Category Archives: Politics

Why Does America Not Effectively Increase Bicycling Rates?

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 30, 2019

By far, the most effective way to increase bicycling rates is to make car travel more costly, more difficult, and slower. And to create more compact, mixed use land use patterns.

We also need to create more narrow streets, which involves revising the design of what today tend to be an overwhelming number of over-sized, high-speed roads (“stroads”).

Unfortunately — and not surprisingly — nearly all Americans (including nearly all who live in my home of Boulder Colorado) are vigorously opposed to such things, because nearly all Americans are forced to be motorists.

As people who live in a world where nearly every trip must be made by car, these bicycling promotion tactics are a dire threat to the lifestyle that nearly all Americans find themselves in. They are a dire threat because these tactics will make the only realistic way nearly all of us can travel more difficult and costly.

In a car-dependent world, this is intolerable.

Therefore, even though study after study shows that the tactics I mention above are extremely effective in growing the number of cyclists, nearly all Americans (even those who are supportive of travel choice, sustainability, and environmental conservation) must vigorously oppose them to, as they see it, protect their way of life.

In sum, the only effective ways to grow bicycle travel are to make car travel more costly and difficult and slow.

In other words, taking things away from motorists.

Given this, the only thing that most Americans have the political will to support are ineffective tactics (such as bike paths) that don’t affect motoring.

This is why cycling rates are so much higher in Europe than in the US. Europeans are willing to make motoring more difficult and costly.

 

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

The “Yellow Vest” Protests in France to Oppose Proposed Fuel Tax Increase

By Dom Nozzi

December 8, 2018

Here are my three big take-aways from the “yellow vest” riots/protests in France in recent weeks that forced the French Prime Minister (Macron) to withdraw his proposal to add a tax to diesel fuel.

First, almost always, it takes someone from the political right wing to propose something bold on environmental conservation – in this case, efforts to reduce excessive motor vehicle driving as a method of achieving climate change goals (I understand Macron is on the political right). Let us not forget that it was Richard Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency. Due to political dynamics, I firmly believe that it is far more likely that a Republican prez will adopt a carbon tax in the US than a Democratic prez.

Second, the extreme, violent opposition to the proposed tax happened in a nation that has far more development density, parking restrictions/costs, passenger rail, and high fuel costs than the US. Each of those factors should make it politically easier to adopt this form of carbon tax. The fact that, on the contrary, the tax was overwhelmingly opposed in a nation such as France shows that there is little or no chance that any nations on earth (particularly the US) will find the political will in our lifetimes to adopt meaningful climate change tactics.

Third, when we build a car-based world (as we have done for the past century), we lock ourselves into a self-perpetuating, long-term downward spiral that traps us in auto dependency. Even those who are strong environmentalists typically find it extremely difficult to live a car-free or even a car-light lifestyle. That means that it is nearly inevitable that there will be extreme, bi-partisan, nearly unanimous opposition to anything that adds costs or inconvenience to driving. A car-based world just makes it too impractical for all but the “lifestyle extremists” to avoid making nearly all trips by car.

We can scream and yell all we want regarding Republicans, morons, or nefarious individuals and groups who don’t believe in climate change, but when it comes to actually taking effective steps to address climate change, almost none of us has the stomach for accepting such tactics.

This state of affairs reminds me of a superb satire that Tom Toles did several years ago.

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The Suburban, Car-Based, Low-Density Lifestyle Has No Future

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 18, 2019

It is tiresome and painfully predictable — as was expressed in a Facebook thread I was recently involved in — that when a city adopts a brilliant, highly successful urban design tactic and a suggestion is made that we adopt the same tactic in our community, the knee-jerk response is “Yes, but they are different than us, so it won’t work here!”

I call such people members of the “Squelcher Squad,” as they use that argument over and over again to squelch an idea before it is adopted.

When bicycling in downtown Denver a few days ago, I noticed that Denver has right-sized (road dieted) streets in downtown to create protected bike lanes (among many other benefits). It strikes me that we heard a great many anti-city/pro-car folks scream that Folsom Street cannot be road dieted because there are “too many cars on that street.”

