Category Archives: Peak Oil

Stimulating Roads

By Dom Nozzi

In December 2008, I read an otherwise admirable essay by E.J. Dionne [“Obama’s Manna”, op-ed, Dec. 5]. He informed us that there is “nothing wrong with spending on roads…” when it comes to a possible Federal stimulus package that the Obama administration was crafting at the time.

Really?

There is certainly nothing wrong with repairing roads. And yes, it is appropriate that stimulus spending be forward-thinking, rather than backward-looking, investments.

Why, then, after several decades of ruinous failure in trying to build our way out of congestion, would anyone even consider widening roads?Carmageddon highway

It is now abundantly clear that road widening powerfully induces more sprawl, more car travel, more gasoline consumption, more traffic congestion, more loss of environmental quality, more governmental financial woe, more loss of quality of life, and more destruction of downtowns.

Given this colossal squandering of countless trillions of public dollars to worsen our communities, is there anything worse than spending stimulus dollars on road widening?

In an age of growing concern about Peak Oil, long-term sustainability, and global warming, the absolute last thing we should be doing is building bigger roads.

While transportation needs in America are so enormous that Federal stimulus is highly appropriate, dollars must be properly targeted. For starters, that means the stimulus should be directed to restoring the woeful national passenger rail system. And ending car welfare program by huge motorist subsidies for free use of roads and parking. We can also stimulate long-term sustainability and quality of life by correcting our 20th Century widening binge. Namely, by engaging in a nation-wide road narrowing (“road dieting”) program.

Leave a comment

Filed under Peak Oil, Transportation

Transportation is Destiny: Design for Happy People, Not Happy Cars

by Dom Nozzi

The following is a summary of a talk I was invited to give at a PLAN-Boulder County forum on Friday, January 24. As a town and transportation planner, I cautioned Boulder not to put too much emphasis on easing car traffic flows—particularly by such conventional methods as adding a second turn lane at intersections or requiring a developer to provide too much car parking. I described the ingredients of a healthy, vibrant city, summarized how a seemingly beneficial city objective of reducing traffic congestion can often undermine important Boulder objectives, and offered a number of strategies that would help Boulder both properly manage transportation and promote its long-range goals.

A great city is compact, human scaled, has a slow speed center, and promotes gatherings of citizens that catalyze “synergistic interaction” (brilliant ideas and innovations, as the sum becomes greater than its parts). Most importantly, a quality city does exceptionally well in promoting “exchanges” of goods, services, and ideas, which is the most important role of a city, and is best promoted by the interaction that occurs through compact community design.

About 100 years ago, automakers, home builders, and oil companies (“the Sprawl Lobby”) started realizing that they could make lots of money by creating what has since become a self-perpetuating vicious cycle in communities. If communities could be convinced to ease the flow of car traffic by building enormous highways and parking lots (and subsidizing car travel by having everyone—not just motorists—pay for such roads, parking, and gasoline), huge amounts of money could be made selling cars, homes and gasoline. The process eventually was feeding on itself in a growing, self-perpetuating way, because the highways, parking and subsidies were forcing and otherwise encouraging a growing number of Americans to buy more and more cars, use more and more gasoline, and buy sprawling homes that were further and further from the town center. Why? Because the subsidized highways and gasoline were powerfully promoting community dispersal, high speeds, isolation, and an insatiable demand for larger highways and parking lots. Each of these factors were toxic to a city, led to government and household financial difficulties, destroyed in-town quality of life (which added to the desire to live in sprawl locations), and made travel by transit, bicycle or walking increasingly difficult and unlikely (an added inducement to buy more cars).

The inevitable result of the Sprawl Lobby efforts has been that cities throughout America are dying from the “Gigantism” disease.

The “Gigantism” Disease

One of the most important problems we face is that cars consume enormous amounts of space. On average, a person in a parked car takes up about 17 times more space than a person in a chair. And when moving, a motorist can take up to 100 times as much space as a person in a chair. Cities are Untitledseverely diminished by this level of wasteful use of land by cars—particularly in town centers (where space is so dear), and especially in communities such as Boulder, where land is so expensive.

Overemphasis on car travel breeds and spreads the gigantism “infection,” and promotes ruinously higher travel speeds. What happens when we combine the gigantism and high speeds with the “travel time budget” (humans tend to have a budget of about 1.1 hours of round-trip commuting travel each day)?

People demand larger highways and parking lots. Gigantic highways, overpasses, and asphalt seas of parking are necessary to accommodate the space-hogging, high-speed needs of the growing number of cars. This process dramatically increases the “habitat” for cars, and because such places are so utterly inhospitable to people, substantially shrinks the habitat for people.

Because it is so dangerous, unpleasant, and infeasible to travel on these monster highways by bicycle, walking, or transit (what economists call “The Barrier Effect”), an endlessly growing army of motorists and sprawl residents is thereby created, which, of course, is a financial bonanza for the Sprawl Lobby.

It is surprising and disappointing that Boulder has, on numerous occasions, shown symptoms of the gigantism disease (surprising because citizens and city staff are relatively well-informed on transportation issues). A leading concern in Boulder is the many intersections that have been expanded by installing double left turn lanes. Installing a single left turn lane historically resulted in a fair improvement in traffic flow, but when a second left turn lane is installed, intersections typically suffer from severely diminished returns. There is only a tiny increase in traffic accommodated (and often, this increase is short-lived) and this small benefit is offset by a huge required increase in walk time for crosswalks that are now very lengthy to cross on foot (which necessitates a very long “walk” phase for the crosswalk). Indeed, some traffic engineers or elected officials are so intolerant of the time-consuming long walk phase that many double-left turn intersections actually PROHIBIT pedestrian crossings by law.

These monster double left turn intersections destroy human scale and sense of place. They create a place-less, car-only intersection where walking and bicycling (and, indirectly, transit) trips are so difficult and unpleasant that more trips in the community are now by car, and less by walking, bicycling and transit. And those newly-induced car trips, despite the conventional wisdom, actually INCREASE greenhouse gas emissions (due to the induced increase in car trips).

Double left turn lanes (like big parking lots and five- or seven-lane highways) disperse housing, jobs, and shops in the community, as the intersection—at least briefly—is able to accommodate more regional car trips. Because the intersection has become so inhospitable, placeless and lacking in human scale, the double left turn repels any residences, shops, or offices from being located anywhere near the intersection, and thereby effectively prevents the intersection from ever evolving into a more walkable, compact, village-like setting.

