Tag Archives: auto dependency

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.

Why?

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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