Tag Archives: auto dependency

Should We Fear Niwot’s Curse?

By Dom Nozzi

In Boulder CO, according to local lore, Chief Niwot said, “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”

This is known as Niwot’s Curse.

One of my Boulder friends wholeheartedly subscribes to this adage, and regularly laments the nearly monthly ranking of Boulder as the city with the highest quality of life in the nation. She worries that Boulder being top-ranked for quality of life on a regular basis will mean evermore people will move to Boulder and ruin its stellar beauty.

I chide her by letting her know that it appears her dream is to have Boulder regularly ranked as having the LOWEST quality of life in the nation.

The fact is, I inform her, that to this day, Boulder is nearly always ranked number one for being the best city. This is exemplified by the rankings and the crazy high housing prices – which happens to be a very reliable indicator that Boulder is experiencing anything BUT “destruction.”

After all the “destructive” growth over the past 20 or 30 years, Boulder is a much more pleasant city today than it was 20 or 30 years ago: More and better restaurants, more and better retail, more and better trails and paths, better urbanism, more people on sidewalks and bicycling, and more and better cultural events.

In its misguided obsession with stopping “growth” or “density” or “tall buildings” and easing car travel (thinking, wrongly, that doing that is the key to protecting quality of life), what Boulder is failing to do to protect itself is to guard against the REAL threats: enlarged roads and intersections, and land development regulations that continue to allow various and sundry modernist crapola (ie, hideous buildings that no one loves and everyone wants to see demolished as soon as possible).

And it is not just Boulder. All cities have failed to do this since about the 1940s.

If Boulder Council gained the wisdom and leadership to do the effective things I cite above, it would put those protections in place. By doing so, it would not matter one bit that top rankings were inducing more and more to move to Boulder. Indeed, a lot more in-migration would dramatically improve the city quality of life when coupled with such development regulations.

I’d go even further. Having more and more moving to Boulder would actually help Boulder quality even WITHOUT those protections, as we know from city growth around the nation. All cities that become more compact due to growth see less per capita car trips, more small and locally owned shops and restaurants, more intellectual firepower, better transit, and better culture. This has not only been shown throughout the US, but much more clearly in countless European cities – cities that are FAR more dense — and yet have far higher quality of life.

A common worry: people not liking the idea of Boulder “losing its small town feel” and seeming more like a “congested big city” if its population doubled or tripled? I and millions of others agree that “small town” is better than “big city.” But losing “small town feel” and feeling like a “big city” does NOT come from population growth. It comes from the consensus in Boulder and nearly all other cities that we must widen our roads, enlarge our intersections and replace historic charm with butt-ugly modernism.

In sum, if Boulder put its many big, oversized roads and parking lots on a diet; shrank its oversized intersections; eliminated the requirement that requires new developments to provide parking; used remote, electronic parking meters to price nearly all free parking in Boulder – particularly on-street parking; kept new residential and commercial growth in human-scaled, compact, mixed-use patterns; and replaced its blighting modernist buildings with lovable traditional design (not to mention adding a requirement that all new buildings must use traditional design); it could have four or five times more people and still be loved by the entire community because it is thereby able to retain its small town feel. It’s traditional charm. It’s romantic human scale.

This is not rocket science. All we need is the political will. Which, tragically, is likely to only come from a HUGE crisis like a staggering economic depression, a massive housing affordability crisis, a crushing medical obesity epidemic, or a major roadway death epidemic.

Sadly, none of these will likely be significant enough to give Boulder a huge, much-needed kick in the ass in our lifetimes.

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The Many Benefits of Higher Density Development Patterns


By Dom Nozzi

Those who work in the fields of town planning and transportation are well aware of the overwhelming evidence that there are a great many significant benefits of higher density development patterns. Tragically, nearly all Americans believe higher densities destroy neighborhoods and overall quality of life.

Why this disconnect?

Because nearly all Americans are utterly dependent on car travel, and higher densities make car travel much more costly and much more inconvenient.

Given this, it is clear that car-dependent Americans have a vested interest in fighting against efforts to improve community quality of life. This helps explain why so many community problems persist throughout the nation.

suburbia vs walkable3

In my 40 years of academic work in town and transportation planning, I have found that research studies show repeatedly and clearly that higher-density community and neighborhood development patterns provide the following benefits:

More affordable housing. This is due to smaller house size, the smaller amounts of land owned, and the ability of the household to survive with a smaller number of (extremely expensive) household cars. This is because more compact development patterns allow people to engage in many daily tasks without needing to travel by car.