The following chart shows that, because of the enormous space consumption caused by higher-speed car travel, land consumption rate increases are far out-pacing growth in community populations. For example, from 1950 to 1990, the St. Louis population grew by 35 percent. chartYet land consumption in St. Louis grew by 354 percent during that same period.

Given all of this, a centerpiece objective of the Boulder Transportation Master Plan (no more than 20 percent of road mileage is allowed to be congested) may not only be counterproductive in achieving many Boulder objectives, but may actually result in Boulder joining hands with the Sprawl Lobby.

The congestion reduction objective has a number of unintended, undesirable consequences. The objective tells Boulder that the highly desirable tactic of “road diets” (where travel lanes are removed to create a safer, more human-scaled street that can now install bike lanes, on-street parking, and wider sidewalks) are actually undesirable because they can increase congestion. The objective provides justification for looking upon a wider road, a bigger intersection, or a bigger parking lot as desirable, despite the well-documented fact that such gigantic facilities promote sprawl, car emissions, financial difficulties, higher taxes, and lower quality of life, among other detriments.

The objective also tells us that smaller, more affordable infill housing is undesirable—again because such housing can increase congestion.

The Shocking Revolution

The growing awareness of the problems associated with easing car travel (via such things as a congestion reduction objective) is leading to a shocking revolution across the nation. Florida, for example, now realizes that if new development is only allowed if “adequate” road capacity is available for the new development (which is based on “concurrency” rules in Florida’s Growth Management law), the state is powerfully promoting sprawl. Why? Because the available road capacity tends to only be found in sprawl locations. In-town locations, where new development tends to be much more desirable, is strongly discouraged by this Florida concurrency rule because in-town locations tend to have no available road capacity (due to existing, more dense development in town).

As an aside, “concurrency” is a rule that says new development is not allowed if it will lower service level standards adopted by the community. For example, standards might state that there must be at least 10 acres of parkland provided for every 1,000 residents. While concurrency is clearly a good idea for such things as parks and water supply and schools, it is counterproductive for roads.

The shocking revolution in Florida, then, is that the state is now allowing local governments to create “exception areas” for road congestion. If the community can show that it is providing adequate bicycle, pedestrian and transit facilities, the state will grant the local government the ability to create road exceptions so that the road congestion avoidance strategy brought by Florida’s road concurrency rule does not significantly encourage new sprawl and discourage in-town, infill development.

Similarly, California is now acknowledging the unintended, undesirable effects of past efforts to ensure that roads are “free-flowing” for car traffic. “Free flowing” car traffic tends to be measured with “level of service” (LOS) measures. Road LOS is a measure of traffic delay. An intersection (or road) where a car must wait for, say, three cycles of a traffic signal to be able to proceed through the intersection might be given an LOS rating of “F.” An intersection where a car can proceed through an intersection without such delay is given an LOS rating of “A.”

California now realizes that too often, building wider highways or stopping new development as a way to maintain free-flowing car traffic (LOS “A”) is substantially counterproductive. The state now realizes that maintaining or requiring easy, free-flowing car traffic increases greenhouse gas emissions (shocking, since the opposite was formerly believed), increases the number of car trips, and decreases the number of walking, bicycling and transit trips. Free-flowing road “LOS” measures are therefore now being phased out in California.

The “congestion reduction” objective in Boulder’s transportation plan is, in effect, a “happy cars” objective that equates easy car travel with quality of life and sustainability. One important reason why this “happy cars” objective is counterproductive is that cars and people have dramatically different needs and desires—needs and desires that are significantly and frequently in conflict. For example, designing shopping for happy people means the creation of smaller, human-scaled settings where buildings rather than parking lots are placed next to the streetside sidewalk. Where streets are only two or three lanes wide and designed for slow-speed car travel. Where street trees hug the street.

Designing shopping for happy cars, by strong contrast, requires huge car-scaled dimensions. Giant asphalt parking lots are placed between the now giant retail store and the street, which invites easy car parking (but loss of human scale, sense of place, and ease of walking). Streets become what Chuck Marohn calls “stroads”:  5- or 7-lane monster roads intended for dangerous, inhospitable high-speeds. They are roads where streets belong, but their big size and high speeds make them more like roads. Street trees are frequently incompatible with happy cars, as engineers fear cars might crash into them.

Again, this comparison shows that by promoting “happy cars,” Boulder’s congestion reduction objective is undermining its important quality of life and city-building objectives.

Indeed, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, once stated that “a city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both.” Boulder’s congestion reduction objective is in conflict with this essential truth.

Fortunately, congestion regulates itself if we let it. Congestion will persuade some to drive at non-rush hour times, or take less congested routes, or travel by walking, bicycling, or transit. Congestion therefore does not inexorably lead to gridlock if we don’t widen a road or intersection, because some car trips (the “lower-value” trips) do not occur. Many of those discouraged trips are foregone because of the “time tax” imposed by the congestion.

But widening a road (or, in Boulder’s case, adding a second left-turn lane) short-circuits this self-regulation. A widened road or a double-left turn lane intersection induces new car trips because the road/intersection is now (briefly) less congested. The lower congestion encourages formerly discouraged car trips to now use the route during rush hour. Car trips that used different routes to avoid the congestion now converge back on the less congested route. And some get back in their cars after a period of walking, bicycling or using transit.

The process is very much like the infamous Soviet bread lines. The Soviets wanted to reduce the extremely long lines of people waiting for free bread. Their counterproductive “solution” was to make more free bread. But more free bread just induced more people to line up for bread. Likewise, the conventional American solution to traffic congestion is to make more free space for cars (widening the road or adding a second turn lane). The result is the same, as the bigger roads and intersections inevitably induce more car trips on those routes. The efficient and effective solution, as any first-year economics student will point out, is to NOT make more free bread or wider, free-to-use roads or second turn lanes. The solution is to price the bread and the car routes so that they are used more efficiently (and not wastefully by low-value bread consumers or car travelers). Or, to let a moderate level of congestion discourage low-value rush hour trips.

Given all of this, widening a road or adding a second left-turn lane to solve congestion is like loosening one’s belt to solve obesity. Similarly, despite conventional wisdom, car traffic does not behave like water flowing through a pipe (i.e., flowing easier if the pipe is expanded in size). Car traffic, instead, behaves like a gas. It expands to fill the available, increased volume provided.

Boulder’s Overriding Objectives

Boulder (and PLAN-Boulder County) has outlined key community objectives.

1. One is higher quality of life and more happiness. But counterproductively, happy cars lower quality of life due to clashing values and needs.

2. Another objective is for a more compact, walkable, vibrant city. Unfortunately, over-emphasizing cars means more sprawl.

3. An objective that is much talked about in the area is more affordability. By inducing more car dependence via easier car travel, the congestion reduction objective undermines the affordability objective by making Boulder less affordable (more on that later).

4. Given the growing concern for global warming, Boulder is placing more emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Easing traffic congestion, however, induces new car traffic, which increases car emissions.

5. Boulder and PLAN-Boulder County seek more travel (and lifestyle) choices. But the congestion reduction objective in Boulder’s plan is again undercutting other objectives because it leads to bigger car infrastructure (bigger roads and intersections), thereby reducing travel and lifestyle choices.

As shown above, then, Boulder’s congestion reduction objective undermines each of these five essential community objectives.

Oops.

Conventional methods of reducing congestion include wider roads, bigger parking lots, one-way streets, and huge intersections. These tactics are a “win-lose” proposition. While they can reduce congestion (briefly), they also cause a loss of human scale and charm; a loss of social gathering; sprawling dispersal; more car dependence and less bicycling, walking, transit; higher taxes; economic woes (for government, shops and households); a decline in public health; and more air pollution.

By striking contrast, other less commonly used but much more beneficial transportation tactics are “win-win” propositions. Some of these tactics include road diets, designing streets for slower speeds, and designing for travel and lifestyle choices. They can result in:

  • More parking spaces
  • More civic pride (induced by human scale)
  • More social gathering
  • A more compact and vibrant community
  • Less car dependence and more bicycling, walking, and transit
  • Lower taxes
  • Economic health (for both government and households)
  • Improvement in public health
  • Less air pollution

If we can’t get rid of congestion, what CAN we do? We can create alternatives so that those who are unwilling to tolerate the congestion can find ways to avoid it. Congestion can be better avoided if we create more housing near jobs, shops, and culture. Doing this allows more people to have better, more feasible ways to travel without a car. We can also create more travel routes, so that the congested routes are not the only routes to our destinations. Some of us can be given more flexible work schedules to shift our work hours away from rush hour. And some of us can be given increased opportunities to telecommute (work from home).

How Can We Design Transportation to Achieve a Better Destiny?

An important way to start Boulder on a better destiny for the city is to revisit the “No more than 20 percent congested road miles” objective in the Boulder transportation master plan. Some possibilities: adopt a “level of service standard” not for cars, but for bicycle, walking and transit travel; “Level of service” standards for cars is becoming outdated because it is being increasingly seen as counterproductive, as described earlier. Other alternatives to the “congestion” objective is to have a target of controlling or reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) community-wide; or set a goal of minimizing trip generation by individual new developments in the city.

Another option is to keep the congestion objective, but create “exception” areas where the congestion rule does not apply. Those exception areas would be places where Boulder seeks to encourage new development.

Boulder needs to ensure that the community land development and transportation design tactics are appropriately calibrated within each “transect zone” of the community. (The “transect” principle identifies a transition from urban to rural, whereby the town center is more compact, formal, low-speed, and walkable; the suburbs are more dispersed, informal, higher-speed, and drivable; and the rural areas most remote from the town center are more intended for a farming and conservation lifestyle. Development regulations and transportation designs are calibrated so that the differing lifestyle and travel objectives of each zone are best achieved.) However, the difficulty with the transect principle in places like Boulder is that the demand for compact, walkable lifestyles and travel choices is much higher than the supply of such places in Boulder. There is, in other words, a large mismatch. By contrast, the supply of suburban, drivable areas is quite high. To correct this imbalance, Boulder should strive to create a larger supply of compact, walkable places similar to Pearl Street Mall, the Boulder town center, and even the CU campus. Opportunities now being discussed are the creation of new, compact villages and town centers at places such as street intersections outside of the Boulder town center.

As an aside, the community transect concept informs us that in the town center, “more is better.” That is, the lifestyle being sought in the community center is one where more shops, more offices, and more housing enhances the lifestyle, as this more proximate, mixed, compact layout of land uses provides the thriving, sociable, convenient, vibrant, 24-hour ambience that many seeking the walkable lifestyle want more of.

By contrast, in the more drivable suburbs, “more is less.” That is, the drivable lifestyle is enhanced in quality when there is less density, less development, more dispersal, and more isolation of houses from shops and offices. The ambience generally desired is more quiet and private.

While town center housing is increasingly expensive compared to the suburbs—particularly in cities such as Boulder—such in-town housing provides significant cost savings for transportation. Because such a housing location provides so many travel choices beyond car travel, many households find they can own two cars instead of three or one car instead of two. And each car that a household can “shed” due to the richness of travel choices provides more household income that can be directed to housing expenses such as a mortgage or rent. Today, the average car costs about $9,000 per year to own and operate. In places that are compact and walkable, that $9,000 (or $18,000) per year can be devoted to housing, thereby improving affordability.

In addition to providing for the full range of housing and travel choices, Boulder can better achieve its objectives through road diets, where travel lanes are removed and more space is provided for such things as bike lanes or sidewalks or transit. Road diets are increasingly used throughout the nation—particularly converting roads from four lanes to three. Up to about 25,000 vehicle trips per day on the road, a road that is “dieted” to, say, three lanes carries about as much traffic as a four-lane road. This is mostly due to the fact that the inside lanes of a four-laner frequently must act as turn lanes for cars waiting to make a left turn. Four-lane roads are less desirable than three-lane streets because they induce more car trips and reduce bicycle, walking and transit trips. Compared to three-lane streets, four-lane roads result in more speeding traffic. As a result, four-laners create a higher crash rate than three-lane streets. Finally, because the road-diet (3)three-lane street is more human-scaled, pleasant, lower-speed, and thereby place-making, a three-lane street is better than a four-lane street for shops. The three-lane street becomes a place to drive TO, rather than drive THROUGH (as is the case with a four-lane street).

