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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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America Has the Lowest Level of Bicycling on Earth: What We Can Do to End the Shame

By Dom Nozzi

In his 2010 book, One Less Car, Zack Furness points out something that should utterly shame all bicycle advocates, alternative transportation activists, planners, and elected officials: no nation on earth has a lower percentage of bicyclists than the United States. A pathetic one percent of all commuting in the US is by bicycle. Even in places with bitterly cold, forbidding weather – such as the Northwest Territories adjacent to the North Pole – bicycling rates are higher.

How could this be? After all, those promoting more bicycling and less motoring have successfully convinced towns all over the nation to install bike lanes, bike paths, bike showers, and bike parking.

The reason, as Michael Ronkin, former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the State of Oregon has brilliantly and provocatively pointed out, is that it is NOT about providing facilities for bicyclists. To effectively convince large numbers of Americans to commute by bicycle, it is necessary to TAKE AWAY SPACE FROM CARS (and increase the cost of car travel).

[Note that in this essay, I am referring to “commuter” bicyclists. Commuter/utilitarian bicyclists are those who use a bicycle for travel to work or shop, for example. “Recreational” bicyclists, by contrast, are bicycling for entertainment or exercise.]

A new paradigm is needed for effectively promoting a large increase in bicycling in America. For several decades, there have been two large advocacy groups aggressively promoting their idea of the best way to recruit more bicycling:

1. The “vehicular cyclists,” led by John Forrester. The VC advocates claim that no in-street bike lanes or separated-from-the-road bike paths are needed for bicycling. The best, safest way to bicycle is to have a bicyclist travel by following the same rules of the road as the motorist (largely to increase predictability and visibility). I subscribed to this view ever since reading Forrester’s Bicycle Transportation in grad school back in the early 1980s.

2. The “separated bicycle path” group, which holds that the way to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists is to separate them physically from dangerous, high-speed car traffic. The assumption of this group is that the main reason we don’t see large numbers of bicyclists in the US is that most people are put off by the danger inherent in bicycling in the street with cars.

Both of these tactics have miserably failed to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists in the US. The US continues to have, by far, the lowest number of bicyclists in the world.

Why?

The vehicular cyclists take an approach that even in theory is only applicable to a small number of people – those who have the courage, skill and athleticism to bicycle in the street with cars. Even VC advocates admit that their approach, even if widely used, would not result in a large number of new bicyclists.

While they believe their approach would lead to a large number of new bicyclists, off-street bicycle path advocates fail to understand that “perceived danger” for bicycling is only a minor reason why commuter bicycling is not popular in the US.

Car travel is so heavily provided for and promoted in the US that it is highly irrational to travel by foot, bicycle or transit (even if we provide bike paths, sidewalks, better transit, etc.). There are a great many reasons why nearly all trips in the US are by car. Some of the more important reasons why the car is more rational in the US is that compared to other forms of travel, the car excels in the following ways:

Comfort

Protection from weather

Climate, music and noise control

Cargo-carrying capacity

Passenger-carrying capacity

Status

Ego

Protection from violent people and strangers

Speed

Travel range

Subsidized fuel and roads

Subsidized parking

The perceived safety provided by off-street bicycle paths, when compared to the above car benefits, does not even come close to convincing the vast majority of Americans that bicycling is preferable to car travel. In other words, the above list of car travel benefits far exceed the benefits of safer bicycling.

As an aside, an important reason why the off-street bike path tactic is highly counterproductive, is that even if it were possible to find the trillions of public dollars necessary to install a comprehensive network of off-street bicycle paths, doing so would essentially abandon the road to it always being a “car sewer.”

A Third Way for Bicycle Promotion

The key to successfully creating a large number of new bicyclists, and reducing undesirable car dependence, is to establish a “third way:” End the extreme pampering of the car so that the list of reasons why it makes sense to bicycle outweigh the reasons why it makes sense to travel by car.