Why, then, can Denver road diet downtown streets despite those streets carrying far more cars than Folsom? Surely, Denver has members of the Squelcher Squad who were saying that a road diet won’t work in Denver because while it might work all over the US, “it won’t work in Denver because Denver is different. Downtown streets have far too many cars!” Note, BTW, that the Boulder Squelcher Squad was conveniently silent about successful Denver road diets, despite their having far more cars than Boulder.

If the “Yes, but they are different” argument fails to squelch the idea, the Squelcher Squad frequently plays another card: The “Catch-22” card.

In the Denver example above, this squelcher tactic would say that “Denver can do road diets but Boulder cannot because Denver has far better transit than Boulder!” When it is pointed out that the reason Denver has better transit than Boulder is because Denver is far more compact (has far higher density) than Boulder, the Squelcher Squad then plays its Catch-22 card. “Boulder cannot do road diets because we don’t have good enough transit! But Boulder also cannot have transit because I will not allow Boulder to be more compact!”

What drives this Catch-22 attitude on the part of the Squelcher Squad? It is the fact that squelchers are trapped in a car-dependent, suburban lifestyle. Those trapped in this lifestyle are forced to use a car for nearly every trip they make. Using transit, a bicycle, or walking is impractical. Because a car consumes 17 to 100 times more space than a person not in a car, and because the car-based lifestyle requires easy, convenient, affordable travel by car, those in the car-based lifestyle MUST oppose compact development as a way to protect the viability of their lifestyle. They must, in other words, preserve their low-density, space-consuming neighborhood design in amber.

As it turns out, then, the car-dependent lifestyle is unsustainable, largely because it is not in any sense resilient to change. It is, instead, a fragile way to live.

Because change in a healthy, sustainable city is inevitable, members of the Squelcher Squad have a lifestyle with no future. All species and lifestyles that were not adaptable to change in world history are now extinct. This is the inevitable fate of the suburban, car-based, low-density lifestyle in a world of inevitable change.

Postscript:

Members of the Squelcher Squad often inform us that our city cannot afford to provide the quality transit service found in many larger cities. While it is correct that smaller cities such as Boulder could not quickly install a high-quality transit system found in a city such as, say, Copenhagen, I don’t see why Boulder would need to do that as a way to follow the admirable lead of a city like Copenhagen.

The important lessons many of us get from cities like Copenhagen: land uses that are much more compact/dense than Boulder deliver many enormous benefits: affordability, transportation choice, quality of life, lifestyle choice, societal health/fitness, overall happiness, lower levels of traffic deaths, lower levels of air pollution and fuel consumption, etc.

How was a city like Copenhagen able to find the money and political will to build their transit system? It was almost entirely due to not making the mistakes of Boulder and many other US cities. Mistakes such as dispersed, low-density land use patterns, and putting too much into accommodating easy and affordable car travel.

In sum, if Boulder starts incrementally allowing more compact development, and reverses its many decades of promoting easy car travel and parking, it will inevitably see the incremental ability to find the dollars and political will to establish a better transit system. A viable future for Boulder requires that these land use and transit reforms be established, so we should start sooner rather than later as a way to ease the difficulty.

 

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

The Failure of Modernist Architectural Design

June 4, 2019

By Dom Nozzi

The reason the classical building is far more likely to stand for centuries than the modernist glass box is that, as the name “classical” implies, classical design has stood the test of time with regard to how loved the design has been over the course of several generations or centuries.

Modernist architects have opted to throw away “test of time” designs and have arrogantly decided that “innovative” is the only design criterion. That a person can just dream up an innovative design that will stand the test of time.  It is utterly unsurprising that nearly all “innovative” modernist buildings are considered hideous by the great majority of people surveyed.

When a building is loved, it has a far greater chance of lasting for centuries than buildings that few if any people love.

Almost no one (except modernist architects and those looking for amusement or shock) will visit a neighborhood as a tourist to enjoy the beauty or charm or romance or lovability of a neighborhood consisting of modernist buildings. Hundreds of millions of tourists, by striking contrast, flock to neighborhoods largely consisting of classical or traditional building design.