If Boulder seeks to be transformative with transportation—that is, if the city seeks to significantly shift car trips to walking, bicycling and transit trips (rather than the relatively modest shifts the city has achieved in the past)—it must recognize that it is NOT about providing more bike paths, sidewalks, or transit service. It is about taking away road and parking space from cars, and taking away subsidies for car travel.

Another transportation tactic Boulder should pursue to achieve a better destiny is to unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing. People who own less (or no) cars should have the choice of opting for more affordable housing—housing that does not include the very expensive cost of provided parking. Currently, little or no housing in Boulder provides the buyer or renter the option of having lower cost housing payments by choosing not to pay for parking. Particularly in a place like Boulder, where land values are so high, even housing intended to be relatively affordable is more costly than it needs to be because the land needed for parking adds a large cost to the housing price. Indeed, by requiring the home buyer or renter to pay more for parking, bundled parking price creates a financial incentive for owning and using more cars than would have otherwise been the case.

Boulder should also strive to provide parking more efficiently by pricing more parking. Too much parking in Boulder is both abundant and free. Less parking would be needed in the city (which would make the city more affordable, by the way) if it were efficiently priced. Donald Shoup recommends, for example, that parking meters be priced to ensure that in general, 2 or 3 parking spaces will be vacant on each block.

Efficient parking methods that could be used more often in Boulder include allowing shops and offices and churches to share their parking. This opportunity is particularly available when different land uses (say churches and shops) don’t share the same hours of operation. Again, sharing more parking reduces the amount of parking needed in the city, which makes the city more compact, walkable, enjoyable and active.

Like shared parking, leased parking allows for a reduction in parking needed. If Boulder, for example, owns a parking garage, some of the spaces can be leased to nearby offices, shops, or housing so that those particular land uses do not need to create their own parking.

Finally, a relatively easy and quick way for Boulder to beneficially reform and make more efficient its parking is to revise its parking regulations so that “minimum parking” is converted to “MAXIMUM parking.” Minimum parking rules, required throughout Boulder, are the conventional and increasingly outmoded way to regulate parking. They tell the developer that at least “X” amount of parking spaces must be provided for every “Y” square feet of building. This rule almost always requires the developer to provide excessive, very expensive parking, in large part because it is based on “worst case scenario” parking “needs.” That is, sufficient parking must be provided so that there will be enough on the busiest single day of the year (often the weekend after Thanksgiving). Such a provision means that for the other 364 days of the year, a large number of parking spaces sit empty, a very costly proposition.

In contrast, maximum parking rules tell the developer that there is an upper limit to the number of spaces that can be provided. This works much better for the community and the business because the business is better able to choose how much parking it needs and can finance. Since financial institutions that provide financing for new developments typically require the developer to provide the conventional (read: excessive) amounts of parking as a condition for obtaining a development loan, the big danger for communities in nearly all cases is that TOO MUCH parking will be provided rather than too little. The result of setting “maximum” instead of “minimum” parking rules is that excessive, worst case scenario parking developments become much more rare.

The reform of parking is easy: simply convert the existing minimum parking specifications to maximum parking standards (“at least 3 spaces per 1,000 square feet” becomes “no more than 3 spaces per 1,000 square feet). An incremental approach to this conversion is to apply maximum parking rules in those places that are already rich in travel choices, such as the Boulder town center.

Again, what will Boulder’s destiny be? As the preceding discussion sought to demonstrate, much of that destiny will be shaped by transportation decisions.

Will destiny be shaped by striving for happy people and happy places for people? Or will it be shaped by opting for the conventional, downwardly-spiraling effort of seeking easy car travel (and thereby unpleasant places where only a car can be happy – such as huge highways or parking lots)?

Will Boulder, in other words, retain or otherwise promote place-less conventional shopping centers full of deadening parking, car-only travel, lack of human interaction, and isolation? Or will the city move away from car-happy objectives such as the congestion reduction policy, and instead move toward a people-friendly future rich in sociability, pride in community, travel choices, sustainability, place-making and human scale?

An example of these contrasting destinies is Pearl Street. West Pearl features the charm and human scale we built historically. West Pearl Street exemplifies a lovable, walkable, calm, safe and inviting ambience where car speeds are slower, the street is more narrow, and the shops—by being pulled up to the streetside sidewalk—help form a comfortable sense of enclosure that activates the street and feels comfortable to walk. The shops tend to be smaller—more neighborhood-scaled.

East Pearl Street near 28th Street is starkly different. There, the street is a “stroad,” because it is an overly wide road that should be a more narrow, lower-speed street. Shops are pulled back long distances from the street. The street here is fronted not by interesting shop fronts but enormous seas of asphalt parking. The layout is car-scaled. The setting is hostile, unpleasant, unsafe, stressful and uninviting. The shops tend to be “Big Box” retail, and serve a regional “consumershed.” There is “no there there.”

East Pearl Street was built more recently by professional planners and engineers who have advanced degrees that far exceed the professionalism and education of those who designed the more lovable West Pearl Street. Where has the charm gone? Why have our streets become less pleasant in more recent years (by better trained and better educated designers, I might add)? Is it perhaps related to our more expensive and sophisticated efforts to ease car traffic and reduce congestion?

There is an inverse relationship between congestion and such measures as vehicle miles traveled and gas consumption. At the community level—despite the conventional wisdom—as congestion increases, vehicle miles traveled, gas consumption, air emissions DECREASE. And as conventional efforts to reduce congestion intensify, quality of life and sustainability also decrease.

Again, is Boulder aligning itself with the Sprawl Lobby by maintaining an objective of easing traffic flow – by striving to reduce congestion?

 

On Controlling Size

David Mohney reminds us that the first task of the urban designer is to control size. This not only pertains to the essential need to keep streets, building setbacks, and community dispersal modest in size. It also pertains to the highly important need to insist on controlling the size of service and delivery trucks. Over-sized trucks in Boulder lead the city down a ruinous path, as street and intersection dimensions are typically driven by the “design vehicle.” When trucks are relatively large, excessive truck size becomes the “design vehicle” which ends up driving the dimensions of city streets. A healthy city should be designed for human scale and safety, not for the needs of huge trucks. Indeed, because motor vehicles consume so much space, a sign of a healthy, well-designed community is that drivers of vehicles should feel inconvenienced. If driving vehicles feels comfortable, it is a signal that we have over-designed streets and allocated such excessive spaces that we have lost human scale and safety.

