Category Archives: Road Diet

What Are the Design Attributes of a Better Town, Dom?

By Dom Nozzi

May 22, 2018

A friend of mine wrote to me to ask the following. “Despite the fact that I am heavily reliant on my car, I do agree with most of what you say [in this blog you wrote], Dom. But we do have to have cars, at least to some extent. I’ve often wondered what a Dom-designed town would look like. What is your Utopia, and is it the same as what you think a realistic-Utopia could be (regarding transportation)?”

Here is my response:

My belief that car driving makes us much more mean-spirited than when we walk, bicycle, or use transit is not intended to imply that no one should ever drive a car. It is mostly to warn us that excessive dependence on car travel can create a much less

Man Expressing Road Rage

An irritated young man driving a vehicle is expressing his road rage.

pleasant world, and that we must work much harder to reduce excessive (particularly low-value) car travel (and designing communities that are much less negatively affected by over-designing for cars).

A few design strategies that would help: (1) more toll roads and more priced (metered) parking, (2) converting stroads into streets by reducing their width and beautifying the now slower streets with buildings pulled up to sidewalks, (3) adding more raised medians in the middle of streets, (4) unbundling the price of parking from the cost of housing, (5) allowing employees to opt for parking cash-out, (6) creating human-scale spaces rather than gigantic car spaces (small building setbacks, small streets, small parking lots behind building, small signs, shorter street lights, etc.), (7) mixing housing with offices, retail and other jobs, (8) creating an adequate supply of walkable and drivable housing (currently we have way too much of the latter and way too little of the former), (9) moving away from the failed, unlovable architectural paradigm known as modernism and instead using timeless, classical design.

In general, the older a town happens to be, the better it does in the above features (largely because they were built before we became obsessed with cars and trapped in the happy car downward spiral). Happily, some newer towns are using some of the older, timeless patterns, so they are not awful. Examples of older towns or new towns in the US using timeless principles: Key West, St Augustine, Annapolis, Stapleton near Denver, Old Towne Arvada, Prospect, Savannah, Charleston, Seaside, Haile Plantation, and LoDo in Denver. In each case, the design is intended to make people happy, not cars. The result is charm, low speeds, and sociable ambience that people love experiencing.

Within these places designed for people, not cars, it tends to be inconvenient to get around by car. But that is exactly the way it should be, since fast, oversized metal boxes create a world that humans find repellent.

And a world within which people become frustrated, stressed, and enraged. Those toxic emotions for those trapped in car-happy places are too often when such a person is behind the wheel of a car.

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Sounding the Alarm for Traffic Safety in Boulder

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2018

Recently, the Boulder (Colorado) City Council has indicated that improving traffic safety is a significant priority. And rightly so, given the surge in traffic deaths in Boulder in recent years. The City has adopted a “Vision Zero” objective (zero serious traffic injuries or deaths).

However, the Boulder program is the same old song and dance that Boulder and most every other American city have been engaged in to “improve” traffic safety. Every few years for the past century, Boulder has “redoubled its efforts” to deploy The Five W’s: (1) more Warning signs are erected; (2) more (or revised) Warning lights are installed; (3) more Warning paint is painted; (4) more Warning education is called for; and (5) more Warning enforcement is urged. But after a century of redoubling our efforts to do those things, Boulder’s streets are more dangerous than ever. For example, the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper recently reported that traffic deaths in Boulder County were higher than they have been since at least 2004. And while Boulder was once again ranked relatively high as a bike-friendly city a few days ago, the ranking curiously but accurately noted that Boulder ranked poorly for bicycling safety.

The Five W’s path to safety has failed.

Such campaigns border on being patronizing. And traffic safety education is a form of victim-blaming.

As far back as 60 years ago, Binghamton NY had a Vision Zero objective in place. But when we think about it, all US cities – including Binghamton and Boulder – have had a Vision Zero objective for about 100 years (or for at least as long as cars have been VZaround). In other words, all cities have always worked to achieve Vision Zero – at least subconsciously. Therefore, adopting a Vision Zero objective is little more than “putting old wine in new bottles.” The only real novelty is that a growing number of cities are now openly stating that objective, rather than just having it in the back of our minds.

Like most other cities, unfortunately, Boulder has spent the past century designing streets to enable (and therefore encourage) high speed, inattentive driving.

Maximizing motorist speeds and using the “Forgiving Street” design (a design used too often by state and local traffic engineers to “forgive” motorists who drive too fast or inattentively – which thereby encourages speeding and inattentive driving) results in excessive dimensions for roads, an excessive number of overly wide travel lanes, excessive sizes for clear zones and vision triangles and shoulders, and oversized intersections (as well as an over-use of turn lanes). Inevitably, this has led to an epidemic of speeding and inattentive driving, which creates extremely dangerous, deadly conditions for a roadway system. The Five W’s have only a trivial impact on making such a dangerous roadway system safer – particularly because our doubling down on such strategies every few years for the past century has led to severely diminishing returns.

If we are serious about achieving “Vision Zero,” we need to redesign our streets.

What if, instead of continuing to pursue The Five W’s, we start putting more of the onus on transportation engineers and motorists by designing streets and intersections that obligate slower, more attentive driving?

Such driving is conducive to safety as well as nearby residential and retail health.

How do we humanize streets in this manner? We can, for example, install beautifying elements on streets such as more street trees and attractively designed/landscaped and sufficiently large traffic circles, raised medians and roundabouts – many in Boulder are too small. We can reduce the width of streets and travel lanes. We can shrink the size of intersections. We can remove unnecessary travel lanes – particularly on roads with four or more lanes. We can pull buildings up to streets instead of having them set behind parking lots. We can install more on-street parking. We can reduce the size of intersection turning radii. We can remove a number of town center turn and “slip” lanes. We can reduce the size of shoulders and vision triangles. We can reduce the width of driveways. We can substantially increase funding for the neighborhood traffic calming program to create several new neighborhood-based “slow” or “shared” or “give-way” streets.

Inducing slower car speeds is essential for enhancing travel safety, effectively encouraging non-car travel, and improving town center and neighborhood quality of life. There are important reasons why a “slow cities” movement is spreading worldwide.

Boulder is not now politically ready to seriously strive to attain Vision Zero, as there is insufficient political will to do the things listed above. Years after the Folsom Street lane repurposing was put in place, many in Boulder are still screaming mad about it. Some call such traffic safety measures “impede and congest” tactics intended to “annoy” motorists and “force” them to use bicycles or transit.

Why is it not an “impede and congest” tactic intended to “annoy” bicyclists and pedestrians and “force” them to drive a car when it comes to the frequent action to enlarge intersections to have a double-left turn lane? Or install a large parking lot? Is this not a double standard?

Given this lack of political will, the City should suspend the Vision Zero goal until it is ready to deploy the tactics necessary to actually reach Vision Zero.

The 30th Street, Canyon, East Arapahoe, Colorado, and Iris projects should also be suspended for the same reason.

Shame on Boulder.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sprawl, Traffic, Taxes and Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

August 15, 2006

We live in troubled times. Times that require wise, courageous leadership. Here is what I see in our communities, and what I plan to do about it.

Taxation

Taxes are high and are constantly rising because new growth is not paying its own way.

All levels of government are financially strapped. Households are struggling to be able to afford the skyrocketing costs of transportation and rising property taxes.

Aren’t you tired of high and rising taxes?

Transportation

Automakers keep producing gas-guzzling cars. There is no quality transit system. We have no transportation choices. Little Billy and little Suzie cannot safely go for a walk or ride a bike in their neighborhoods because traffic is too dangerous.

Our hard-earned money and national wealth is vanishing. Our money is being used to enrich Middle Eastern oil-producing nations—many of which are not our friends.

Aren’t you tired of our unhealthy transportation system?

The Quality of Our Neighborhoods and Communities

Our farms are vanishing because they are being paved over by sprawling subdivisions.

We keep getting dumb growth instead of smart growth. Our neighborhoods are afflicted by rising levels of noise pollution. We’ve lost the tradition of having neighborhood-based schools, which means our kids cannot get to school on their own. We have forgotten that a high quality of life is a powerful economic engine.

Aren’t you tired of the sprawl? The ugly, dangerous, costly, “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development that keeps popping up in our communities?

My Vision

Let’s restore our communities.

  • Imagine communities rich in transportation choice. A place where we and our kids can get around safely by car, by transit, by walking and by bicycle. Communities, in other words, where one has the choice to be able to walk to get a loaf of bread, instead of being forced to drive 4 miles to get that loaf.
  • Imagine communities where our property taxes are reasonable and our government is able to afford to build quality public facilities and provide quality public services.
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our beautiful forests, natural areas and farms bulldozed, acre-by-acre, day-by-day, to build endless, sprawling subdivisions.
  • Imagine communities where streets are not choked by rapidly growing numbers of cars.
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our roads torn up and widened every year, causing infuriating road construction delays.
  • Imagine communities with pleasant, safe, beautiful, slow-speed shopping streets instead of communities full of 10-lane strip commercial monster roads.
  • Imagine communities with healthy air and water, and neighborhoods that place public parks a short distance from our homes.
  • Imagine communities that provides choices about how to live. Communities where one can happily live an urban, suburban or rural lifestyle.
  • Imagine communities where it is actually legal to build smartly. Traditionally. Sustainably. Where building smartly is the rule, rather than the exception. Local government regulations encourage smart growth, and are not an obstacle to it.  Communities that makes it fast and easy to build smartly, and makes it more difficult and costly to build crud.
  • Imagine communities full of energy-efficient homes and offices.
  • Imagine communities that are quiet. Where one can sleep peacefully each night without being awoken by endless sirens and the roar of traffic.
  • Imagine places with a strong sense of community. Places that are a community, not a crowd.

Imagine communities, in other words, that we can be proud of.

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Too Little Open Space?

By Dom Nozzi

April 16, 2018

In March 2018, the “Transportation Psychologist” posted the following photo and comment on Facebook to illustrate the enormous amount of space that a passenger car consumes:

The Transportation Psychologist asked, “If you wouldn’t build your house like this, why would you build your community this way?”

car consumes a huge amount of space

I noted in response that similarly, a great many in Boulder, Colorado fear the loss of in-town “open space.” I often point out that within Boulder (and all other American cities), there is already way too much open space. But that open space is mostly devoted to cars in the form of overwide roads and oversized parking lots.