Rome. Copenhagen. Paris. St Augustine. French Quarter. Amsterdam. Prague. Utrecht. Bologna. Bath. Assisi. Florence. Venice. Berlin. Cologne. Dresden. Lucca. Siena. Barcelona.

An important reason why NIMBYism is so rampant is that unlike in the past (before modernism), citizens have come to expect that any new building built in town will be unlovable modernism. Nearly every new building built makes the town less loved.

Modernists are infamous for not using any sort of ornamentation whatsoever. For obvious reasons, this tends to make buildings appear boxy or cubical or so lacking in features that it fails to provide any interest to the observer. Architects did not use ornamentation for several centuries simply because they enjoyed wasting time and money to install it. They used ornamentation because it is a time-tested way to give the building appeal or interest. When I (and many others I’ve observed) am traveling to a new city, I have zero interest in photographing a metal or glass cube building because it is so minimalist and therefore uninteresting and unlovable. However, I (and many others I’ve observed) am strongly compelled to photograph buildings that are richly ornamental.

It is a myth that everyone has his or her own opinion about what is a lovable building design. Survey after survey shows that classical, traditional building design is far preferred. After all, why else would classical, traditional design be so replicated for so very many centuries? By contrast, I know of no modernist building designs that have been (or will be) replicated. That is telling. It is no coincidence that people from all over the world have flocked to the same classical and traditional buildings for centuries to admire them. I and many others believe that this is in part due to the fact that humans are hard-wired to admire certain building designs. Again, the fact that certain designs have been replicated for so many centuries is a testament to that.

Nearly all modernist architects, as part of their ruinous obsession with being “innovative,” take great joy in designing a building that completely ignores the contextual design (the design vocabulary) of other buildings on its street or neighborhood or community. It is an arrogant, selfish quest is to design a jarring “LOOK AT ME!!” building that sticks out like a sore thumb with regard to other buildings.

I believe humans tend to enjoy the pleasing character of assemblages of buildings, not individual buildings. People flock to Assisi or Florence or Venice not so much because of the desire to enjoy individual buildings, but to enjoy the collection (assemblage) of (time-Hero bldgs vs soldier bldgstested) buildings built with traditional designs.

There is a place, of course, for “look at me” (“heroic”) buildings that are designed to not fit into the context of nearby buildings. But that design must be reserved for civic buildings such as churches or important government buildings. When most or all buildings ignore context (as modernist buildings, by definition, strive to do), they create a chaotic public realm that is confusing, disorienting, and stressful to most people.

Consider, for example, the photo above. The image of a modernist city on the left exemplifies chaos and confusion and lack of coherence. It will never be tourist attraction (except for those who want to experience something bizarre or crazy).

Modernist buildings tend to be extremely notorious for being crazy expensive to maintain. They also tend to be terrible in achieving energy efficiency. After all, by tossing out traditional design tactics for the all-important need to be “innovative,” modernists stupidly toss out such efficient (and affordable) tactics as how the building is oriented toward the sun, abandoning the need for large roof overhangs (to shade the building), installing windows that cannot be opened from the inside, using non-local materials that cannot be locally sourced or repaired, using flat roofs that are extremely likely to leak or collapse under the weight of snow or water, and using glass or other wall materials that are far more costly to maintain or clean than brick or wood.

I do not believe it is true that a person who pays for a building to be built should be able to build anything he or she desires. The exterior building design, unlike paintings or furniture inside a building, is something that everyone in the community must be exposed to for the remainder of their lives. That is why I agree with the many cities that have found it very important to adopt development regulations that prohibit certain designs or exterior colors or flat roofs or large setbacks or weeds/litter/car wrecks in a front yard. The public has a right to not be subjected to what amounts to an eccentric who gets enjoyment out of flipping off his fellow citizen by what amounts to “mooning” the public realm with a jarring, shocking building design.

Modernism also fails in several ways at the neighborhood level. Emily Talen, in her book Neighborhood (2019), notes that the highly influential Congress International Architecture Modern (CIAM) successfully influenced — for decades and to this day — the design of neighborhoods throughout the world so that they included the highly dysfunctional features of separating homes from offices, retail, civic, and manufacturing; prioritizing the car over the pedestrian; rejecting the street as public space; creating superblocks that promote insularity; treating buildings as isolated objects in space rather than as part of a larger interconnected urban fabric; rejecting traditional elements such as squares and plazas; demolishing large areas of the city to make unfettered places for new built forms; and creating enclosed malls and sunken plazas that deaden public space. I would also note that these modernist designers also brought dysfunctional, disconnected, disorienting, curvilinear roads to neighborhoods.

Buildings must be built well. That is one of the main reasons why I reject modernist design. Modernism is too often using designs and materials that fail or are extremely costly to maintain.

I agree with those who state that one of the most essential ways to promote energy conservation and material conservation is to use a building design that is loved. When traditional more sustainable than modernismthe building is loved, it is much more likely to last for generations, because citizens will be more likely to defend it from demolition. Time-tested buildings, by definition, are the most loved. I am completely convinced that “innovative” modernist buildings will, in nearly all cases, not stand the test of time, and be demolished relatively soon. To build buildings that are so unloved that they are soon demolished is dreadfully wasteful.

“Nothing is more dated [and, in my opinion, unloved] than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.”

Modernism is a failed paradigm for the reasons I give above. We need to toss this paradigm into the waste basket.

 

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The Death of the City Planning Profession

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2019

A few years ago, I let my American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) certification expire because AICP and the American Planning Association represent a profession (public sector planning) that has lost its way.

The profession has lost any sense of an admirable or societally desirable mission. It has lost the inspiring vision it once had.

Conventional city (and county or regional) planning has become sterile and drowns in the minutia of “needed” parking and “needed” throughput of cars. Of an obsession with separating “incompatible” land uses from each other (such as homes and retail) through strict and mindless adherence to zoning regulations.

Both of these single-minded efforts are tragically quite counterproductive, as they are precisely the opposite of what a vibrant, healthy, sustainable city needs.

The profession has shedded any interest in urban design, human scale, pedestrian quality, timeless design, and quality of life. In my 20 years as a town planner, I was little more than a paper pushing clerk who signed off on developers seeking to create car-happy places.

For example, nearly all of my day-to-day work involved confirming that a proposed development had “sufficient” (ie, excessive) parking. Parking requirements that had no basis in reality or science or what a given development or neighborhood actually needed. Given how toxic car parking happens to be for a quality city, what could be more misguided? Eventually, I was marginalized and censored by administrators, supervisors, and my elected officials when I started to move toward designing for people rather than cars.

The desire to “make no one unhappy” is now a single-minded obsession for nearly all American public sector town planners. And in our car-based world where there is nothing anywhere near as important to achieve as easy motoring, this translates into an almost exclusive focus on promoting car travel.

This, of course, is a rode to ruin, as such a mission leads to a perpetuation of the downwardly spiraling car-oriented status quo.

Shame on public sector planners, the APA, and AICP for leaving such a terrible legacy for future generations.

 

 

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Was Boulder More “Enlightened” in the Past?

By Dom Nozzi

December 23, 2018

A friend of mine recently told me that she thought the city of Boulder, Colorado used to be “enlightened” in the past. That is, more wise, progressive, and problem-solving than the average city.

But I don’t know that I agree that Boulder used to be enlightened.

While Boulder has a national reputation for being on the cutting edge of city and transportation innovation – and a wellspring of progressivism, that reputation turns out to be far from accurate.

For example, since at least the 1960s, many (most?) in Boulder have held the quite misguided, ruinous view that car travel needs to be made as easy as possible, and the way to do that was to slow growth and minimize density.

Better yet would be to stop growth.

Doing this would allow the city to achieve the “nirvana” of happy cars (free-flowing traffic and abundant free parking). The reason why that ruinous belief has been a near consensus in Boulder for so long is that both politically conservative wealthy folks AND political liberals were more than happy to agree to it. In America, both conservatives and liberals put happy cars at or near the top of their quality of life priority list.

This belief has poisoned Boulder thinking since at least the 1960s. The city has fooled many in America into thinking that it was “enlightened” because of an accident of geography. Boulder is very fortunate to be in a location that is so spectacular that it attracts wealthy, intelligent people. Such wealth and intelligence gave the city the ability to admirably tax itself to buy a greenbelt, which provides enduring quality of life for the city, and creates the illusion that the city is “enlightened” generally.