A proposal for human-scaled streets: in Boulder’s town center, no street should be larger than three lanes in size. Outside the town center, no street should be larger than five lanes in size. Anything more exceeds the human scaling needed for a pleasant, safe, sustainable community.

It is time to return to the timeless tradition of designing to make people happy, not cars. Boulder needs to start by revisiting its congestion reduction objective, putting a number of its roads on a “road diet,” and taking steps to make the provision of parking more efficient and conducive to a healthy city.

__________________________________

 More about the author

 Mr. Nozzi was a senior planner for Gainesville FL for 20 years, and wrote that city’s long-range transportation plan. He also administered Boulder’s growth rate control law in the mid-90s. He is currently a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board.

 Studies Demonstrating Induced Traffic and Car Emission Increases

Below is a sampling of references to studies describing how new car trips are induced by easier car travel, and how car emissions increase as a result.

http://www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/articles/hwyemis.asp

http://www.vtpi.org/gentraf.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Induced_demand

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/1993/04/18/does-free-flowing-car-traffic-reduce-fuel-consumption-and-air-pollution/

TØI (2009), Does Road Improvement Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions?, Institute of Transport Economics (TØI), Norwegian Centre for Transport Research (www.toi.no); summary at www.toi.no/getfile.php/Publikasjoner/T%D8I%20rapporter/2009/1027-2009/Sum-1027-2009.pdf

Robert Noland and Mohammed A. Quddus (2006), “Flow Improvements and Vehicle Emissions: Effects of Trip Generation and Emission Control Technology,” Transportation Research D, Vol. 11 (www.elsevier.com/locate/trd), pp. 1-14; also see

www.cts.cv.ic.ac.uk/documents/publications/iccts00249.pdf

Clark Williams-Derry (2007), Increases In Greenhouse-Gas Emissions From Highway-Widening Projects, Sightline Institute (www.sightline.org); at

www.sightline.org/research/energy/res_pubs/analysis-ghg-roads

TRB (1995), Expanding Metropolitan Highways: Implications for Air Quality and Energy Use, Committee for Study of Impacts of Highway Capacity Improvements on Air Quality and Energy Consumption, Transportation Research Board, Special Report #345 (www.trb.org)

D. Shefer & P. Rietvald (1997), “Congestion and Safety on Highways: Towards an Analytical Model,” Urban Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 679-692.

Alison Cassady, Tony Dutzik and Emily Figdor (2004). More Highways, More Pollution: Road Building and Air Pollution in America’s Cities, U.S. PIRG Education Fund (www.uspirg.org).

http://www.opr.ca.gov/docs/PreliminaryEvaluationTransportationMetrics.pdf

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Energy, Environment, Miscellaneous, Peak Oil, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Will Showers at a Worksite Encourage Bike Commuting?

By Dom Nozzi

It is common for planners, activists and (some) elected officials to think that we should require an employer to install showers at a worksite to encourage bicycle commuting. In some instances, a proposed project that will generate large numbers of car trips will “greenwash” itself by voluntarily installing showers to make the point that they are effectively reducing the number of car trips their project will generate.

But as a lifelong bike commuter and someone who has spent much of his life researching bicycle encouragement literature, I can unequivocally state that showers have little if any impact on a person’s decision to bike or walk to a work place.

Sure, it would be nice to have showers at a work site. But I have never known ANYONE who decided to bike because a place had showers. Or decided not to because of an absence of showers. And the literature points this out.office

As an aside, I spent most of my adult life bike commuting in very hot Florida summers, and have never felt as if I was noticeably sweaty at the office (even though I sweat more than most).

I suspect that a reason why some people mistakenly believe that showers can influence large numbers of employees to become bike commuters is that as motorists, they imagine that bicycling in places like Florida is not possible because of how much sweating would occur (and that the employee would therefore be dripping with sweat at the place of work). Few realize, though, that bicycling just a few miles, even in the Florida summer, is not much of a sweat problem at all – particularly because it almost always happens in early morning hours when it is cooler.

For what it’s worth, the effective ways to convert larger numbers of motorists to bicycle or pedestrian (or transit) commuters include parking cash-out (giving employees the option of “cashing out” their work site parking space for a higher salary or a bus pass, or a free bike, etc.), priced parking for motorists at the work site, and creating more opportunities to live in proximity to the work place.

Besides showers at the work site, other ineffective — yet common — ways to create more non-car commuters include bike lanes, bike paths, bike parking, employee recognition certificates, and bike-to-work days.

Again, I am NOT suggesting that the above ineffective tactics should not be used. What I AM saying is that by themselves, they are much less effective than commonly thought.

I am certainly in favor of businesses installing showers. I might even recommend that larger employers be required to install showers. Similarly, I strongly support requiring the installation of sidewalks where they do not exist. Not because I think sidewalks will meaningfully increase walking. But because, like showers, it sends a message this the community supports and encourages walking and bicycling. And dignifies the bicyclist or pedestrian, who are otherwise marginalized, trivialized and otherwise treated like misfits and outcasts to be ignored.

Is it not time to start getting serious about transitioning to Plan B in anticipation of Peak Oil or other possible economic crises that loom on the horizon? An inevitable time when nearly all of us will be commuting without a car?

Isn’t it time to start installing the necessary Plan B infrastructure? In THAT sense, it makes sense to start requiring showers. But let’s not kid ourselves about their effectiveness in our current situation.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Bicycling, Peak Oil, Urban Design, Walking

Transportation is Not a Win-Win Game

By Dom Nozzi

There is a common tactical mistake made by communities which seek to achieve the worthy and increasingly essential objective of increasing the amount of travel by bicycle, transit, or walking. Most all elected officials and their transportation staff will operate under the assumption that transportation is a “win-win” game. That is, that it is possible to encourage more travel by bicycle, transit or walking, and at the same time be able to improve (or at least not make more difficult) travel by car.

But this is utterly naïve. It shows that the community is not serious about effectively promoting transportation choices.

Meaningfully increasing bicycling, transit or walking is not a matter of adding bike lanes, bike paths or bike parking. It is not a matter of adding more bus stops or increasing the frequency or quality of buses. It is not a matter of building more sidewalks or adding sidewalk benches and landscaping.

Each of these additions are certainly a pleasant enhancement for the community (primarily because it sends a visible message that these forms of travel are acknowledged and respected), but they have almost no ability to increase the levels of bicycling, walking, or transit use in the community. They are, in other words, necessary but NOT sufficient.

Because accommodations for easy, low-cost car travel is entirely incompatible with bicycling, transit, and walking (because of the danger and inconvenience that car-friendly roads and parking creates), providing bike lanes or bus shelters or sidewalk landscaping does nothing to convince a person to drive a car less often.

The car is so dominating and has been overwhelmingly catered to and subsidized for so many decades that the only effective way to increase bicycling, transit use, or walking is to TAKE AWAY FROM THE CAR.

That is, communities MUST put roads on a “diet” (typically, by converting a road from 4 lanes to 3 lanes). Communities MUST reduce the amount of free car parking that consumes the majority of most city town centers by removing parking and properly pricing what remains (by installing, for example, user fees such as parking meters). Communities MUST structure a more fair way of having users pay for their travel, rather than having the entire community subsidize car travel (by increasing the gas tax, installing electronic tolls on roads, etc.).

Nearly all American communities fail to take steps to take away from the car. And this is, by far, the primary reason why Americans drive cars more than anywhere else in the world. Why hardly anyone bicycles, uses transit, or walks, despite bike paths, bus shelters, or new sidewalks.

Even in “progressive” communities, it is fervently believed that reducing traffic congestion (or at least not worsening it) is beneficial for the community and its citizens. “We must reduce congestion to reduce air pollution and reduce gas consumption!”

They say these things in part because it seems to be irrefutably true. But it has been clearly demonstrated (by researchers such as Newman and Kenworthy) that easing traffic flow INCREASES air pollution and gas consumption on a regional basis, because people drive more often and drive greater distances when car travel is made more pleasant.

It is counterproductive for a community to strive to reduce traffic congestion.

Why do Americans so rarely use the effective tool of taking away from the car? Because most all of us drive a car for nearly all of our trips, and both elected officials and their transportation staff are scared to death to use tactics that are widely known to increase bicycling, transit use, and walking. Because doing so, it is thought, will elicit the wrath of motorists.

So we continue to install bike lanes, bus shelters, and sidewalks. And nearly all of us continue to drive a car.

Inevitably, Americans will drive cars quite a bit less, because it is inevitable that gas prices will continue rising substantially, and the national and world economy will continue to be anemic. Tragically, however, being passive and waiting for such inevitabilities to substantially revise American car travel behavior will not occur soon enough. Passively waiting will lead to much more pain and anguish, as Americans have not been able to more incrementally transition to a world where car travel is not so much an essential part of our daily lives.

Instead, the transition will be much more abrupt (and our communities much less well-designed for bicycling, transit use or walking) if we sit back and let higher gas prices reduce our car travel. And the abruptness will lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I therefore believe it is imperative that we actively and aggressively opt for actions which take away from the car. We need the courage to use road diets and having motorists pay their way. Not install more bike lanes. Failing to find the courage will result in a very painful future.

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Peak Oil, Politics, Road Diet, Urban Design, Walking

Can Emerging Nations Avoid the Unsustainable, Ruinous Path the US has taken with Regard to Transportation?

By Dom Nozzi

Since the emergence and rapid spread of car ownership and use in America since the early part of the 20th Century, the United States has taken a large number of ruinous, unsustainable actions to make life happy for cars rather than people.

While it is true that car travel initially resulted in many positive improvements in our society, those improvements are now increasingly overwhelmed by negatives, as the continued provision of infrastructure, programs and finances to promote car travel is now experiencing severely diminishing returns that started later on in the 20th Century.

We are now at a point that each “improvement” for car travel – an “improvement” that is increasingly unaffordable – provides fewer and fewer benefits. And the costs of such “improvements” provide increasingly enormous decimation. A classic case, in other words, of diminishing returns.

Tragically, the US is largely trapped in this downward spiral, even as growing numbers of us see that transportation “improvements” are, on balance, increasingly ruinous.

The over-emphasis on providing for cars has destroyed the severely hampered the financial condition of households, as well as the finances of local, state and federal governments. This over-emphasis has also significantly increased the number of injuries and deaths in the US, has significantly degraded quality of life and civic pride, has substantially harmed the natural environment, has drained the lifeblood out of most American town centers (downtowns), has taken away travel independence for seniors, children and others without the ability to drive a car, has wiped out smaller and locally-owned businesses in the face of emerging Big Box retailers, has promoted unsustainable suburban sprawl, has resulted in countless wildlife deaths, and has substantially contributed to the US becoming a nation of loners – a nation where we barely even know our neighbors, and much more rarely bump into friends and family.

The following is a list of actions a nation should consider if it seeks to avoid this catastrophic path taken by the United States with regard to transportation – a path, tragically, that many emerging nations have eagerly sought to follow over the past several decades.

This list is not ordered by priority.

Road size. In urban areas, roads should be no larger than three lanes in size. Those that are larger should be “road dieted” down to three lanes.

Parking for Cars. Excessive asphalt surface parking significantly promotes excessive car travel and car ownership, reduces walking, bicycling and transit use, reduces quality of life, increases crime, hurts town center economics, and reduces housing choice, housing affordability, and housing availability. Parking supply must be scarce, mostly on-street, and properly priced to achieve a parking use of about 85 percent of spaces at any given time of day. Residential and commercial development must provide owners and renters with the option of paying less for their building space in exchange for not having parking provided (parking cash-out).

Provide for the full range of lifestyle and travel choices. Land development regulations and transportation funding by government must be tailored and calibrated to ensure that regulations vary based on geographic location (compactness is the objective in town center regulations and drivable lower densities is the objective for more dispersed locations, for example). Government funding should be balanced so that excessive amounts of public money is not devoted to car travel.

Proximity. Town centers must be relatively dense and mixed in use. Building setbacks should be relatively small, and important community-serving facilities should remain in the town center.

Street network design. Streets must be well-connected. Dead ends and cul-de-sacs should be rare or non-existent. Street block length should be no longer than 200 feet in distance.

Low Speed Design. Streets in town centers must be designed to obligate motorists to drive slowly and attentively. There are many effective traffic calming tactics to do this.

One-Way Streets. Avoid creating one-way streets. Such streets are detrimental to transportation choice, retail and residential quality of life, and overall quality of life – particularly in town centers.

