Tag Archives: context-sensitive

A Conversation with a Graduate Student Regarding Transportation Planning and Complete Streets

By Dom Nozzi

November 22, 2012

A graduate student in transportation planning at the University of Florida contacted me with questions regarding Complete Streets on November 21, 2012.

She wanted to answer the research question that asked, “Would implementation of Complete Streets policies be feasible and beneficial in the Gainesville region?”

The following are her questions and my responses.
How would you define a complete street?

A Complete Street is safe, comfortable and convenient for travel by car, by walking, by bicycle, and by transit. The design of a Complete Street varies, however, based on the context (or location) of the street. In a town center, for example, a Complete Street tends to have car travel lanes, sidewalks, and bus stops/seating. In a suburban context, a Complete Street tends to have car travel lanes, in-street bike lanes, sidewalks, and bus cspull-out lanes. In other words, Complete Streets is not a one-size-fits-all concept.

Do you support complete streets in general (not specific to Gainesville region)?

Complete Streets should be the default design, based on context, for all new and modified streets in the US. Doing so promotes travel choice, fairness, equity, sustainability, public health, affordability, civic pride, economic health, and public safety. Only when special studies determine that a Complete Street is not justified should an incomplete street be built. Note that the reverse is the case for nearly all American communities for the past century. That is, special studies are needed to determine that a Complete Street is justified and should be built.

What can you tell me about Gainesville’s transportation policies?

I was the lead planner and author of Gainesville’s long-range transportation plan that was adopted as part of the City’s Year 2000 Comprehensive Plan (the “Transportation Mobility” Element of the Plan). I am nearly certain that nearly all of the policies in the Year 2000 plan, as well as Gainesville’s overall traffic engineering, MTPO, City Commission, and other transportation-related goals, objectives and policies remain essentially the same today as they were in 2000 and when I left in October 2007. Those policies – many (most?) of which I was not personally or professionally supportive of – sought to promote free-flowing car traffic, convenience and low cost for traveling and parking by car, implicitly calls for the allocation of nearly all public transportation revenue to car-supportive infrastructure, promotes dispersal of development (i.e., suburban sprawl), calls for a level of service for cars that is too high, and calls for land use densities that were low enough to be conducive to convenient and free-flowing car travel.

For decades, the City has adopted Comprehensive Plan goals, objectives and policies that promote bicycling, walking, and transit use. However, these bicycling, walking, and transit policies have not been effective in promoting transportation choice (i.e., meaningfully higher levels of bicycling, walking, and transit) because the policies promoting car travel that I noted earlier have resulted in a significant suppression in bicycling, walking, and transit travel (due to inconvenience, high cost, and danger that the previously noted policies create for bicycling, walking, and transit). An important flaw in Gainesville’s transportation plans is that car mobility continues to be emphasized, rather than transportation accessibility, and car mobility is a zero-sum game. That is, the more the City promotes car mobility (via wider and wider free-flowing streets and abundant/free car parking), the less conducive the city becomes for bicycling, walking, and transit. Unfortunately, Gainesville continues to believe that transportation is a win-win situation, and I firmly disagree with that view.

Does the city council have complete streets goals in its comprehensive plan?

Gainesville did not have goals, objectives or policies in its comprehensive plan that explicitly called for Complete Streets as of October 2007 when I left the city. However, the year 2000 Comprehensive Plan implicitly called for Complete Streets in a great many goals, objectives and policies. I am sure this is also the case in the more recently adopted Comprehensive Plan. This is not to say that the existing goals, objectives and policies are adequately calling for Complete Streets. It is certain that the existing goals, objectives and policies can be revised to more clearly direct the City to create Complete Streets in the future.

Do you think that Gainesville’s current policies would accommodate complete streets or would there need to be extensive revisions?

As I noted above, Gainesville – like nearly all cities – has transportation policies that at least implicitly promote Complete Streets. But like most cities, those policies could benefit from substantial re-wording to make them more effective in achieving Complete Streets. Examples: (1) The policies could call for a substantial shift in public revenue allocation so that significantly more public transportation dollars are allocated to bicycling, walking, and transit. And substantially less allocation of dollars to car travel promotion (including revisions to the Capital Improvements Program Element); (2) The policies could call for a seamless integration of the Complete Streets policies with those found in the design manuals, implementation policies, bicycling and transit, construction/rehab/resurfacing checklists, and procedures used, for example, by the City and County Public Works/Traffic Engineering Departments, the MTPO policies, the FDOT, the City and County Offices of Management and Budgeting, the City and County Fire Departments, and the City and County Housing Departments; (3) The policies could include Complete Streets “performance measures” so that the City would know – quantitatively – whether it was making progress in achieving more complete streets over time; (4) The policies could call for opportunistically adding complete streets elements to streets which are undergoing modifications for such things as stormwater or restriping; and (5) Revising the scoring and prioritizing of City transportation projects so that walking, bicycling and transit score higher.

