Category Archives: Sprawl, Suburbia

The Problem of Gigantism

By Dom Nozzi

January 13, 2017

Gigantism, in my opinion, is a HUUUUUGE problem in America.

Enormous roads, enormous setbacks, enormous (and improperly located) parking lots, enormous (and improperly located) stormwater basins, enormous distances between destinations, enormous road intersections, enormous subdivisions, enormously tall street lights, enormous signs, enormous retail areas.Monster road intersection

The enormity of the American land use pattern is obvious when one walks the historic center of so many European cities and towns. My recent visit to Tuscany with my significant other was, once again, so saddening and maddening because the streets we walked were so stunningly lovable, charming, and romantic. Americans have thrown all of that charm away in our car-happy world.

Not only is it impossible to love most all of urban America. It is also, as Charles Marohn points out so well, impossible to afford to maintain. A double whammy of unsustainability. And extreme frustration in my career as a town planner who toiling for decades to try to nudge our society toward slowing down our ruinous love affair with making the world wonderful for car travel. And finding that even most smart people in America strongly oppose going back to the timeless way of building for people instead of cars.

It is said that dinosaurs went extinct due in large part to gigantism. I believe the same fate is likely for America, unless our society wakes up and realizes we are way better off in so many ways if we get back to building our world at the (walkable) human scale.

A friend asked me recently what I would do if I were in charge, had a blank slate, and could design a community any way I desired.

If I had such an opportunity, my community would be much more compact and human-scaled. One can walk historic town centers in Europe for models of what I speak of here.

WAY less “open space” for cars is essential.

I would ratchet down our extreme (and artificial) auto-centric value system by making roads and parking and gasoline purchases and car buying directly paid for much more based on USER FEES rather than having all of society pay for happy cars via such things as sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes.

In other words, making our world much more fair and equitable.

We have over-used and over-provided for car travel and car housing in large part because the cost to do so is mostly externalized to society rather than directly paid for via user fees. Eventually — maybe not in our lifetimes? — car travel will be mostly paid for via user fees and externalized costs will be more internalized. Car travel will therefore become much more expensive, signaling us to cut down on our over-reliance on it.

When that happens, we will inevitably see the re-emergence of the lovable, human-scaled world we once had. Fortunately, we are starting to see car travel becoming much more expensive and unaffordable — even though it continues to fail to be user-fee based.

And we are seeing the Millennial generation showing much more interest in compact town center living and much less interest in being car happy.

It is way past time for our society to a people-happy rather than car-happy world.

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

What Do I Think of the Diverging Diamond Interchange?

 

By Dom Nozzi

Febuary 2, 2017

Superior, Colorado built a “diverging diamond” interchange that opened in October 2015. It was only the second such interchange to ever be built in Colorado. Traffic engineers are imagessinging its praises throughout the nation. A newspaper article appearing in the February 2, 2017 edition of the Boulder Daily Camera fawned over the fantastic new addition to the region’s transportation system.

I am not joining the engineers or the newspaper in their love affair with the design.

Instead, I find such designs a colossal waste of money – money that could have been used for, say, transit. They are also a colossal waste of land. An entire city could fit inside one of these intersections.

The diverging diamond is a boondoggle for those reasons. But it is also a blunder because they promote increased per capita car travel. Why? In part because they are nearly 51df393d218c6-imageimpossible to cross by foot or bicycle. And in part because in the long run they will further disperse land development in a more sprawling way. Those increased distances will make it increasingly impractical to walk, bicycle or use transit.

Ironically, the major justification for the car-only design is that it briefly reduce intersection congestion, which will initially save a few seconds of motorist time (think of the fiscal irresponsibility of spending millions of public dollars spent to save a few seconds temporarily). Ironic because by artificially inducing more car trips than would have occurred had the diverging diamond not been built, the design will lead to MORE traffic congestion and MORE time delay for motorists in the long term (both at their location and areas in the region).