And since car-centric cities such as Boulder have a very strong interest in minimizing density (largely because walkable density makes car travel much more inconvenient), cities such as Boulder have building setbacks that are far too large — which creates an excess of private yard open space.

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It is Time for Boulder to Put Road Safety Redesign Plans on Hold

By Dom Nozzi

April 16, 2018

I am concerned that after an unacceptably large number of traffic fatalities and serious traffic injuries, Boulder Colorado is not being serious about its new “Vision Zero” program (achieving zero traffic deaths or serious injuries over the course of a year).

At my last Boulder Transportation Advisory Board meeting in a few days, I made a motion to recommend that Council put the redesign of 30th and East Arapahoe, as well as the Vision Zero plan, on hold until Boulder has the political will to take effective design measures that will advance the essential objectives of increased travel by transit, bicycle, and walking. As well as the need to significantly improve safety, quality of life, and the viability of housing and small-scale retail.

As was the case with all but one of my motions on my five years serving on the Board, that motion failed to get a second, and therefore died for lack of a second.

Indeed, one member of the Board asked “how dare you” make such a motion to delay safety efforts in light of the recent serious traffic crashes. My response was “how dare we” respond to recent serious traffic crashes by only proposing to enact “same old song and dance” tactics that are almost entirely ineffective.pe

As it stands today, that political will to enact effective street design measures (such as road diets or traffic calming on major roads) does not exist, which means the City is wasting the time of staff, citizens, and Council members, as well as wasting money by pursuing a Vision Zero plan.

In my opinion, there are only a few ways to “change attitudes” or find the political will to redesign streets in order to effectively advance the important objectives I mention above.

One is for the City to face severe budget constraints that make it financially impossible to continue to promote easy and high-speed and free-flowing car travel. However, I don’t believe the City will face severe budget constraints for the foreseeable future.

The other is to be like the Chinese and leverage crisis as an opportunity to achieve those things that have been politically difficult. I am disappointed that the uptick we’ve seen in recent years in Boulder regarding serious traffic injuries and deaths has not led to our seeing enough of a crisis to seize the opportunity to adopt effective safety measures. Instead of moving toward street redesign which effectively obligates motorists to drive more slowly and more attentively, Boulder is opting for the same old failed tactics we’ve used every few years for the past century: more safety signs, more safety education (which tends to be victim-blaming), more safety lighting, more safety paint, and more safety enforcement.

It hasn’t worked.

Despite our doubling down on these tactics every few years for the past century. Our roads are now more dangerous than ever.

Without redesigning streets for slow, safe, attentive driving, we will continue to fail to meaningfully improve safety, increase non-motorized travel, protect shops and homes, or improve transportation finances.

Shame on us.

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Boulder and Vision Zero

By Dom Nozzi

April 10, 2018

For me, the reason this photo is so powerful is that it is emblematic of a number of troubling and tragic aspects of American transportation.VZ

The photo shows that as far back as 60 years ago, Binghamton NY had a Vision Zero objective in place. But when we think about it, ALL US cities – including Binghamton and Boulder CO (my home city) – have had a Vision Zero objective for about 100 years (or for at least as long as cars have been around). In other words, all cities have always worked to achieve Vision Zero – at least subconsciously. The only real novelty is that a growing number of cities are now openly stating that objective, rather than just having it in the back of our minds.

Adopting a Vision Zero objective is little more than “putting old wine in new bottles.” I say that because:

  1. Despite the fact that all US cities – including Binghamton and Boulder – have had an objective of zero traffic deaths or serious traffic injuries for a century, our roads are more dangerous than ever.
  2. The reason our roads are more dangerous than ever is because all US cities – including Binghamton and Boulder – have managed their roadway systems for the past century with three overriding goals: (a) Maximizing motorist speeds; (b) Deploying the failed Forgiving Street design strategy; and (c) Stubbornly sticking to the same old song and dance of more safety signage, more safety lighting, more safety paint, and more safety enforcement for safe roadways.

Maximizing motorist speeds and using the Forgiving Street design (a design used by all federal, state, and local traffic engineers) results in excessive dimensions for roads, an excessive number of overly wide travel lanes, excessive sizes for clear zones and vision triangles and shoulders, and oversized intersections (as well as an over-use of turn lanes). Inevitably, this has led to an epidemic of speeding and inattentive driving, which creates extremely dangerous, deadly conditions for a roadway system. More safety signage, more safety lighting, more safety paint, and more safety enforcement have only a trivial impact on making such a dangerous roadway system safer – particularly because our doubling down on such strategies every few years for the past century has led to greatly diminishing returns.

Given these three goals/strategies Binghamton, Boulder and all other US cities have been saddled with for the past century, it is nearly certain that our roadways will continue to grow increasingly unsafe and our ability to achieve Vision Zero will continue to diminish.