How could we implement complete streets into those streets which have already been developed without accounting for all users?

There are a number of tactics, depending on the street. For example, space for sidewalks or bike lanes can be created by narrowing travel or turn lanes (when restriping, for example), or removing turn lanes. Transit facilities can usually be retrofitted without any need for additional street right-of-way. Many streets have an excessive number of turn or travel lanes, and new space can be found on such streets by removing such excessive lanes. The “road diet” on Gainesville’s Main Street is an example of a tactic that can be used on a great many streets in Gainesville.

How do you think that Gainesville’s complete streets could be funded?

The point we often make at the Complete Streets workshops we conduct throughout the nation is that more complete streets can be achieved without any increase in revenue to the community. Many complete streets designs can be achieved in a cost-free manner (a restriping project could include bike lanes, for example). A community could also re-allocate its transportation dollars so that a higher percentage of such dollars are allocated to bicycling, walking or transit. Funding for a single purpose could be used for multiple purposes (stormwater funding might also be used to install a sidewalk, for example). If these approaches are not sufficient, there are many federal, state and local funding programs that can be tapped for complete streets design.

Do you think that investing in complete streets now would save transportation related costs in the future?

Absolutely. When done right, more durable methods and materials are used for street modification projects. When complete streets elements are included in the initial construction of the street modification project, both this and the more durable methods and materials reduce the need for – and cost of — retrofitting. There is a growing consensus that due to demographic, energy and other inevitable changes, Gainesville will see a shrinking number of motorists and a growing number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. By taking that into account with a Complete Streets program now, Gainesville will save substantial infrastructure costs that would otherwise be needed in the future to accommodate this new composition of travelers. Because it is inevitable that larger percentages of Gainesville travelers will be bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users, it is much less costly to acquire needed materials and right-of-way for such travelers now, rather than in the future, when such costs will be much higher.

How do you think that complete streets, if developed properly, would change the Gainesville community?

If Gainesville successfully creates a comprehensive set of policies, procedures, complete streets infrastructure, and the nine essential elements I list below, Gainesville would see a substantial increase in bicycling, walking and transit use. It would become more healthy, would see medical expenses go down, would see its taxes increase less rapidly, would see local government expenses drop substantially, would see more civic pride, would enjoy more “social capital,” would see less suburban sprawl, would see a more revitalized town center, would have cleaner air and water, would have healthier wildlife ecosystems, would have more affordable housing, would have less crime, would have less travel injuries and deaths, would have healthier locally-owned retail, would have better high-quality job growth, would have reduced noise pollution, would have less visual blight, and would have more stable property values.

Do you feel that Complete Streets policies would be beneficial and/or feasible to the Gainesville community? Why or why not?

Yes, for the reasons I list in a number of other answers I provide above and below. The most important obstacle to achieving the beneficial aspects of Complete Streets policy, as I point out below, is achieving sufficient will to do so. Political, citizen and staff will.

Summary

 In sum, while I believe that Gainesville would need (and benefit from) a substantial revision in its long-range plan goals, objectives and policies, its design manuals, its departmental procedures, and its funding formulas to better promote Complete Streets, doing so will also require substantial changes in other areas if Gainesville is to successfully create a successful Complete Streets program, as well as substantially shifting a large number of car trips to walking, bicycling and transit.

First and foremost, I do not believe that Gainesville has the political will, the staff will, or the citizen will to create complete streets and an overall environment rich in transportation choice. Like nearly all cities, Gainesville has had goals, objectives and policies that are quite supportive of complete streets. But such overwhelming support, on paper, is little more than paying lip service to complete streets and transportation choice – unless other essential elements are achieved. The main obstacles that will remain, even if Gainesville adopts high-quality Complete Streets policies, include:

  • An almost complete lack in political, citizen or staff will to create complete streets and transportation choice.
  • An excessive provision of free (and underpriced) car parking throughout the Gainesville urban area.
  • Excessively wide streets throughout the Gainesville urban area. In general, streets wider than three lanes in the Traditional City town center and five lanes in suburban areas is excessive. Overly wide roads in Gainesville lead to even larger intersections, which are deadly to people walking and bicycling.
  • A gas tax which is too low.
  • An extremely dispersed, sprawling city geographic spread. A city that is over fifty five square miles in size (as well as the unincorporated urban area) creates distances that are far too excessive for regular travel by walking, bicycling or transit.
  • A lack of tolling (pricing) of roads in Gainesville.
  • A lack of a mixing of homes with offices, retail, civic, cultural, and job land uses.
  • A lack of sufficiently high residential densities in appropriate locations.
  • A lack of a parking cash-out program that provides financial (or other) incentives for commuting to work without a car.