To hide the embarrassing fact that the millions spent ($14 million in this case) to briefly save a few seconds of time, the publicly proclaimed explanation is that it will improve safety. For the conventional traffic engineer, “improved safety” actually means that motorists can now drive faster and more inattentively with less fear of crashing. No mention is made of the fact that the intersection is much less safe for pedestrians or bicyclists, or that faster, less attentive driving is very dangerous for everyone.

The diverging diamond, therefore, is an excellent example of the century-long failure by conventional traffic engineers to understand induced car trips that are created by (briefly) reducing traffic congestion with these designs. There is a reason, after all, that many researchers repeatedly urge us to understand that it is impossible to build our way out of congestion. It is like loosening your belt to solve obesity.

But wait. There’s more.

Not only is the diverging diamond a boondoggle in the above mentioned ways. It also damages our world by adding more auto emissions into our air (by increasing per capita car trips) and reducing potential tax revenues in the region (by encouraging dispersed rather than compact land use patterns).

Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief over why our generation built these monstrosities.

There is one tiny upside to this overwhelmingly negative idea: it produces future jobs for people hired to remove these mistakes after we regain our senses.

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Filed under Bicycling, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

The Growth Ponzi Scheme

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2016

In Charles Marohn’s 2012 book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, we find a five-part essay about how suburban growth is an unsustainable Ponzi Scheme.

New suburban development initially costs little for local government, infrastructure like roads is built by the developer then handed over to local government for free, and tax revenue starts flowing in quickly. Looks like a great deal.

Initially.

But what is not well understood is that the long term maintenance and repair cost is huge. And the tax revenue from the low-density development comes nowhere near paying for the ongoing costs for those roads and sewers. The “solution” has been to try to endlessly promote even MORE suburban growth. The revenue from the new growth is used to pay for the old growth. But endless new suburban growth is impossible. Particularly in Boulder and Boulder County.

The result of having new growth pay for old growth is a classic Ponzi Scheme.

Could the road funding controversy in Boulder County be at least partly explained by Marohn’s Growth Ponzi Scheme?

Compact, slower speed, human-scaled urban development creates wealth. Lower density, higher speed, car-scaled suburban development destroys wealth.

How can suburban development pay for itself? We can start, implies Marohn, by nearly doubling property (and other) taxes in new suburban neighborhoods.

Since this is not politically feasible, the future will be, shall we say, challenging.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Managing Parking at the Trailhead Development in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 1, 2014

There is a new neighborhood being built at the western side of Boulder (just east of the Sanitas Trail System) called “Trailhead.”

For Trailhead to be a great neighborhood, it needs to incorporate some or all of the following parking-related ideas. As far as I know, sadly, these design features are not being incorporated.

Parking meters should be installed on Trailhead streets to reduce spillover parking to nearby neighborhoods, ensure that sufficient parking is available in Trailhead, and provide revenue for enhancements and upkeep of street and sidewalk infrastructure in Trailhead. I think that spillover parking from Trailhead will be almost unnoticeable in this neighborhood. If there IS significant spillover, parking permits or parking meters (that homeowners can be exempt from paying) would solve the issue.

I don’t like the idea that the Trailhead developer has to pay – up front – to provide “free” parking to residents of the development. Such parking requirements convert a cost drivers should pay at the end of their trips (the cost of parking) into one developers must pay at the start of their projects (and then pass on to homebuyers). Having developers pay up front is also problematic because it is unfair to those in the development who have relatively few or no cars. The price of parking should be unbundled from the price of housing at Trailhead so that a buyer has the option of paying less for a home by not opting to have parking provided.

I don’t at all like the idea of having the developer of Trailhead have to install a LOT more asphalt on the development site to provide “affordable housing for cars.” I much prefer the provision of less parking at Trailhead so that there is less asphalt for storing cars at Trailhead.

Studies throughout the nation over the past several decades show that the more parking provided at a development like Trailhead, the more cars will be owned per household, asphaltwhich increases the miles driven per household. I prefer less cars owned per household, and less per household miles driven.

I prefer more demand for transit by Boulder residents. Providing more parking at Trailhead reduces transit demand by those living at Trailhead.

I support community-wide eco-passes (a pass that allows the pass-holder to ride the bus system in the region for free), but only when Boulder properly manages parking in the city. Providing more parking at Trailhead makes community-wide eco-passes less likely, because there will be less demand for such passes.

I prefer compact, walkable, charming design at Trailhead. The more parking that Trailhead provides, the less walkable, compact and charming it will be.

Providing more parking at Trailhead makes that development more suburban. Making it more suburban means it will fit in less with the walkable character of the adjacent, historic Mapleton Hill neighborhood.

 

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Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Is “Restricting” Traffic Unfairly Forcing People to Live in a Town Center?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 4, 2012

By re-introducing equity into our transportation system, we should provide a balance in the public tax revenue and public space so that the War on Bicyclists, Pedestrians, and Transit Users comes to an end.

For nearly 100 years the US government has powerfully encouraged an artificially high percentage of Americans to live in suburbia and be car-dependent. This artificially high demand for car-dependent suburban living would be much lower if we did not allocate 95 Carmageddon highwaypercent of our public transportation dollars to cars. In the name of restoring fairness and discouraging artificially excessive car-dependent sprawl, the US would need to allocate a lot more public dollars to bicycling, walking, and transit and a lot less to motorists. That would mean, in part, that cars would be allocated less road and parking lot space.

Would that mean “restricting traffic flow”? (a common criticism of some of the transportation reforms I call for)

Yes, if by “restricting flow” one means slowing down car travel and making car parking more scarce and more expensive.

In other words, having motorists fairly pay their own way, rather than to continue to enjoy government welfare handouts.

Would that mean we would “force people to live in cities and take the bus”? No, unless we take hysteria-mongering liberties with the definition of “force.” A much more accurate and fair word than “force” in this case is that some people — in the more fair, sustainable and balanced transportation system I recommend – would start to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of their choice of housing and travel (in both the short term and long term).

Rather than being artificially influenced to live in suburbia and be car-dependent, some will opt to live closer to town, and consider travel options such as car-pooling, car-sharing, transit, bicycling and walking. Others will opt to pay the higher (yet fair and balanced) costs of suburban, car-dependent living.

In sum, this scenario in no way “forces” anyone to live in cities or take the bus. I call for no laws that would obligate people to live in cities or take the bus.

Consider a hypothetical example of a community where a high percentage of residents opt to send their children to a private school, in part because large government vouchers are provided to parents who decide to send their kids to the private school. If the government voucher for private schools is ended, some parents will opt to send their children to public instead of private schools due to the more fair, balanced system where there are no government vouchers offered for private schools. Other parents will continue to send their kids to private school despite the loss of vouchers.

This is in no sense a way to “force” people to send their kids to public school. It IS a way to end a government practice that artificially encourages more parents to send their kids to private school than would be the case had the voucher subsidy not existed. And it IS a way to end the unfair practice of having parents who send their kids to public school to pay higher taxes in order to subsidize other parents who send their kids to private school.

Similarly, if the government ends its century-long practice of allocating “free” multi-million dollar multi-lane (and free-to-use) roads, artificially low-cost gasoline and gas taxes, and “free” seas of asphalt parking (each of which are transportation versions of school vouchers), some would opt to live in less remote, far-flung housing, and would opt to bicycle, walk or use transit more. And again, others would opt to continue to live in sprawl and be car-dependent.

Choice therefore remains in place. Fairness in government allocation of public dollars and resources is increased when we put less than 95 percent of the public dollars and resources into car travel (i.e., when we don’t only offer government “vouchers” to those who opt to drive).

I stand for fairness in government allocations for travel choices. To call my approach an example of “force” is absurd.

Not to mention unsustainable and ruinous.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Walking

Transportation Drives Land Use Despite What Transportation Planners Tell Us

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 5, 2000

Nearly all transportation planners say they are widening the roads just to follow the land-use decisions that already have been made by the community.

Nonsense.

While almost all transportation planners make this claim, it is an old, discredited, conventional wisdom that is so conventional that even most non-transportation people believe it. Of course, it is quite handy for the transportation people because they can escape guilt when the strip commercial and sprawl happen. “Not my fault. It was those planners and elected officials who changed the land use.”