Tactics for Effectively Creating Large Numbers of New Bicyclists

A. Government Measures

  • Narrow roads in the community (popularly called “road dieting.”). In general, streets in a town should be no larger than three lanes in size.
  • Reduce the amount of off-street car parking (particularly FREE parking). Governments should end the highly counterproductive, costly practice of requiring new development to provide off-street parking. Much existing off-street parking should be shrunk in size and often replaced with buildings.
  • Design streets to obligate slower and more attentive driving. Tactics include provision of on-street parking, use of relatively narrow travel lanes, requiring buildings to be pulled up to abut streetside sidewalks, removal of traffic safety devices (such as traffic signals, flashing lights, stop signs, etc.), installing bulb-outs, reducing the height of street lights and traffic signals, installation of canopy street trees, shortening block lengths, and other traffic calming measures.
  • Electronically pricing roads and parking so that drivers pay their own way with user fees, instead of being heavily subsidized with free roads and free parking (free parking is the biggest subsidy, by far, in the US).
  • Substantially increase the state and federal gas tax. The gas tax has not been raised in 18 years (1993). By not increasing the gas tax, the US transfers an enormous amount of national wealth to oil-producing nations in other parts of the world. The relatively low gas tax is another in a long list of examples of motorist subsidies that promote excessive car travel. This loss of user fee revenue severely strains government finances, because in order to pay for the enormous costs of providing for car travel, governments must raise (non-gas) taxes such as property taxes or sales taxes or income taxes to pay for car travel. Alternatively, governments must cut other government services, which harms quality of life and makes our society less civilized.
  • Require relatively large employers to provide a “parking cash-out” program, and use such a program for all government offices. Parking cash-out, as Donald Shoup points out, is a program that offers the car commuter a choice: Either keep your free parking space at work, or give up the parking space in exchange for a higher salary, a bus pass, or other perks.
  • Require that the cost of parking be “unbundled” from the cost of a home or business. Currently, nearly all homeowners and consumers of goods and services pay a hidden parking cost – housing, goods, and services are more expensive because it is expensive to be required to buy extra land to provide for (and maintain) car parking. If this car parking cost was unbundled, housing, goods, and services would be less expensive, and people would be less compelled to drive a car excessively.
  • Requiring relatively high levels of street connectivity. When streets are connected, bicyclists that are less comfortable on main roads are able to find lower-speed, lightly-trafficked side streets for bicycling. Existing dead ends and cul-de-sacs can sometimes restore bicycle connectivity with connector paths linking the cul-de-sac with a nearby street.
  • Converting one-way streets into two-way streets. One-way streets strongly discourage bicycling because such street design promotes excessive car speeds, motorist impatience, and inattentive driving, not to mention the loss of residential and retail development along such streets. Increasingly, towns in the US are converting one-way streets back to two-way operation, and seeing extremely rapid improvements. See my blog for my thoughts about one-way streets.
  • Reducing trip distances. Governments are able to do this by finding ways to increase residential densities in appropriate locations, allowing “mixed-use” development (where homes are combined with offices and retail, for example), and keeping “community-serving social condensers” such as farmers markets and important government offices in the town center (rather than allowing them to relocate to remote suburbs).

B. Citizen Measures

  • Civil disobedience. There are a number of measures which are being used increasingly in the US to protest excessive, detrimental car dependence in the US. These measures include various forms of civil disobedience, “guerilla” tactics, or direct action. Examples include “critical mass” bicycle rides (where large numbers of bicyclists will gather and ride in large groups on streets in such a way as to inconvenience motorists), temporarily converting car parking into parks, etc.
  • Elections. Citizens can campaign for candidates who support the measures described above.
  • Normalizing bicycling. Bicycling in the US is substantially marginalized because bicyclists dress in ways that visibly set them apart from “normal” people. Most wear a bicycle helmet, which tend to be unfashionable, messes up hair, and sends a message that bicycling is dangerous. Many bicyclists also wear brightly-colored lycra bicycle clothes, which gives a very unusual, “elite athlete” appearance. It is important that bicycling be seen as more “normal” if bicycling is to become more common in the fashion- and status-conscious US. Bicycling advocates, then, can better promote bicycling by dressing in everyday leisure or work clothing while bicycling, and using a bicycle helmet less often (particularly when bicycling in relatively safe, low-speed environments such as town centers). See my blog for my thoughts about bicycle helmets.

Providing New Bicycle Facilities

I would be remiss if I did not mention the need to provide well-designed bicycle facilities and parking. While neither would recruit large numbers of new bicyclists, both are important for at least two reasons. First, it is important that bicyclists be given safe, convenient places to bicycle and park. Second, providing such facilities sends the important message that the community respects and promotes bicycle travel.

The Bicycling Transect

There is an emerging concept in urban design known as a “transect.” The concept essentially posits that there is a place for everything and everything has its place. Dennis McClendon states that it is “a way of classifying different kinds of neighborhoods along a continuum, from rural to suburban to city neighborhood to downtown; things that belong in once zone would be out of place in another.”

In the Smart Code introduction, version 6.5, Andres Duany says that “one of the key concepts of transect planning is the idea of creating what are called immersive environments. Successful immersive environments are based, in part, on the selection and arrangement of all the components that together comprise a particular type of environment. Each environment, or transect zone, is comprised of elements that keep it true to its locational character…planners are able to specify different urban intensities that look and feel appropriate to their locations…a farmhouse would not contribute to the immersive quality of an urban core, whereas a high-rise apartment building would. Wide streets and open swales find a place on the transect in more rural areas while narrow streets and curbs are appropriate for urban areas. Based on local vernacular traditions, most elements of the human habitat can be similarly appropriated in such a way that they contribute to, rather than detract from, the immersive character of a given environment.”

Applying the Transect to Bicycle Facility Planning

Appropriate bicycle travel routes vary based on their location in a community in the following generalized ways:

Walkable Town Center

In this location, the pedestrian is the design imperative, which means that quality design emphasizes a low-speed street design. This means that there are generally no more than two travel lanes (and possibly a turn lane or pocket). Curb radii are modest, and combined with intersection and mid-block bulb-outs, minimize crossing distances for pedestrians.

Further enhancing the safety, comfort and convenience of the pedestrian is on-street motor vehicle parking, sidewalks, and buildings abutting the back of sidewalks.

There is a dense, connected grid of streets with short block lengths.

When designed properly, the modest motor vehicle speeds mean that most all bicyclists are able to safely and comfortably “share the lane” with motor vehicles (that is, ride within the motor vehicle travel lane). Those bicyclists who are not comfortable sharing the lane with vehicles are able to ride on nearby parallel streets.

In walkable urban locations, in-street bicycle lanes should generally be considered a “transect violation,” since their installation usually means that average motor vehicle speeds are increased (due to the perceived increase in street width for the motorist). Bicycle lanes also tend to increase the crossing distance for pedestrians, and are often incompatible with on-street parked cars unless an excessively wide bicycle lane is created.

Note that I do acknowledge that when a walkable, compact urban location contains major (arterial) streets that such streets generally require the installation of in-street bicycle lanes. However, when such major streets require bike lanes, it is a strong indication that the street itself is a transect violation. Ideally, such streets should be re-designed to be compatible (or “immersive”) in the walkable location through such techniques as removing travel lanes, adding on-street parking or other mechanisms that dramatically slow down motorists and obligate more attentiveness in their driving.

Also incompatible in this location are bicycle paths separate from the street. Such paths are not only unaffordable to install in this location, but significantly increase bicyclist danger.

Suburban

In this location, in-street bicycle lanes tend to be most appropriate on major (“arterial”) streets, due to the increased average car speeds. Bicycle lanes should be 4-5 feet wide.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to be used somewhat less on suburban roads than on walkable urban streets. Building setbacks are larger, as are turning radii.

In general, bicycle lanes are not necessary on intermediate (“collector”) streets, due to low traffic volumes.

Like walkable urban locations, bicycle paths separate from the street are generally incompatible in this location. Such paths significantly increase bicyclist danger, largely due to the number of cross streets, the reduced visibility of the bicyclist, and the false sense of security created for the bicyclist.

Rural

In this location, bicycle paths separate from the road tend to be most appropriate, due to the relatively high speed of motor vehicles here, and the relative lack of crossing roads.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to not be used on rural roads. Building setbacks are largest in this portion of the transect, as are turning radii.

In-street bicycle lanes are sometimes appropriate here, but are not as appropriate as in suburban locations.

Transect Summary

In sum, bicycle travel routes are increasingly separated from motor vehicles as one moves along the transect from walkable urban to suburban to rural.

Bicycle Parking

My master’s thesis in graduate school emphasized providing properly-designed bicycle parking. It has become quite common for bicycle parking to be provided improperly. So many strange, unusual, non-functional forms of bicycle parking are provided that I have concluded that the main criterion for selection of bicycle parking is aesthetics and low cost. Like car parking, there is only one form (or with very minor variations) of acceptable bicycle parking design: the “inverted-U” (also known as the “Hitch-To”). This relatively low-cost, durable bicycle parking design is vastly superior to most all other forms of bicycle parking that have proliferated in the US. Communities should require this design in the same manner as they require only one form of car parking. Doing otherwise trivializes bicycling.

Summary

It is quite possible for the US to end its humiliating, unsustainable lead in the world for lowest level of bicycling. Americans are NOT genetically predisposed to drive a car rather than bicycle. The effective tools are not a mystery. Using them is simply a matter of leadership on the part of citizens and elected officials. Yes, it will be difficult to “take away from the car” to increase bicycling. But if we are, as a nation, truly serious about reducing ruinous, unsustainably high levels of car dependence, and substantially growing the number of bicycle commuters, the steps I outline above are essential.

There are very few, if any, “win-win” tactics for car and bicycle travel. Instead, car travel and bicycle travel are more of a zero-sum game. Increasing the level of bicycle travel inevitably means taking away space from cars, inconveniencing cars, and making car travel more expensive.

It is important to point out here that for over 100 years, the US has engaged in the opposite: We have taken away space from bicycles, inconvenienced bicycles and made bicycling more expensive.

For the sake of improving our health, the health of our cities, and our future quality of life, we must begin the incremental, long-term practice of ratcheting down car pampering. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be.

_________________________________________________

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