However, accomplishing “enlightened” objectives requires far more than being wealthy enough to buy a greenbelt or build a multi-million dollar bike path system.

It also requires the wisdom to adopt enlightened parking, roadway, land use, and urban design guidelines, to name just a very few significant urban design tactics.

And in those areas, Boulder has been in the Dark Ages since the 1960s – largely because of the political consensus that buying a greenbelt, and stopping/slowing growth to keep cars happy was enough.

It is not.

Nor is it even possible. Or desirable.

 

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Improving Bicycling in Boulder, Colorado

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 30, 2019

Boulder is preparing to update its Transportation Master Plan, and part of that is to adopt new policies for improving Boulder’s bike network. Here is what I suggested…

The following are essential reforms for improving bicycling in Boulder:

  1. On roads that are more like highways than the slower-speed streets they should be in the Boulder town center (such as Canyon, Broadway, Arapahoe, and Folsom), lane-reducing road diets are very important. These high-speed roads should not be the car-only routes when they are in the town center, as healthy town centers need both slower speeds and rich transportation choice (cars, bikes, ped, transit).
  2. Lane reductions are needed for Boulder intersections that have double-left turn lanes (they need to become single-left turn lanes, or in the town center, zero-left turn lanes).
  3. Coupled with lane reductions, highways in the Boulder town center should also incorporate effective HORIZONTAL traffic calming (since the highways are also emergency response routes, calming that is compatible with emergency vehicles is necessary – including bulb-outs, circles/roundabouts, and on-street parking). Examples of “horizontal” calming includes intersection and mid-block bulb-outs, reduction in travel lane widths, and on-street parking. Examples of “vertical” calming includes speed bumps/humps, and speed tables. Vertical calming designs are almost never desirable or appropriate.
  4. One-way streets must be converted back to two-way operation.

Bicycling in Boulder will become much more common if the following non-bike network reforms are achieved:

  1. Parking is reformed (eliminate required [minimum] parking, establish more parking cash-out, unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing, price free parking spaces, and reduce the quantity of free parking spaces).
  2. Reduce travel distances for bicyclists by substantially incentivizing a much larger quantity of compact, mixed-use development in the city.

I would point out that each of the above tactics are effective ways for Boulder to achieve its climate change goals.

Shame on Boulder for being so far behind the times on the above six items – particularly given the crisis in recent years of the unacceptably high level of traffic injuries and deaths in Boulder, not to mention the affordable housing crisis.

 

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Stopping Growth in Boulder, Colorado

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 18, 2018

I will always remember a planning professor I had back in college who was enraged by the common thought many residents have in US cities: “I moved to this town. You can pull up the ladder now!”

In these sorts of conversations, I notice how common it is for many to not understand basic economic and development issues.

In the American legal and economic system, elected council members (and their professional staff) are almost entirely reactive. Council members almost never (if ever) proactively “invite” a business to move to town (particularly in Boulder).

Instead, it is the business that makes the decision about whether it is sufficiently desirable to locate a business in the town (such a decision is based on the quality of the workforce and the quality of life — both of which are very high in Boulder).

That business decision can also be influenced by taxes, fees, and development regulations, but if the quality of life and workforce is high enough, those things are unlikely to dissuade a business.

Therefore, to be somewhat proactive in reducing jobs (or slowing “growth”), Boulder should lower its quality of life and urge well-educated residents to leave (does anyone want to use that strategy?). I for one enjoy living in a community that has such a high quality of life and quality workforce that many quality businesses seek to be here (despite rather high fees and taxes, and strong regulations). Their wanting to be here is a strong sign that it is wonderful to live here. And that we have quality people living here.

It also needs to be pointed out that due to such things as the US Constitution, communities have little or no legal ability to stop growth. That may be why no US city has EVER stopped growth (a great many US citizens — not just in Boulder — would like their city to stop growth).

Given all of this, it seems unfair to blame city council members for inviting businesses to locate in Boulder (they don’t) or to blame them for not stopping population growth (they don’t have a legal means to do so).