I remain convinced that Boulder should put our Vision Zero objective on hold unless or until Boulder is politically ready to adopt effective tactics to reach Vision Zero. As it stands now, Boulder is not politically ready, and having a Vision Zero objective under such conditions will give the City’s Vision Zero program a black eye.

What are the effective tactics for achieving Vision Zero?

  1. Abandon the deadly objective of maximizing motorist speeds and using Forgiving Street design. Such a goal and design substantially undermine a large number of important Boulder transportation, safety, and quality of life objectives. Replace this with the goal of designing roads to obligate slow, attentive driving — driving which is conducive to safety as well as nearby residential and retail development. In other words, transform roads into streets. This is most effectively achieved by removing excessive travel lanes (ie, road diets and various horizontal traffic calming treatments such as bulbouts and raised medians), removing turn lanes, reducing the width of travel lanes, reducing the size of shoulders and vision triangles, eliminating super-elevations on turns, removing double-yellow lines, installing more on-street parking, reducing the size of turning radii, reducing the width of driveways, installing more canopy street trees, and pulling buildings up to front sidewalks. See this, for example.
  2. Remove more of the large financial subsidies for car travel to further reduce excessive, low-value car travel. For example, eliminate minimum parking requirements and reduce the amount of underpriced or free parking. There are many more ways to reduce subsidies that I will not list here.

By using these effective tactics for reducing the speed, space, and subsidies that we pamper motorists with, Boulder and other cities will have a much better chance of achieving Vision Zero.

 

 

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Anti-City and Anti-Environment

By Dom Nozzi

March 27, 2018

Historically, anti-city and anti-environment folks were in force in places like Houston and Phoenix and Atlanta and Buffalo. They fought hard and successfully for:

  1. Easing car travel and car parking.
  2. Providing more open space and larger setbacks.
  3. Opposing parking supply restrictions and opposing parking pricing.
  4. Opposing road diets.
  5. Opposing road tolls.
  6. Supporting highway widenings and overpasses.
  7. Lowering densities and increasing fees to the point where new development is unaffordable (an indirect way to stop development and growth).
  8. Keeping buildings no taller than 1 or 2 stories.
  9. “Protecting” neighborhoods against infill, mixed use, co-ops, and backyard cottages.

All of these are anti-city (and anti-environment) efforts.315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lot

I don’t want Boulder, Colorado (the city I live in) to follow the path of Houston or Phoenix or Atlanta or Buffalo. And that is an important reason why I am so troubled that so many in Boulder have aggressively promoted (and continue to promote) the tactics I list above that were so strongly pushed in cities such as Houston and Phoenix.

Tactics that ironically made places such as Houston and Phoenix the awful places they are today.

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Debating Whether Transportation Drives Land Use with My Gainesville Planning Department Supervisors

By Dom Nozzi

February 17, 2000

I had a loud debate with my Gainesville, Florida planning department supervisors yesterday on what the Land Use portion of Gainesville’s Long Range Plan should say.

I pointed out that because transportation drives land use, it is hopeless, in the long run, for local government to fight proposed rezonings from single-family residential to non-single family on major, hostile streets. None of them agreed with me at all, and believe the City should continue our long, hopeless fight against rezoning proposals from single-family to non-single family on hostile streets. This is maddening, and obviously being colored by recent NIMBY attacks against the City.

After the meeting, I sent the planning manager excerpts from the West Palm transportation element. He responded with this:

Dom, I didn’t read all of this but I generally agree with the part I read. Transportation travel land use, and bad land use decision drive people away also.  If the Street is bad and the Land use is bad what do you think will happen.  For Gainesville the Streets are bad and the Land use is no so bad, so lets change the street and keep the land use. [this is the verbatim, uncorrected transcript of his message to me]

I responded to those comments with this:

“Glad you agree with West Palm and folks like Walter Kulash, who would say exactly what I and West Palm Beach would say on these issues. My main point: We are fooling ourselves and doomed to a life of permanent, never-ending battles with people who want to rezone single-family residential land that they own and cannot use as single-family residential land use due to the road.

“Granted, there are a few who could live in a single-family residential home and put up with the noise and reduced property value. Forty years from now, if we do not fix our arterials to make them more livable, we will, though incremental zoning changes, have those streets lined with offices and multi-family residential and retail. And over those 40 years, we will have a bunch of planners burned out on fighting those never-ending battles.street without on street parking

“In the long term, as Kulash points out, no force on earth – not even five no-growth advocates on the City Commission — can stop that incremental change. Yes, we can succeed, in the short term, in keeping the single-family. But that will only mean that we’ll have a bunch of vacant homes, and depressed property values.

“The best we can realistically hope for, in the long run, if we don’t fix the streets, is land use that makes sense for major streets (according to what the market wants), and helps transit, while minimizing strip commercial. That is why I think we should give some consideration to favorable recommendations on petitions that request going to office use or multi-family use (but not retail).

“Again, I am not recommending that we initiate the land use changes (that will inevitably come) — even though that would be most fair for suffering single-family property owners along major streets. Our message must be: “Either fix the street, or be fair and honest by realizing we are going to get incremental conversion away from single-family.”

West Palm Beach FL has shown clearly what can happen overnight (dramatic land use improvements and property value increases) when the street is fixed.

