Tag Archives: car dependency

The Dilemma and Difficulty of Designing Our Streets for Safety and a Healthy City

By Dom Nozzi

In my work over the years in town and transportation planning, I have learned that for cities to be effective in delivering one of their most important, desirable outcomes — exchange of products, services, and ideas via agglomeration – they must be designed for low speeds and human scale. That means dimensions and distances need to be modest.

The dilemma – which is the most enormous dilemma I have struggled with for most all of my professional career — is that because cars consume an enormous amount of space, and because nearly all of us have grown up and spent our entire lives traveling by car in a car-based world, we are strongly conditioned to believe that larger dimensions are desirable. That smaller dimensions are not only extremely frustrating and congesting for all of our car-based trips, but that they are, as a result, a direct threat to our quality of life – and, surely, to the quality of the city.

Nearly all of us are conditioned by our world, in other words, to believe that easing car travel and minimizing congestion is essential. Unquestionably essential. Even in a town center.

The problem is that while this is almost certainly true in the drivable suburbs, it is certainly not true in a walkable town center.

Again, to be healthy, a town center needs small dimensions and low speeds. But when nearly all of us get around in huge metal boxes, that design seems impractical and exceptionally unacceptable. Nearly all citizens, elected officials, and too many transportation staffers live a car-based life, which means there is a near consensus that even town centers must allow easy, congestion-free travel.

Many of us in the field of town and transportation planning now know this is mistaken. We know that a town center context is vastly different from a suburban context, which means the design needs to be vastly different. We know that in a town center, we have achieved an appropriate design only when large metal boxes do NOT experience easy, congestion-free travel. Large metal boxes SHOULD experience congestion in what should be a human-scaled, low-speed town center. If not, it is a clear sign that we have over-allocated for cars. Either that, or our town center is dying from abandonment.

But if nearly all of our citizens, elected officials, and staff almost always travel by car, it is extremely difficult or impossible to agree that slowing cars or higher levels of car congestion are a desirable outcome. Even though it IS desirable if our objective is a healthier town center.

We must not start with the solution – particularly in a society such as ours, where today we are unsustainably distorted toward extreme car dependence. In today’s world, that ruinously leads people to immediately conclude, by default, that easing car travel is unquestionably the solution to nearly any transportation problem.

That is backward and presumptuous.

We must start with the problem, and have the engineer (working with a designer or informed by an urban design background, if our context is a town center) recommend the best ways to solve the problem.

Again, in our car-dependent world, it is too much of a temptation for the engineer to recommend what all “right-minded” citizens (all of whom get around by car) know are the solutions from the beginning. Every day, when we drive our huge metal box, we are frustrated by slow downs and congestion. Is it not screamingly obvious what needs to be done? Why waste our valuable time by asking to solve the problem when we can cut to the chase and deploy the common-sense solutions we are all aware of? We all know that wider lanes, turn lanes, more travel lanes, slip lanes, synchronized traffic signals, lower density zoning, larger intersection turning radii, or converting to one-way street operation will ease car travel and reduce congestion. We are, in effect, stuck in the bind of an “Overton window” (a place where there are only a very limited number of politically acceptable outcomes or solutions that are allowed to be proposed). The only question is how to find the money, Mr. or Ms. Engineer.

And in the highly unlikely event that we CAN manage to start with the problem to solve rather than starting with the solution, the temptation tends to be too irresistible to avoid recommending problem-solving tools such as road or intersection diets or more narrow lanes. Nearly always, such tools are immediately shot down because they will clearly slow down or congest our driving (they are, in other words, outside of the Overton Window). They are direct threats to our way of life. They can’t possibly be good for our city. Go back and rework your numbers! Who has the courage or thick enough skin to want to propose smaller street dimensions when the nearly inevitable result will be angry opposition by citizens, officials, and even fellow staff?