Less per capita car travelThis reduces per capita air emissions and the overall per capita carbon footprint.

More physically fit community. With higher per capita levels of walking, bicycling, and transit use, residents of higher-density communities tend to be much more physically fit and less obese. Higher-density places promote social capital, and higher social capital is shown by studies to promote happiness, health, and longevity.

More financially sound households. A century ago, transportation was about 1 to 2 percent of household costs. Today it is about 23 percent and rising. The average annual cost of each car owned by a household is approximately $10,000. Higher-density neighborhoods substantially reduce the need for car ownership, car use, and overall household transportation costs. In addition, higher-density communities provide households with more job opportunities.

Lower startup costs. As Jane Jacobs noted several decades ago, higher-density town centers provide significantly lower capital startup costs for a small business. For example, it is much more financially viable for an individual to sell cooked food from a cart on a dense street corner than for an individual to buy or lease a restaurant building to sell cooked food.

More neighborhood-based (and smaller) retail. Only higher densities make smaller, neighborhood-based, locally-owned shops financially feasible. Lower-density communities tend to only be able to financially support franchise stores or large-format retail stores that draw customers from a regional consumer-shed.

More neighborly. Higher-density neighborhoods promote sociability. Lower-density neighborhoods promote isolation and suspicion.

Slower speed. Healthy cities are slower in speed, as slower speeds promote retail and residential health. And significantly reduces traffic injuries and deaths. These benefits explain why there is a global movement o create “slow cities.”

More abundant and diverse choices. Higher-density neighborhoods inevitably create much more in the way of choices for restaurants, other types of retail and specialty goods, and culture.

More innovation and creativity. Many studies show that higher-density cities are significantly more innovative and creative than lower-density cities. Higher-density cities attract more talented, skilled people.

More exchange. The main reason cities exist is to promote the exchange of goods, services, ideas, and sociability. Higher densities substantially increase the efficiency and amount of exchange.

More productive workforce. Higher-density cities not only attract more talented workers – which in itself promotes productivity – but also enhances productivity by reducing transportation costs in creating products or providing services.

More walking, bicycling, and transit use. Higher densities induce mixed-use development patterns, which substantially reduces trip distances. Relatively short travel distances to destinations is by far the most powerful way to increase walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Higher quality transit. Higher-density leads to higher transit ridership, which leads to better, more widespread, and more frequent transit service.

More housing choices. Lower-densities tend to deliver very limited housing choice. Nearly all of the housing consists of large single-family homes on large lots of land. Higher-density neighborhoods can provide townhouses, apartments, accessory units, co-ops, and live-work spaces.

More fiscal health for local government. Lower-density development, as shown by strongtowns.org, is a fiscal parasite because it fails to generate anywhere near the tax revenue needed to pay for its significant impacts (mostly road work) on the community. And minimizes per capita expenditures for infrastructure.

More security from crime. Higher densities promote citizen surveillance (often called “eyes on the street”). Higher densities lead to more regular use of sidewalks and observing the outside through house windows greatly contributes to our looking out for our collective security. Since criminals tend to rely on not being seen, this citizen surveillance greatly reduces crime. Many compact neighborhoods are now called “911” neighborhoods, as compactness increases the chance someone will spot an emergency and call 911.

More travel independence for those unable to drive a car. In a lower-density neighborhood, distances to destinations are far away and require the use of dangerous and high-speed roads. This makes car travel essential for nearly all trips, and those unable to drive (such as seniors, children, and the disabled) therefore lose travel independence. They must rely on others to get around.

More environmentally friendly. If we take, say, 100,000 people, that number of people will consume less environmentally sensitive land, produce far less air and water pollution, consume far less energy, and require less asphalt and concrete when living more compactly (ie, at higher densities). If we take that same 100,000 people and disperse them in lower-density patterns, the result is far higher levels of air and water pollution, far larger amounts of environmentally sensitive land consumed, far higher amounts of energy consumed, and far more asphalt and concrete needed.

