Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Consensus on Making Cars Happy

By Dom Nozzi

For the past century, Americans have been nearly single-mindedly focused on making it easy and cheap to drive a car everywhere imaginable. An unforeseen consequence is that doing so has now made it nearly impossible to travel by transit, bicycle or foot. That has led to enormous financial strain for households and government, strongly contributed to the obesity crisis, created severe environmental problems, dispersed and “uglified” our communities to make them less strong, and made our transportation system much less resilient to change.

One would expect this to result in a massive societal uprising to reverse this catastrophe. Tragically, no such thing has happened. Instead, shockingly, we have the reverse. All walks of life are at a near consensus that we must CONTINUE to spend every available dollar to make us even MORE dependent on car travel. Democrats, Republicans, Feminists, Environmentalists, Planners, Council Members, Libertarians, Socialists, Dieticians, and Academicians almost all join hands in DEMANDING that everything imaginable be done to keep us happily driving cars everywhere.

How did we become trapped in this downwardly spiraling vicious cycle?

In my opinion, the explanation is clear. By making it almost entirely impossible to travel by transit, bicycle or foot, nearly all of us have no choice but to make most all of our trips by car – even if we are green environmentalists SCREAMING about climate change.

Combined with that trap is the toxic mix of the large size of a motor vehicle coupled with the exceptionally busy nature of our lives. The huge size of our vehicles inevitably results in frustrating slowdowns in our travel, as nearly all of our fellow citizens are ALSO trying to travel in their huge vehicles at many of the same times. Roads and parking lots quickly fill to capacity when even a relatively small number of us are competitively jostling for space in our space-hogging sedans and wagons.angry-motorist-yelling

Add to that the fact that almost every time we drive, we are “running late,” or “in a hurry,” or “out of time.” With huge numbers of us in a hurry and driving a big vehicle, the
outcome is unavoidable: We are ENRAGED because SOME INCOMPETENT SLOW POKE IS IN OUR WAY!!

With high (yet mostly hidden) transportation costs, huge vehicles, lack of time, and extreme frustration, is it any wonder that nearly all of us insist that car travel remain cheap and easy, regardless of our “green” or “libertarian” values? Even an Earth Firster! is stuck if she cannot travel by car – cheaply and at high speeds. No-brainer proposals, such as user fees such as parking charges, and efforts to slow traffic to safe speeds are met – even by the most fair-minded and humanitarian of us – by blood-curdling opposition.

Happy Cars has become our way of thinking. Our worldview. Our paradigm. No other world is imaginable. Or politically possible.

When I see so many “progressives” and “intellectuals” and “environmentalists” and “growth management advocates” opposing things like traffic calming — and instead usually being fully supportive of pampering car travel with oversized, free-to-use roads and parking lots – I am seeing this societal worldview on full display.

One highly frustrating aspect of this I’ve noticed over the years is that because America is full-speed-ahead committed to car travel, it tends to be SO EASY for someone with even the most uninformed, simplistic understanding of transportation to immediately kill an idea at a public meeting focused on transportation reform. And conversely SO DIFFICULT for someone at a public meeting to get others agree to transportation reform.

I see it all the time.

For example, let’s say we are at a public workshop where the assembled audience is divided into groups of people at individual tables in the room. The task for each table is to come up with transportation reform tactics. Occasionally at a table or two, a person might, say, mention that shrinking a road from four lanes to three might be a good idea on a street. Or narrowing a street with curb bulb-outs. The person points out that traffic volume is low enough. It would be easy to put in bulb-outs. Or remove a travel lane (because there is no meaningful loss in road capacity). Almost always, someone else at the table will then say “That is crazy. It will cause unbearable gridlock.” Everyone else at the table feels uncomfortable — even environmentalists and bike/walk/transit advocates – and will quickly nod in agreement that shrinking a road is crazy. End of the reform idea. Move on to something else — like landscaping.

Over and over again, for similar ideas, the pro-car person is seen as being level-headed and the person calling for transportation reform (in this case, to give more space to people and less to cars) is ridiculed and seen as unrealistic.

A common outcome when someone is outside of the recognized societal way of thinking.