Gas Tax. Needs to be high enough to compensate for motorist costs, and discourage excessive car use. A properly high gas tax is a key way to achieve energy sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and financial health (the US gas tax has been so low that it fails to achieve these aims, and ends of transferring enormous national wealth to oil-producing nations).

Full-Time Staff. Hire and maintain full-time staff who are highly skilled in providing transportation choices. Too often, government transportation departments have staff who are only skilled in designing for easy car travel.

Strive for “24-Hour City” design. This is mostly achieved by providing for higher density mixed-use development in town centers. Such design promotes safety, quality of life, and economic health. It is also important in promoting travel and lifestyle choices.

Safety in Numbers. Strive for a community design that results in large numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users, in part to promote much higher levels of safety for the community.

Happiness and Celebration. Consider occasional and permanent street closures to promote sociability, quality of life, and transportation choice. Design city infrastructure, programs, and festivals that celebrate and promote happy people rather than happy cars. Economic success should be measured not be a rising Gross National Product but by a rising Gross National Happiness.

Conclusion

When a developing nation starts enjoying a relatively large household income, it becomes very difficult to avoid the ruinous steps (or achieve the useful steps) associated with the above actions. Travel by car is extremely seductive, and the zero-sum, self-perpetuating nature of providing for car travel is almost certain to occur once household wealth reaches its tipping point and car ownership is in reach.

Over-providing for car travel is zero-sum in the sense that providing for car travel inevitably makes travel by transit, walking or bicycling more difficult. Over-providing for car travel is self-perpetuating in the sense that, as just noted, non-car travel becomes increasingly impractical when we provide for car travel. Providing for car travel is also self-perpetuating because it inevitably creates a growing army of motorists who demand their elected officials single-mindedly provide for the enormous road and parking design changes, and provide for the sprawling, low-density land development patterns that car dependence requires.

The inevitable result of the zero-sum game and the self-perpetuating trap is the over-emphasis on providing for car travel.

Short of major resource (particularly oil) disruption, then, there is no turning back on a world of car over-emphasis, once growing wealth brings car ownership to a society.

At first, the enormous costs that inevitably follow the nearly impossible-to-avoid scenario of over-emphasizing car travel tend to be invisible due to the seemingly wondrous glare of the joys that car travel seems – at least initially — to promise. Avoiding the false glory of a car-based society requires immense wisdom and leadership on the part of the elected officials of a society.

The near impossibility of a nation successfully avoiding the transportation trap the US has fallen into suggests to me that the best hope for emerging nations in our era is the rapid onset of Peak Oil and other car-based resource constraints — constraints that make following the car-happy path of the US a path that is financially and politically impossible to follow. Unless such constraints emerge quickly and aggressively, the seductive lure of a car-based world may be too difficult to avoid.

If a nation is not able to learn from history, it is doomed to repeat it. And the seductiveness of car travel may blind emerging nations from the lessons of US transportation. Perhaps all nations, then, will be doomed to follow the US transportation path and be forced to learn for themselves.

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

4 Comments

Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Peak Oil, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

The Future of Cars

By Dom Nozzi

To be healthy and sustainable, cities need to leverage “agglomeration economies.” That is, a healthy city with a high quality of life is one that is relatively compact and walkable. Because cars consume an enormous amount of space and travel at such high speeds, they are toxic to cities by undercutting agglomeration. Even so-called “green” cars disperse cities and drain the lifeblood out of them because their relatively large size and speed enable sprawling of cities into the hinterlands. Cars isolate us from each other, and make us a society of loners. Again, the objective of creating a healthier city is undercut by the car, because cities thrive via exchange, where people are interacting with each other. A society high in what Robert Putnam calls “social capital” is a healthier society – economically, physically, and emotionally. In the early days of motordom, cars and roads actually were helpful to cities, as they promoted better commerce, more productivity, more ease of travel, more consumer choice, and larger markets. But for several decades now, cars and roads have suffered from a severe form of diminishing returns. Each new car that is bought and each new widening of a road delivers less and less benefits. Today, as a result of this on-going and growing diminishment, the costs of cars and roads far outweighs the benefits. In our world of extreme car dependence, the road infrastructure and dispersed lay-out of our communities has made travel by foot, bicycle or transit nearly impossible. Extreme car dependence has at least partly been fueled by the fact that when a community designs itself for easier, more efficient car travel, it inevitably makes it more difficult to travel by foot, bicycle or transit. Providing for cars, in other words, is a zero-sum game. And this “game” is a self-perpetuating downward spiral, because by making walking, bicycling and transit more difficult (by providing wide roads and expansive parking lots), we continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly walking, bicycling or using transit. A growing army of car “cheerleaders” is created, and this puts increasing political pressure on elected officials to provide even MORE for the car, which further ramps up the recruitment of even more new motorists. It is a nearly unstoppable cycle. Tragically, this massive shift of nearly all of us from walking, bicycling and transit to a world of extreme car dependence has resulted in an enormous PRIVATIZATION of the costs of travel. In the past, before the car, households spent only a tiny portion of its budget on travel. Walking and bicycling are extremely low-cost, and transit is mostly a cost borne by society at large. But with the substantially growing need over the past several decades for a household to own one, two, three or more cars – cars which now cost, on average, about $8,500 per year each – the amount of money individuals and households must now allocate to travel has gone through the roof. Indeed, some estimate that travel costs are now the second highest expense – at about 21 percent – a household must now pay for. Second only to housing. And that, quite simply, is unaffordable. As an aside, I would argue that the most important task, if we are interested in easing the affordable housing crisis, is to reduce the number of cars that a household must own. In addition to the diminishing returns I noted above, another enormous threat is increasingly looming on the horizon. A growing consensus of energy, oil, investment and geology experts are now convinced that the world will soon – if not already – face “peak oil.” Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. Inevitably, peak oil will result in exponential increases in the cost of gasoline, which will quickly bring prices to a level that is unaffordable for all but the wealthy. Signs of peak oil are already here, as some have noted that we are, for the first time, seeing “peak car use” on a per capita and even a society-wide level. We are also seeing a growing number of people – particularly younger people – show a growing interest in living in a walkable town center where car use is optional rather than required. Increasingly, cities are finding that they can no longer afford to pay for the exponentially growing costs of providing wider roads and bigger parking lots for cars – in part due to the on-going (and energy-crisis-related) world-wide economic turmoil, debt and recession. For a long time, many have recognized the substantial costs that extreme car dependence brings to society – particularly the economic and environmental costs. As a result, we have witnessed heroic, tireless crusades to reduce car dependence and increase the number of trips made by transit, bicycle or walking. This has largely been an effort to provide more buses or bus stops. Build more bike lanes or paths. Install more sidewalks. But it is NOT about providing new facilities for transit, bicycling or walking. It is about TAKING AWAY space from the car. Only when we shrink roads (by putting them on a “road diet”) and take away some of the excessive (and free) off-street car parking can we be effective in increasing the number of transit users, bicyclists, and pedestrians. All of this is not to say that we must get rid of all cars. But it IS about acknowledging that for a more pleasant and sustainable future, our communities must be designed so that cars behave themselves. The Future How do we make cars behave themselves? How do we create a more sustainable world with a higher quality of life, transportation choices, and a better economy? First, we must put an immediate end to road widening (Obama has poured billions into widening in recent years, by the way). We must set about engaging in the highly productive, beneficial task of putting our overly-wide roads on a diet by making, for example, 4- and 5-lane roads 2- or 3-lane roads. We must replace asphalt parking lots with housing, offices and shops. Because of their enormous size and speed, a world that is designed for happy people rather than happy cars will be one where the motorist feels INCONVENIENCED when she or he drives a car. The motorist must also be obligated to drive much slower and much more attentively. This will dramatically increase safety, transportation choice and quality of life. Furthermore, we need to bring an end to the gargantuan subsidies we provide to pamper the car. A brighter, more sustainable future, then, will be one where it is much more expensive to drive a car. This may be seen as bitter medicine, but our society has been a very unhealthy patient for several decades, which means it is in need of strong treatment. For all these reasons, in the future, the role of the car in our lives will be diminishing. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that cars will become less important in our lives (which will both improve our lives and our bank accounts). Car use will not be impossible, but it will be much more like flying in a plane. In other words, car travel will become much more rare – and only for special occasions or luxuries. In sum, we need to return to the timeless, sustainable tradition of designing our communities to make people happy, not cars. _________________________________________________ Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life. Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290 My Adventures blog http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/ Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/ My Town & Transportation Planning website http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/ My Plan B blog https://domz60.wordpress.com/ My Facebook profile http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi My YouTube video library http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi My Picasa Photo library https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534 My Author spotlight http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

