Monthly Archives: January 2018

A Recipe for a More Successful Bus System in a Smaller College Town

By Dom Nozzi

August 12, 2000

A friend of mine told me that since moving to Gainesville, Florida – a small city home to a large university – he is happy to be in a place where he can, to some extent, avoid driving (at least to work and back). He liked the fact that there are so many buses in Gainesville, and the buses were much cleaner than the subway in Boston.city-bus-1

I told him that his comments confused me.

I told him that it was my understanding that it is nearly impossible to live in Gainesville (unless you are a Dom Nozzi type person) without a car. Seems like almost every trip must be by car.

In Boston, by contrast, it seems like a very large number of residents can live quite comfortably without a car, or own one but often use the convenient transit.

One reason this would be true is that unlike Boston, Gainesville provides abundant, free parking and uncongested streets for cars (which are fertility drugs for cars). Therefore, it is somewhat rational to use transit in Boston, and mostly irrational to use it in Gainesville (unless you are at the local university and live in a higher density area.

By the way, before we hired someone (who no longer works in Gainesville) to be our transit director, we only had a few buses, and they were always empty. It was only when we started going after the university market that things turned around in a big way. Sadly and predictably, we are being attacked by advocates for the poor and disabled, who often demand that we return to the inefficient “bad” days of excessive focus on them.

In other words, such advocates were calling for designing transit for people who have no choice but to use transit, which means we don’t need to care much how good it is, since such a trapped market will use it regardless of its quality.

That’s fine, except that it kills public support for transit (who wants tax dollars to go toward empty buses?), it requires millions of dollars we don’t have, it forces us to serve areas that are extremely low in density (too low for healthy transit), and ultimately erodes our ability to improve the system overall.

With the recent and successful strategy of going after the people who have a choice, transit is now seen by most everyone in Gainesville to be relevant and a meaningful part of our travel mix.

Even someone in a car can say that they might someday think about using the bus.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Transportation, Urban Design

If I were King of My City

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

May 1, 2006

I often find myself highly frustrated by the actions or inactions of the city I live in. Because many of my views are so “controversial,” I have little chance of ever being elected to office in order to seek such changes from such a decision-making position. Instead, I am left to speculate what I would do if I were the “king” of my city.ki

If I were king, I would make deep and permanent cuts in police and fire budgets. Nearly all cities in America put excessive amounts of public tax money into the police and fire departments. Crime rates counter-intuitively increase when police expenditures increase (partly because doing so starves public programs that more effectively reduce crime rates, and partly because more police dollars means there are more police available to detect crime). Nearly every year, due to the politics of fear (“Babies will die in burning buildings if you don’t give the fire department another $30 million!” or “Your homes will be burglarized if you don’t give the police department another $10 million!”), communities spend excessive amounts of money on police and fire services. While these services are extremely important, they should not be funded by starving other services essential to local quality of life (parks and recreation, streetscaping, code enforcement, traffic calming, energy conservation retrofits, restoration of environmentally degraded natural areas, road diets, efforts to reduce noise pollution, open space acquisition, town and regional planning, bus service, and bike and pedestrian paths, etc.). More money for police also increases the number of times that citizens are charged with petty crimes (because the police have more resources to do so). This also promotes a “police state” atmosphere. In large part, the excessive moneys cities tend to allocate to police and fire services is based on extreme levels of societal hysteria, which candidates for office and elected officials both promote and leverage for their own ends. The excessive and continuously increasing police and fire budgets are a recipe for community ruin. A companion reason for this over-allocation is the utter lack of leadership found in America.

If I were king, I would ground law enforcement helicopters (used in many cities). A police helicopter creates substantial noise pollution (particularly in central city neighborhoods) and has little payoff in comparison to the high on-going maintenance costs. In addition, such helicopters create citizen anxiety in the sense that they create a “war zone” ambience in the community.

If I were king, I would establish and implement a citywide Road Diet and traffic calming plan. There is nothing that city government can do that would more effectively improve in-town retail, residential and office health and safety than to remove travel lanes from 4-, 5- and 6-lane roads and slow average car speeds. Such road modifications would also dramatically improve street safety and promote bicycle, transit and pedestrian travel. This would also be the most powerful way to slow and reverse suburban sprawl, discourage Big Box retail, reduce property taxes, reduce regional air pollution and fuel consumption, promote infill development, reduce sign pollution, improve property values and improve quality of life. I would couple diets/calming with a charter amendment which would set a 3-lane maximum street size in an urbanized area and 5-travel lane maximum road size in suburban areas.

If I were king, I would inventory downtown improvement needs, and then correct them. Conduct a thorough, detailed, walking tour of downtown to identify existing downtown needs—such as sidewalk gaps and other sidewalk flaws, needed road diets, needed on-street parking, needed raised medians, and surface parking that should be converted to infill buildings. Following the inventory, I would devote resources sufficient to aggressively eliminate such needs each year. Many downtowns fail to reach their full potential and are unable to invoke much civic pride due to the large number of neglected downtown infrastructure needs.