Without achieving the nine items I mention above, even adopting the best Complete Streets policies will do very little to achieve Complete Streets or transportation choice in Gainesville. Furthermore, even if the City did create a citywide street infrastructure that provided complete streets comprehensively (all streets had sidewalks, were bike-friendly, and were transit-friendly), only a small shift in car travel to walking, bicycling or transit would occur because of the above nine items. As a friend and colleague has pointed out, meaningfully increasing the number of pedestrians, bicyclists or transit users is not about creating new bike lanes, sidewalks or transit facilities.

It is about taking away space, speed and subsidies that motorists now enjoy.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Low-Speed Street Design Should be the Default

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2002

“Low-Speed Urban Streets” are streets that are designed to obligate motorists to drive at a moderate speed. On such a street, motorists should feel uncomfortable driving at higher speeds – usually because the motorist is obligated to pay attention due to the narrowness low-speed-streetof the street, the presence of on-street parking, the frequent presence of pedestrians and cyclists, and the proximity of street trees or buildings near the street.

In cities – particularly in town centers – low speed urban streets should be the default design. Higher speed street design should only be built through studies that justify special treatment.

Low-speed design should require modest dimensions for curb radii or lane width. A community street design manual should not merely indicate what the acceptable range of dimensions would be for such a street. Using a range leaves too much flexibility to authorize excessive dimensions.

My general concern is that nearly all engineers seem to have been trained to err on the side of larger, suburban street dimensions.

One of my most serious concerns these days is that too often, communities apply a one-size-fits-all approach to designing streets, buildings, setbacks, sidewalks, landscaping, parking, stormwater, etc. And that “one size” tends to be rather suburban, to the detriment of those seeking the more walkable, human-scaled, urban lifestyle.

That is why I am excited about the possibilities with regard to context-sensitive design.

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Walking

What Direction Should the State of Florida Take With Regard to Local Government Planning?

By Dom Nozzi

September 25, 2003

The State of Florida contains an agency called the Department of Community Affairs, which provides directives and guidance to city and county governments in Florida regarding town planning, transportation and land development. That agency therefore plays a crucial role in how development and transportation should occur in Florida.

What should this guidance consist of?

As a 20-year long-range town planner in Florida, here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, planning directives from the state planning agency need to be more directive than to just call for communities to establish a “vision.” But instead of taking a heavy-handed approach in which the state dictates how communities should be developed, there should be a strong statement that calls for communities to:

(a) Create plans and regulations that promote lifestyle choices. All communities must provide ample opportunities for living an urban, suburban, or rural lifestyle. Currently, nearly all communities only allow for the suburban choice. We must be clear that one size does not fit all. We need a tiered regulatory system that applies appropriate regulations for each lifestyle choice, instead of providing only suburban design regulations. We need to make urban and rural lifestyles legal again (in appropriate locations).urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-sm

(b) Create a transportation system that is rich in transportation choices. Again, this needs to be a tiered approach where one size does not fit all locations. In core (urban, compact) areas, the pedestrian is the design imperative. Streets are modest in size, calm in design speed and no more than three lanes in width. Roads get progressively larger and higher in design speed as you move outside of core. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), in particular, needs to radically change their approach to design so that state roads are context-sensitive when going through communities. FDOT must become a helpful partner with local communities, instead of an adversary only looking out for the needs of the state.

In many communities, being serious about controlling sprawl and protecting or restoring quality of life will require a long-term healing process. Damage wrought in the past by building monster high-speed roads will often need to be incrementally reversed by putting many of these roads on a diet (ie, removing unnecessary, toxic, dangerous travel lanes).

In the interim, as communities struggle to correct the design of their streets and roads, an urban growth boundary will probably be required. Without a strong boundary, no plans, regulations or strong elected officials can stop the sprawl tidal wave induced largely by big roads in a community.

(c) Many important efforts are necessary to reverse our long-standing pattern of being our own worst enemies. The Florida Growth Management Act (which dictates rules for plans that local governments in Florida must adopt) needs to be revised so that road “level of service” (the level of congestion found on a road) is not applied in urban areas. The State concurrency rule that obligates level of service for urban roads is a powerful sprawl engine (because “adequate” road capacity tends to only be found in outlying areas rather than within towns).

In addition, public schools must end the practice of inducing sprawl by curtailing the widespread construction of new schools in outlying areas. An important element is this is to revise school standards that make walkable, in-town, neighborhood-based schools difficult or impossible (such as large ballfield requirements).

Large emergency service vehicles must not dictate excessive road design standards by being the standard that engineers use to design roads (the “design” vehicle). Doing so promotes high and dangerous car speeds.

Similarly, modest, human-scaled streets and building design must be made legal again in the urban portions of a community.

In sum, a strong stand must be taken by planners that we stand for CHOICE, and that one size does not fit all.

 

 

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

Boulder NIMBYs make quality of life in Boulder worse

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 22, 2015

When it comes to development, Boulder is most well-known for its well-deserved reputation for an extreme, hostile, antagonistic attitude that a large number of Boulder citizens express toward development. This hyper NIMBYism is almost entirely driven by ruinous demands that new development not congest roads or parking. Boulder NIMBYs are convinced that keeping roads and parking uncongested is simply a matter of stopping development (population growth) in its tracks. If that is not possible, to minimize the building height and density. It seems commonsensical: Minimizing people minimizes cars crowding our roads and parking!

This leads to both neglect and incoherence regarding reform of conventional land development regulations here in Boulder.

The fundamental, tragic mistake is that many in Boulder conflate happy, free-flowing, easy parking cars with quality of life. This blunder is highly counterproductive. Happy cars are toxic to quality of life. When cars are inconvenienced and seemingly free to drive or park, quality of life for a city is powerfully undermined, as communities with such an agenda end up with over-sized parking and roads and intersections, excessive and inattentive car speeds, unlovable building design (because there are no coherent, contextual design regulations), sprawl, light and noise pollution, high air emissions per capita, and unwalkably low density development.

Designing roads and parking for happy cars also induces excessive car dependence (yes, even in Boulder), because oversized, high-speed road and parking lot dimensions make 40-peopletravel by walking, bicycling or transit less safe, desirable, or feasible. Coupled with the excessively low densities that NIMBYs demand, and the enormous amount of space cars consume (17 times more than a person in a chair), Boulder’s roads and parking lots quickly and ironically become rapidly congested. This congestion, caused at least partly by NIMBYism, motivates NIMBYs to scream for even MORE opposition to development and compact design.

Which, of course, causes more road and parking congestion…

Allowing planning board and council to apply random, discretionary, subjective demands on proposed development (rather than a predictable, objective form-based code) plays well with those opposing development, as it means further torture and cost increases for developers, yet does nothing to make buildings more lovable or contextual. Ironically, NIMBY attitudes therefore make a visionary form-based development code (which calls for lovable, contextual building design) less possible, even though adopting a good one would, over time, reduce NIMBY hostility.

Example in this photo: the Boulderado hotel in town center Boulder. The most loved building in all of Boulder has been made either illegal or highly unlikely. Maximum Hotel_Boulderado1-T1building height even in the most urbanized areas of Boulder is now a crazy low 35 feet in the town center (Boulderado is 55 ft). In addition, the building design regulations say almost nothing about creating similar buildings going forward.

By naively concluding that free-flowing car traffic is the path to protecting quality of life, and deciding that the only way to preserve such a nirvana is to stop population growth, Boulder NIMBYs force the City to devote too much time and effort towards development opposition, and too little time and effort toward adopting visionary form-based coding that would deliver a more lovable future.

Instead, Boulder NIMBYs increase the likelihood that development which DOES occur (and it WILL occur, since there are no feasible ways to stop population growth) will be regrettable and unworthy of our affection.

The NIMBYism is therefore self-perpetuating, as it ensures an on-going growth in citizens who oppose development of buildings that are at least partly unlovable due to NIMBY distraction from the important task of creating visionary form-based development codes.

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Filed under Politics, Transportation, Urban Design

Regulating Big Box (Large Format) Retail

By Dom Nozzi

March 2007

In 2006, I was assigned the task of preparing Big Box (large format) Retail land development regulations for the City of Gainesville, Florida. My hard work researching this effort unfortunately went into the dustbin, as I believe the City opted to simply mimic Walmartthe much more lax and largely ineffective Alachua County regulations for such retail.

Therefore, as a way to rescue my suggestions from oblivion, the following is what I recommended Gainesville adopt as regulations to manage new Big Box Retail.

Establish 3 “context zones” for large format retail with design standards that become increasingly oriented toward the use of relatively small, human-scaled dimensions for things such as block size, street and driveway width, and required parking. This method would be focused on delivering a quality public realm as the location shifts from a highway/sprawl zone to a walkable urbanity zone.

The three context zones for calibrated regulations:

  1. Town Center and surrounding, relatively walkable neighborhoods.
  2. Areas outside of #1 and #3.
  3. Properties adjacent to major, high-speed, multi-lane roadways.

The primary reason for three context zones is that if (as is so often the case) one-size-fits-all regulations are used, the inevitable result is mediocrity, since the design features that urban designers seek in walkable areas are inappropriate, and therefore disregarded and ultimately abandoned in drivable areas.

Eventually, the one-size-fits-all approach means that walkable areas get only what makes sense in drivable areas (lowest common denominator regulations). In other words, such walkable, compact areas get nothing that promotes or protects walkability. Instead, it gets design that undermines walkability. For example, since it is nonsensical to require large format retail to place its parking behind the building or install first floor windows when near the Interstate, such essential design features end up not being required in the town center either.

Proposed Context-Sensitive Regulations:

In zone 1, the maximum size for large format retail is 15,000 square feet. Low-speed street and intersection dimensions and geometry required. Building setbacks and facades based on context of neighborhood.

In zones 2 and 3, the threshold is 50,000 square feet.

Connectivity to adjacent properties required.

Abandoned large format retail buildings (very common for such a retailer to abandon a building) must be demolished and have site restored.

Mixed use residential required.

A long list of encouraged and discouraged architectural features to be used in design review.

At least two public realm amenities (such as a pedestrian plaza or clock tower) is required from a list provided.

The result of this calibrated approach is more calibrated, appropriate, fair, and politically sustainable design regulations for Big Box Retail.

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Transportation and Land Use Reforms in Alachua County Florida

By Dom Nozzi

September 16, 2008

Florida Statutes (§163.3180) requires that land use and transportation facilities be coordinated to ensure there is adequate transportation capacity to support the future land use adopted in the Comprehensive Plan. Policy 1.1.8 in the Transportation Element of the Alachua County Comprehensive Plan requires that adequate roadway capacity needed to support new development shall be required to be available “concurrent” with the impact from development.

This statute is perhaps the most disastrous ever adopted by any state in the US, which is bitterly ironic, given how the 1985 state growth management law is touted nationally as a model. It is a hideous example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The primary objective of the framers of this language was to discourage costly sprawl and promote quality of life. Yet this language powerfully states that there is a state law requiring all communities in Florida to establish a mechanism that profoundly promotes suburban sprawl and an eradication of a quality of life. It enshrines the ruinous hypothesis that “free-flowing traffic” is the be-all and end-all of quality of life and the means of discouraging sprawl. Because cars and people have strongly clashing habitat needs (the world that makes a Ford happy is nearly opposite of the world that makes Fred happy), and because “adequate roadway capacity” tends to be in remote sprawl locations, this statute is exactly the opposite of what FL communities should strive to adopt.

Objective 1.1 of the Transportation Mobility Element requires that “Level of service standards, in accordance with the latest version of the Level of Service Handbook developed by the Florida Department of Transportation Systems Planning Office, shall be adopted in order to maximize the efficient use and safety of roadway facilities in order to coordinate capital improvement planning with land use decisions to meet the requirement that adequate roadway facilities be available concurrent with the impacts of development.”

Transportation Mobility Element is a profound blunder in word choice for this Element. I lost this battle when I tried to name the long-range transportation plan I wrote for Gainesville FL the Transportation Accessibility Element. I was over-ruled by my supervisors. As Reid Ewing points out, it wrongly puts the focus on moving motor vehicles, rather than the word access, which properly puts the focus on moving people. Indeed, high mobility is an effective way of reducing access for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users (due to what Todd Litman calls “The Barrier Effect”). High mobility also destroys quality of life (even for a Ford, in the long term).

As Ian Lockwood points out, “efficient use” and “safety of roadway facilities” are biased terms that put the emphasis on high-speed motor vehicle roadway design (“free-flowing traffic” enshrinement) and promoting “safety” for driving at 80 mph, rather than safety for Suzy and Bobby. They are, in other words, counterproductive code words leveraged by traffic engineers to suboptimize happy cars instead of a better community.

This wording is also backwards. “…adequate roadway facilities be available concurrent with the impacts of development” should instead state that “roadways shall be designed in such a way as to be compatible with the community development vision.” In other words, if the community vision is a walkable, charming, low-speed, mixed-use, human-scaled main street corridor, the roadway should be built no larger than two lanes and should use low-speed street dimensions. The street should not be widened or speeded up or scaled for cars to be made “adequate for proposed development” because such an “improved” road undercuts the community vision for development along the street. Instead of walkable charm, the “improved” street will inevitably deliver unsafe, high-speed strip commercial, retail and office vacancies, and loss of civic pride.

The State’s Growth Management Act calls for implementation of the mandate know as concurrency through a combination of regulation and capital improvement programming. As applied to roadway-based level of service standards, the regulatory component consists of a review of the impact of new development to determine if there is adequate roadway capacity to serve the traffic generated by the new development. Concurrency approval is granted to the new development if there is sufficient roadway capacity available at the time of approval or if new capacity is fully funded for construction within three years of development approval (see s.163.3180 (2)(c), F.S.). Local governments are also required to adopt a financially feasible Capital Improvements Element (CIE) to provide the roadway capacity needed to maintain adopted roadway level of service standards. The State’s Growth Management Act has included a longstanding requirement that a local government include a Capital Improvement Element (CIE) in the adopted Comprehensive Plan that identifies capacity enhancing transportation projects required to serve the impact of future land uses. Local governments have been required to show in the five year Capital Improvements Program (CIP) that needed transportation capacity can be fully funded and constructed in a five-year period to meet projected demand needs. The legislature has put added emphasis on the requirement for a financially feasible Comprehensive Plan, mandating that local governments update their CIE to ensure it is financially feasible by December 2008 (emphasis added) or be subject to various sanctions (see s.163.3177(2)(b)(1), F.S.), such as prohibitions on the ability to amend the future land use map.

The Concurrency Management System in Alachua County, especially in the western urban area, has been under an increasing level of stress as a number of roadways in the western urban area are operating either near or over capacity.

This is a good thing, despite this biased wording.

The majority of roadways over capacity are operating below the adopted level of service (LOS) due to reserved trips from already approved development.

Adopted “level of service” should not be a measure of free-flowing traffic, as is done by the County. It should be based on the health of retail, offices, and residential along the street, the quality and extent of transportation choices provided along the street, and the health of property values along the street.

Proposed developments along portions of Archer Road and Newberry Road are currently unable to receive final development plan approval due to a lack of available roadway capacity.

When development in areas intended for higher densities is unable to receive plan approval due to state law, we have an excellent example of the unintended consequences of the law.

The County does not currently have a transportation plan to address roadway concurrency within the Urban Cluster.

Which is fortunate, since the “plan” would undoubtedly be to widen. Widening and speeding up roadways powerfully disperses the lifeblood of an area. Densities and intensities plummet. I suspect this is not what the County would like to see in an “Urban Cluster.” (Congestion and low-speed streets, by contrast, promote clustering, huge turn radius for roaddensification and intensification. So why does the State and County have laws requiring that roads disperse development away from Clusters by making sure the road capacity is “adequate” — i.e., widened?)

The concept of concurrency was well intended, but the application of it has led to unintended and unsustainable consequences.

Why did it take over 20 years to realize this? Why did it take so long for an enormous number of NIMBY, environmental, progressive and no-growth groups to see this?

Instead of ensuring that adequate roadway capacity is available concurrent with development, as urban areas approach build-out, new development in those areas is restricted under the regulatory component of concurrency management, creating pressure to allow more development in rural areas where capacity is available. The end result of this approach to concurrency is that denser development within urban service areas is stopped or significantly delayed due to a lack of capacity, while a favorable climate is created for sprawling development in rural and agricultural areas.

It is becoming increasingly evident that local governments and the state cannot build their way out of congestion by adding more roadway capacity.

Once local governments stops development through concurrency and begins accepting proportionate fair-share contributions to add roadway capacity; they can find themselves going down the slippery slope of continuously having to add new capacity to mitigate the impact of new development. This unsustainable pattern has proven to be an ineffective means to provide mobility.

Change “mobility” to “access.”

Please.

Arlington County rightly emphasizes accessibility over mobility. Part of their plan is a strong call for moving people, not just vehicles.

And by the way, it is telling that I was marginalized and essentially run out of town for saying these things over and over again for the last 10 years of my career in city planning in Gainesville.

It is also telling that Florida communities must engage in complex, costly, time-consuming planning in order to set up “special exception” districts such as MMTDs, TCEAs, and TCMAs as a way to avoid the unintended sprawl consequences I note above.

In Urban Clusters, urban areas and town centers, this should be the law, not the special exception requiring costly studies. Urbanized and urbanizing areas are incompatible with concerns for “adequate road capacity.” In urbanized and urbanizing areas, the default rules should be an absence of concern for adequate road capacity. In such areas, the complex and costly studies for special exceptions should be required to show why such places are not urbanized or urbanizing.

By putting the onus of burdensome calculations and justifications on urbanized or urbanizing areas, the County and State have it backwards. It should be easy to do the right thing and difficult to promote sprawl. Right? Requiring special districts and “Transportation Concurrency Exception Area” studies in urbanized or urbanizing areas does the reverse. State law, in other words, needs to have context-sensitive concurrency rules. In urban or urbanizing areas, LOS is focused on making people happy. In suburban areas, the focus is more toward conventional (car happy) LOS rules.

There was draft legislation proposed in Florida to correct some of this mischief through the creation of a mobility fee based on vehicle miles of travel that would potentially replace both proportionate share and transportation impact fees. It ultimately failed to be adopted.

This was an excellent idea already being used in other parts of the nation, I believe. With such a system, well-designed walkable neighborhood/town center development would pay dramatically lower fees. We need the transportation system to move substantially in the direction of user fees (via road fees and parking fees), instead of keeping motorists on welfare.

If the County were to actually find funding to start improving walking, bicycling, and transit trips, most all of the money would be wasted by building quality facilities that would be almost entirely unused, and the under-use would be a unforgivable waste of public dollars. These facilities, by themselves, will not deliver more bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users. They must be coupled with the “Four S” ingredients: Less Space for cars, less Speed for cars, less Subsidies for cars, and Shorter distances to destinations.

Because the County saw much of its development occur in a world of huge and high-speed roads, massive amounts of free parking, and cheap gas, low-density dispersal is the only form of development available. Rapidly rising motor vehicle costs are beneficially changing the price signals, but major portions of the “Four S” ingredients will remain unused for a very long time (which makes the popularity of bike lanes, buses and sidewalks extremely unlikely). It is irresponsible, therefore, for the County to spend large sums of public dollars for these needed facilities until essential tasks are completed:

  1. Lots of road diets to reclaim street space. In general, no road in the county should exceed three lanes in size.
  2. Removal of an enormous amount of off-street parking (converting it to residential and commercial buildings) and properly pricing the parking that remains. An essential County task: require that the price of parking be unbundled from the price of the residence or commercial building. And in urban or urbanizing areas, convert parking minimums to maximums.
  3. A substantial effort to use traffic calming (speed lowering) street design.
  4. A lot more mixed-use, compact development.

Without congestion, lower speeds, proximity and proper prices for roads and parking, it will be irrational to use even high-quality buses, bike lanes and sidewalks. Indeed, elected officials and its professional staff get a well-deserved black eye if they spend millions and billions of public dollars for buses, bike lanes and sidewalks that no one uses.

When the County sets up these more walkable places, the County land development regulations must be tailored to be compact and human-scaled (rather than suburban). There should be no Floor Area Ratio max. Landscaping should not be required (except for formally-aligned street trees). Stormwater basins should not be allowed to consume land at-grade (when needed, it should be underground or on roofs, as basins powerfully reduce walkable compactness). Front facades of buildings must be required to be built up to the sidewalk (instead of set back). Off-street parking is not required, but if it is provided, the price must be unbundled and special studies must be performed to show why it is needed. It also must be behind or at the side of buildings. (fee-in-lieu of parking should be made an option, by the way). All buildings within such urban places are allowed to contain all types of residential and non-residential uses (in other words, there is no use-based zoning). However, certain uses are prohibited from the urban place, because they are inherently detrimental to compact walkability: Gas pumps, car washes, parking as a primary use, garden centers).

Any adopted transportation fee must strongly de-emphasize motorized travel. Western Alachua County has way too much road capacity, and needs a number of road diets. For a transportation fee to actually improve the community, it is absolutely essential that there is no possible way that any of this revenue can be used to widen roads, or add turn lanes, or synchronize traffic signals, or build bus bays, etc.

The County needs to openly state that it will not widen roads to try to reduce congestion.

The County and its citizens face decades of costly pain as a result of its blunderous past: big roads, abundant free parking, and low-density suburban development. Bike lanes, sidewalks and transit will do very little to change that unsustainable environment—until the changes I mention above are in place.

 

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Noise Pollution Should be Mostly — But Not Always — Context Sensitive

By Dom Nozzi

Noise control is an important element in community design. But if we are striving to design a quality community, the level of ambient noise needs to vary based on your location in the community.

If you desire a walkable, compact, urban lifestyle, you should expect higher levels of ambient noise, because a walkable lifestyle necessarily includes more activity and vibrancy – which inevitably means more noise. Through compact concentration, activities occur in closer proximity — in other words, it is condensed in a smaller space. And because a walkable lifestyle means that there is a more vibrant public realm, there is more noise-producing “hustle and bustle.”

As we move away from the walkable core, into drivable suburban areas, ambient noise expectations appropriately ratchet downward. In rural and preserve areas out further still, we should expect an even quieter ambience.

Like many others, I personally don’t mind the necessary, expected, traditional urban noises in the walkable core of a city, even though they tend to be relatively louder and more 24/7 than those in the suburban or rural areas. I am happy to accept higher ambient noise levels as an acceptable trade-off for better walkablility. I like being where the action is found.

However, I believe it is entirely valid to object to noise pollution that is not a necessary ingredient to a walkable town center. Over the past few decades, noise pollution has shot up significantly. Leaf blowers, parking lot vacuum trucks (which often operate at 3 a.m.), emergency vehicle sirens (which tend to be louder, more numerous and more often used than in the past), an enormous growth in Noise-Pollutionburglar alarms, boom boxes, high-decibel car stereos, etc., are proliferating throughout the nation.

Much of the growth in noise, BTW, comes from a growth in what I would call “uncivil” behavior by citizens who increasingly disregard their fellow citizens and think only of themselves — and much of this incivility comes from the growing American abandonment, neglect and degradation of our public realm.

I would insist that the above sources of noise – the leaf blowers, the sirens, the boom boxes — are NOT what those of us living in walkable locations should passively accept as an inevitable part of living in a city. Each of these noise sources is creating a significant increase in stress levels for even those of normal hearing sensitivities, and all of them can be eliminated or substantially reduced without causing harm to the operation of a healthy, economically sustainable community. None are an essential element of a healthy town center.

The great cities of the world were, over the course of great periods of time, perfectly fine without any of these recent contributions to urban noise.

Yes, those living in walkable core areas should expect higher noise levels. But at some point, it is appropriate to draw the line. There is an exponential growth in noise pollution — particularly from sources that are not a necessary part of urbanism — and quality communities need to have the self-respect to say “enough is enough.”

Having updated my city’s noise ordinance in the 1990s, and having been victimized by a great deal of noise pollution over the past few decades, I am in strong agreement with the objections that are often made about noise problems in town centers. It is common to hear objections about lawn maintenance equipment. And while I agree that lawn maintenance equipment is an enormous contributor to noise pollution, I would also point out that another big (and exponentially growing) offender — particularly late at night when most folks are trying to sleep — is security alarms and emergency vehicle sirens.

This source is particularly difficult to effectively address. Even though the noise they contribute is one that I find nearly intolerable, it is a noise that is extremely difficult to control, politically, because there is so much public hysteria over public safety. Efforts to control this noise source are usually met by angry charges that controlling it will compromise public safety. One is seen as a “busybody”. Or “overly sensitive” to a noise that “doesn’t bother most.” And how DARE you call for something that will lead to injuries and deaths!! (as if allowing for the unlimited, promiscuous use of sirens and alarms is the only way to reduce harm).

Note that there are cities who have effectively controlled these noise sources. Fire chiefs, for example, are instructed by elected officials that they don’t need to blare their sirens as much when there are relatively few cars on the road at 3 a.m. And how often are we sending out a large platoon of big, multi-million dollar fire trucks — with sirens wailing — for fender benders? Does it really contribute to our quality of life when we create a “war zone” ambience in our community?

Uncontrolled urban noise pollution is an important contributor to stress, and an important reason for folks to relocate to remote, sprawl locations. Indeed, when I hear politicians claim that they are working hard to control sprawl, if I don’t see them effectively going after noise pollution, I know that their claims are largely lip service. Or naive.

One thing I learned when I updated a city noise ordinance is that one of the few ways to effectively control noise pollution is to have full-time staff whose sole task is to control noise. Assigning noise control to the police is common, and a sure way to ensure that control efforts will be minimal.

After all, what police department will prioritize noise control over, say, murder or burglary?

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design