Here in Boulder, Colorado, this phenomenon is particularly noticeable and surprising because the city is very well known (accurately or not) for progressive transportation initiatives. Despite this reputation in Boulder, the city history shows that it frequently only takes one or two Board or Council members to kill an idea for transportation reform. Such members — who are seen as “reasonable” and “level-headed” because they live in a society that assumes complete dependence on cars is normal and permanent — are quickly and easily able to squelch effective, equitable transportation reform ideas all the time. Even when a majority of the Board or Council are supportive of the reform.

As a result, over the decades, it has only taken one or two pro-car Board or Council members in “enlightened” Boulder to severely compromise or stop occasional efforts to have the City shed its numerous outdated transportation policies.

Colleagues of these Board or Council members commonly don’t stand up to this sort of squelching of transportation reform ideas — despite knowing there would be a 4-1 vote in favor of the reform.

Why?

Largely because they realize that the societal “pro car” narrative also permeates “progressive” Boulder. They therefore understandably expect that the point made by the squelcher would be supported by large majorities (or a VERY angry minority) of Boulder residents.

Even in Boulder, opponents of many transportation reform ideas are seen as level-headed realists. Supporters of reform are seen as living in “La La Land.” Over time, the “realists” grow more bold, to the point of becoming political populists for motordom. The “reformers,” on the other hand, grow increasingly timid about suggesting reform, to the point where reform proposals become rare. And require a relatively large amount of political courage.

In the end, those promoting transportation reform in a car-dependent society must rely almost exclusively on leveraging a crisis. Only when traffic crashes result in a shocking number of deaths, or the price of gasoline skyrockets – to cite two examples — can there be enough motivation to overcome the squelching by the pro-car “realists.”

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Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Transportation, Walking

Raising Kids to Become Environmental Conservationists

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 15, 2000

A friend of mine recently wrote an essay called “Diversity: A Breeding Ground for Conservation Biologists.” In it, he describes his explorations and experiences in natural “woodlot” areas when he was a child.

It reminds me of my childhood stomping grounds when I was a kid, reminds me of why I originally decided to become a planner, and reminds me of a study I heard of in the past: “What life history variable, out of a HUGE number that were tested, correlate with growing up to be committed, in adulthood, to environmental conservation?”

The one variable that stood out head and shoulders above the others was: “The child was able to engage in unstructured play in some form of natural area.”

My own childhood would have been horribly disadvantaged and deprived if I did not have nearby woods within which to play. I was always able to walk or bike to those woods on my own. It would be a tragedy for us all if our children lost that option.

street without on street parkingTragically, in our car-happy world, kids are much more isolated and unable to explore on their own. For nearly all American children, it has become too dangerous to bike or walk to a woodlot, because nearly always these days, doing so required the child to negotiate extremely hostile, dangerous, high-speed roads.

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Walking

Can We Fix Sprawl by Making It Cleaner and Prettier?

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 2, 2001

A friend recently created a “Worst Streets” list. Overall, I think the Worst Streets list is a fantastic idea.

One thing I’d hate to have happen with the Worst Streets list, but nevertheless expect, is that a number of folks might think that the nastiest thing about auto-oriented sprawl is how ugly it is, and think that all we need to do is Keep America Beautiful litter campaigns and sign control along our ugly streets and everything will be peachy keen.

This is not even remotely accurate.

In fact, one could argue that one of the things that sprawl is good at is making things look pretty and clean (compared to those “grimy, ugly” inner cities).

The attractiveness of a street is comparatively trivial to the key issues of buildings and street trees being close to the street, designing for transportation choice, no more than three lanes, no double-left turn lanes, and low design speed. If we get those elements right, the street will inevitably be attractive and free of such horrors as screaming signage, and no transportation choice.

If we don’t, we’re not doing anything sustainable or effective to fix the street.

So while I think the “best” and “worst” street list would be great for communities, we need to strive to get the publicity for the lists focused on what REALLY matters. As Ed downloadAbbey once said, it’s not the beer cans I mind – it’s the roads.

Following some media publicity about the worst streets, some have disagreed with the ranking of their street. One said that “Sprawl and auto dependence is not bad. We don’t think the street is ‘dirty’ or ‘ugly.'”

Such comments are missing the point, as I note above. In fact, sprawl and strip commercial is usually more attractive (to a motorist, at least) and clean than places which boast quality urbanism. Again, we need the ranking of worst streets to focus on function problems, not visual problems, so that citizens do not get confused about what we mean by “worst.”

