Tag Archives: our own worst enemies

The Emperor is Wearing No Clothes: Exposing Town Planning for the Ruinous Travesty It Has Become

By Dom Nozzi

October 31, 2017

Back in 1985, I somehow managed to obtain a master’s degree in town planning. But it was not until about eight years into my professional planning career that I was to realize that for several decades, my chosen profession had become a sham.

This epiphany happened to me about 25 years ago when a friend of mine in Gainesville FL gave me a videotape of what I believe is one of the most important, influential, revolutionary speeches ever given on the topic of town planning. It was a speech delivered in 1989 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by a young Florida architect by the name of Andres Duany.

Duany’s speech gave town planning a well-deserved, much-needed kick in the pants.

I was shocked to learn from Duany that a century ago, town planners and developers were heroes. For several decades, of course, the opposite has become the case. Planners have become powerless incompetents and developers are more evil than Satan.

What caused this 180-degree shift in perspective?

What we learn in the Duany speech is that the reputation of town planners and developers was destroyed because the timeless tradition that communities followed for time immemorial was abandoned. That is, about a century ago, communities decided that instead of designing our community and our transportation system to make people happy, we would instead design to make cars happy.Road to Ruin book 2003

This powerful take on what has happened to our world explains so much.

It explains why town planners have become little more than mindless, robotic bureaucrats who have but one overriding mission: Become paper pushing clerks who issue or deny development permits based on whether the proposal will promote easy car travel or inhibit car travel.

It explains why developers are now villains. In nearly all cases, developers up to a century ago built things that improved quality of community life because the design objective was to promote human happiness. But the model for developers changed about a century ago. Now, the objective was to promote car happiness.

There are two primary reasons why this changed mission by town planners and developers is ruinous.

First, those community attributes that most people find appealing – compactness, human-scale, slower speeds, sociability, civic pride, timelessness, a subdued ambiance, and safety – are nearly the exact opposite of what is needed to make for easy car travel. Happy motoring requires dispersion, gigantic car scaling, dangerously higher speeds, glaring lights, and isolation – and each of these things undercuts civic pride, timelessness and safety.

The second reason this change is ruinous is that it is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Car travel is a zero-sum game, because nearly everything we do to promote car travel makes walking, bicycling and transit more difficult. Car ownership also creates a strong vested interest on the part of the car owner to see to it that car travel is cheap and easy. By making walking, bicycling, and transit more difficult, car ownership continuously recruits new car owners. This century-long recruitment now means that even in the most bicycle-friendly US cities (including Boulder CO), there are more cars than people.

The result is that nearly all of us make nearly all of our trips by car. We angrily demand that our elected officials ease our car travel – after all, our cars make it so difficult to get around by walking, bicycling, or transit! We have therefore become our own worst enemies because as I note above, promoting car travel is an exceptionally powerful means of destroying quality of life.

Because cars require an enormous amount of space, motorists feel crowded even with just a tiny number of fellow citizens also in cars. As Dan Burden once said, “cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.” Given this, a large percentage of Americans are NIMBYs on steroids who engage in ongoing pitched battles with developers and elected officials and town planners to demand ultra low development densities (including short buildings), huge parking lots, and massively wide roads.

Developers, citizens, town planners, and elected officials therefore tend to have one overriding mission: promote easy car travel! We must have wide roads. More (and free) parking. More car subsidies and more glaring lights. We must stop compact development.

It is a mission of community ruin.

The key for a better future, then, is to return to the timeless tradition of designing for people, not cars.

 

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Filed under Politics, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Leveling the Playing Field by Getting the Prices Right

A review by Dom Nozzi of “Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl” (2010), by Pamela Blais

January 16, 2012

Blais describes a dizzying, almost countless number of ways in which suburban sprawl is heavily subsidized. Such strong market distortions expose the extreme falsehood of sprawl apologists who claim sprawl is the result of an unfettered free market. Instead, Blais shows over and over again the perversity of those living efficient, sustainable, walkable lifestyles in town center locations who are significantly subsidizing andpe artificially increasing the demand for inefficient, unsustainable, car-dependent sprawl lifestyle. As Blais notes, it is as if those driving small, fuel-efficient cars are subsidizing the purchase of Hummers.

“Much of the attention [by governments seeking to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inducing global warming] has been focused on programs that aim to reduce consumption within the home – energy-efficient appliances, windows, insulation, furnaces, and so on.” But Blais then points out that because household car travel creates such significant levels of emissions, and such travel substantially increases when homes are located in remote suburban locations, “when it comes to reducing energy use and GHG emissions, the location of the home is far more important than are the green features of the house itself…even the greenest house located in the suburbs…and an energy-efficient car, consumes more total energy than does a conventional house with a conventional car located in [a town center].”

