against the motor vehicle. There was a consensus that in a crash, the motorist was always at fault and the pedestrian (particularly children) were innocent. The media regularly faulted motorists for being “speed maniacs.” And “murderers.” Particularly in Cincinnati, there was a strong campaign to require cars to have “governors,” which would not allow a car to be Road-Rage_1689375cdriven over 25 mph.

The growing number of motorists and auto makers became alarmed that the “freedom” and speed of car travel was being threatened by these nationwide campaigns. “Motordom” united, and in the course of a few decades, completely transformed the American transportation paradigm.

First, they succeeded in convincing the public that the car itself was not to blame for crashes. Nor was the problem due to speed. Instead, the motorist lobby succeeded in (falsely) convincing Americans that the problem was entirely due to “reckless” motorists. The lobby also achieved another crucial victory: No longer were pedestrians always innocent in crashes. Increasingly, the lobby convinced us that “reckless” pedestrians were often at fault.

Instead of motorists being vilified as speed maniacs, the new villain became the “jaywalker,” a derogatory term that assigned blame to pedestrians who were irresponsibly crossing streets in unexpected locations (as they had done throughout history). Unexpected, carefree walking had become an incompatible public safety threat in the age of high-speed car travel. It was essential that uncontrolled pedestrians not using their designated crosswalks be seen as irresponsibly unsafe and immoral.

So the paradigm shift managed to reshape our thinking. Cars and car speeds are not a problem. What is needed, instead of slowing cars, is to vigorously prosecute “reckless” motorists and be vigilant in urging pedestrians to be careful. Comprehensive public safety education campaigns must teach all of us (particularly children) to be careful near roads. And to insist that pedestrians (and playing children) be kept out of the way of cars by keeping them off roads—or at least confined to intersection crosswalks.

Thus, the “forgiving street” (what the author calls the “foolproof street”) was born. Dominating street design for nearly 100 years, this paradigm strives to design streets not to be safe and convenient for all users (including bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users), but to keep all non-motorized travelers out of the way of freedom- (and speed) loving American motorists. Streets are to be designed for safe driving at high speeds. And because forgiving street designers assume we will always have reckless drivers, streets must be designed to forgive reckless, inattentive driving. Grade separated intersections are needed. As are pedestrian skywalks. Move street trees and buildings and pedestrians away from the street.

The ultimate result, after several decades of this new motorist speed paradigm, has been an annual roadway death rate that remains extremely high. High levels of speeding and inattentive driving. Streets that are designed and safely usable only by cars, instead of being Complete Streets accessible to all. Unimaginably high levels of car dependency, heavy and worsening congestion, plummeting quality of life, a near absence of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, endless suburban sprawl and strip commercial, and declining downtowns.

I’m certain the author would agree with me that an essential task for safety and quality of life is to return our communities to a lower-speed environment. And this must largely be achieved not through laws against speeders or speed limit signs, but through the design of streets that effectively ratchets down urban travel speed via such tactics as human-scaled dimensions to achieve traffic calming—and Monderman’s “shared space” concept (what I like to call “attentive” streets). High-speed car traffic is simply incompatible with the human habitat.

This is not a call to re-vilify cars, but to reshape our world to obligate motorists to behave themselves.


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