If I were king, I would shrink the size of most elected city commissions/councils. A larger number of commissioners ensures that decisions are dumbed down, and the necessary yet more controversial decisions are less likely to be approved. This defect is exemplified by the dysfunctional fiasco of “trying to do something by committee”—a universally recognized recipe for mediocrity – mediocrity that gets worse as the size of the group increases in size. Larger decision-making bodies also increase city administrative costs and lengthen city commission meetings.

If I were king, I would crack down on major noise polluters. Emergency vehicle sirens, cars, power landscape tools, burglar alarms, etc., have exponentially increased city noise pollution problems. The most effective method for controlling noise is to establish a powerful, full-time city noise pollution control office.

If I were king, I would reduce excessive car parking and road subsidies.  It is monstrously counterproductive for cities and private businesses to heavily subsidize solo auto commuting by offering free parking to their employees. Parking cash-out—where employees are given the option of either retaining their free parking or being given a salary increase—is the most effective way to reduce the excessively high and extremely costly single-occupant vehicle employee commuting patterns in cities. Such a program would also end the exceptionally unfair practice of not offering non-auto commuters an equivalent subsidy. Cash-out should be required for both local government agencies and for large private organizations in the area. Coupled with this should be a strategy to shrink the supply of free parking citywide. I would convert parking minimums to parking maximums in land development code citywide. I would eliminate required parking regulations and set parking maximums. I would establish market-rate metered on-street parking, and return the meter revenue to surrounding neighborhoods (in other words, create parking benefit districts [based on the recommendations of Donald Shoup]). Similarly, non-tolled, free-to-use roads promote excessive, long-distance, low-value, solo driving, as well as traffic congestion. User fees for both roads and parking would go a long way towards efficiently and affordably providing for car travel, and a more compact, livable community.

If I were king, I would effectively promote walkable, timeless, traditional development. In the city planning department, hire a set of walkable urban design planners to review site plans. In city public works department, hire a traffic engineer as director who is a skilled and enthusiastic supporter of transportation choice and walkable, compact urban design. Not doing so ensures that in walkable areas, site plans for new development and street designs for modified streets will be sabotaged by staff who have a suburban value system. I would revise city land development codes to be form-based and transect-based (graphics-rich, comprehensible, vision-based, and context-sensitive). I would move development regulations away from one-size-fits-all by establishing a set of urban/walkable regulations for walkable areas, a set of suburban/car-centric regulations for suburban areas, and a set of rural/preservation regulations for peripheral areas with important natural features or agricultural land.

If I were king, I would transform shopping centers into walkable town centers. Conventional shopping centers are over-designed for “happy cars.” Their excessive use of “sea of asphalt” parking in front creates a strip commercial, “anywhere USA” atmosphere that degrades quality of life and civic pride, and takes away from a unique community character. Travel by transit, walking or bicycling is significantly less likely because nearly all trips to such centers must be by car (due to the hostility of such design for bicyclists, walkers and transit users). I would require selected conventional shopping centers to incrementally transform themselves into walkable, mixed use town centers, as has happened across the nation.

If I were king, I would require buildings to behave themselves. When parking is placed in front of buildings, and buildings are set back an enormous distance from a road, human scale is lost, quality of life is harmed, development is less attractive, and travel by transit, foot or bicycle is less possible. In walkable areas, I would prohibit car parking in front of buildings, and require modest front building setbacks.

If I were king, I would improve citizen comprehension of development actions. Nearly all communities have a nearly incomprehensible set of land development regulations and have a staff which specializes in making presentations and writing reports that are nearly impossible for citizens to understand — thereby subverting democracy and citizen involvement. I would revise city land development codes to radically shrink the size of the land development regulations. Replace jargon and “legalese” with “Plain English” and simple drawings. I would train staff to make presentations and write reports that are easily understood by citizens. I would hire a full-time city employee whose only responsibility is to ensure that city documents and presentations are clearly understandable to citizens.

If I were king, I would create effective incentives for converting downtown surface parking lots into multi-story buildings. Nothing is more deadly to a downtown than the deadening influence of surface parking. To be an attractive destination and to be competitive with the suburbs, a downtown must maximize vibrant, active, economically healthy use of its land, and surface parking works strongly against these objectives. I would allow no net increase in downtown surface parking lots, and would incrementally reduce the amount of existing surface parking. Vertical increases through parking garages would be okay, but only if first floor is retail, office, entertainment, or a combination of these.

If I were king, I would improve sidewalks. Sidewalks improve property values, improve quality of life, create a formal and walkable ambience, create a more human-scaled streetscape, promote safety for pedestrians (particularly seniors and children), and send a message that the community values walking. I would significantly increase funding for sidewalk gap removal, and significantly reduce funding for repair of trivial sidewalk damage (hairline cracks repair is wasteful and gives city a very bad black eye). I would hire a full-time urbanist pedestrian engineer to review site plans.