The worst streets are those with large building setbacks, a large number of roadway lanes, lack of street trees, lack of transportation choice, etc.

Let’s avoid the Martha Stewart solutions and concerns. We don’t want to mislead people into thinking that sign control or litter control are the problems that will fix a bad street. To me, those are mostly the unpleasant secondary outcomes of a street with poor functional design. Get the underlying functional problems corrected, and the secondary litter, signage, and franchise architecture schlock will start fading away on its own.

Ultimately, it comes down to having street designers respected by citizens. We have the citizens agree that a street is bad. The citizens then turn to their trusty professional designers and say: “Tell us how to fix the street so it is good.” We certainly do not want them (or conventional traffic engineers or most elected officials) to come up with solutions that don’t get at the root of the problem.

The street is not bad primarily because of litter or sign pollution.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Alienation from Walkability

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 1, 2001

I’m making the point in my upcoming book that some of the biggest opponents these days to compact, walkable development are often those who should know better and be our allies because they care about the common good.

An important problem we face is that because developers have largely designed for happy car travel since WWII, citizens are understandably fearful of their proposed projects. Not only do they not trust developers anymore. Because of this abysmal track record, they also tend to distrust professional government staff and elected officials.

Guilt by association?

The problems we face are greatly confounded because, given this state of distrust and hostility, even developers, staff, consultants, and elected officials who are well-intentioned, have the best interests of the community at heart, and are promoting pedestrian-oriented (instead of car-oriented) projects are vigorously attacked by these crusaders.

The origins of our distrusting, angry, NIMBY epidemic is designing for cars, yet crusaders saintreportpicture3are so angry that they lump the car advocates with the walkability advocates. ALL are evil, even if some have the remedy we need. It leads to gloom when one thinks about our prospects.

What this brings us to is this: ALL change is now feared. Even the changes our relatively enlightened leaders are convinced are good. It is feared because we cannot TRUST anyone anymore.

At last night’s Gainesville FL city commission meeting, the commission considered adoption of a future land use section I authored for the Gainesville long-range comprehensive plan. I wrote that land use section to be strongly influenced by my “the pedestrian is the design imperative” urban design philosophy. Here are some of the Gainesville citizen comments about the element that exemplify how foreign and feared walkable, compact development has become.

“We should not be so strongly promoting pedestrian travel because it is not safe for women to walk at night in Gainesville.”

“We should not require buildings close to the street/sidewalk because it is dangerous for women to use parking lots behind buildings. Same for alleys and cross-access mid-block crossings.”

“We should realize that Gainesville has a hot climate, which means that few will want to walk in this town.”

“If we allow the walkable “traditional neighborhood development” ordinance “by right” in our single family neighborhoods, the allowed mixed uses will destroy our neighborhoods.”

“Promoting bicycling and walking is not a good idea because people will be hot, smelly, and sweaty when they arrive at work.”

“The policies in your plan are “punishing” car use.”

“Infill and higher densities will “destroy” our neighborhoods.”

“You’re rushing this plan through adoption and not giving us enough time to understand it or comment on it. (This comment was submitted despite the fact that I had held at least 12 heavily-advertised public workshops on the land use plan throughout the city over the past few years.”

An enormous irony: These comments came primarily from local environmentalists and growth management advocates…

 

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Some Problems Associated with Low-Density Residential Living

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

A large percentage of Americans LOVE low-density residential living, and regularly fight against any proposal that would bring more compact development anywhere near them.

But low-density development has many problems – problems that a growing number of Americans are beginning to recognize.sprawl-development

For example, low-density development locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible. A sense of community is often non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there tends to be no “there there.” Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around. Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car. Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because ALL trips are forced onto one or two major roads (and because cars consume such a vast amount of space). Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded.” The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Increasingly, what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting AGAINST smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.

Tragically, the low-density lifestyle compels people living in such a setting to fight hard against the compact development that would actually reduce the problems cited above. They do so because the low-density pattern quickly results in enraging traffic congestion and loss of car parking. This vested interest in low density locks such residents in a long-term downward spiral, as positive change tends to be fiercely resisted.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia

Some Reasons Why Charging for Parking Is Preferable to Gas Taxes or Higher Cost Gasoline

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 21, 2001

I agree with parking guru Donald Shoup that the fuel tax (and high gas prices) are not an effective way to meaningfully reduce auto dependence.