As I’ve said in the past, I see only a few ways out of this trap (what I call a point of no return): We reach a financial crisis where we can no longer find enough money to keep harming our town center and our public safety by deploying the conventional congestion reduction tools. Or we experience an extreme, highly unusual, non-financial crisis such as a severe economic collapse (or perhaps a pandemic like the one we are now experiencing in 2020?). Both of those things (running out of money or economic depression) obligate us to think outside the box. Running out of money is a severe crisis, which can create an opportunity to have citizens and officials overcome their strong lifestyle desire to ease car travel and — perhaps in desperation — opt to knowingly allow car travel to become more difficult in our town center.

One could say, I suppose, that the appalling number of traffic deaths over the decades should be sufficient motivation to be innovative, but I think that is a “frog in the slowly heating pot of water” problem. The problem has been with us for so long that we have just come to accept it as an inevitable problem we must learn to live with. Our expectations for traffic safety have been lowered.

Leave a comment

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

“Punishing” Developers: Are We Actually Punishing Ourselves?

By Dom Nozzi

It is no secret that a great many Americans HATE land developers.

They try to find as many ways as possible to punish developers and stop them. But too often, the tactics of those opposing new development request that the developer do the OPPOSITE of what a developer should be doing to promote quality of life or sustainability.

Because so many of us have come to conclude that quality of life means abundant free parking or free-flowing roads, and because so many of the buildings built over the past several decades have been so utterly unlovable (largely due to the epidemic of “modernist” architecture), development opponents force developers to build huge parking lots, huge building setbacks, and a strict separation of residential and non-residential land uses. At the same time, dsc03864government spends billions to widen roads and intersections to “accommodate” the new development.

By insisting on these development “concessions,” we ensure that everyone is FORCED to drive a car for every trip they make, and guarantees that the development will be loved by cars and despised by people. In other words, our demands trap us in a downwardly spiraling vicious cycle. The more we scream that new development provide MORE PARKING or BIGGER ROADS or LOWER DENSITY or BIGGER SETBACKS or SEPARATION OF HOMES FROM BUSINESSES, the more likely it is that we will be trapped in a future of unsustainable car dependency, loss of civic pride, and a dwindling quality of life.

Is it any wonder we have a nationwide NIMBY (not in my backyard) epidemic where neighborhoods fear ALL new developments? Is it any wonder that we have intolerable traffic congestion that gets worse and worse every year? Is it any wonder our governments are bankrupt? Is it any wonder our public planners have no credibility and our developers are the most hated people on earth?

How Can We Convert This Downward Spiral Into a Virtuous Cycle?

A virtuous cycle, the opposite of the downward spiral of a vicious cycle, is a self-perpetuating advantageous situation in which a successful solution or design leads to more of a desired result or another success which generates still more desired results or successes in a chain.

How can we create a virtuous cycle in the development and maintenance of our community?

The most effective way to create a virtuous cycle for our community is to insist that developers, planners, and government officials return to the timeless, traditional ways of building communities that are designed to make school neighborhood basedpeople, instead of cars, happy.

Hard as it might be to believe, there are a growing number of “enlightened” developers who are realizing that it is now quite profitable to build such people happy (instead of car happy) places. Places that are walkable, sociable, safe, and charming.

We need to welcome such developers (instead of the knee-jerk response of opposing ALL developers). We can do that by updating our local development regulations so that they make it easy to do the right thing (i.e., building for people rather than cars).

I am strongly pro-growth if the new development is designed to make people happy by using timeless principles, rather than using conventional, out-dated car-happy tactics.

We have workable solutions to our growth and development problems. Solutions that go beyond STOPPING GROWTH. They mostly focus on having growth pay its own way, that it be sustainable, and that it be focused on making people happy and not cars.

Instead, in too many instances, too many new developments and suburban lifestyles EXTERNALIZE and EXPORT their costly, negatively-impacting behaviors on all of the rest of us with their cocooned “McMansions” on isolated cul-de-sacs (which belch a relatively high number of car trips on the rest of us, and make it more costly to serve).

I do NOT say that certain lifestyles should be prohibited. I just want to see that those that enjoy those lifestyles are paying the full cost for them, instead of having me pay some of the cost through higher taxes or a lower quality of life. We also need more CHOICES in housing and transportation, since increasingly, our only choice is the isolating, community- and environment-destroying auto-dependent suburbs, where everyone enjoys subsidies not in the public interest, and everyone is forced to drive a car for every trip.

Americans have built far too much low-density, drivable, suburban housing. So much that we are glutted by this option – an option that is now declining in preference, as demographic and financial shifts are now resulting in a growing interest in compact, walkable housing options. At the same time, we have built far too little compact, walkable housing options. There is a serious mismatch regarding the supply of and demand for these two forms of housing.

Because we have over-built car-dependent, unwalkable suburban housing, and the interest in such housing is now declining, such housing is losing value and is comparatively troubled financially.  Conversely, because we have built too little compact, walkable, town center housing, and the interest in such housing is now growing, such housing is becoming extremely expensive.

We need to build a lot more compact, walkable housing. And do so quickly.

To make such housing more available and affordable, to restore the development community to the admired status they once had a century ago, and to make our future both more lovable and sustainable, let’s return to the days of lifestyle and travel choices. To the days when we insisted on building to create a quality of life for PEOPLE, not cars.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Regulating Big Box Retailers

By Dom Nozzi

My thoughts about how to make Big Box retailers such as Wal-Mart behave themselves…

First, a list of reasons why Big Box retail (such as the Wal-Mart Supercenter) is deadly for communities and should be prevented from ever being allowed in a community.

1. Big Box retailers do not create an improved retail environment for a community or result in a net increase in jobs. Instead, they tend to cannibalize existing, in-town retail sales and in-town (often locally-owned) jobs. This is true at both the local level and the regional level. No net increase in retail sales or jobs. Just a geographic shifting from existing businesses to the Big Box retailer.

2. Big Box retailers drain dollars from a community. Instead of cycling those dollars within the community, Big Box steadily impoverishes the community by forever removing wealth from the community and pouring it into the bank accounts of out-of-town executives which have no allegiance to our community — nor any care for our welfare (since they don’t live here).

3. Big Box retailers promote extreme levels of car dependency for those who live in the region — which is a deadly, downwardly spiraling trend.

Excessive car dependency destroys community quality of life, significantly harms community sustainability, increases our dependence on oil, outside corporations, and foreign nations, bankrupts households and local & state governments, wipes out our downtown, transforms us into an “anywhere USA” kind of place that eliminates civic pride and a unique community character, and ruins our natural areas.

Big Box retailers powerfully promote car dependence by being placed in locations (and have site design) which make it impossible to travel to the store without a car. As a result, an increasing proportion of community residents must make an increasing number of trips by car (thereby increasing car dependency).

In part, this increased car dependency is caused by the fact that the Big Box wipes out in-town businesses that were accessible by means other than the car.

4. Big Box retailers, by wiping out local businesses, reduces consumer choice in products, since increasingly, the only products available are those that are sold by the Big Box.300px-Wal-Mart_in_Madison_Heights

5. By being so excessively car-dependent and designed to serve a regional “consumer-shed” of motorists from up to 10 miles away, Big Box retailers enable a sprawl lifestyle. That is, life becomes more feasible, and therefore BREEDS more sprawl households because sprawl is now more attractive.

 How can Big Box retail be prevented from locating in a community?

1. Keep your roads small and human-scaled, not Big Box scaled. Do not modify nearby roads to add road capacity (for example, by adding turn lanes at intersections or adding travel lanes). If nearby intersections or roads (or interstates) are already “overweight,” put them on a diet by removing turn lanes and travel lanes. Admittedly, this is a very long-term strategy. But the terrible reality is that this nation has spent several decades spending trillions of public dollars to build HUGE interstate highways and huge local arterial roads. The predictable result of this enormous public subsidy is that it gave birth to a nation-wide epidemic of Big Box retailers. Such retailers can only exist if they are able to gain access to an enormous, regional “consumer-shed” of customers (customers from multiple counties). The big roads and interstates have created that opportunity, and Big Box executives are taking advantage of this opportunity by building Big Box throughout the nation. With small roads, Big Box retail is impossible. With large roads, Big Box is inevitable. In essence, we are now paying for the sins of our forefathers and foremothers, who chose to squander ungodly sums of public dollars to widen roads, and therefore indirectly and heavily subsidizing Big Box retailing. It is naive to think we can stop Big Box until we start reversing the blunder of building these monster roads and interstates.

2. Enact a size limit for the retail square footage allowed in your community. Many cities have created a maximum retail floor area allowed in their community. Usually, this maximum is applied in a more walkable location such as a town center. A maximum size is more legally defensible when it is applied to a location in the community where walkability is the community objective. A place, in other words, where excessive car travel is detrimental to the objectives of the community.

What strategies are NOT effective in stopping Big Box?

1. Environmental regulations. They tend to be very weak and very easy to evade — particularly by a well-heeled developer.

2. Generous landscaping and open space requirements. These are minor “window dressing” items that are trivial when it comes to the problems that Big Box brings to a community. And again, they are easy to provide for a well-heeled developer.

3. Restrictive building design requirements. Again, these are minor window dressing items that are trivial in the overall picture. The problem with Big Box is not that the Box is ugly. Granted, the typical, formulaic Big Box building is not pleasant to look at, but on a list of 100 problems that a Big Box inflicts on a community, ugliness is about #99. And well-heeled developers will often provide aesthetic improvements if push comes to shove.

4. Appeal to the harm the Big Box will bring to “poor people.” In public meetings, the Big Box will always have the moral high ground when it comes to “poor people.” After all, don’t they provide “Low, Low Prices” that “help” poor people? Arguments about how the Big Box provides “excessively low-wage jobs with no health care” or how they “promote sweat shops in Mexico” are too abstract and complex for the sound-bite conditions of a public meeting.

5. Requiring the Big Box to have huge, multi-turn lane intersections or huge, multi-lane roads to serve them and avoid “gridlock congestion.”

Several problems here: First, it is pocket change for Big Box to come up with the dollars to increase the size of nearby roads/intersections. Second, it is often the local or state government that ends up (further) subsidizing the Big Box by using public tax dollars to increase such road capacity.

Third, such big capacity roads enable Big Box. They must  have such roads to be successful. It is therefore not a “punishment” to request they provide such roads. Indeed, I suspect that the Big Box often deliberately lets the perception arise that “nearby roads need to be enlarged to avoid congestion,” when all along, the Big Box was secretly hoping that this “concession” would be “demanded” of them. The Big Box cannot exist without the Big Roads and Big Intersections. For the local government and its citizens to insist on such roads is playing right into the hands of the Big Box. Fourth, in urban areas, traffic congestion is our friend. It promotes many things a healthy community desires: infill development, less single-occupant vehicle travel, higher residential densities, more mixed use development, lower regional air pollution and fuel consumption, taller buildings, less asphalt parking, healthier transit, healthier small (and locally-owned) business, and less suburban sprawl.

If Big Box cannot be stopped, how can they be made more palatable?

1. The Big Box must be required to be “mixed use.” That is, high-density residences should be incorporated on site and adjacent to the site. The site should be developed to contain a gridded street network with narrow streets, on-street parking, multi-story buildings, street connections to adjacent properties, and compact building arrangement so that it mimics a walkable town center (open-air “lifestyle” center shopping malls are becoming quite popular throughout the US these days).

2. The Big Box must not be enabled by enlarging the road capacity near it (do not add additional turn lanes at intersections near it and do not add travel lanes on roads near it). If any road modifications are made, they should be to reduce such capacity.

3. The Big Box must not be enabled by allowing it to install an enormous asphalt parking lagoon to attract tens of thousands of car-dependent shoppers. The parking must be kept modest in size (no more than 1 space per 500 feet of floor area) and must not be allowed between the store and the roads that serve it.

4. If #1 above is not achieved, the Big Box must be required to sign a legally-binding agreement that it will be financially responsible for demolishing the structures it builds on the site and restoring the site to its original condition after the inevitable day in the near future when it abandons the site (usually to build something even bigger somewhere else).

5. The Big Box must not be allowed to select a site that is environmentally significant.

Big Box retail will be unable to survive the coming big increases in the cost of energy and the cost of enlarging roads. They are therefore a short-term phenomenon. It behooves communities to prepare for this by either requiring the Big Box to be designed for its re-use as something else in the future, or to prevent the Big Box all together.

______________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

The Fairness of Making New Development Behave Itself

By Dom Nozzi

In 1998, there was a great deal of community discussion about a proposed 480-acre “sprawl” development in western Alachua County, Florida.

I find it peculiar that often, in response to a proposal to get residential development or travel by car to “behave” itself, we hear people make the red herring argument that we should not force people to live in a walkable town center of the city, or that we cannot “get rid of all cars.” In fact, the proposals to make residential development, or travel by car, behave themselves is simply a way to create more equity and provide more choices for both residential development and travel.

For about 50 years, we have built little other than low-density, single-use, large lot residential (“conventional”) subdivisions in outlying suburban areas. In addition, we have focused almost all of our efforts on making cars happy. The result, of course, is that throughout America, and including Alachua County, we have little choice in terms of residence or form of travel. We are pretty much “forced” to live in conventional residences in outlying areas, or travel by car for all our trips.

But what about the large and growing number of us who would enjoy the pleasures of a more urbane setting, where we would have easy access to a nearby grocery, various forms of culture, a pleasant public realm, civic events, retail, jobs, schools, parks, sidewalks that lead somewhere, sociable neighbors, and calmed traffic? What about those of us who want the choice to be able to walk, bicycle, or bus to those destinations? Do many of us have a choice to enjoy such things? Do we really “force” people to live in more traditional town center settings, or get rid of their car, if we simply make other residential and travel choices more of an option?

As for “behaving,” it is my opinion that residential areas are “misbehaving” when they, for example, generate a large number of car trips. Such areas tend to be “single-use” (only single-family residential land use), and nearly every trip is too far to travel except by car. The result is that instead of a reasonably self-contained subdivision with a reasonable amount of internalized “trip capture” (due largely to a mix of land uses in the area or development), those trips and costs are externalized on all the rest of us.

Let’s not forget that the reasonable travel distance by car extends out to about 10 miles (it is roughly 3 miles for bus and bicycle, and about one-quarter mile by foot). What are the “externalized” costs that we must bear when a new subdivision does not “capture” a large number of car trips?

Well, within a 10-mile radius (see above), our neighborhoods get more traffic, more air pollution, more water pollution, more noise pollution, more strip commercial development, more decline in neighborhood value, more loss of small business in the core area, more sign pollution, more danger on our streets, and higher taxes to pay for public services like parks, schools, police, fire protection, sewer, water, environmental protection, etc.

So it becomes a matter of equity.

Is it fair for a new, outlying residential area to impose those costs on us? Isn’t it reasonable to ask that new residential development “pay its own way,” by locating in appropriate areas, designing for livability, and paying for some of the costs for new or expanded public facilities and services they demand from us?

I recommend that we try to steer clear of red herrings. It tends to polarize us. I also believe we can all agree that providing residential and travel choices, and insisting on equity, are good things.

To me, the debate should center around what constitutes equity, and how much our local, state, and federal government should put into creating travel choices.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design