If I were king, I would rehabilitate creeks. Many urban creeks are placed in pipes, covered over, or otherwise harmed ecologically. I would restore (“daylight”) concrete ditches and channelized creeks to naturalized, meandering creeks. I would rehab creeks in this way as long as walkability can be retained in walkable areas.

If I were king, I would reduce fuel subsidies. Motorists are heavily subsidized not only with free parking and free roads, but also by the fact that gas taxes only pay a tiny fraction of the cost of impacts that motorists impose on society. I would significantly increase the gasoline tax, but only if there is an ironclad assurance that revenue would only be used for bicycling, walking and transit — not road capacity increases.

If I were king, I would establish geography-sensitive impact fees. Nearly all new development—particularly in the suburbs—are heavily subsidized by existing residents. New or increased impact fees can reduce this market distortion by having development pay its own way. I would exempt walkable, self-contained, mixed-use projects.

If I were king, I would strengthen codes enforcement. When people live on smaller lots in a more urbanized area, it is especially important to enforce codes such as the noise ordinance, lighting, dumping, and the like. This is because in “close quarters,” people tend to be less shielded from the actions of their neighbors. There is, therefore, an elevated need for sufficient code enforcement for most people to choose to live in more compact locations to encourage people to live in or near such locations.

If I were king, I would build an off-street greenway system. An off-street greenway path system for bicyclists and pedestrians is a powerful means of improving community quality of life, promoting sociability, and enhancing civic pride. Such paths are also an effective way to provide a “training ground” for novice bicyclists who, through using the paths, can gain the confidence and skill needed to “graduate” to in-street bicycling. I would hire a “Get Things Done” Greenway Czar for effectively moving the city public works department in this direction.

If I were king, I would establish an urban growth or urban service boundary. Because nearly all communities have ruinously allowed departments of transportation to build enormous roads within the city and county, there now exists enormous market pressure to develop residential and retail projects in the remote sprawl areas of the county. The only way to correct that market distortion in the short term (so that the pressure to sprawl is emasculated) is to enact an urban growth boundary around the city. Because of big roads, plans and regulations are completely insufficient, even if every commissioner was anti-growth and pro-compact development.

If I were king, I would make downtown infill development less costly. Reuse and redevelopment in the town center is often highly desirable, and there is often market interest, yet such downtown improvements are not achieved because the developer learns that it is simply too costly to follow various building codes downtown (widening building hallways, for example, is commonly required by contemporary codes, yet such a building modification is nearly always prohibitively expensive). I would create more incentives for more residences and other forms of infill buildings downtown — in part, by lowering the bar for building codes that create obstacles for building retrofits or new buildings. States such as New Jersey and Maryland have effectively achieved this by adopting what they call a “Smart Building Code.”

If I were king, I would adopt a land value tax, which is a levy on the unimproved value of land. It is an ad valorem tax on land that disregards the value of buildings, personal property and other improvements. A land value tax (LVT) is different from other property taxes, because these are taxes on the whole value of real estate: the combination of land, buildings, and improvements to the site. A land value tax, as exemplified by Pittsburgh PA, is a powerful way to promote town center development, as conventional property taxes discourage town center development by punishing the property owner with higher taxes when building improvements are added to the land. The result of the conventional property tax is that it leads many property owners to speculatively hold their property in a low-value use such as a parking lot.

If I were king, I would increase residential densities in appropriate locations. In walkable areas, establish higher residential and commercial densities and mixed use to make walking, transit, and bicycling more feasible, smaller and locally owned (and neighborhood-based) retail more possible, and to make the public realm more vibrant.

If I were king, I would ensure that the primary community farmers market is located within the town center. Too many communities blunder badly by deciding to locate their main farmers market in a peripheral location that can only be reached by car. The result is that it is more costly to shop at the market (in terms of time and transportation cost), and because there are no nearby retail, office or cultural facilities nearby, there are no “spillover” benefits. A number of downtowns throughout the nation enjoy such spin-off benefits, and promote transportation choice, by choosing a downtown market location.

If I were king, I would end the draining of downtown energy. To be healthy and vital, a downtown needs to exhibit “agglomeration economies.” That is, there must be a compact concentration of offices, retail, housing and civic buildings within a walkable, downtown location. Unfortunately, due to our car-crazed society, a number of such destinations have left for peripheral locations to find more free parking, bigger roads, less costly regulations, and less NIMBY opposition. I would prohibit the further dispersal of such “social condensers” from the downtown, such as the conference center, the farmers market, large movie houses, the main post office, government buildings, medieval faire, etc. Importantly, this is achieved by keeping town center roadways small in size and low in speed, as well as minimizing town center surface parking lots.

If I were king, I would adequately fund recreation. One of the great embarrassments of communities throughout the nation is the woeful state of undeveloped, unfunded parks and recreation system. Indeed, most communities spend only pocket change on recreation. I would re-allocate city annual funding (primarily by drawing dollars from the long over-funded police and fire budgets, which I would reduce substantially) to provide substantially more funding for parks and recreation development and programming. And do so without increasing taxes.

Concluding Thoughts

The above agenda is not one that will win any elections in this day and age. But they are all essential, long-neglected tasks that communities must achieve to avoid the downward spiral. It is telling that so much of the above agenda is politically toxic. A better future, however, can only be achieved if a community finds the political leadership to move in these directions.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

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

Making Cars Happy in Gainesville Florida

By Dom Nozzi

April 20, 2005

The following is a heads up I issued to a local elected official friend and another friend, the local transit director regarding some of my observations while serving on the Advisory Board for the Gainesville Metropolitan Area Planning Organization (MTPO) Gardening Club (oops! I meant to say the MTPO Design Team).

There was an item that came before our Board regarding a resurfacing of State Road 20. SR 20 runs from the intersection of North Main Street and 8th Avenue to the intersection of NW 8th Avenue and NW 6th Street. It then runs north on 6th Street to where it intersects with NW 13th Street.

The proposed FDOT resurfacing of SR 20 presents us with a golden opportunity. A nearly cost-free, no-brainer improvement to this route. It is painfully obvious that both of these few blocks of 8th Avenue and the 6th Street section should be re-striped, like the County proposes to do from NW 8th Avenue to NW 16th Avenue on Main Street, so that 8th goes from 5 lanes to 3 and 6th goes from 4 lanes to 3.road-diet (3)

Here are some reasons why it is a no-brainer to re-stripe in this manner:

  • It is essentially cost-free, since the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) needs to re-stripe after re-surfacing anyway.
  • Perhaps the most important, a highly effective way to promote bicycle commuting in Gainesville at the moment is to add in-street bike lanes to NW 6th Street (6th is currently a horrifying experience for even me to bike because of the narrow lanes and the high-speed cars). By taking 6th from 4 lanes to 3, we create sufficient space for bike lanes (and maybe even on-street parking, which I would prefer over bike lanes if we needed to choose one or the other). I’m confident that an enormous number of people would take advantage of bike lanes here.
  • As is now well-known, going from 4 lanes to 3 does not meaningfully reduce the traffic volume capacity of the street. This is because on a 4-laner, the inside lane very regularly serves as a left turn lane when a car needs to turn left, which blocks the traffic behind it. Thus, 4-lane streets are nearly identical to 3-lane streets in terms of volume capacity.
  • Recent studies show that a 3-lane is significantly safer than a 4-lane, partly because it reduces average car speeds and partly because entrance to and exit from a 3 is less complex than a 4 — not to mention improved safety for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users.
  • It gives us a great opportunity to significantly beautify this route, because it enables us to install a lot of raised, landscaped medians (which, of course, add to pedestrian safety as well).
  • It allows us to correct the bizarre situation in which we have 3 or 4 blocks of 8th Avenue from Main to 6th Street as a 5-laner. 8th Avenue west of 6th Street and east of Main is 3 lanes. Why do we have a tiny section as 5 lanes? Particularly in a downtown location that is so intensively used by pedestrians?
  • It will surely result in a number of positive land use changes along SR 20, since it will become a more hospitable place for retail and residential.

Note that when I made one of my rare motions at the Garden Club on April 19th to re-stripe this route in this way, FDOT staff indicated, it goes without saying, that they would not support it. We were told that it would take 6th from LOS “C” to “E.” Of course, I’d welcome such a LOS change (since congestion is our friend), but I strongly question whether it is even true, since my understanding is that 3 lanes and 4 lanes have almost identical capacity.

FDOT also told us that if 6th went to 3 lanes, they would not be able to keep SR 20 there and would have to re-locate it to a parallel route. When I pointed out that a number of communities in Florida have been able to put state roads on a diet without having FDOT remove the state road designation, I was told that this is “District 2” policy. I bit my tongue and resisted the temptation to move that the Garden Club recommend Gainesville “cede” from District 2. Instead, I simply said that “I guess we are stuck with District 2.”

In any event, after just barely getting a second to my motion to re-stripe, the motion was shot down 7-2.

Cars, not people, will remain happy in Gainesville.

Postscript: While serving on this MTPO Design Team, I unsuccessfully proposed that South Main Street be taken from 5 lanes to 3 lanes for very similar reasons. The reaction from FDOT was similarly hostile, and the Design Team failed to even second my motion. In 2017, I learned that Gainesville went ahead and reduced South Main Street from 5 lanes to 3. I am confident the same thing will happen for the roads I describe in the above essay.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design

The Appropriateness of a Neighborhood Association President Expressing an Opinion

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2005

In early 2005, while serving as the president of my neighborhood association, I sent the following letter to a resident of the neighborhood who had expressed concerns about my comments in a recent Association newsletter:

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and concerns about the views I have expressed recently (and over the years) in the “President’s Corner” of the Neighborhood Association (NA) newsletter. I firmly believe that it is healthy for a community and its neighborhood residents to openly express differences of opinion. I am also pleased to know that you have contributed to the NA in the past. Support for the Association is important and appreciated.