7 Comments

Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Peak Oil, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Is Rail a Practical Option for a College Town?

By Dom Nozzi

A few months ago, a college student told me that he was thinking about conducting research to learn about “cheaper high-speed rail, low-speed rail, or maglev options (if there is such a thing) for a small university city in the southeast, and how it would impact the city financially, socially, economically etc.”

In my response, I told him that one thing I’ve worked hard to point out in my work as a transportation planner is that when transit is proposed (particularly expensive transit), conditions need to be in place to make reasonable ridership rates more likely.

In my research and experience, I informed the student, it seems quite clear that even with very high quality and very frequent transit, very few “choice” riders will choose transit over car travel.

“Choice” riders are those who are wealthy enough to have a choice as to whether to travel by car, or other means (such as rail or bus transit). In unhealthy, unsustainable American communities, only those without a choice tend to use transit (homeless, low-income, students, etc.), and even then the number of transit riders tends to be very low.

Why will so very few decide to use even quality, frequent transit? Largely because America, as my books note, begs people to travel by car as often as possible. Roads are free to use, gas is artificially cheap, distances are enormous, cars provide unparalleled comfort and privacy and prestige, cars carry a lot of passengers and cargo, cars are almost always much faster, and perhaps most importantly, 98 percent of all parking made available to American motorists (according to Shoup) is a free parking space.

Given this, I asked the college student, isn’t it irrational to use even quality transit when all these factors are in place?

Communities, I pointed out, end up spending huge sums of money to provide transit and end up with the “empty bus” syndrome, which is VERY bad for transit public relations (motorists get angry when they see empty transit vehicles after all the public money was spent). Empty buses and trains give transit a public relations “black eye” that hurts the future political prospects for better transit.

About 15-20 years ago, the college town of Gainesville, Florida (where I was a senior city planner) set up a circulator bus (which was festooned to look very much like a trolley car) that provided frequent service between the university and downtown. The fare was 10 cents.

Almost no one used it.

The lesson from all of this is that without conditions conducive to transit being in place, it can be a very bad idea to spend money for transit. Even quality transit. Because despite conventional wisdom, it is not the lack of quality transit that keeps people from using transit. It is the excessive provisioning for car travel that keeps people off the trains and buses.

The first task for more healthy, well-used transit, then, is to make car parking scarce and priced.

If that is done, even poor-quality, infrequent transit service will be regularly used (and I should hasten to add that with scarce and priced parking, sufficient political will is generated so that the transit quickly becomes high-quality and frequent).

Ratcheting down the extreme pampering and subsidizing of American motorists, in other words, is the starting point for better transit ridership. The initial step is NOT to provide better transit.

Only when conditions are not heavily tilted toward happy cars (tilted toward cars with such features as free and abundant parking) will the political will emerge to make it feasible for a community to be willing to invest in quality transit.

Note that ending motorist coddling will not only result in more political and community interest in better transit. Reducing the excessive privileging of motorists will also, over time, create community development patterns that are conducive to better transit.

Higher-density homes, retail and office will begin to emerge in town centers, major intersections and important street corridors, because a community that makes car travel pay its own way will be one where development patterns that allow residents to travel by transit (as well as walking and bicycling) will become more desirable and sought after by homebuyers. Why? Because there will be an increase in the number of residents seeking ways to travel without having to put up with expensive, difficult car travel.

And compact development provides that form of travel choice.

The high transit ridership by college students in Gainesville is therefore completely predictable. Parking on the university campus is scarce and expensive, which makes high demand for quality transit service inevitable.

Tragically, by contrast, Gainesville has far too much free and abundant parking in its urban area off the university campus. The city, importantly, also has residential densities that are way too low to support transit.

Happily, the days of free and abundant parking – even in car-happy cities such as Gainesville – are coming to an end due to rising gasoline costs and the related economic woes that America is now saddled with. With parking becoming more scarce and more priced, residential densities conducive to healthy transit will start appearing.

And that will bring the emergence of quality rail, bus, and maybe even maglev to cities such as Gainesville.

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

Leave a comment

Filed under Bicycling, Peak Oil, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking