Monthly Archives: November 2022

Permanently Pedestrianize Pearl?

By Dom Nozzi

The Boulder Colorado City Council recently considered permanently closing Pearl Street west of the Mall.

One response to the pandemic on Pearl Street has been to allow retailers to expand into public streets and sidewalks. In the case of Pearl Street west of the Mall, this has included closing the street to cars.

While I largely supported these reforms, I would urge caution. Yes, the idea of reallocating space on Pearl Street to move away from exclusive car use is long overdue and would achieve important benefits. But there are a few likely negative outcomes.

A lot of us “put people before cars” folks will see the idea of closing Pearl to cars beyond Pearl St Mall as irresistibly seductive.

I’m not so sure.

Urban designers know that prohibiting cars on more than a few blocks is almost always fatal to retail unless there is sufficiently compact mixed-use development along the street. Pearl is far less compact than is needed to support more closure.

Another worry: one suggestion is to reallocate space from cars to make Pearl a one-way street. One-way conversion was popular in the 60s and 70s, but we now know they are terrible for a town center – particularly for retail. A growing number of one-ways are therefore being converted back to two-way.

Even with a pandemic crisis, it is politically difficult to close streets to cars.

Fortunately, there is a Third Way.

A compromise that would offer enormous benefits, be relatively feasible politically, promote retail health, retain fire truck access, and enhance public health (from both added social distancing space and boosting the amount of walking and bicycling) is a “woonerf.”

I believe the woonerf is a “Third Way” design. It creates a low-speed street design on Pearl – a “living street” safely shared by cars, pedestrians and cyclists (Google “woonerf,” or go to Woonerfs can be installed quickly, relatively cheaply, and temporarily if they do not work out.

Some people call such design “give-way” streets, where the two-way street is so narrow that the motorist must “give-way” to an on-coming car.

Low-speed design would allow two-way car travel to continue on Pearl, but would obligate motorists to drive very slowly (say, 10-15 mph) and very attentively. So much so that even children and seniors would be safe and happy to sit in the street or walk or bicycle in the street.

I recommend the woonerf treatment for Pearl west of the Mall to 9th Street and east of the Mall to, say, 19th Street.

How is a low-speed two-way street created? On Pearl, it would mean the removal of the awful design decision of a continuous left-turn (suicide) lane in the middle of the street. That alone allows ample space reallocation.

Second, shrink the width of the travel lanes to, say, 9 feet each. Also shrink the height of signs and street lights to create a “low-speed ambiance.” Add street furniture, and plenty of new green tree, shrub and flower landscaping in elevated “planter” boxes to the street (exactly the way it was done on Pearl St Mall, by the way).

Woonerfs typically eliminate curbs and elevated sidewalks to signal that the street is slow-speed and shared between cars, cyclists, and walkers. By doing each of these things, we would create an extremely safe, happy, vibrant Pearl Street that prioritizes people (cyclists, peds, seniors, and children) over cars without eliminating cars.

Cars, as is the case in Dutch woonerfs, are able to remain but they are obligated by the street design to be very slow speed and safely attentive. Retail and restaurant businesses would flourish with the big increase in space, and the much slower speeds by motorists (who, because they are driving more slowly, are more likely to stop and be customers).

The new street design would lead to a jump in the number of pedestrians and cyclists on Pearl Street who were previously too worried to walk or bike there due to the pro-car design. By allowing slow-speed cars, a woonerf allows a city with insufficient compactness to deliver sufficient customers to businesses along the street.

So yes! Let’s reallocate space on Pearl so that it is pro-people rather than pro-car. But let’s do it right, and avoid the mistakes of the past.

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Widening a Road to Solve Congestion is Like Loosening Your Belt to Solve Obesity

By Dom Nozzi

Greenville is not “overcrowded.”  

There are not too many people. There are too many people in cars.

For there to be less “crowding,” we need more compact land use patterns. Counterintuitive, but true nevertheless.

True because the most important reason why most believe a community has become “too crowded” is that motor vehicles consume an enormous amount of space. Higher levels of per capita motor vehicle travel – levels that are highest when land use patterns are dispersed and low-density – are the primary cause of high levels of motor vehicle travel.

Compactness gives us better quality of life, less motor vehicle dependence, more transit use, more walking, more bicycling, more safety, better public health, better financial health for Greenville (and its small shops and its families), less air pollution, less car-crash deaths, and less climate change. Conversely, car-oriented development is a bankrupting Ponzi Scheme, because car-oriented development seems to produce attractive tax revenue up front, but actually fails to pay its own way, which bankrupts communities in the long run.

Oversizing for cars leads to a Greenville that is losing its desired “small town feel.”

Greenville has too much open space (most of us incorrectly think the reverse). We have excess open space because we over-allocate space for motor vehicles. Space for oversized roads, oversized parking, and oversized building setbacks needs to be replaced with buildings for a more human-scaled community. Two important ingredients for Greenville to be healthy: “agglomeration economies” (ie, clustered compactness), and slower speed vehicle travel. Indeed, there is a worldwide effort to create “slower-speed cities.”

Greensville needs to reduce excessive town center noise pollution to better promote compact development. Sirens are overused. We need emergency vehicle agencies (police, fire, medical) and trains to significantly reduce their siren use and decibels. There are several ways to reduce siren noise without compromising public safety. Greenville also suffers from an abundance of loud mufflers.

We can lower noise and improve safety by designing our streets to obligate motorists to drive slower and attentively. A healthy town center has no streets larger than three lanes, and almost never uses turn lanes. I count 14 oversized Greenville downtown roads over that size that need a road diet (removing excess lanes). Slower speeds also happen with priced on-street parking, and Greenville needs a lot more of that parking.

Greenville’s Main Street – formerly suffering abandonment, crime, and speeding – experienced the best restoration in the nation when it was road dieted. The diet for Main – what many call the pride of Greenville — makes Main a place that attracts people and brings prosperity due to human-scaled, slower-speed, community-building charm. There’s no reason we could not apply the same restorative medicine to the other 14 oversized roads. The first step? Take ownership of those roads from the South Carolina DOT.

A similar (and enormous) success: replacing the four-lane bridge at Falls Park with a pedestrian walkway.

It is untrue that a growing Greenville requires wider roads. Widening has failed worldwide to “solve” congestion for a century. Instead, congestion becomes worse – at great public expense.

Best congestion response? As the Beatles would say, let it be.

Congestion delivers many benefits if we don’t widen: less “low-value” car trips (such as driving at rush hour for a cup of coffee), more travel by transit, walking, and bicycling, more health for small shops, more financially healthy governments, more affordability for households, less air pollution, more compact development, less sprawl, and less deaths from vehicle crashes.

Congestion does not keep worsening if we let it be. By paying a “time tax,” travelers use roads more efficiently (less low-value motor vehicle trips, for example, and less rush hour trips). People also take alternative routes, drive at alternative times, live closer to destinations, or use transit, or walk, or bicycle.

That is, congestion self-regulates. If we let it be.

Congestion is inevitable because, like Soviet-styled economics, motorists don’t pay their own way – the gas tax is too low, roads are not tolled, and parking is underpriced). Congestion, as basic economics shows, is inevitable when you underprice something (such are road space). The Soviet Union failed because it ignored this. The result: long bread lines. In Greenville, the result is congested roads and overcrowded parking. Ironic that nearly all of us rightly oppose Soviet economics except for roads and parking lots.

Because motor vehicles consume so much space, it only takes a few motor vehicles to create congestion. Therefore, any city worth its salt has congestion. Instead of widening, we must create alternatives to inevitable congestion. Three examples: a congestion fee, making it easier and safer to walk, bicycle or use transit, and leveraging proximity with mixed-use infill development.

Consider what Greenville and South Carolina could do if, instead of spending millions of public dollars to worsen congestion, air quality, finances, and quality of life by widening roads, they opted for road diets. Taxes would stop rapidly increasing (or decrease!), and a lot of new money would be available for quality-of-life improvements such as sidewalks, bike paths, street trees, parks, and world-class transit – to name just a few items in dire need of public money.

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What Do I Think of the High Ratings for Vancouver?

By Dom Nozzi

Someone read one of my blogs about my ratings for the best cities in the world. He then asked me the following: “How would you rate Vancouver? Would it potentially make it on your best-ever list in the future? And what do you think is the reason why it seems to get so much amazing press? From a cursory Google Images search, the downtown looks to me like a whole lot of nondescript glass towers.”

I responded by noting that I’ve long been intrigued by Vancouver, as the city is often ranked quite high as a quality city, which led me to be eager to visit to see for myself.

When I visited, I was disappointed.

The city has a lot of rather tall, intimidating glass and modernist towers. I did not find much at all in the way of charming walkability or human scale.

It was easy to see that as noted by reports, the city has quite a bit of town center housing, which surely must be good news for town center retailers (and, perhaps, a good amount of town center walking).

But what Vancouver illustrates to me is, in my experience, almost an iron law of cities or neighborhoods: The older the city or neighborhood, the more human-scaled and charming and walkable and romantic it is. The newer the city or neighborhood, the less one finds those elements.

This illustrates that our generation is failing to leave a quality legacy for future generations (in terms of the places we build). I believe this is largely due to two things that emerged in the 20th Century: the Modernist design paradigm for buildings, and our car-dependent society.

Because cars consume so much space, it has become nearly impossible to create human-scaled, charming places anymore, as cars don’t allow us to do that. Design for motor vehicles is utterly incompatible with design for charm.

It is a tragic dilemma.

Does Vancouver have the ability to make my best-ever list of cities in the future? I believe that because we have built so many modernist, car-happy (i.e., unlovable and unwalkable) places, most all cities in North America will become unaffordable to maintain. The newer cities will be so disliked that we will set about engaging in a lot of demolition – in response to our dislike — and (hopefully) we will have by then regained our senses enough to rebuild such places in a timeless way. In other words, places that are human-scaled and charmingly traditional. Design that we employed for much of civilized history up to the 1940s.

I fear that such a day is a long way off, however. A great deal of economic misery will be required to motivate us in that transformation and restoration.

In sum, I don’t expect Vancouver to make my best-ever city list in my lifetime.

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Improving the Performance of the Augusta Street Road Diet in Greenville SC

By Dom Nozzi

Greenville SC – where I now live – has admirably installed a road diet on Augusta Street. Reducing that road from four lanes to three.

It is important that the City conducts a “before” and “after” study on the road diet impacts because it will be almost certain to show:

1.       A significant drop in motor vehicle crashes, along with a drop in injuries and deaths in this section;

2.       An increase in property values for properties along the road-dieted section – particularly for residential properties;

3.       An increase in property tax revenue going to local government resulting from the increased property values;

4.       An increase in people walking, bicycling, and using transit;

5.       A reduction in motor vehicle speeding and dangerous changes in lanes by motorists;

6.       No significant change in motorist travel time in this section.

Intangibles that we cannot measure with much precision but are almost certainly happening:

1.       A reduction in noise pollution along this section;

2.       Motorists, bicyclists, walkers, the handicapped, and transit users feeling less stress (and more happy civic pride), and noticing more homes and businesses along this section;

3.       Bicyclists and walkers more often encountering friends (and making new friends) along this section;

4.       A reduction in road rage;

5.       The aesthetics of this section improving.

This could be a nice project for a student at a local college.

By the way, this section can be improved in how successfully it performs by doing the following as soon as possible:

1.       Reduce the height of signs, street lights, and signal lights (post-mounted signals are ideal for this) along the street. Creating this more human-scaled dimensioning would make the street look better and further slow down cars;

2.       Reduce the turning radius at driveway and street intersections. This would reduce crossing distance for walkers (to improve safety and convenience); reduce turning speeds by motorists, and increase motorist attentiveness;

3.       Reduce the width of the turning lane. Conventional engineers are notorious for creating excessive turn lane widths, and they have done it again on this section. Note: Engineers will claim the excessive width is necessary. Nonsense. It is a motorist convenience measure. Motorists SHOULD be somewhat inconvenienced in this town center location. Excessive width increases motorist speeding and inattentiveness, and reduces safety for crossing walkers and handicapped. As an aside, through lanes in this section might also benefit from being narrowed (I do not know their width);

4.       To dramatically improve safety and aesthetics, this section should convert a continuous left-turn configuration to left-turn pockets interspersed with raised and either landscaped or brick (the lower-maintenance option) medians.

One last thing: I have not looked for this yet, but if there are any instances along the road-dieted section that exceed three lanes (i.e., more than one turn lane is present) the second/third turn lane should be removed. No roads in the town center should exceed three lanes for a large number of reasons. I have noticed that there are, for example, an excessive number of lanes on North Main Street north of Elford St.

Not making the above corrections means that we reduce the visible success of the road diet. That, of course, is a tactical mistake. We need to maximize the benefits of road diets to increase the political will to achieve the many more road diets we desperately need on several oversized roads in the town center.

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Noise Pollution in Greenville South Carolina

By Dom Nozzi

Noise pollution is one of the very few forms of pollution where our society is not only failing to make progress, but is actually losing ground.

While loud vehicles with loud stereo systems are an important source of noise problems, it is a relatively difficult problem to solve, and is actually causing far less noise pollution than public service vehicle siren noise pollution — a form of pollution that the City and County have direct control over (and can solve without spending taxpayer money).

The big noise offenders in Greenville are the police, fire, and ambulance vehicles (as well as the Amtrak train). The drivers are way over-using their sirens — particularly from midnight to 6 am.

There are cities that have effectively adopted policies that dramatically reduce excessive service vehicle siren use.

The City and County need to join them.

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