My comments to the Gainesville Comprehensive Long Range Planning Chief:

“I’ve not had a full night’s sleep for weeks, and have recently developed a severe case of insomnia. So when you see me dozing off at future staff meetings, you’ll understand.

“And it is not just student noise that is out of control. It is also emergency vehicles, vacuum trucks, police helicopters, etc… With regard to SW 13th Street (a major state highway running north-south through the middle of Gainesville), let me again try to make clear that the public sector, short of doing a major change to the street (such as we’re proposing for SW 20th Avenue), has nearly no meaningful way to affect the land use market. The Land Use plan I wrote for Gainesville, for example, will have a future land use map that merely adopts what is on the ground already, with a few minor tweaks based on what citizens have asked for on their individual property and we have agreed to. But even IF we could make wholesale, visionary changes to our land use map, such changes would have little meaning (or fairness) unless they are attuned to what the market calls for in those locations — and us planners would not be doing work to determine market feasibility of changed designations. Again, transportation drives land use. So unless we make radical changes to SW 13th, all we can expect is uses that are consistent with that sort of highway.

“Personally and frankly, I think converting SW 13th to a “4-lane urban street” is an oxymoron. Not to say that I’ve given up on 13th, because I think we’ll ultimately return to our senses and make it a 2-lane. I don’t know enough of the details to know what Chapel Hill has done, but I’m fairly certain that they are things we cannot duplicate anytime soon — such as buildings up to the street (which I would oppose on a 4-laner without on-street parking, since it is unfair to the business).

“I would have to see why Chapel Hill works well. I do not think it is feasible to slow traffic on a 4-lane state highway because FDOT would not allow it. It can happen with a 2-lane state highway due to things like congestion and a narrow street profile that does not create the illusion of a high-speed highway.

“More so than most, I can envision such a 13th Street corridor fairly easily. Given time and vision and courage, it can be wonderful. Many people consider me a pessimist on certain things, but hypocritically are extreme pessimists on things I’d like, such as a walkable city. I would strongly support what you suggest be done on 13th. But I do not believe it (a four-lane urban street) would dramatically change 13th to make it a good market for higher density residential or pedestrian vibrancy. Call me a pessimist, but I’m convinced we MUST remove travel lanes to make SW 13th work. And isn’t that necessary if we are going to install on-street parking there?

“But are we not skirting around the key effort? Don’t we need to admit that we need to slow the growth of UF, get more on-campus housing, or get better code enforcement (or a combination of such things)? I’m sorry, but I just don’t see a realistic way to transform SW 13th the way you and I know it needs to transform someday.

“In my humble opinion, we cannot realistically expect good redevelopment along SW 13th as long as FDOT forces it to remain a high-speed highway. I just don’t see colored crosswalks, landscaping, or wide sidewalks dramatically changing things. Don’t we, for example, have some colored crosswalk pavers out on Newberry Road near Oaks Mall now. Has that meant anything at all?

“I like your enthusiasm and ideas about Westgate, too, but am not sure even a Dover/Kohl charrette could do much unless the owners of the center felt the plaza was collapsing economically. There are things we might be able to do with an overlay district I’ve outlined in my urban design toolbox (which has been pulled from the urban design plan I wrote because it is “too new urbanist”). I’m hoping we can adopt such an overlay for places like Westgate, but the change will be painfully slow unless the plaza is torn down. That is the only way we can get the buildings re-configured in a proper way.

“Thanks for your comments, good suggestions and concern.”

More of my thoughts expressed to the Comprehensive Long Range Planning Chief:

“Probably our most enormous problem with ‘fixing’ this area is that we will not be able to do it as long as it remains a high-speed, 5-lane state highway. We can only save it if we can take out 2 travel lanes, but I suspect this is not politically feasible, given our FDOT people and our commission. SW 13th already has a bike lane that is excellent for bike commuters, but it would be interesting to create an off-street greenway trail there. Any opportunities? Any way to extort such a thing? Also, the existing buildings are way too far off the street to make for quality urbanism. We’d need code requirements that say that any reconstruction or new development must be on the sidewalk. Again, probably not politically feasible.

“So without removing travel lanes and without pulling buildings close, we have a long-term, huge problem. And this is not even to mention the fact that our residential density and commercial intensity along there is way too low. Once again, all we can do as the public sector to move the market in that direction is to remove travel lanes.

“I think we’d probably need some special, non-Traditional City [walkable Gainesville regulations I wrote for downtown] overlays for the two areas, and perhaps hire Dover to do the plan. Retrofitting such miserable places is a monstrous job that requires a lot of political courage and staff time. (which is why people like Dover are helpful) I could do overlays for the areas, but it will take a LONG time for them to transform those areas.

“An example of the problem of Trad City applied to Westgate: Would it be feasible and appropriate, without an internal street plan, to require all redevelopment there to demolish the strip store and put it up on 34th or University? Seems like we first need to adopt an internal street plan, and then find the courage to get the plan adopted and conformed to. And then have enough redevelopment interest to see meaningful redevelopment over a reasonable period of time.”

 

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Phoenix or Siena? Do We Reduce Environmental Impact by Stopping Growth? Or Ensuring Growth is Better?