Seems sensible until you look closer and find out how the market brings unbelievable and relentless pressure to change the designations when we widen the roads and the intersections, and expand the parking.

If we are incredibly courageous and true to our principles, we might be able to delay the re-zoning caused by those enlargements for a few years. But that just means that because the road carries so much high speed, high volume traffic, it is no longer feasible to keep in street without on street parkingresidential because the quality of life is so miserable (as a result, the residential building eventually is abandoned, or is downgraded from owner-occupied to rental), or it is no longer rational to keep it as a farm because you can make millions by selling it for a shopping center.

Also, all the conditions that people dislike about the city — whether real or perceived — such as noise, crime, etc., can be more easily fled if the newly widened roads allow you to get to work each day in a reasonable period of time, even if you live in an outlying area. The ultimate result is that as we add capacity to streets, we set in motion a pattern of sprawl and strip, we wipe out farms, and we accelerate the decline of in-town areas.

And I’m convinced that the driving force is our roads, NOT our inability to hold the line on our land use and zoning maps.

Hard to believe, but before WWII, planners were god-like. Here is an apropos comment I found on the new urbanist listserve a few days ago:

“…[A] colleague suggested in passing that planners and architects abandoned urban design as such in the late 1940s and retreated to their respected spheres of influence – policy and buildings, respectively, leaving the ground to the public works engineers.  Note, the Amer. Soc. of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a division devoted to “urban design” (urban highways, streets, water and sewer and drainage systems).  The American Institute of Architects does not.”

So yes, let’s return to the golden age of cities and planning before we ruin ourselves in our insane efforts to make cars happy…

 

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Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Is It a Good Idea to Build Walkable Developments in Greenfields?

And Will a Strong Plan and Strong Elected Officials Be Sufficient?

By Dom Nozzi

August 2, 2000

I think as a culture, we need to make sprawling, poorly-located projects and happy cars the Great Satan, the Number One Moral Evil.

And we need to figure out what conditions will result in such a change.

Frankly, I think one of them is building traditional, walkable neighborhood developments (TNDs) in greenfields. Admittedly a compromise, but it is one of the few market-based leverage points we have. I think that once most of us become convinced that our future development can ONLY be TND, contiguous, properly located development rules will inherently follow. As it stands now, only a few pointy-headed intellectuals understand seasideaerialthat important need, because we’ve poured trillions into building big highways and thereby locking ourselves in to having a huge majority that wants to flee the city for the cabin in the woods.

It seems to me that broadly speaking, we have two realistic tools for reversing unsustainable sprawl:

 

  1. Use TNDs as a leverage and educational tool in greenfields; or
  2. Stop widening roads and starting road dieting a great many roadways.

In the near term, I think #1 is much more likely. The outrage is that #1 means the loss of important natural areas (not to mention fragmentation), but it is almost certainly the price we must pay in the near term for committing the sin of pouring trillions into highways. I do not think it is feasible for us to find the political will and cultural values shift in the near term to fight for:

  1. TNDs, and only contiguous to an existing town.

Yes, polls encouragingly show that the majority across the US oppose sprawl. But we know that there have been huge majorities that support environmental conservation for DECADES. Of course, this has merely been lip service. It is so easy to tell a pollster what you think is best, based on what our culture says is moral, but then not walk the walk in our own lives.

It is a concept known as “Social Desirability Bias,” where people dishonestly tell pollsters how they think or behave not because they actually think or behave in such a way, but because they do not want to admit to the pollster that their thoughts or behaviors are unethical.

We need to be careful and not kid ourselves about how successful we can be in the near term to discourage development in undesirably remote places. Boulder CO, for example, typically elects Council members who are strongly in favor of tightly controlled growth and development. And history shows that south Florida somewhat similarly fought hard for environmental conservation and against sprawl.

The results are not pretty.