Compared to the enormous sunk cost of owning a car, and the big benefits of driving one, a drive across town is, by comparison, a tiny cost — even if gas prices or gas taxes were high. As an aside, another reason high gas prices or gas taxes don’t have much effect these days is because of the relatively high fuel efficiency of cars today.

Shoup argues (and I agree) that if we really want to substantially influence the driving imagesbehavior of motorists, it is essential that we go after free parking that nearly every non-big city motorist enjoys nearly always. If a motorist is hit with a parking charge of, say, $5 each time she/he drives, it is a much more noticeable fee than the cost of gas for a single trip.

Other benefits of charging for parking: Local governments have a fair amount of control over parking prices, compared to gas prices. In addition, it is much easier, politically, to charge for parking than to increase the gas tax or establish toll roads.

Furthermore, charges for parking can be calibrated for types of trips easier than the crude gas tax. EVERYONE gets hit with a gas tax, regardless of whether they drive during rush hour or not, what streets they drive, or what location they drive to. By contrast, parking can be customized to be charged only in places where we especially have problems with people arriving by car (such as spillover parking in residential neighborhoods), and the amount of the parking charge can vary based on time-of-day to account for heavy use periods.

 

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Filed under Economics, Politics, Transportation

Using Plain English

Using Plain English

In my on-going, never-ending campaign to get the regulations,  ordinances, plans, and what-language-is-he-speakingpresentations from local government to use “plain English,” I’ve found this listing from the Internet to be useful.

The phrase on the left contains a lot of useless deadwood that we commonly see. Following it is a more succinct, understandable use of words.

 

 

a majority of – most

a sufficient amount of — enough

according to our data — we find

accordingly — therefore, so

after the conclusion of — after

along the lines of — like

as is the case — as is true

ascertain the location of — find

at such time as — when

at the present time — now

at this point in time — now

be deficient in — lack

be in a position to — can, be able

by a factor of two — two times, double, twice

by means of — by

come to a conclusion — conclude

despite the fact that — although

due to the fact that — because

during the time that — while

equally as well — as well, equally well

fewer in number — fewer

for the purpose of — to, for

for the reason that — because

for this reason — thus, therefore

give consideration to — consider, examine

give indication of — show, indicate, suggest

happen(s) to be — am/is/are

has been proved to be — is

if conditions are such that — if

in a number of — several, many

in all cases — always

in case — if

in close proximity to — near

in excess of — more than

in large measure — largely

in many cases — often

in most cases — usually

in no case — never

in order that — so that

in order to — to

in some cases — sometimes

in terms of — in

in the amount of — for

in the case of — for

in the event that — if

in the field of — in

in the near future — soon

in the neighborhood of — near, about, nearly

in the vicinity of — near

in this case — here

in view of the fact that — because, since

is capable of — can

is found to be — is

is in a position to — can

it has been found that — (nothing)

it has long been known that — (nothing)

it is a fact that — (nothing)

it is evident that — (nothing)

it is interesting to note that — note that

it is noted that — (nothing)

it is our opinion that — we think

it is possible that — perhaps

it is well known that — (nothing)

it may be said that — (nothing)

make inquiry regarding — ask about, inquire about

manner in which — how

not with standing the fact that — although

on the basis of — from, because, by

on the order of — about, approximately

present in greater abundance — more abundant

prior to — before

provided that — if

put an end to — end

reach a conclusion — conclude

serves the function of being — is

subsequent to — after

the question as to — whether

there can be little doubt that — probably

utilize or utilization — use

with reference to — about

with the exception that — except that

 

Another kind of deadwood is needless repetition of the same sense in different words. Phrases like the following are easily cut in half:

 

adequate enough — adequate (or enough)

advance planning — planning

appear(s) to be — appear(s)

basic essentials — basics (or essentials)

close proximity — proximity

consensus of opinion — consensus

cooperated together — cooperated

definite decision — decision

elongate in length — elongate

first priority — priority

future predictions — predictions

general rule — rule

green colored — green

increase in increments — increase

initial prototype (model) — prototype

joint cooperation — cooperation

major breakthrough — breakthrough

modern science of today — modern science

most optimum — optimum

necessary requirement — requirement

outside periphery — periphery

rate of speed — speed

resemble in appearance — resemble

true facts — facts

twelve in number — twelve

usual rule — rule

very unique — unique

 

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