By Dom Nozzi

February 13, 2018

Someone posted a rebuttal to the excellent guest opinion in the Boulder, Colorado newspaper by Zane Selvan’s about the environmental impacts of low density development in Boulder:

“There it is again: ‘per capita carbon footprint’. I’m concerned with Boulder’s ‘net’ carbon footprint. Density and infill proponents want to increase the population and increase the net carbon footprint in order to achieve a decrease in per capita carbon footprint. It’s the only way they can do it. It’s oxymoronic. Boulder will become a bigger, dirtier more crowded city overall in order to become slightly cleaner per individual. It’s a self defeating policy.”

My response: If Boulder’s 108,000 people were spread out over a lower density, more dispersed and car dependent pattern, the impact on the environment would be much more brutal and unsustainable. As it stands now, Boulder’s low-density pattern already fuels a huge amount of car travel and carbon emissions — way more than if that 108,000 people were in a more compact, human-scaled pattern.

For those, like me, who prefer a “small town character,” Boulder would feel much more like a small town if the city was much more compact, rather than dispersed. If our parking lots were smaller and more rare. If our roads and intersections were less massive. For me and many others, “small town ambiance” is much better achieved when we have a compact, human-scaled dimensioning of our neighborhoods and town centers and road infrastructure.

Small town character, for me, has far less to do with the number of people who live in Boulder.

There are hundreds of cities and towns in Europe that demonstrate this.

When I am at a monster huge Boulder intersection with a double-left turn lane and six or so through lanes, I feel like I am in Houston or Phoenix. I feel uncomfortable, exposed, unsafe, anxious to leave, and disappointed about what has been done. There is no sense of place whatsoever, and it feels “big city” even though I would often be about the only human at that intersection. By contrast, I can be in, say, Pearl Street Mall with hundreds of people, but the human-scaled dimensions create a small town sense of place and comfort and pride.

It is sometimes claimed that the only reason certain cities are compact and walkable is that they have convenient public transportation (and “my city does not have convenient transit”). But having convenient transit service is not simply a matter of citizens asking for it or elected officials providing it. Places like Phoenix and Houston and many neighborhoods in Boulder don’t have convenient transit because citizens have spent decades demanding…

  • Low density
  • Short suburban buildings
  • A huge amount of free parking
  • Wide, free-flowing, and free-to-use roads

Each of those elements make it extremely difficult if not impossible to provide convenient transit in a city. The fact that Siena and NYC and much of Boston and DC have convenient transit is that they opted to build densely and did not go hog wild in making cars happy. Why is transit not convenient in much of Boulder? Why is it so convenient in bigger US cities? Is it because they are smart and Boulder is stupid? I think not.

I prefer convenient transit and “small town ambiance,” which is why I regularly advocate compact, 2-5 story neighborhoods and town centers with scarce, priced parking and human-scaled streets. The fact that so many in Boulder fight to the death for low density, one-story subdivisions with abundant parking and wide roads largely explains why Boulder is losing its “small town ambiance.”Big city vs small town ambiance

How ironic.

Notice in the photo set that in the “small town ambiance” places in Siena and Boulder, we are looking at places that have a relatively compact collection of people living, working, shopping, and playing. In other words, “small town ambiance” is often found when we have a relatively large population size. Also notice the taller buildings in the two “small town ambiance” images compared to the two “big city ambiance” images. In other words, “tall” buildings do not necessarily create a “big city ambiance.” Indeed, the opposite is often true.

Some people say that a larger number of people have a larger carbon footprint than a smaller number of people. Well yes, that is obviously true. But is there a practical way for us to halt population growth? After working academically and professionally in environmental science and town planning for 40 years, I know of no humane or constitutional way for us to stop population growth.

What some would like us to do is to nudge the growth toward other communities, but that does not reduce the carbon footprint. It just shifts it to less politically powerful or more affordable places. Such an effort also disperses human settlement rather than having human settlement be more compact, and that ramps up the overall carbon footprint.

The effective way to reduce overall carbon footprint, then, is to not waste our time trying to do the impossible (stopping human population increases) or being NIMBYs (by shunting the growth to politically weaker places).

The key is to work to have development occur in a more compact, sustainable way that promotes a healthy, happy city. When we do that, people are less likely to want to live in low-density, car-dependent places (because town center living is more enjoyable and enticing).

Boulder’s dispersed, low-density development pattern means we have plenty of infill development opportunities so that we can become more compact, safe, sociable, and walkable.

With compact, relatively gentle, context-sensitive infill (small condos, compact apartments, mixed use, small houses, row houses, small lot sizes, small or no setbacks, 2-5 story buildings, accessory dwelling units, co-ops, replacement of surface parking and suburban setbacks and sprawling industrial/warehouse areas with urban buildings) — not to mention the elimination of required parking — we substantially increase affordable housing opportunities. That would mean we’d have less people being forced — for financial reasons — to move to outlying, car-dependent places. Again, the overall carbon footprint would go down.

Despite the conventional wisdom we still hear too often in Boulder, it turns out that being pro-city is to be pro-environment. To be anti-city is to be anti-environment. Compactness is the new green.