Reaction to such elected officials in Boulder sometimes results in the election of folks relatively supportive of unrestrained development, and even with a majority of Council members supporting strong growth management, such an aggressive stance tends to result in poorly designed sprawl occurring in towns around Boulder that are not affected by Boulder’s regulations. Most of that sprawl houses people who commute into Boulder. And we know what has been done in south Florida.

I wish we could successfully manage new development with nothing more than political will and well-crafted plans. But if the market, HEAVILY DISTORTED BY GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES, calls for the opposite, we will get what the market wants, regardless of having even the most impressive elected officials and plans.

I often get into a shouting match with my Gainesville, Florida planning department supervisors, who still fail to realize that the long-range comprehensive plan merely records what has already been decided or what is already on the ground. This is the case despite Gainesville currently having a majority of “liberal” (albeit spineless) commissioners for a number of years. I’m hoping to have a minor effect with the transportation plan, but my early call to have “no net increase in road capacity” has already been chopped out by my supervisors.

The comprehensive plan is nearly irrelevant with regard to development that occurs, even if it calls strongly for no sprawl and is backed by five no-growthers on the city commission. What matters is the market. We must change that, with the few tools we have, if we want to have an impact. End public subsidies that fuel sprawl, stop widening roads, stop requiring a huge amount of parking, stop making mixed use and slow and narrow streets and granny flats illegal, encourage admirable model TNDs, etc.

More Thoughts on the Above Topics

We are nowhere near putting a halt to sprawling, remote, car dependent development. Given that political reality, I’m much happier with a TND in remote locations than a conventional sprawl project in such a location.

We certainly need to determine what it will take to muster the political will to effectively stop sprawl. Mostly, we need to stop widening roads, start putting a huge number of roads on a diet, start requiring pedestrian-friendly and auto-inconvenient mixed use projects via development regulations, and modify market preferences for cabins in the woods. How can we do that? I’m hoping that part of the solution will be to get some of the sprawl subdivisions (which is 99.9% of what is built) to be TNDs instead, so they can stand as visible INDICTMENTS of auto-dependent shlock. We need more envy on the part of the upper classes (who tend to be opinion-leaders and power-brokers) for new urbanism, and an excellent way to do that is with greenfield TNDs.

We need greens to stop fighting like mad — and burning themselves out in the process — to stop an infill project in order to save a few trees. They will win a few battles, but lose the war as they turn a blind eye – comparatively speaking — to the eco-rape happening at a much larger, more environmentally costly scale, in our greenfields. Too often, it seems like greens fight hard against TNDs, yet barely raise a peep when it is an auto-friendly project in a remote location.

It is fortunate that Sierra Club is finally starting to realize that a key lynchpin on saving our remaining, important natural areas is to address transportation. Transportation drives what happens with our land use (and, indirectly, our conservation). If we fail to stop our single-minded efforts to make cars happy, our natural areas are doomed to the sprawl steamroller even if every single elected official in the US supports strong growth management.

I agree that time is of the essence. We must therefore work quickly to reverse our car dependency trends, since, more than anything else, such trends are wiping out our greenfields with a HUGE number of new  subdivisions every week. I don’t think it is healthy or sustainable for us to keep fighting against greenfield developments. There are too many battles, and not enough of us. And the market forces — mainly due to the huge roads we’ve built — are too overwhelming.

As for concerns about such things as habitat fragmentation, it is a clear threat. And the number one cause? Not greenfield TNDs. The big culprit is roads and auto dependence.

I agree that requiring only contiguous development will buy us time. But our car culture makes that rather unlikely, since the market pressure to leapfrog is huge.

I like the jujitsu concept here. I’m often trying to figure out a way to use the power of the enemy against it. We need to get the market to help us. Remove subsidies. Build admirable models. Tax what we dislike…

I guess our ultimate dilemma is that stopping the road-builders remains a MONSTROUS undertaking. Perhaps as difficult as finding the will to simply stop sprawl development through, say, an urban growth boundary. I’m convinced one of our best hopes is that it soon becomes unaffordable for us to continue widening.

Then we need traffic congestion to do its many positive things.

 

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Filed under Economics, Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design