Final Thoughts

A big part of the problem with the disconnect between the many benefits of compact development and the high level of citizen opposition to such development is that those who dislike density are thinking about the issue as a motorist and not as a human being. Since cars take up so much space, density is something that often and understandably makes the motorist furiously mad (so mad that the emotion tends to turn off a person’s brain). The idea of added density is seen as a direct threat to their ability to travel unhindered (or unfrustrated) by car.

It threatens the very core of their drivable lifestyle.

Car travel in a dense city is an effective recipe for infuriating a motorist. And again, because of the large space consumption of the car, nearly every trip the motorist takes puts them in a bad mood, as it is highly likely that driving a big metal box will be frustrating – even when densities are low.

Getting around by bicycle (or when I walk or use the bus), I pretty much never notice traffic congestion. In fact, almost every bike ride I take puts me in a better mood.


Some references:










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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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Is Population Growth a Sprawl Lynchpin?


By Dom Nozzi

June 21, 2001

In my opinion, we need to identify sprawl lynchpins if we are to effectively and efficiently control sprawl — particularly because we don’t have the time or money to mis-identify the critical causative agent that we have some control over.

It seems clear to me that suburban sprawl is not possible unless sprawl is enabled by car travel (through near universal ownership of reasonably affordable cars, free and abundant parking, and high-capacity urban roads). Without such a transportation environment, I downloaddon’t believe that sprawl is possible.

By contrast, sprawl IS possible without population growth. Therefore, transportation is a sprawl lynchpin and population growth is not.

Granted, sprawl is worse due to population growth, but in theory, we could have population growth without sprawl. In contrast, we cannot avoid sprawl in an auto-enabled environment.

As an aside, I would point out that in theory, population growth can be beneficial if we insist that it happen in helpful ways (i.e., through proper infill that delivers us the density increases we so desperately need). Auto dependency is not beneficial in any ways I know of, even theoretically.

This is not to say that I believe population growth is not generally a problem. I think it is an enormous problem. I just don’t know of any effective ways to slow it meaningfully and humanely.

Finally, my degrees in environmental science and urban planning inform me that it is much more feasible for us to control urban design, development patterns, and our transportation system than to control worldwide population (I’m assuming that we must control worldwide population because I know of no humane way to control immigration).

Even if we do not have the wisdom and courage to intentionally, through planning, control worldwide population or transportation, I believe that we will much sooner be forced by environmental and financial conditions to substantially change to a transportation choice system (as opposed to a “no choice” car system) than the time at which worldwide population growth will be forced by natural conditions to stop.  Both will inevitably stop. I just think auto dependency will stop WAY before worldwide population growth.

Given all this, my work and advocacy focuses on addressing transportation and development patterns. I remain intellectually supportive of population control, but don’t believe it is possible for us to build a better future with that tool in my lifetime.

And I also worry that if we focus too much on population control, we’ll be wasting time and money that could be better spent on correcting the bad urban design being built all around us each day. And it will be too easy for us to scapegoat “others” instead of accepting personal responsibility for our own unsustainable behavior.

Many of us seem to have given up on controlling unsustainable, excessive auto dependence. I’m not willing to be pessimistic about this, in part because we are aware of effective tactics to address this, and just need the leadership to use those tactics. And by “giving up” on trying to rein in auto dependence, many have conveniently latched on to the handy scapegoat of population growth, which, again, allows us to blame other people and “wash away the guilt and sins” of our own unsustainable lifestyles.

Before the emergence of auto dependence at about the time of WWII, sprawl (as we know it) did not exist. Since WWII, we built up a lot of fuel for the sprawl fire by building crappy, auto-oriented cities. This was the fuel of widespread American dislike and discontent for the dirty, unsafe, unpleasant cities, and the dream of fleeing it for life in the pastoral “nature” of outlying areas — Kunstler’s cabin in the woods.

Yes, the sprawl fire is more intense if we pour the population growth gasoline on it. But I am convinced that we must set about the task of not using the auto dependency matchstick to light the sprawl fire in the first place.

We can look upon population growth as a bacterial epidemic that can uncontrollably spread across our landscape like a cancer. But this population growth bacteria can be made harmless and benign if we use the proper antibiotic: walkable design and transportation choice.

By contrast, an auto-dependent community will inevitably spread like a cancer. THERE IS NO ANTIBIOTIC OR CURE for the auto dependent bacteria, once the infection sets in. When we do everything we can to make cars happy, the sprawl cancer spreads REGARDLESS of whether we control population or do not.

As a quality-of-life doctor, then, my prescription is to use walkable design and transportation choice, rather than population control, to cure my urban patient.


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The Consensus on Making Cars Happy

By Dom Nozzi

For the past century, Americans have been nearly single-mindedly focused on making it easy and cheap to drive a car everywhere imaginable. An unforeseen consequence is that doing so has now made it nearly impossible to travel by transit, bicycle or foot. That has led to enormous financial strain for households and government, strongly contributed to the obesity crisis, created severe environmental problems, dispersed and “uglified” our communities to make them less strong, and made our transportation system much less resilient to change.

One would expect this to result in a massive societal uprising to reverse this catastrophe. Tragically, no such thing has happened. Instead, shockingly, we have the reverse. All walks of life are at a near consensus that we must CONTINUE to spend every available dollar to make us even MORE dependent on car travel. Democrats, Republicans, Feminists, Environmentalists, Planners, Council Members, Libertarians, Socialists, Dieticians, and Academicians almost all join hands in DEMANDING that everything imaginable be done to keep us happily driving cars everywhere.

How did we become trapped in this downwardly spiraling vicious cycle?

In my opinion, the explanation is clear. By making it almost entirely impossible to travel by transit, bicycle or foot, nearly all of us have no choice but to make most all of our trips by car – even if we are green environmentalists SCREAMING about climate change.

Combined with that trap is the toxic mix of the large size of a motor vehicle coupled with the exceptionally busy nature of our lives. The huge size of our vehicles inevitably results in frustrating slowdowns in our travel, as nearly all of our fellow citizens are ALSO trying to travel in their huge vehicles at many of the same times. Roads and parking lots quickly fill to capacity when even a relatively small number of us are competitively jostling for space in our space-hogging sedans and wagons.angry-motorist-yelling

Add to that the fact that almost every time we drive, we are “running late,” or “in a hurry,” or “out of time.” With huge numbers of us in a hurry and driving a big vehicle, the
outcome is unavoidable: We are ENRAGED because SOME INCOMPETENT SLOW POKE IS IN OUR WAY!!

With high (yet mostly hidden) transportation costs, huge vehicles, lack of time, and extreme frustration, is it any wonder that nearly all of us insist that car travel remain cheap and easy, regardless of our “green” or “libertarian” values? Even an Earth Firster! is stuck if she cannot travel by car – cheaply and at high speeds. No-brainer proposals, such as user fees such as parking charges, and efforts to slow traffic to safe speeds are met – even by the most fair-minded and humanitarian of us – by blood-curdling opposition.

Happy Cars has become our way of thinking. Our worldview. Our paradigm. No other world is imaginable. Or politically possible.

When I see so many “progressives” and “intellectuals” and “environmentalists” and “growth management advocates” opposing things like traffic calming — and instead usually being fully supportive of pampering car travel with oversized, free-to-use roads and parking lots – I am seeing this societal worldview on full display.

One highly frustrating aspect of this I’ve noticed over the years is that because America is full-speed-ahead committed to car travel, it tends to be SO EASY for someone with even the most uninformed, simplistic understanding of transportation to immediately kill an idea at a public meeting focused on transportation reform. And conversely SO DIFFICULT for someone at a public meeting to get others agree to transportation reform.

I see it all the time.

For example, let’s say we are at a public workshop where the assembled audience is divided into groups of people at individual tables in the room. The task for each table is to come up with transportation reform tactics. Occasionally at a table or two, a person might, say, mention that shrinking a road from four lanes to three might be a good idea on a street. Or narrowing a street with curb bulb-outs. The person points out that traffic volume is low enough. It would be easy to put in bulb-outs. Or remove a travel lane (because there is no meaningful loss in road capacity). Almost always, someone else at the table will then say “That is crazy. It will cause unbearable gridlock.” Everyone else at the table feels uncomfortable — even environmentalists and bike/walk/transit advocates – and will quickly nod in agreement that shrinking a road is crazy. End of the reform idea. Move on to something else — like landscaping.

Over and over again, for similar ideas, the pro-car person is seen as being level-headed and the person calling for transportation reform (in this case, to give more space to people and less to cars) is ridiculed and seen as unrealistic.

A common outcome when someone is outside of the recognized societal way of thinking.

Here in Boulder, Colorado, this phenomenon is particularly noticeable and surprising because the city is very well known (accurately or not) for progressive transportation initiatives. Despite this reputation in Boulder, the city history shows that it frequently only takes one or two Board or Council members to kill an idea for transportation reform. Such members — who are seen as “reasonable” and “level-headed” because they live in a society that assumes complete dependence on cars is normal and permanent — are quickly and easily able to squelch effective, equitable transportation reform ideas all the time. Even when a majority of the Board or Council are supportive of the reform.

As a result, over the decades, it has only taken one or two pro-car Board or Council members in “enlightened” Boulder to severely compromise or stop occasional efforts to have the City shed its numerous outdated transportation policies.

Colleagues of these Board or Council members commonly don’t stand up to this sort of squelching of transportation reform ideas — despite knowing there would be a 4-1 vote in favor of the reform.


Largely because they realize that the societal “pro car” narrative also permeates “progressive” Boulder. They therefore understandably expect that the point made by the squelcher would be supported by large majorities (or a VERY angry minority) of Boulder residents.

Even in Boulder, opponents of many transportation reform ideas are seen as level-headed realists. Supporters of reform are seen as living in “La La Land.” Over time, the “realists” grow more bold, to the point of becoming political populists for motordom. The “reformers,” on the other hand, grow increasingly timid about suggesting reform, to the point where reform proposals become rare. And require a relatively large amount of political courage.

In the end, those promoting transportation reform in a car-dependent society must rely almost exclusively on leveraging a crisis. Only when traffic crashes result in a shocking number of deaths, or the price of gasoline skyrockets – to cite two examples — can there be enough motivation to overcome the squelching by the pro-car “realists.”

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Some Problems Associated with Low-Density Residential Living


By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

A large percentage of Americans LOVE low-density residential living, and regularly fight against any proposal that would bring more compact development anywhere near them.

But low-density development has many problems – problems that a growing number of Americans are beginning to recognize.sprawl-development

For example, low-density development locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible. A sense of community is often non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there tends to be no “there there.” Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around. Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car. Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because ALL trips are forced onto one or two major roads (and because cars consume such a vast amount of space). Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded.” The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Increasingly, what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting AGAINST smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.

Tragically, the low-density lifestyle compels people living in such a setting to fight hard against the compact development that would actually reduce the problems cited above. They do so because the low-density pattern quickly results in enraging traffic congestion and loss of car parking. This vested interest in low density locks such residents in a long-term downward spiral, as positive change tends to be fiercely resisted.

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It is Irrational to Not Drive a Car

By Dom Nozzi

People fool themselves into thinking that we’ll get great bus ridership or much higher levels of walking or biking if we create good facilities for such travel.

That is nonsense.

It is WAY too rational to drive alone by car, given our heavy car subsidies. Unless a person is an ideologue, like me, it is senseless to opt for a form of travel that is less safe, less convenient, WAY less pleasant. You can haul more cargo. Your speed is much greater (critical in this day and age). You have perfect flexibility to travel when you please. You can give friends and family a ride.

Best of all, you only have to pay a fraction of the true cost of enjoying all those benefits.

Better bus service, bike paths or sidewalks simply cannot compete in such an unbalanced playing field.

The research literature shows that we can only make headway on SOV travel if we level the playing field by charging congestion fees and parking fees, limit car parking, letting congestion get bad, achieve high residential and commercial densities, have mixed use, reduce travel distances, make our streets interconnected, etc.

I’m hoping we can make such meaningful changes someday, and have always realized that we need to have the bus, bike and sidewalk infrastructure in place so that people are not forced to bear huge burdens of car dependency in a happy future in which it is no longer rational to drive SOV.

To me, that is a key role of planning and sustainability. Will we have choices when the shit hits the fan? The important strategic/political question, though, is how do we get the bus, bike and pedestrian stuff in place? And I’m convinced it will only happen in a meaningful way when we are forced, by environmental/economic conditions, to provide it.

As a planner, I’d love it if we could have these facilities in place in advance of the coming hard times. But that is not how it works in a democracy, where we are inherently reactionary. That is why I lean more and more toward wanting a benign dictatorship to save us.

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