Tag Archives: city health

Is Removing On-Street Parking a Good Idea?

By Dom Nozzi

Let’s be careful about the common suggestion (usually from bicycling advocates) that we remove on-street parking.

One important ingredient for cities to be more healthy and vital is streets lined with (priced) on-street parking. That sort of parking is pro-city, because it promotes small-scale retail, slower car speeds, and a more compact layout of the town center.

On-street parking is therefore pro-walking, pro-bicycling, and pro-transit.

What is toxic to cities, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit is (free) OFF-street parking — as Donald Shoup shows so well. Our efforts need to focus on reducing off-street parking (by eliminating parking requirements for new development and revising our tax structure, among other tools). The more off-street parking we remove and the more on-street parking we add, the better a city will be.

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Showing Leadership to Transform Main Street in Greenville South Carolina

By Dom Nozzi

I am surprised to have landed in Greenville, South Carolina in June 2021.

I never gave the city much thought in the past. I think, though, that I used to include the city in my occasional “comparable cities” studies when I prepared reports as a town planner for Gainesville, Florida, and wanted the Gainesville City Commission to see what similar cities were doing.

One reason I admire Greenville is that they had the mayoral leadership in the past to remove a four-lane highway bridge that blocked views and pedestrian access for the stunning Reedy Creek Falls in the town center. The highway bridge meant the City was turning its back on the glorious falls. The bridge was replaced by a much-loved pedestrian bridge (see photos).

But by far, the primary reason we fell in love with — and opted to move to — Greenville (from Asheville NC, where we lived for a few months) is that in my opinion, Greenville has created the best main street road diet transformation in the nation (see photos). Prior to the diet, it was a nasty five-laner that induced a large number of car crashes, business and residential abandonment, vacancies, prostitution, drugs, homeless problems, etc. People wanted to be as far from main street as they could.

Since the 1980 transformation, however, the opposite is now the case. Retail shops and residences are booming on Main Street, the street is regularly hosting many festivals and live music shows, the sidewalks are full of pedestrians, the tree canopy is fantastic, and it is safe and easy to ride a bicycle on the street — without bike lanes — because the narrowed, slow-speed street design properly obligates motorists to drive slowly and attentively. Today, it has become a place that most everyone in the community comes to just to hang out. It is a street where citizens know it is easy to find a sense of community. The street understandably inspires a lot of civic pride (each time I tell someone in Greenville how much we love main street, they nearly all nod in agreement).

Real estate ads have transformed in the same way that main street had transformed. Prior to the road diet, no one wanted to live near (or even visit) main street. But in the spring of 2021, we noticed when looking at real estate ads to buy a home in Greenville that every property on or near main in recent months BOASTED about how the property was on or near main street.

There is a statue on North Main St of Max Heller, who was known as the “patron saint of the city’s downtown renaissance.” Heller was the mayor of Greenville in the 70s, and heroically led the effort to bring main street back to life. He was from Vienna Austria, and recognized that main street needed to adopt the street design he knew from Europe. You would not know it today, given the community consensus for love of their main street, but Heller (like every other elected official of a US city) faced ferocious opposition from many in the city when he pushed for a main street road diet. Many assumed, ruinously, that main street needed to be a very wide roadway with abundant, free, off-street parking. That for health, downtown needed free-flowing car traffic and easy parking.

Heller knew that the opposite was the case.

As a true leader, Heller knew that to achieve greatness, a main street road diet would not be supported by all. But unlike nearly all other elected city officials in the US, he would persist in spite of severe citizen opposition. He knew that to be healthy, main street needed to be a place to drive TO rather than a place to drive THROUGH.

A town center can never compete with the suburbs on suburban terms (massive and high-speed roads, dispersed and low-density development, and abundant parking). A town center needs to leverage its strengths where it can outcompete the suburbs (these strengths correspond to what makes a town center healthy): slower speeds, human-scale dimensions, and clustered and compact development patterns. By contrast, oversized, free-flowing urban roads (what Charles Marohn calls STROADS), low-density design, and abundant parking bring the high speeds and dispersal and loss of romantic and human-scaled charm that town centers need to thrive.

Today, main street in Greenville is a testament to Heller’s magnificent leadership. Occasionally, teachers bring groups of school children to visit the Heller statue and hear the story of Heller.

Max Heller statue

“…the least effective leaders were those who followed the will of the people and the precedents set by their predecessors. The greatest [leaders] were those who challenged the status quo and brought about sweeping changes that improved the lot of the [community].”  – Adam Grant

“To achieve excellence should be a struggle.” – Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” — Elbert Hubbard

Margaret Thatcher once said that consensus is the absence of leadership. One of my heroes – Enrique Penalosa (former mayor of Bogota) – was despised early on in his term. He enacted policies that aggressively inconvenienced cars in his efforts to make people, rather than cars, happy. Many wanted to throw him out of office. But eventually, his policies (which nearly all his citizens strongly opposed initially) resulted in visibly obvious quality of life and civic pride improvements. He went on to become much-loved and honored by most in Bogota.

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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.

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