Phoenix or Siena? I prefer the compactness of a Siena over the low-density Phoenix (or Orlando)…

 

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

A Conversation with a Graduate Student Regarding Transportation Planning and Complete Streets

By Dom Nozzi

November 22, 2012

A graduate student in transportation planning at the University of Florida contacted me with questions regarding Complete Streets on November 21, 2012.

She wanted to answer the research question that asked, “Would implementation of Complete Streets policies be feasible and beneficial in the Gainesville region?”

The following are her questions and my responses.
How would you define a complete street?

A Complete Street is safe, comfortable and convenient for travel by car, by walking, by bicycle, and by transit. The design of a Complete Street varies, however, based on the context (or location) of the street. In a town center, for example, a Complete Street tends to have car travel lanes, sidewalks, and bus stops/seating. In a suburban context, a Complete Street tends to have car travel lanes, in-street bike lanes, sidewalks, and bus cspull-out lanes. In other words, Complete Streets is not a one-size-fits-all concept.

Do you support complete streets in general (not specific to Gainesville region)?

Complete Streets should be the default design, based on context, for all new and modified streets in the US. Doing so promotes travel choice, fairness, equity, sustainability, public health, affordability, civic pride, economic health, and public safety. Only when special studies determine that a Complete Street is not justified should an incomplete street be built. Note that the reverse is the case for nearly all American communities for the past century. That is, special studies are needed to determine that a Complete Street is justified and should be built.

What can you tell me about Gainesville’s transportation policies?

I was the lead planner and author of Gainesville’s long-range transportation plan that was adopted as part of the City’s Year 2000 Comprehensive Plan (the “Transportation Mobility” Element of the Plan). I am nearly certain that nearly all of the policies in the Year 2000 plan, as well as Gainesville’s overall traffic engineering, MTPO, City Commission, and other transportation-related goals, objectives and policies remain essentially the same today as they were in 2000 and when I left in October 2007. Those policies – many (most?) of which I was not personally or professionally supportive of – sought to promote free-flowing car traffic, convenience and low cost for traveling and parking by car, implicitly calls for the allocation of nearly all public transportation revenue to car-supportive infrastructure, promotes dispersal of development (i.e., suburban sprawl), calls for a level of service for cars that is too high, and calls for land use densities that were low enough to be conducive to convenient and free-flowing car travel.

For decades, the City has adopted Comprehensive Plan goals, objectives and policies that promote bicycling, walking, and transit use. However, these bicycling, walking, and transit policies have not been effective in promoting transportation choice (i.e., meaningfully higher levels of bicycling, walking, and transit) because the policies promoting car travel that I noted earlier have resulted in a significant suppression in bicycling, walking, and transit travel (due to inconvenience, high cost, and danger that the previously noted policies create for bicycling, walking, and transit). An important flaw in Gainesville’s transportation plans is that car mobility continues to be emphasized, rather than transportation accessibility, and car mobility is a zero-sum game. That is, the more the City promotes car mobility (via wider and wider free-flowing streets and abundant/free car parking), the less conducive the city becomes for bicycling, walking, and transit. Unfortunately, Gainesville continues to believe that transportation is a win-win situation, and I firmly disagree with that view.

Does the city council have complete streets goals in its comprehensive plan?

Gainesville did not have goals, objectives or policies in its comprehensive plan that explicitly called for Complete Streets as of October 2007 when I left the city. However, the year 2000 Comprehensive Plan implicitly called for Complete Streets in a great many goals, objectives and policies. I am sure this is also the case in the more recently adopted Comprehensive Plan. This is not to say that the existing goals, objectives and policies are adequately calling for Complete Streets. It is certain that the existing goals, objectives and policies can be revised to more clearly direct the City to create Complete Streets in the future.

Do you think that Gainesville’s current policies would accommodate complete streets or would there need to be extensive revisions?

As I noted above, Gainesville – like nearly all cities – has transportation policies that at least implicitly promote Complete Streets. But like most cities, those policies could benefit from substantial re-wording to make them more effective in achieving Complete Streets. Examples: (1) The policies could call for a substantial shift in public revenue allocation so that significantly more public transportation dollars are allocated to bicycling, walking, and transit. And substantially less allocation of dollars to car travel promotion (including revisions to the Capital Improvements Program Element); (2) The policies could call for a seamless integration of the Complete Streets policies with those found in the design manuals, implementation policies, bicycling and transit, construction/rehab/resurfacing checklists, and procedures used, for example, by the City and County Public Works/Traffic Engineering Departments, the MTPO policies, the FDOT, the City and County Offices of Management and Budgeting, the City and County Fire Departments, and the City and County Housing Departments; (3) The policies could include Complete Streets “performance measures” so that the City would know – quantitatively – whether it was making progress in achieving more complete streets over time; (4) The policies could call for opportunistically adding complete streets elements to streets which are undergoing modifications for such things as stormwater or restriping; and (5) Revising the scoring and prioritizing of City transportation projects so that walking, bicycling and transit score higher.

How could we implement complete streets into those streets which have already been developed without accounting for all users?