Note that I saw your kind email comments to another neighborhood resident about the work I do for the NA, and I appreciate those comments.

To respond to your comments…

First, you note concern about the NA president expressing views as if they were the views of the entire neighborhood, and treating the column as if it were a soapbox. Let me start by saying that the NA is not a gardening club. The initial, on-going, and primary purpose of the NA is to look out for the interests and welfare of the neighborhood, and this inevitably entails that the NA and its officers should and do openly express viewpoints about governmental and private sector plans and actions. Indeed, the NA was formed, in part, to hold forums for candidates running for political office (our 2/22/05 city commission candidate forum is an example of a long-standing tradition of the NA holding candidate forums), and, when necessary, to appear before the City Commission to make appeals for neighborhood interests. In addition, there has been a long NA tradition of inviting elected officials, local government staff, and local developers to NA general meetings to discuss issues, plans and proposed developments in or near the neighborhood (primarily to urge that such issues, plans and developments proceed in a way that is compatible with the neighborhood).

Furthermore, an essential role played by the NA president (both currently and in the past) is to serve as the official spokesperson for the neighborhood. And to do so in a way that, in the judgment of the president and its officers, is promoting the interests and welfare of the neighborhood. This often requires that controversial, highly-charged opinions be openly expressed. Inevitably, in a healthy community, these opinions will not necessarily be shared by all members of the community (in which case, dissent should be expressed). However, it is important that the president provides a viewpoint that is believed to promote the welfare of the neighborhood, rather than be silent on issues that are important to the neighborhood welfare. Should the neighborhood be silent on such issues, there is great danger that the neighborhood will convey the implied message that it has no concerns or viewpoints about its welfare.

Neighborhood silence can easily lead to quite inappropriate, harmful actions being taken by elected officials, public staff, or private developers with regard to neighborhood interests.

In sum, it is entirely appropriate for the NA president to use her or his judgment to frequently and openly express viewpoints believed to be in the interests of the neighborhood, even if those viewpoints are considered “controversial,” or if it is known that the opinion is not shared by everyone in the neighborhood.  Limiting the views of the NA president to only those in which there is a known neighborhood consensus would not be practical or desirable as it would be exceptionally difficult to ascertain what views are considered a consensus. And even if it were possible to know when consensus was reached, the consensus views would be almost exclusively composed of trivial, unhelpful, non-statements (the neighborhood, after all, has residents with widely differing opinions on nearly all important issues — as it should).

You note that the NA president suggests that the neighborhood “insist” that a new nearby business be designed in a way that is compatible with the neighborhood. You indicate that it is not appropriate for a neighborhood to tell a private property owner how to design their private property.

On the contrary, I believe it is extremely appropriate (indeed, I would call it an obligation) for the neighborhood and its elected representatives to express opinions about how developments near and within the neighborhood are designed.

Why?

Because developments in or near a neighborhood can have a very direct, significant impact on the welfare (the property values or quality of life or civic pride) of the neighborhood. The US Supreme Court acknowledged this approximately 80 years ago (and continues to affirm this in its decisions since then) by granting local governments the power to zone private land and apply land development regulations to such land. By doing so, the Court clearly acknowledges that such power is both appropriate and necessary “to protect the health, safety and welfare” of the community. Examples of these constitutionally permissible, appropriate powers applying to private property include sign regulations, zoning regulations stating which uses are allowed on which private properties in a community, building setbacks, noise regulations, building height limits, parking regulations, controlling access to public roads, building and electrical code safety regulations, stormwater control regulations, fire regulations, utility regulations, etc.

Community public safety would be dangerously compromised if this regulation and oversight were not in place. Only if the development of the site would have no affect on the health, safety and welfare of those who visit the site or those who live near the site should the property owner be granted the ability to “do anything she or he pleases to do with their private property.” A long-recognized ethical principal states that your right to swing your fist ends at the beginning of my nose.

I don’t believe it is fair to describe my comments about the proposed 16th Avenue and Main Street development to be comments of “disdain.” Indeed, I am largely impressed by what is proposed and what the designers are willing to do to create a higher quality project. My comments were intended to simply have the neighborhood residents be vigilant about the proposed design of the site so that it can perhaps become an evenco better design (from the point of view of neighborhood interests), and to be on guard against design revisions that would be undesirable to neighborhood welfare. I apologize if the wording of my comments suggested otherwise.

Note, as an aside, that with regard to equity, the public has every right to have a say as to how the property at 16th Avenue and Main Street is developed, as a substantial amount of the commercial value embodied in that property is due to road and utility improvements which were paid for by public tax revenues.

As for the Main Street views I expressed, I offer no apologies for the position I proudly take (and publicly express). While my views are not necessarily those of the City of Gainesville, they are views that are consistent with a recent vote of our city and county commission sitting as the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO).

In addition, I have been a senior city planner in Gainesville for nearly 18 years with a master’s degree in city planning. A few years ago, I wrote the long-range transportation plan for the City, and served, professionally, on a design team for the reconstruction of Main Street.

In preparation for much of that work, I conducted substantial, thorough research of published literature and analyzed the work done in communities throughout America. What I have learned is that in countless communities (many of which are quite similar to this city), a courageous decision was made to reduce the number of travel lanes on large community roads within the community. Invariably, this sort of road “restoration” in cities in all parts of the nation lead to dramatic, nearly overnight improvements in street safety (for motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users), retail and residential health, and civic pride. It is quite astonishing to see how many communities have experienced such a substantial improvement in these community factors so quickly and inexpensively. Far from “making it more difficult to travel,” these “diets” usually improve not only motorist safety but also improve driving pleasure and convenience.

Which helps explain why our MTPO voted in favor of the idea.

All of this helps explain why I recently wrote a book entitled “Road to Ruin,” published in October 2003 by a national publisher (Praeger Publishers in Connecticut), and why I am regularly invited to speak throughout Florida and the nation about the viewpoints expressed in the book.

The above observations help explain why I believe I know a thing or two about the proper design of streets such as Main Street, and partly why I believed it was appropriate for me to make my viewpoint known in the NA newsletter.

You should know that on a number of occasions, I have remained silent on issues that troubled me and were related to the neighborhood. Largely, these are issues where I don’t believe I have sufficient information or knowledge about the topic, or don’t believe there is sufficient neighborhood support for the view which I hold about the topic. In general, I strive to have the views I express at NA meetings and in the newsletter be tempered by what I believe are acceptable (or officially approved) by the NA Board of Directors and the majority of neighborhood residents.

In closing, let me point out that you are more than welcome to run for president, vice-president, or Board of Directors of the NA so that you would have a larger voice in what views are expressed by the NA. Or to urge others to do so, should you feel the desire to influence the viewpoints expressed by the NA. Having the NA be silent — even if silence is only applied to issues considered “controversial” — is, I believe, a recipe for neighborhood decline, and a dereliction of duties for its duly-elected office-holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Transportation, Urban Design

Problems Associated with Car Happy Community Design

By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

As a general point, low density locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible.

A sense of community is non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there is no “there there.”large lot subdivision

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. Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded,” even when we are talking about “cow town” numbers.

The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Note that 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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

NIMBYs and the Environmentalists Fighting the Wrong Battle

By Dom Nozzi

November 26, 2000

While I agree that it is nearly always suburbanites who are cloaking their NIMBY arguments under the moral-high-ground mantle of environmentalism, it is far too often the case that strong, intelligent environmentalists (who perhaps should know better) often get caught up in the NIMBY hysteria. It has only been recently that the national Sierra Club has started to stop (at least in some of their public statements) their widespread NIMBY efforts and focused more attention on the real culprit — sprawl.

In the Florida town where I worked as a town planner, a number of in-town projects were hammered by intelligent environmentalists — environmentalists who were comparatively silent in the face of the incremental, relentless, profound, larger-scale ecological destruction that happens in outlying (sprawl) areas.

In the grander scheme of things, the natural environment is much better off if a few urban trees are lost, a disturbed urban woodland is replaced by housing, or the habitat for a few raccoons and squirrels is removed rather than the common alternative: the loss of hundreds of acres of nearly pristine woodlands, and high-quality habitat that is home to, say, eagles, fox squirrels, and gopher tortoise.

I honestly don’t believe there is a third choice: Loss of neither. I believe that south Florida and southern California are testaments to the belief that there was a third choice.

I continue to remain highly annoyed (but not surprised) that for many intelligent environmentalists, minimizing residential densities is the be-all-and-end-all of NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341environmental conservation when it comes to urban development. I shall not name names, but there are local environmentalists who were guilty of this just this past week. There is little that I can think of that is a more ruinous strategy for our future in this county than to persist in the strategy of thinking that low densities will save us.

Environmentalists must get on board with the idea that we need higher, livable densities (or to give it a less controversial name, “compact development”) in proper locations. If this does not happen, we will have no chance of averting a car-happy south Florida future…

My experience, in other words, is that it is not just suburbanites cloaked as environmentalists.

The key to a future rich in sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and civic pride is modest size. Modestly sized street dimensions. Modest distances between land uses (and, implicitly, modest community and neighborhood size). Modest building setbacks. By stark contrast, sprawl is most accurately defined by large size. Big setbacks, large distances to destinations, tall lights, massive parking lots, and huge street dimensions. In other words, sprawl is characterized by being scaled for cars, not people.

Far too many environmentalists fight, ironically, for excessive sizes in their advocacy regarding local development.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Generalists versus Specialists

By Dom Nozzi

August 12, 2000

An important reason why bureaucrats tend to drown in minutia, get caught up in jargon and details, and become specialists (rather than much-preferred Big Picture generalists) is that bureaucrats lack power, trust, credibility, and respect. And loss of those things, as Duany points out, is in many ways due to our flight from traditional neighborhood design principles.

