By Dom Nozzi
There is an old, well-known Chinese adage that from crisis comes opportunity. The pandemic we are now in is a severe crisis, and for all of us today, a crisis that pushes us into uncharted waters.
Fortunately, we can leverage this health crisis to create significantly better public health and public safety through timeless transportation and urban design principles that were once nearly universal, yet have languished over the past century – much to the detriment of public health and safety.
A Time of Crisis
We face a number of crises that are growing in magnitude. At the top of our minds today is the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis arose lightning fast and we are all laser-focused on it as a result of the 24/7 coverage by all media outlets.
But there are three other enormous societal crises that seem less immediately important, but only because they have been slow-motion problems for several decades, rather than emerging overnight like the pandemic. These other societal problems are akin to the “frog in the slowly heating pot of water” syndrome, where most of us don’t notice the water slowly heating, so we don’t jump out of the pot in time to save ourselves. Those slow-motion emergencies include:
- Traffic Safety. For the past 70 years, the number of traffic fatalities in the US has ranged from 35,000 to 55,000 deaths per year. This is the equivalent to one hundred 747 jetliners crashing and killing everyone aboard every year, or two fully loaded 747s crashing and killing everyone aboard every week. This is barbaric, and a death rate no civilized society should tolerate.
- Physical Fitness. Our society is facing a severe public health crisis. Obesity and other significant lifestyle-related health problems have skyrocketed in recent decades. For the first time in history, the youngest generation is not expected to live as long as the generation that preceded it.
- Woefully Poor Financial Health. All levels of government and millions of American households are facing severe financial troubles. The United States, for example, is by far the world’s largest debtor nation.
The good news is that as the Chinese taught us, we can find ways to turn these threatening crises into exciting opportunities to create a stronger, healthier, happier future. We already know a great deal about these opportunities to move us out of these crises, and most of them are not difficult or costly to implement.
For positive opportunities to emerge, we need to have the courage to boldly innovate. But to innovate, we need to be aware of misconceptions.
- Pandemic Infections. Conventional wisdom wrongly informs too many of us today that going forward, we will have lower infection rates and better public health if we continue moving toward more dispersed, lower-density land use patterns. But our best science informs us that this is simply not true. Data clearly shows that there is no connection between city density and infection rates or death rates. This is because a person’s likelihood of infection is largely tied to prolonged indoor exposure rather than the density of housing in a neighborhood. Prolonged indoor exposure (including being inside a car) is as likely in lower-density communities as higher-density communities – maybe more so. And recovery from infection is connected to readily available, higher-quality medical services. Such medical services tend to be more available in denser cities than in less-dense communities.
- Traffic Safety and Managing Congestion. Again, tens of thousands have died on American roads every year for the past century. Indeed, it is also arguable that after a century of improved safety efforts, our roads are now more dangerous than ever in many communities. This shocking, long-term traffic safety failure is largely based on a societal over-emphasis on single-mindedly promoting car travel, and our failure to learn that conventional congestion reduction tactics only make our roads more congested and less safe over time. Another factor is our century-long use of the “forgiving roadway” design strategy, which “forgives” an inattentive, speeding motorist in part by removing things such a motorist can crash into. The result is a large and growing epidemic of inattentive motorists who too often drive too fast. A third major reason for our century of failure in reducing traffic deaths is that we are suffering greatly diminishing returns in our century-long use of the ineffective “Five W’s.” To improve traffic safety, we persist in calling for more of the following: (1) Warning signs; (2) Warning lights; (3) Warning paint; (4) Warning enforcement; and (5) Warning education. These five things are not effective in promoting traffic safety, and are becoming less effective the more we continue to use them.
Fortunately, our society does not need to come up with major new breakthroughs for seemingly impossible-to-solve problems with no solutions in sight. For decades, individuals and groups have sought to advance tactics that are time-tested and known to be effective. We describe the effective tactics below.
- Infections. Reducing rates of infection and deaths due to infection, according to medical professionals and science-based studies, is best achieved in communities that are designed for easy, pleasant, safe, and frequent walking and bicycling (because physically active people strengthen their immune system). That is, communities that are compact, human-scaled, and mix housing with offices and shops and schools. This design induces large numbers of people to engage in health-promoting travel and reduce health-endangering driving (driving that kills many Americans each year from crashes – not to mention the toxic car emissions, noise pollution, and physical inactivity that degrades our health). By being healthier through increased physical activity that comes from regular walking and bicycling, we strengthen our immune system, improve our lungs, promote neighborly “social capital,” reduce stress, and boost the effectiveness of vaccines. By contrast, those living in low-density residential suburbs are relatively inactive because most all of their travel must be by motor vehicle. This lifestyle weakens human immune function. And therefore makes our bodies more fragile and susceptible to disease. In a world where millions of bacteria and viruses are always near us in cities and suburbs, the key for avoiding serious infection problems is based on a strong immune system, not isolation. In sum, resilience against current and future infection is best achieved with compact, sociable places where it is easy and common to walk to shops and schools and other daily needs. A part of this is the growing interest in closing or redesigning streets to reduce infection and improve our quality of life. We know that infection rates go down more substantially when people are outdoors rather than indoors, which has led restaurant owners to ask that street space be re-allocated to non-car use by extending restaurant seating into streets. Many are noticing that during the pandemic, smog is clearing and cites are quieter due to lower levels of car travel. This has led many cities to redesign streets for more slow-speed people-oriented activity, or close streets to cars. Many streets are therefore becoming more like the shared, safe Dutch “Woonerfs” or European walking streets. This tends to induce a large community increase in walking, cycling, safety, conversation, and smiles. The good news for drivers is that lower-speed design means a reduced need for stop signs or other roadway controls, which means motorists need to stop less often.
- Traffic Safety and Congestion. There is a growing worldwide movement toward the keys to improved traffic safety. Those keys are centered on slowing down. “Slow Cities” and “Slow Foods” are two examples of this, and the results are impressive. Designing streets to obligate slower, more attentive driving by reducing the width or size of streets or intersections is effectively reducing crashes and traffic deaths. Traffic engineers must be given the authority to be flexible in the designs they use in street design, rather than be obligated to follow “conventional” dimensions – which tend to be excessive and induce excessive car speeds. Fortunately, the design manuals engineers use provide that flexibility, in spite of conventional wisdom. By creating slow, attentive “walking (or “open”) streets,” we are opening the door to a growth in the number of compact, convivial, front-porch oriented neighborhoods. This, in turn, results in more health-promoting community walking and bicycling, which strengthens our immune system. The more slow-speed, compact community also allows another essential benefit: It allows us to AVOID congestion (congestion that is inevitable in a healthy city). In a healthy city, the large size of cars in a car-dependent society leads to unavoidable congestion – congestion that only worsens if we widen roads, for example. Why? Because road widening induces people to drive more often. It is one of the Iron Laws of Transportation that you cannot build (or widen) yourself out of congestion. But you CAN avoid getting stuck in it with the proper community design.
- Finances. Low-density, car-based community design has bankrupted federal, state, and local government because the cost to provide and maintain the roads and parking lots and accoutrements for that lifestyle is fantastically high. Governments cannot afford the cost largely because density of development must be kept low to make car driving and parking reasonably tolerable. That low density does not come close to providing enough tax revenue to pay for the needed car-based transportation system. Indeed, strongtowns.org calls these low-density suburbs that cannot pay their own way a “Ponzi-Scheme.” Households also suffer significantly in a car-based community. In a community where nearly all travel must be made by car, a household must own a larger number of cars, and the annual cost to own and operate each car now exceeds $10,000 per year. This obligation to own several cars in an American household helps explain why the cost of transportation for the American household has gone from about two percent of the total household budget 100 years ago to 22 percent (and rising) of the household budget today. Reducing the number of cars a house must own – through compact, walkable design — is therefore an effective way to create affordable housing.
- Resilience and Strength. The car-dependent, isolating (low social capital) suburb is highly vulnerable to serious decline in a future where we experience severe and inevitable declines or disruptions in such things as economics, energy, and climate change. That is, a car-dependent community, like physically inactive people, is extremely fragile. By striking contrast, a community designed to be compact, low-speed, and sociable is comparatively strong and resilient. A community offering several forms of active travel (walking, bicycling, and transit) is relatively able to adapt to inevitable future change or survive impacts such as a pandemic.
The desirability and rarity of human-scaled, compact, slower-speed design in American cities highlights that an important strategy we need for a better future is associated with our cities having too much space. Too much space allocated to car travel and parking. Too much distance created between destinations. Not that we have too much in the way of parks or squares or plazas or other “open spaces,” but that we have buildings that are set back too far from sidewalks. Too many “sea of asphalt” parking lots. Roads that contain too many travel and turn lanes. Intersections that have grown too enormous. Too much distance between the home and both neighbors and the corner store.
Our first and most important task for creating the walkability that healthy, strong, and happy people the world over love is to create modest, human-scaled city spaces. To make spaces to drive and store a car smaller in size by reallocating that space to “people-oriented” activities such as restaurants or strolling – particularly in our town centers.
What Is To Be Done in America?
To best implement what we call for above, these should be our top priorities for America.
- Reform Our Land Use Zoning. We need higher allowable densities. We also need zoning that allows the following by right: accessory dwelling units, mini- and micro-housing, small shops and small offices, co-housing, and duplexes. Relax or eliminate setback or landscaping requirements. This reform effectively creates more affordable housing, and has been accomplished in Minneapolis and Oregon.
- Slow, Attentive Streets. Particularly within town centers, make slow street design (mostly through modest, human-scaled street and intersection dimensions) the default design. Calm high-speed streets with smaller street and intersection dimensions. “Forgiving Street Design” preferences overallocation of space to cars, and substantially worsens traffic safety by promoting excess speeds and inattentive driving. Replace this philosophy with “Attentive, Slow-Speed Design,” which preferences slower, safer, more human-scaled streets and intersections. One beneficial change that would result from this revised philosophy is that our streets would more likely be gracefully enveloped by street trees (street trees abutting the street tend to be discouraged by Forgiving design). End our counterproductive, century-long habit of overallocating road space to cars by putting a moratorium on road and intersection widening. America has allocated far too much urban space to car travel and storage. This undermines an enormous number of societal health and safety objectives. The health and innovative creativity of a city depends on clustering (economists call this “agglomermation economies”), and over-allocating space to cars severely undermines clustering by dispersing the city into sprawl. We need road and parking lot diets, restaurant seating expanding into roads, landscaped bulb-outs, and smaller intersections. Widening increases per capita car-based travel, worsens traffic congestion in the long-run, imposes unaffordable maintenance costs on government, degrades public health, and increases the number of traffic fatalities. America needs far more welcoming, healthy, shared streets such as Woonerfs, living streets, open streets, walking streets, and give-way streets. Making our communities and transportation systems more compact and slower speed effectively improves our ability to reduce infection and death rates, significantly improves our physical fitness, and dramatically improves the financial condition of all levels of government as well as our households.
- Reform parking. We need to convert minimum required parking rules to maximum allowable parking, unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing, tax parking spaces, allow housing and shops and offices to replace parking by right, and replace off-street parking with on-street parking (this is a low-cost, quick way to calm traffic, enhance business health, and put over-sized roads on a diet).
- User Fees. For a much more equitable and societally beneficial future, revenue needed to provide for car travel should move substantially toward user fees (such as metered parking, road tolling, or Vehicle Miles Traveled fees) rather than unfairly relying on property tax or sales taxes.
- Restore Passenger Rail. Restoring America’s formerly impressive passenger rail system is a powerful tool for building great neighborhoods and great cities. If we are to soon see a massive transportation infrastructure stimulus in response to the pandemic, that stimulus needs to include a big expansion in American passenger rail. For the coming decades, the emphasis should be getting the most bang (mileage) for the buck by emphasizing slow-speed rail. High-speed rail is sexy and exciting, but it buys us very little rail mileage because the cost is enormous. Some of that slow-speed rail can later become, incrementally, high-speed.
- Reduce the Size of Service Vehicles. For better public safety, better public health, and a higher quality of life, street dimensions should be dictated bases on slow-speed, human-scaled, place-making design. Unfortunately, American roads tend to use a “design vehicle” to dictate road dimensions. This design vehicle tends to be enormous service vehicles such as fire trucks and buses. This is backward. And substantially undermines societal objectives. Reducing service vehicle sizes used in a community is a way to escape this unintended consequence.
- Reform Property Taxes. Nearly all American cities strongly discourage compact, mixed use, infill development with their tax structure. Instead of strongly discouraging infill (and encouraging surface parking for land speculation) by taxing improvements to land (renovations, infill, etc.), we should be taxing the land. This has been done in Pittsburgh. It is known as a “land value tax” (or “single tax”).
- Convert One-Way Streets Back to Two-Way. A great many cities are implementing this reform because one-way streets undermine several community objectives. They harm residential and retail health, increase the amount of inattentive and high-speed driving, increase motorist frustration, induce more wrong-way travel, produce confusion for out-of-town motorists, increase the distances driven by car, and reduce gaps in car platoons.
- Better Train Transportation Engineers to Speak Objective, Plain English. Too often, professional transportation engineers use so much jargon, biased language, and bureaucratic terminology that their presentations or written recommendations are nearly incomprehensible to a non-professional audience of citizens. This is an important problem, as it is essential for neighborhood citizens to be fully aware of what is being communicated to them as problems or options or plans from professionals. Without a full comprehension, citizens are not fully able to participate in transportation discussions that are often significantly affecting their safety or quality of life. They have less ability to express their concerns about transportation. This can give too much decision making to the professional staff – including missing important information about problems to be solved. An effective way to correct this is to better train professionals to speak plainly and speak without bias. We provide guidelines in the appendix of this document.
Many of these design practices were followed for most of human history (in America, up until approximately World War II). It is time to start returning to that tradition. There is no better way to address pandemics, loss of physical health, financial woes, traffic safety, improving our transportation system, or promoting our quality of life.
Plain English and Objective Language Guidelines