There are a number of tactics, depending on the street. For example, space for sidewalks or bike lanes can be created by narrowing travel or turn lanes (when restriping, for example), or removing turn lanes. Transit facilities can usually be retrofitted without any need for additional street right-of-way. Many streets have an excessive number of turn or travel lanes, and new space can be found on such streets by removing such excessive lanes. The “road diet” on Gainesville’s Main Street is an example of a tactic that can be used on a great many streets in Gainesville.

How do you think that Gainesville’s complete streets could be funded?

The point we often make at the Complete Streets workshops we conduct throughout the nation is that more complete streets can be achieved without any increase in revenue to the community. Many complete streets designs can be achieved in a cost-free manner (a restriping project could include bike lanes, for example). A community could also re-allocate its transportation dollars so that a higher percentage of such dollars are allocated to bicycling, walking or transit. Funding for a single purpose could be used for multiple purposes (stormwater funding might also be used to install a sidewalk, for example). If these approaches are not sufficient, there are many federal, state and local funding programs that can be tapped for complete streets design.

Do you think that investing in complete streets now would save transportation related costs in the future?

Absolutely. When done right, more durable methods and materials are used for street modification projects. When complete streets elements are included in the initial construction of the street modification project, both this and the more durable methods and materials reduce the need for – and cost of — retrofitting. There is a growing consensus that due to demographic, energy and other inevitable changes, Gainesville will see a shrinking number of motorists and a growing number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. By taking that into account with a Complete Streets program now, Gainesville will save substantial infrastructure costs that would otherwise be needed in the future to accommodate this new composition of travelers. Because it is inevitable that larger percentages of Gainesville travelers will be bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users, it is much less costly to acquire needed materials and right-of-way for such travelers now, rather than in the future, when such costs will be much higher.

How do you think that complete streets, if developed properly, would change the Gainesville community?

If Gainesville successfully creates a comprehensive set of policies, procedures, complete streets infrastructure, and the nine essential elements I list below, Gainesville would see a substantial increase in bicycling, walking and transit use. It would become more healthy, would see medical expenses go down, would see its taxes increase less rapidly, would see local government expenses drop substantially, would see more civic pride, would enjoy more “social capital,” would see less suburban sprawl, would see a more revitalized town center, would have cleaner air and water, would have healthier wildlife ecosystems, would have more affordable housing, would have less crime, would have less travel injuries and deaths, would have healthier locally-owned retail, would have better high-quality job growth, would have reduced noise pollution, would have less visual blight, and would have more stable property values.

Do you feel that Complete Streets policies would be beneficial and/or feasible to the Gainesville community? Why or why not?

Yes, for the reasons I list in a number of other answers I provide above and below. The most important obstacle to achieving the beneficial aspects of Complete Streets policy, as I point out below, is achieving sufficient will to do so. Political, citizen and staff will.

Summary

 In sum, while I believe that Gainesville would need (and benefit from) a substantial revision in its long-range plan goals, objectives and policies, its design manuals, its departmental procedures, and its funding formulas to better promote Complete Streets, doing so will also require substantial changes in other areas if Gainesville is to successfully create a successful Complete Streets program, as well as substantially shifting a large number of car trips to walking, bicycling and transit.

First and foremost, I do not believe that Gainesville has the political will, the staff will, or the citizen will to create complete streets and an overall environment rich in transportation choice. Like nearly all cities, Gainesville has had goals, objectives and policies that are quite supportive of complete streets. But such overwhelming support, on paper, is little more than paying lip service to complete streets and transportation choice – unless other essential elements are achieved. The main obstacles that will remain, even if Gainesville adopts high-quality Complete Streets policies, include:

  • An almost complete lack in political, citizen or staff will to create complete streets and transportation choice.
  • An excessive provision of free (and underpriced) car parking throughout the Gainesville urban area.
  • Excessively wide streets throughout the Gainesville urban area. In general, streets wider than three lanes in the Traditional City town center and five lanes in suburban areas is excessive. Overly wide roads in Gainesville lead to even larger intersections, which are deadly to people walking and bicycling.
  • A gas tax which is too low.
  • An extremely dispersed, sprawling city geographic spread. A city that is over fifty five square miles in size (as well as the unincorporated urban area) creates distances that are far too excessive for regular travel by walking, bicycling or transit.
  • A lack of tolling (pricing) of roads in Gainesville.
  • A lack of a mixing of homes with offices, retail, civic, cultural, and job land uses.
  • A lack of sufficiently high residential densities in appropriate locations.
  • A lack of a parking cash-out program that provides financial (or other) incentives for commuting to work without a car.

Without achieving the nine items I mention above, even adopting the best Complete Streets policies will do very little to achieve Complete Streets or transportation choice in Gainesville. Furthermore, even if the City did create a citywide street infrastructure that provided complete streets comprehensively (all streets had sidewalks, were bike-friendly, and were transit-friendly), only a small shift in car travel to walking, bicycling or transit would occur because of the above nine items. As a friend and colleague has pointed out, meaningfully increasing the number of pedestrians, bicyclists or transit users is not about creating new bike lanes, sidewalks or transit facilities.

It is about taking away space, speed and subsidies that motorists now enjoy.

 

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