The result for many bureaucrats is to delve into details and promote mystification (jargon, models, etc.) in a desperate effort to remain relevant or somehow needed. Of course, such an approach is merely a downward spiral for planners and designers.bu

Another obstacle to public town planners being more than just milquetoast bureaucrats — and again, this relates to the flight from traditionalism — is that the level of civility is at an all-time low and NIMBYism is at an all-time high. Part of the result is a widespread fear and paranoia on the part of elected officials, which leads the officials to lay down the law that bureaucrats (including planners) shall not have any opinions, and especially not say anything that might possibly make someone unhappy.

And of course, such an approach delivers lowest common denominator milquetoast and mediocrity in how we build our communities.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Urban Design

Fixing Florida Growth Management Law with a TCEA Exception Area

By Dom Nozzi

February 25, 2000

The Florida Growth Management law adopted in 1985 had a serious flaw regarding its “concurrency” rules that stated that new development could not lower adopted levels of service. The rule sounded wonderful, but had a serious, unintended consequence when applied to roads because it strongly promoted new development to occur in outlying areas where road capacity was plentiful. Such capacity is quite scarce in the in-town locations where new development is more desirable from the point of view of a community.

In other words, the law was strongly promoting sprawl and strongly discouraging infill development in town centers – the opposite of the intent of the law.

The major fix attempted for this flaw was for the State of Florida to adopt what it called “transportation concurrency exception areas” (TCEA) that communities could establish if they demonstrated to the State that they had factors in place to make such an exception work better (such as the provision of transit service in the exception area). To adopt TCEA as a tweak of the State growth law was essential to avoid the enormous unintended consequence of promoting sprawl and discouraging infill.

The TCEA has achieved two critical goals: Allowing communities to avoid having to enforce road concurrency where infill is desired, and removing a powerful sprawl incentive. Because road concurrency is the only level of service standard that matters,large lot subdivision because urban roads just outside the city are filling up, and because we need to reverse the fact that growth is much more rapid in such unincorporated urban areas around Florida cities than within cities (which is highly detrimental for a number of reasons), we need to be careful. Because even a paper tiger TCEA (ie, a TCEA that has weak conditions for being granted) is significantly better than no TCEA.

Having said all that, here are some tools for strengthening the TCEA rule, off the top of my head, to use TCEA to incentivize infill and discourage sprawl.

  • Be sure the TCEA is modest in size so that we can focus more on those areas where we truly want to encourage development. The TCEA area, in other words, should not extend out to suburban, drivable locations where transportation choice will not arise for several decades, if ever. Another benefit to a more modest TCEA size is that a smaller TCEA allows us to have stronger standards, since we inherently have to water TCEA down if it applies to an overly large area that captures suburbs.
  • Prevent the County from adopting their own TCEA in unincorporated urban areas around the city, since that would obviously would apply the TCEA to suburban sprawl locations where transportation choice is unlikely or impossible.
  • Within the TCEA, allow no net increase in road capacity: No new travel lanes or turn lanes.
  • Remove the parking minimum requirement within the TCEA. Requiring the provision of [free] parking as a condition for development approval is a fertility drug for cars.
  • Establish a high level of service for transit in the TCEA—say, a 10-minute transit frequency.
  • Do not allow drive-throughs.
  • If a project is over, say, 5 dwelling units or 10,000 square feet, require that the building be at least 2 stories high.
  • Allow no new cul-de-sacs.
  • Within a TCEA town or neighborhood center, require a minimum number of residential units per “X” square feet of non-residential floor area.
  • Require the commercial building front facade to be 0-20 feet from the front property line (for both streets if on a corner), and allow no car parking in front of the building.
  • Allow no block faces greater than 400-500 feet.
  • Require curb and gutter.
  • Pay RTS so that each employee or resident in the project is given a free transit pass.

Only with such meaningful requirements can a TCEA achieve growth management goals and not promote undesirable unintended consequences.

Leave a comment

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

TCEA and Not Engaging in Real Town Planning

By Dom Nozzi

12/15/99

The policies of the Transportation Concurrency Exception Area (TCEA) used by the Florida city I work for as a long-range town planner are rather mushy because nearly all of them are optional or are simply insignificant window-dressing. Will we really have transportation choice if a developer installs more bike parking or sidewalks or bus stops?

Please.

It is highly disappointing and embarrassing to realize that there are people that actually believe such facilities will reduce car trips.

I wrote the Urban Design portion of the long-range comprehensive plan for this city, but the director of the department watered it down severely. He threw out a third of it (which included my prized “toolbox” describing the benefits and mechanisms for nearly all of the critical urban design features). He also put in a large number of policies that merely state that the City shall do things that have already been agreed to (i.e., the City shall implement the previously adopted special area plan for a neighborhood in the city).

While there is some merit to doing that, since a new commission majority would find it a bit harder to throw out the plan, doing so is not really planning at all. All it says is that we will do what we’ve already agreed to do.

A secretary could have written such policies. Why does the City need professional planners if we’re not doing any planning? Also note that policies in this long-range plan mostly do not get translated into land development code requirements, especially if they are mushy policies, as ours are.sprawl-development

I was forced to chop out numbers in the policies of the plan, since I was told that numbers need to be left for the code-writing stage.