How are so many North American cities (inadvertently?) subsidizing sprawl? One extremely important way is by using average cost pricing rather than marginal cost pricing. “…prices charged for [various urban services] rarely reflect the higher costs of servicing a larger or more distant [residential or commercial] lot; rather, prices based on average costs are used. In other words, costs are averaged across a range of different types of development associated with a range of actual costs…those properties that incur lower-than-average costs pay more than their [fair share of] costs, while those properties that incur higher-than-average costs pay less than their [fair share of] costs.”

Examples that Blais cites of this pricing perversity include:

  • “those who live on small lots subsidize those living on large lots;
  • Smaller residential units subsidize larger residential units;
  • Those who don’t drive or drive less subsidize uses that generate more trips;
  • Land uses that generate fewer trips subsidize uses that generate more trips;
  • Those who live in less expensive-to-service areas subsidize those who live in more expensive-to-service areas;
  • Those who live nearer the centre of the city subsidize those who live farther from the centre; and
  • Urban dwellers subsidize rural dwellers.”

Blais also notes that average cost pricing also undercharges those living in remote locations for the following goods and services: “water and sewer services, roads, parking, electricity, natural gas, basic telephone, cable TV, broadband internet, postal service, municipal snow clearance, recycling collection, garbage collection.” Each of these, Blais reminds us, tends to cost more to provide in outlying suburbs, yet average cost pricing charges such residents less than their fair share of community costs (and therefore overcharges those living in efficient town center locations).

“Sprawl is underpriced, and so the demand for it is exaggerated. Efficient forms of development – denser development, smaller lots and buildings, low-, medium- or high-rise apartments, mixed use, and central locations – are overpriced, so demand for them is reduced [below what would naturally occur].”

Local governments have been their own worst enemy. “…it may be troubling to think that the problem of sprawl – one that governments have been struggling to solve for decades – has, in fact, been largely created by those same governments…”

Contrary to what we hear from the defenders of sprawl, “[s]prawl is not the result of market forces but, rather, of a particular variety of distorted market forces. Moreover, these distortions emanate largely from public policy.” We can be somewhat hopeful, however, because since many of these market distortions arise from government decisions, citizens and elected officials have it within their power to correct such distortions. And as Blais says, “[g]etting the prices right, and getting an unbiased market operating, would go a long way towards curbing sprawl…more accurate price signals will prompt new kinds of decisions, choices, and market responses, shifting demand and supply towards more efficient development patterns.”

I would note that this has already started happening over the past decade – albeit not because of government action, but where a noticeable shift toward more fuel-efficient cars and a growth in town center living has been sparked by such factors as rising and volatile gasoline prices, and overall economic woes.

Stronger local government regulations requiring smart growth, compact development, and prohibitions against sprawl have been tried for several decades throughout North America, yet have been almost a complete failure. “This failure is a very expensive proposition, given the considerable resources devoted to this effort compared to tangible results…one could say that we have the dubious honour of being blessed with both the costs of planning and the costs of sprawl.”

According to Blais, this is largely because “sprawl has been viewed narrowly within the planning paradigm – as a planning problem that calls for a ‘planning’ solution. The focus has been on solving sprawl with regulatory and design approaches. While these approaches are without question a critical part of the solution to sprawl, the problem is that they have not addressed, nor are they capable of addressing, other critical causes of sprawl, in particular, the mis-pricing issues [this book describes]. Unless these causes are addressed directly, sprawl will remain an elusive and intractable problem.”

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

American Citizens Tend to be Their Own Worst Enemy

By Dom Nozzi

September 6, 2017

In my experience, the general public very often seeks things that are detrimental to themselves and their community. The “who needs enemies when we have ourselves” syndrome is exceptionally common in our society, which makes it very disappointing and frustrating for professional designers who “get it.” Particularly for me, as I’ve never had any skill at all in working with such beliefs.

It should not be surprising to us that so many citizens seek counterproductive measures. In the field of town and transportation planning, this is a particularly common problem because we have designed our communities and our roads so that it is nearly impossible for any of us to travel anywhere without a car. Because we are therefore almost entirely trapped in car dependence, most of us are unsurprisingly compelled to argue for car-enabling design.

Man Expressing Road Rage

An irritated young man driving a vehicle is expressing his road rage.

Tragically, cars consume a huge amount of space and are too often driven at high speeds. Excessive space consumption and high speeds are exceptionally toxic to a quality city. Those two things powerfully degrade the human habitat, and explain why so many car-happy US cities are such unpleasant places with no charm, human scale, safety, or civic pride.

The over-provision for the car is truly The Enemy of the City.

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Fighting Against What Is Wanted

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 26, 2017

Many in Boulder CO hold contradictory views.

On the one hand, one hears a lot of folks saying they hate sprawl and cars (at least those driven by others) and the high cost of housing in Boulder.NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341

On the other hand, many of these same people hate the things that would most cost-effectively reduce those problems: compact development, accessory dwellings, increasing the number of adults who can live in a home, buildings over one or two stories, smaller setbacks, less private open space, traffic calming, restricted/priced/managed parking, and shrinking oversized roads.

Oops.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation