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Why Are American Cities Not Able to Encourage Large Numbers to Walk?

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2009

The conventional wisdom says that we can encourage large numbers of people to walk if we just provided a lot of well-designed sidewalks.

But after over 20 years, I’m still waiting for American cities to show this will happen. The city I worked for as a town planner had nearly 100 percent coverage of neighborhoods by sidewalks, but only a vanishingly small number of citizens walked – even though our population contained a large number of relatively healthy, young strip commercial sidewalkstudents.

Why are more not walking? Is there something we could do to sidewalks to make them more “enjoyable, comfortable, and safe”?

Could it maybe be that people prefer driving when all that free and abundant parking that awaits them everywhere, rather than walking 5 miles?

I’m still waiting for ONE example of a community in the US which has successfully employed the strategy of widespread sidewalk provision to encourage a lot of walking.

I know of none.

Even if there was a community which could afford the astronomical costs, sidewalks (and bike lanes and bike paths) are not likely to induce regular commuting or shopping trips by mom, kids and seniors (and healthy young people) when the distances are extreme, as they are in almost all of suburbia.

Fortunately for those of us who urge effective tactics, it doesn’t really matter if we have no elected officials who are willing to do what is necessary to effectively induce non-motorized travel (such as a big sales tax increase, or more compact development).

No matter how much most Americans love suburbia and car dependency, they will not be able to vote to escape the inevitable and substantial increase in gasoline prices, and other inevitably rising prices associated with car travel.

There will be a lot of pain, agony, wailing and gnashing of teeth when this happens — particularly in suburbia, where so many have thought that they were forever entitled to $2/gallon gas.

Once this inevitable increase sends gas over $10/gallon, Jim Kunstler and I (who discussed this yesterday at a cafe) are certain that there will be a miraculous “enlightenment.” Suddenly, even committed suburbanites will want transit, compact development, scarce and priced parking, mixed use, buildings at the sidewalk, and road diets. Such community features will become wildly popular (rather than there being vigorously opposed as they are today).

The problem, of course, is that if we’ve not installed quality transit, compact development, scarce and priced parking, mixed use, buildings at the sidewalk, and road diets in advance of the big rise in gas costs (because we are, as Jim Kunstler likes to say, wicked, fat, stupid, lazy, overfed clowns), there will be a lot of pain and violence.

Widening streets will not be possible in the future. We won’t have the money. And even today’s car cheerleaders and sprawl promoters will see that 8-lane roads don’t make sense when gas costs $15/gallon.

As for kids playing in the streets, I recommend reading Fighting Traffic (Norton). One hundred years ago, parents, teachers, and police officers insisted that kids had the right to freely play in the streets. Those days will return when gas prices skyrocket.

As a side note, even though NO ONE thought that university students in my Florida community would EVER ride the bus when I was a planner there in the 1980s, that city saw a HUGE numbers using the bus starting in the late 1990s.

Was it because we used the carrots of enjoyable, comfortable, and safe buses?

Nope.

It was because we used effective tactics that I also recommend for biking and walking: Parking at the university campus is scarce and priced (and a big pain in the ass).

I am fully and sadly aware that the effective tactics I recommend are extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve in most of the US, politically. But opting for other more feasible tactics (bike lanes, bike parking, bike showers, sidewalks) doesn’t make them effective simply because we can achieve them more easily.

Let’s be honest: Most American communities are doomed because we have spent several decades building communities that have no future because it is nearly impossible to retrofit them for transportation choice and other forms of sustainability.

I’m building a bomb shelter for the coming empire collapse…

 

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Does the Price of Gasoline Modify Travel Behavior?

By Dom Nozzi

Studies show that American demand for high-priced gasoline is extremely inelastic (that is, Americans are willing [compelled?] to buy gasoline at their current promiscuous rate regardless of how high the price goes).

Why inelastic?

Because it is currently so incredibly rational to drive a car, even high-priced gas has only a relatively minor impact on changing travel behavior. After all, driving gives you extreme comfort, freedom from criminals, status, speed, convenience, heavy government subsidies, etc. By contrast, taking the bus, walking or bicycling requires one to recklessly and irrationally avoid all these wonderful benefits and instead, risk your life. As for “putting up with extra time,” studies show that Americans hate congestion almost as much as they hate density (which is a related problem in their minds). That is why we have a NIMBY epidemic, and why Americans hardly blink when their federal elected officials spend hundreds of billions of tax dollars each year to make cars happy (less burdened, in the very short term, by congestion, that is). It is also why, at the local level, Americans show “road rage” to the point of shooting people who make a left turn too slowly, and only elect commissioners who promise to spend all our local tax dollars to widen all the roads. I’ll never be mayor…

For all these reasons, I recommend “planned congestion” as a very effective aversive technique for car travel. “Planned congestion” is a tool with which a community makes a conscious decision NOT to widen roads/intersections or synch traffic signals, or engage in other conventional methods to “reduce” congestion.

Significant restrictions and higher prices for parking are also relatively effective ways to influence travel behavior. In Gainesville, Florida, very high parking costs and parking inconvenience on the University of Florida campus led to a nation-leading increase in bus ridership by UF students in the late 1990s.

As Donald Shoup points out, higher priced parking overwhelms higher priced gas in terms of impact on your pocketbook. After all, even with a gas guzzler car and gas that costs, say, $4 per gallon, howmuch would it cost to drive across town? But look at how quickly the price of that trip goes through the roof if we jack up the price of parking from, say, $1 to $10 per time parked across town (which is M~ SUN0805N-Gas 5quite fair, given the public and private costs to provide parking).

This is not to mention the highly effective nature of “congestion fees,” in which you charge motorists fees based on when they are driving on major roads that tend to become congested, and even better, to charge fees that vary throughout the day (higher fees charged when the road is more congested).

For the record, I am not recommending that Americans “give up their cars.” I just want the cars to behave themselves — by driving more slowly and attentively in towns, and by having their drivers pay their fair share.

Fairly priced parking, parking scarcity, and congestion fees are very durable (in terms of modifying behavior), if designed correctly. They effectively send a very loud signal each day: If you choose the socially irresponsible, unsustainable travel behavior, you will pay through the nose. If not, you are free from such payments and can instead use your hard-earned money to spend a romantic weekend in Paris…  The message is especially clear if you see your fellow citizens zipping along in the tolled or high-occupancy vehicle lane next to your bumper-to-bumper congested “free” lane, or if you see your co-worker chuckling over his/her higher paycheck because he is not needing to pay for his workplace parking space with his paycheck, since he/she gets to work by bus, and has “cashed out” their “free” job site parking space.

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Filed under Bicycling, Transportation