One tragic aspect of the obsessive efforts in Boulder to STOP GROWTH, or failing that, to at least MINMIZE DENSITY, is that there is very strong evidence that higher densities catalyze higher levels of innovation in the community (not to mention the many significant benefits that higher density, more compact development delivers with regard to transportation, social health, public health, environmental health, and economic health). What this means, in essence, is that those in Boulder who have succeeded in putting a brake on innovation, reducing population growth, and minimizing development density have made innovation, transportation, social and public health, environmental health, and financial health much worse in Boulder.

As an aside, Boulder does slow growth rather effectively. But not because anything the City does directly. Growth is slower than it would be because relatively few people can now afford to live in Boulder.

As has been suggested previously, I have to wonder how many of those who complain about the 60,000 car commuters each day are themselves car commuters? And how many realize that lifestyle and travel choices allows one to be much less bothered by those 60,000 car commuters? (because in-town, car-lite living is much more affordable than remote suburban, car-heavy living)

How many realize that because the City Council has little if any ability to control which businesses move here or how many people move here, time is much better spent by citizens and City Council to work on adopting or revising existing development and transportation regulations and policies so that when the nearly inevitable growth of people and businesses comes to Boulder in the coming decades, we will have controls in place that will ensure the growth occurs in ways that enhance Boulder rather than degrade it.

In my opinion, Boulder has been so single-mindedly focused on trying to stop growth that it has been too distracted to work on adopting needed regulations and policies.

Which, by the way, are rather out of date.

 

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Is Walkable Design Possible in Our Age?

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 5, 2018

The question of walkability in our time is an enormous dilemma. On the one hand, designing for easier and cheaper car travel (which is politically essential in pretty much all US cities) is a zero-sum game. When we do that, we inevitably make places that are too dangerous, car-scaled, unpleasant, inequitable and dispersed for walkability (not to mention for bicycling and transit).

Providing bike lanes, sidewalks, or quality transit does very little to counteract those things. But adding such facilities is common, not because it is effective, but because it is politically easy.

On the other hand, to create the relatively high residential densities needed for viable, walkable retail (ie, retail with a neighborhood consumer-shed, rather than a regional consumer-shed) is nearly impossible in pretty much all US cities.

In too many cases, new urban neighborhoods are created in a vacuum. Too often, that is, they are not built at an important travel crossroads where retail and compact residential has historically been viable due to the high traffic levels such places naturally draw. By not locating in a place that contains a crossroads, a new urban neighborhood must somehow establish powerful “destination” retail — retail that is such a draw that community members are willing to go out of their way to regularly visit such a place.

And this is very difficult to achieve and sustain.

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Opposition to More Housing or Better Urbanism

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 19, 2019

Often, but not always, opposition to compact development (or more housing) comes from folks who either don’t like cities or don’t have a good understanding of what makes for healthy, safe, sustainable, diverse, convenient, choice-rich cities.

Other opposition, understandably, is based on the many of us who are appalled by the many newer buildings which are too often unlovable, boxy, jarring, look-at-me modernist architecture.

Still others oppose more housing because they believe that such development will make their car-based lifestyle more costly and difficult (a concern that is more suburban than walkable urban). But in a healthy town center, it SHOULD be costly and inconvenient for space-hogging, high speed motorists.

I’ve never been enthusiastic about “educating” people about the benefits of compact urbanism (such as adding more housing). I think there are different strokes for different folks, and that we should equitably accommodate all lifestyle choices (even suburban choices), as long as people choosing such lifestyles are paying their fair share. Of course, this is rarely the case with suburban lifestyles, which tend to be far more heavily subsidized by the community than any other lifestyle.

There is a place for every form of lifestyle, but I insist that we need to let the urban town centers be urban, rather than be degraded by suburban (car-happy) values (ie, the values that deliver design elements that are toxic to walkable urbanism, such as excessive open space or building setbacks, low densities, wider and higher-speed roads, large surface parking lots, required parking, “horizontal skyscrapers,” and single-family zoning).

Too often, this toxic degradation harms town centers, as America is a very suburban society with suburban values. Even many who live in town centers have suburban values they wish to impose on the town center, which is unsurprising, given the many decades America has subsidized and enabled suburbanism.

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