In other words, don’t expect much meaningful revision to our land development code.

Through this watering down, it is fairly easy to claim to the Florida Department of Community Affairs that we’ve implemented policies, even though we have not meaningfully done so.

The comprehensive plan and code changes will give us almost nothing, and it bothers me, since we’re giving away the store and getting nothing in return when we exempt proposed development from concurrency requirements. This is the one big chance the City has to finally stop acting like a doormat. We should say, “yes, we’ll exempt you from our concurrency requirements, but only if you give us some meaningful concessions.”

For example, the City should (but doesn’t) require such design in the town center in exchange for concurrency exemption:

  1. Buildings must be pulled up to the streetside sidewalk.
  2. No parking is allowed in front of your building.
  3. On-street parking is required.
  4. At least 80 percent of your units must be within 1/4 mile of a bus stop if you are residential, and transit passes and parking fees are required for your employees if you are non-residential.
  5. Your building must be a minimum of 2 stories for non-residential buildings.
  6. Walkable town center design is required (above rules, plus mixed use, gridded street pattern, connections to surrounding residential neighborhoods, etc.).
  7. No more than 4 fueling positions are allowed for a proposed gas station.
  8. You must contribute to greenway trail construction, or cash-in-lieu if your project is not near a trail system.

Only with such conditional requirements does a City avoid giving away the store when exempting a proposed development from state concurrency requirements.

Leave a comment

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

The Emperor is Wearing No Clothes: Exposing Town Planning for the Ruinous Travesty It Has Become

By Dom Nozzi

October 31, 2017

Back in 1985, I somehow managed to obtain a master’s degree in town planning. But it was not until about eight years into my professional planning career that I was to realize that for several decades, my chosen profession had become a compromised sham.

This epiphany happened to me about 25 years ago when a friend of mine in Gainesville FL gave me a videotape of what I believe is one of the most important, influential, revolutionary speeches ever given on the topic of town planning. It was a speech delivered in 1989 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by a young Florida architect by the name of Andres Duany.

Duany’s speech gave town planning a well-deserved, much-needed kick in the pants.

I was shocked to learn from Duany that a century ago, town planners and developers were heroes. For several decades, of course, the opposite has become the case. Planners have become powerless incompetents and developers are more evil than Satan.

What caused this 180-degree shift in perspective?

What we learn in the Duany speech is that the reputation of town planners and developers was destroyed because the timeless tradition that communities followed for time immemorial was abandoned. That is, about a century ago, communities decided that instead of designing our community and our transportation system to make people happy, we would instead design to make cars happy.Road to Ruin book 2003

This powerful take on what has happened to our world explains so much.

It explains why town planners have become little more than mindless, robotic bureaucrats who have but one overriding mission: Become paper pushing clerks who issue or deny development permits based on whether the proposal will promote easy car travel or inhibit car travel.

It explains why developers are now villains. In nearly all cases, developers up to a century ago built things that improved quality of community life because the design objective was to promote human happiness. But the model for developers changed about a century ago. Now, the objective was to promote car happiness.

There are two primary reasons why this changed mission by town planners and developers is ruinous.

First, those community attributes that most people find appealing – compactness, human-scale, slower speeds, sociability, civic pride, timelessness, a subdued ambiance, and safety – are nearly the exact opposite of what is needed to make for easy car travel. Happy motoring requires dispersion, gigantic car scaling, dangerously higher speeds, glaring lights, and isolation – and each of these things undercuts civic pride, timelessness and safety.

The second reason this change is ruinous is that it is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Car travel is a zero-sum game, because nearly everything we do to promote car travel makes walking, bicycling and transit more difficult. Car ownership also creates a strong vested interest on the part of the car owner to see to it that car travel is cheap and easy. By making walking, bicycling, and transit more difficult, car ownership continuously recruits new car owners. This century-long recruitment now means that even in the most bicycle-friendly US cities (including Boulder CO), there are more cars than people.

The result is that nearly all of us make nearly all of our trips by car. We angrily demand that our elected officials ease our car travel – after all, our cars make it so difficult to get around by walking, bicycling, or transit! We have therefore become our own worst enemies because as I note above, promoting car travel is an exceptionally powerful means of destroying quality of life.

Because cars require an enormous amount of space, motorists feel crowded even with just a tiny number of fellow citizens also in cars. As Dan Burden once said, “cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.” Given this, a large percentage of Americans are NIMBYs on steroids who engage in ongoing pitched battles with developers and elected officials and town planners to demand ultra low development densities (including short buildings), huge parking lots, and massively wide roads.

Developers, citizens, town planners, and elected officials therefore tend to have one overriding mission: promote easy car travel! We must have wide roads. More (and free) parking. More car subsidies and more glaring lights. We must stop compact development.

It is a mission of community ruin.

The key for a better future, then, is to return to the timeless tradition of designing for people, not cars.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking