Tag Archives: elected officials

Will a New City Commissioner Bring Meaningful Change to a Florida College Town Regarding Transportation?

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 21, 2005

I was told by a local elected official and friend that a new city commissioner for a college town we both lived in would mean that things might be better for transportation policy in our town.

When I heard this, I informed him that I was certain that it would NOT lead to such changes. Much as I like most of the views of the new commissioner, the problems I face at my city planning office had little to do with who was in the majority for the commission. b90694d15e9faa313b18d70532df1227With a weak mayor form of government (both technically and with regard to who is in that seat at the moment) and a total lack of leadership from other commissioners, the commission is nearly irrelevant to what the planning staff decides to do (and, more importantly, not do).

This vacuum means that a bully on the commission who, as a muscular motorist, intimidates the commission majority with his populist views regarding happy cars, can continue intimidating other (cowering) commissioners and staff so that his views are considered the majority view (even though he has only one vote).

No, the problem remains what is has been for over nine years at the City: Staff that is anti-planning, staff that is anti-city, staff that is pro-car, and elected officials who have no power or courage to do anything about it.

Given the fact that nearly all citizens in America (including our town, and despite the survey my friend mentioned to me) are aggressively pro-car and pro-big roads (because material conditions force them to be that way), only strong, wise, courageous leadership at the staff level and at the commission level can make any sort of headway with regard to averting an auto slum future. In the meantime, given the overwhelming citizen support for cars, it only takes ONE bully commissioner pushing a pro-car agenda to bully a commission to agree to his ruinous views — even if there were nine progressives on a hypothetical commission of 10 commissioners.

With regard to the survey results, as I had said to my friend before, I was almost completely unimpressed. I know enough about survey methods and survey results from graduate school to know that what folks say in surveys tends to be WILDLY different than what they do when push comes to shove in the real world (this is known as the “social desirability” bias). For example, people LOVE to claim they favor, say, energy conservation in large majorities. Why not? It costs nothing to say such a thing in a survey, it helps ease a guilty conscience, and it helps the person feel like a “good citizen.” It comes as no surprise at all, however, to find that nearly all of those citizens thumb their nose on serious conservation when asked to spend a little more to do it.

Precisely the same thing would happen with the results my friend cited. I was confident that the vast majority who expressed support for those progressive ideas were thinking about OTHERS who would bike or use transit. The vast majority of these people would continue making nearly all of their trips by car even if our community had the best bike/ped/transit facilities/programs on earth.

Due to dispersed land use patterns and enormous car subsidies (free roads and free parking and underpriced gas, mostly), it is completely irrational, economically, to not drive a car everywhere. If there were safe bike paths and transit routes that led from every employee house to their office, there would still be less than 5 percent who would bike commute. Why turn your back on that $100 a month subsidy embodied in that free parking space to opt for something that takes so much energy and time, and is considered so embarrassingly unhip?

As a result, local elected commissioners can safely ignore the results of the study. Commissioners who naively strive to implement them would be quickly removed from office.

 

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

Road Diets: Why Are They Not Used in Every Community?

 

by Dom Nozzi

September 13, 2006

Road diets involve removing unneeded, unnecessary travel lanes, travel lane width and turn lanes. If such “diets” are an affordable way to create a profoundly beneficial transformation in the communities that have found the courage and wisdom to try them, why are they not transforming roads in every city and town in America?Road-Diet

In general, there are at least five types of elected officials who do not direct their communities to put their overly-wide, over-capacitied, overweight roads on a diet:

  1. The Uninformed. This is the category of officials who have not been made aware of the benefits of road diets. Over the course of the past few decades, as evidence of the merits of road diets has become so overwhelming throughout the nation, this category is now a rapidly diminishing group. Those who don’t know are not paying attention.
  1. The Trapped. A great majority of our residents have chosen to live in a location that is so utterly car-dependent that nearly every trip must be made by car. Without transportation choices, such a resident has little choice but to rationalize their travel behavior. Excessive car travel becomes a god-given right to be defended at all costs, and the person becomes impervious to evidence showing harms associated with such travel.
  1. The Old School. As Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, some people have devoted so much time and effort into the old school of thought (the old paradigm) that even an avalanche of evidence supporting the new paradigm and rejecting the old paradigm is insufficient to convince members of The Old School. To reject the old paradigm is to reject everything they have believed and worked for during their entire lives. Often, to do so is to have to reject their entire life’s work as a waste of time. For most people, this concession would be too awful to accept. Instead, they stubbornly hold on to their old views. The new paradigm is only accepted when this old school dies off and is replaced by a new generation which has not been immersed in the old paradigm.
  1. The Motorist. This category includes the elected officials who “get it” with regard to the merits of road diets. But their suburban upbringing, their suburban lifestyle, or both, has convinced them that it is naïve or undesirable to strive for a return to a more traditional, walkable, compact community design. Of course, these car-happy views are not openly, publicly expressed. They are simply manifested in the votes such an official casts. It is perfectly acceptable for such a person to opt to continue living the car-dependent, suburban lifestyle (as long as they are paying their fair share of costs). But shouldn’t other citizens have an opportunity to live in and enjoy a different, more walkable lifestyle? One that is rapidly vanishing from America?
  1. The Spineless. There is another category of officials who “get it.” These are the officials who, while they are strongly supportive of road diets, always run for cover and cast a pro-car vote whenever the opportunity arises. Such a politician is terrified of the thought of an unhappy constituent – including those unhappy about the loss of those things that are detrimental to the community. These are the politicians who never make anyone unhappy.

And therefore never get anything done.

 

 

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The Boondoggle List

By Dom Nozzi

Boondoggles are actions that are unnecessary, and wasteful of time and money. I use the term more broadly to refer to things that are counterproductive, tragic, and bankrupting. They are, in this view, substantially detrimental to sustainability and quality of life.

I was thinking about how both the American wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq War are horrific examples boondoggles. Actions that show we are our own worst enemy. They are exercises that significantly worsen our national objectives — largely by throwing away enormous sums of public dollars, killing or injuring a huge number of people, destroying villages and nations, and breeding or otherwise recruiting a huge number of new “terrorists” who will grow up with a lifelong vow to punish the US for what we have done.

These boondoggles are elephants in the bedroom. But are there only two?

It then occurred to me that there is a nearly endless (and growing) list of boondoggles. So I’ve prepared a list of a whole herd of elephants in the bedroom.

If someone intent on torpedoing America was to devise a set of tactics to destroy the US, it is hard to imagine that foe selecting tactics that would more effectively ruin us than this list of boondoggles we are imposing on ourselves.

They are a recipe for the collapse of the American Empire.

1. The Afghanistan War & the near consensus that militarism is desirable (otherwise known as The War on Terror).

2. The Iraqi War (otherwise also known as The War on Terror).

3. The Drug War.

4. Focusing health care on catastrophic instead of preventive medicine, and the extreme over-reliance on insurance to pay for health costs that are not extremely catastrophic or otherwise unaffordably expensive.

5. The Legal System and the Penal System, which mostly fail to arrive at justice due to the nearly single-minded focus on making a lot of money instead of finding justice.

6. An electoral system distorted by campaign contributions.

7. The death penalty, which, among other things, is financially ruinous because it costs far more to execute someone than to keep the person in prison for life.

8. Unconditional support for the Israeli government.

9. Forgiving road design.

10. Local land development regulations that almost exclusively promote sprawl and car dependency.

11. Excessive local funding for police and firefighting.

12. Property tax exemption for churches.

13. Massive government agricultural subsidies – particularly for corn.

14. Agribusiness, processed food and the overuse of corn syrup in our food.

15. The flood of guns freely available to nearly anyone in the US.

16. The massive motorist subsidy of “free” parking.

17. The massive motorist subsidy of continually widened & “free” roads.

18. An income tax system that is excessively complex, & punishes job creation & investment.

19. A property tax system that punishes infill development.admin-ajax (16)

20. Gas taxes that are too low & only dedicated to roads, not transit, walking or bicycling.

21. The massive federal subsidies for airports (and the absence of such subsidies for rail).

Can you think of any others to add to the list?

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Policies in Our Plans Won’t Save Us

By Dom Nozzi

Nearly all of our elected officials and many of our citizens have convinced themselves that widening roads and extending utilities are technical decisions and therefore non-political. “We’re just protecting public health and safety, or providing jobs for poor people, or helping the economy.” They either don’t realize or deliberately hide the fact that such decisions are profoundly political, and are the most powerful factors driving sprawl, economic decline, harm to quality of life, and environmental destruction.

People that make the mistake of thinking that such decisions are technical rather than political perhaps comfort themselves by agreeing to adopt land use policies that discourage sprawl or environmentaladmin-ajax (2) destruction. They perhaps believe such words are effective in stopping undesirable community development actions. That road widenings or utility extensions have nothing to do with inducing such things as sprawl development.

In theory, a community long-range plan could state something like “The City shall not add road capacity” or “The City shall not extend utility service beyond the urban service line.” But in the real world, it is nearly impossible, politically, to adopt such policies. Adopting such policies takes politicians with courage and enlightenment, and we simply do not have such a thing.

So we continue to fool ourselves by thinking that a policy such as “The City shall prohibit sprawl” or “The City shall create a greenbelt” or “The City shall create large-lot zoning” will save us, not realizing that the critical land use and quality of life political decisions were already made when we decided to widen a road or extend a sewer line, and that such “technical” decisions will overwhelm any chance of non-infrastructure policies having a chance to be effective. These non-infrastructure, feel-good statements only have a chance if we strongly intervene on the marketplace by our infrastructure decisions.

An example I see a lot in my work is the relentless avalanche of re-zoning petitions planners get from people who have a single-family house along a widened, unlivable street. Naturally, the house now has much more value as an office or retail building (after all, who’d want to live along a hostile, high-speed street?), so it is to be expected that the decision to create the speedway has set into motion the never-ending political pressure to beat planners and elected officials over the head until the re-zoning is granted (and we take a step toward more strip commercial). The alternative we often see is decline or abandonment of the home.

Sure, we could have a long-range community plan policy that says we shall not allow strip commercial, and we shall protect residential along this street, but who are we kidding? Who’d want to live in such a home? It is unfair not to grant the re-zoning in such a case. So incrementally, regardless of who our elected officials are, we get sprawl and strip when we decide to make the street a speedway. That decision is, in the larger sense, not a technical decision. It is a political decision that indirectly says the community has opted to create strip commercial sprawl. When the decision to widen the road is made, it is merely ineffective lip service to have long-range community plan policies that say strip commercial sprawl won’t be allowed.

In sum, communities need to figure out a way to stop the decisions that drive bad land use — things like road widenings and utility extensions. The question, then, is what tools we have to make the right decisions and prevent the ruinous decisions – the decisions that seem technical but are actually political. The long-range community plan is not that tool unless that plan is adopted by a community that consistently elects wise, courageous leaders. Because we are a reactive society that usually only takes such action when a serious crisis emerges, it is my opinion that only major crisis or significant discontent is experienced by the community. Such things as a substantial economic downturn, an enormous increase in gasoline prices, or severe traffic congestion.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Increasing the Gas Tax

By Dom Nozzi

I have written many times about the large number of reasons why increasing the gas tax at the federal and state level is very important for achieving a number of important societal and transportation goals.

However, I am very, very wary of increasing transportation revenues for county government (and state and federal government) these days (in this case, via a gas tax), as I believe that strong majorities favor ruinous policies that are intended to make cars happy (largely by increasing road capacities). While most all American communities at least pay a lot of lip service to wanting to provide improvements for transit, bicyclists and pedestrians, the track record (even when there are “progressive elected majorities”) has been that when push comes to shove, everything takes a back seat to the imperative of making cars happier.traffic jam on huge hwy

As a result — sadly and regretfully — I am unable to trust local elected officials enough to give them more transportation cash. Nearly all of their voters (including most environmentalists) will demand that the extra cash be used to increase road capacities for cars (environmentalists will wrongly claim that doing so will reduce air emissions).

The only way to inhibit this downwardly spiraling path is to starve communities of transportation cash so that elected officials are forced to restrict themselves from voting to ruin the community (by building bigger roads). As was once said, it is only when you are short on money that you are forced to think and behave smartly. Because we’ve had so much money in the past, we’ve done a lot of things unthinkingly and ruinously.

It is time to smarten up.

Note that I’d be somewhat more comfortable if the gas tax revenues could be DEDICATED to non-car transportation improvements. However, I believe that doing so is a violation of state or federal law. America is unique in the sense that we are the only nation on earth that prohibits gas tax revenue from going to pay for anything besides transportation for happy cars.

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Filed under Economics, Politics, Transportation, Urban Design

Which Elected Officials Are Unwilling to Spend Money to Improve Facilities for Bicyclists and Pedestrians?

By Dom Nozzi

In general, there are at least four (sometimes overlapping) types of elected officials who do not support putting more dollars into bicycle and pedestrian facilities:

  1. The Uninformed. This is the category of officials who have not been made aware of the benefits of more biking/walking. Over the course of the past few decades, as evidence of the merits of non-auto travel has become so overwhelming throughout the nation, this category is now a rapidly diminishing group. Those who don’t know are not paying attention.bicycling on path
  2. The Old School. As Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, some people have devoted so much time and effort into the old school of thought (the old paradigm) that even an avalanche of evidence supporting the new paradigm and rejecting the old paradigm is insufficient to convince members of The Old School. To reject the old paradigm is to reject everything they have believed and worked for during their entire lives. Often, to do so is to have to reject their entire life’s work as a waste of time. For most people, this concession would be too awful to accept. Instead, they stubbornly hold on to their old views. The new paradigm is only accepted when this old school dies off and is replaced by a new generation which has not been immersed in the old paradigm.
  3. The Motorist. This category includes the elected officials who “get it” with regard to the merits of non-auto travel. But their suburban upbringing, their suburban lifestyle, or both, has convinced them that it is naïve or undesirable to strive for a return to a more traditional, walkable, compact community design. Of course, these car-happy views are not openly, publicly expressed. They are simply manifested in the votes such an official casts. The unfairness of this sort of public “servant” is that it is perfectly acceptable for such a person to opt to continue living the car-dependent, suburban lifestyle (as long as they are paying their fair share of costs). But shouldn’t other citizens have an opportunity to live in and enjoy a different, more walkable lifestyle? One that is rapidly vanishing from America?
  4. The Spineless. There is another category of officials who “get it.” These are the officials who, while they are strongly supportive of putting more money into bicycle and pedestrian facilities, always run for cover and cast a pro-car vote whenever the opportunity arises. Such a politician is terrified of the thought of an unhappy constituent – including those unhappy about the loss of those things that are detrimental to the community. These are the politicians who never make anyone unhappy. And therefore never get anything done.

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Filed under Politics, Transportation

On the Importance of Local Government Political Leanings

By Dom Nozzi

It is essential that when the political winds are right, the good-guy bureaucrats need to be given the chance to shine so brightly that a change in the elected officials of a town either does not happen, or when it does, can be weathered. Such bureaucrats “shine brightly” by preparing and having adopted transportation and land development policies that are both effective in achieving progressive ends, and are “bullet proof” enough to be able to survive a change in the elected officials.

Ironically, in my experience working as a town planner in the southeastern US, we “smart growth” advocates are better off with Republican majorities, since they tend to have significantly more backbone than liberals, and we need backbone to save ourselves. So the key is to elect a right winger, and then get she or he on board with an issue.

Again, in my experience, local government planning staff have been much more timid in recommending progressive policies to politically liberal elected officials, because staff have so often gotten their heads chopped off when they propose policies the majority of elected officials had previously given a lot of lip service to.

Since bureaucrats can usually survive changes in elected officials, I’ve come to learn that it is critical who the local government is using to hire the bureaucrat (a city manager or department heads, for example), since the staff will often be in place for a long time.

We need a manager or director who will insist on only hiring staffers who are progressive on transportation and land use issues.

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