Tag Archives: public safety

The Gigantism Disease

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 17, 2008

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

American cities, like most others in the world, are dying. Despite an emerging downtown renaissance being led by a notable growth in downtown residential development, changing demographics, and escalating gasoline prices.

Cities are dying due to an affliction I call “Gigantism.”

Like overeating, inactivity and obesity, gigantism is not being imposed on us by an evil outside force. It is largely self-inflicted.

We have become our own worst enemy because we have spent over 80 years building a world in which it is nearly impossible to navigate without a car. The Barrier Effect, as described by Todd Litman, when applied to transportation planning, refers to the “barriers” that over-design for car travel creates for other forms of travel. To put it simply, designing an “incomplete” street (a street that is designed exclusively or predominately for cars) makes travel by walking, bicycling and transit extremely difficult, if not impossible. In effect, an incomplete street creates a self-perpetuating vicious cycle because the travel barriers created by incomplete streets tend to continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly non-motorists—non-motorists who now find that on the incomplete street, travel by walking, bicycling or transit is unacceptably unsafe, inconvenient or otherwise unattractive.

Over time, the incomplete street increases the proportion of community members who are now traveling by car. Tragically, this on-going recruitment of new motorists compels many communities to spend large sums of public dollars to widen and speed up roads to (unsuccessfully) strive to accommodate the growing number of motorists. And these newly widened, higher speed roads create an even larger barrier effect. Which recruits even more motorists (“induced demand”), which then builds pressure for even wider roads, resulting in roads that drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users find unpleasant and unsatisfactory, fueling the demand for further “improvement,” usually widening.

We are therefore compelled to insist, at every opportunity, that new development promote car travel. Yet cars and people have vastly different needs. Due to their large size, motor vehicles require vastly over-sized parking lots, large building setbacks and wide, multi-lane roads reasonably free of other motor vehicles (despite the conventional wisdom, most cities actually have too much open space — but this open space is for cars, not people). To achieve that, widely dispersed, low-density, single-use patterns of development are necessary. Street lighting must be tall and bright, and retail signage must be enormous to promote visibility and readability in high-speed motor vehicles.

Because motor vehicles enable us to travel greater distances more conveniently, growing regional “consumer-sheds” are created, which has enabled the rise of gigantic “big box” retail development which takes advantage of such retail regionalism.

We are left with an overwhelming and disheartening amount of auto-centric architecture. Architecture that no one can be proud of.

This brutalization of our everyday world, amplified by the over-sizing of roads and parking lots, leaves a public realm that Americans have understandably fled. Instead, we are compelled to increasingly turn inward into the private realm of our accessorized, huge turn radius for roadluxurious homes and cars. Without a public realm worth caring about and participating in, we seek alternative outlets for a meaningful life. And this is exemplified by the substantial growth in the average size of the now gigantic American house, which has enlarged from 1,385 square feet to 2,140 square feet (a 54-percent increase) from 1970 to 2000.

Our over-sized world stands in stark contrast to what many people tend to prefer, which is smaller building setbacks, human-scaled and low-speed streets, modest lighting, signage and parking. People feel exposed and uncomfortable in gargantuan spaces—spaces over-designed for motor vehicles.

On average, a person in a car consumes 17 times more space than a person in a chair, which means that cars devour an enormous amount of space. The average car is 14 feet long by 6.2 feet wide = 55 square feet. The average person in a chair is 2.25 feet by 2.25 feet = 5 square feet.  Thus, a car consumes 17 times more space than a person sitting in a chair (even more if person is standing). By multiplying the number of cars in Florida in 2005 by 17 square feet, we can estimate that cars consume 1,581,100 square feet or 35,677 acres or about 27,444 football fields.

Planner Victor Gruen, in 1973, estimated that every American car is provided with four parking spaces.

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup estimates about 1 billion parking spaces for cars in the U.S.  If this were all surface parking, parking lots would consume approximately 12,375 square miles (roughly the size of Maryland). As a rule of thumb, a parking lot typically requires an additional 10 to 20 percent of its land area as stormwater basin area, although this can vary rather significantly based on such factors as soil type. Therefore, we can assume that a 300 square-foot parking space (the amount of space a typical car needs for parking, as well as maneuver space in the parking lot) would require 300 x 0.15 = 45 square feet of stormwater basin. In other words, if we include both space taken up by the typical parked car, maneuver space, and stormwater basin space, each car requires 345 square feet of land area just for parking.

The above means that to promote ease of motor vehicle travel, there is no alternative but to build sprawling, dispersed, low-density cities.

Of course, the growing size of American vehicles—particularly the SUV phenomenon—has fueled a need to build bloated roads and parking areas to accommodate these over-sized vehicles. Making matters much worse, however, is the decades-long trend of the growing size of trucks—particularly fire trucks.

Unfortunately, some fire chiefs are choosing to purchase larger and often less maneuverable fire apparatus. An unintended consequence is that such choices will dictate future community decisions about street dimensions. Larger truck decisions can prevent a community from designing safer, more human-scaled streets.  Fortunately, wise fire chiefs who are aware of a need for a more charming, safe, human-scaled community are able to make fire apparatus choices that are in line with such objectives (buy purchasing smaller fire vehicles, for example, or at least buying “articulated” vehicles that allow maneuvering in tight streets). If some parts of a community must have larger, less maneuverable fire apparatus for safety reasons, it would be wise to consider having both larger and smaller vehicles. One size, after all, does not fit all when one considers both the larger dimensions found in suburbia and the more modest dimensions found in urban settings.

For engineers, therefore, the design vehicle obligates the design of colossal lane widths and turning radii, which moves cities further from a livable human scale.

Where has the charm gone?

When we look for charming locations in our communities, we find that this charm is invariably found in our historic districts—places built, in general, over 100 years ago. We Catania Italy walkablelove to visit places like Paris and Geneva, with their ancient, intimate architecture, their layout of streets and neighborhoods, and their romantic ambience. And newer places are most valued when they mimic that style. We find that the more contemporary development—the more contemporary streets and roads—are invariably not charming. We have apparently lost the ability to build lovable places.

Why?

Is it because of the need to promote public safety? Is cost an issue?

Hardly.

It is because charm is impossible when we must design for the colossal spaces required to accommodate the car. Buildings must be set back enormous distances from the street to accommodate vast fields of parking (even the turning movements of the motor vehicle require that a building be pulled back from the street intersection to create the “vision triangle” and turning radius necessitated by a large, high-speed vehicle).

One unintended consequence of this dispersal and pulling back of buildings is that buildings lose the ability to “hold” an intersection. Or frame an “outdoor room” ambience on a street. Place-making is not possible when these human-scaled spaces are lost. There is no “there there” anymore.

Nothing to induce civic pride.

The gigantism disease is also aggravated by our decades-long road design efforts to maximize vehicle speeds, and to implement the related “forgiving streets” design paradigm. High-speed road geometries create enormous dimensions for intersection turning radii, lane width, shoulder recover zones, and size of roadside signage.

Forgiving street design delivers tree-less streets, over-sized vision triangles, and a removal of on-street parking, among other things. The motorist is “forgiven” for not paying attention while driving. Forgiven for driving at excessive speeds. Forgiven for careening off the road.

An unintended consequence of such design is that a large and ever-growing number of motorists are found to be driving too fast, too inattentively and too recklessly. Ironically, the intended safety improvements from the forgiving street actually result in less road safety.

High-speed design and forgiving streets, then, result in a loss of human-scaled streets, and the promotion of speeding, inattentive, road-raged motorists completely incompatible with quality urban areas.

Buildings must also be dispersed from each other to accommodate car travel, as the placement and agglomeration of buildings in a walkable, human-scaled pattern quickly creates intolerable vehicle congestion that gridlocks an area.

Induced demand, where a road widening breeds new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened, locks us into a never-ending cycle of congestion, widening, more congestion, and more widening. Endlessly.

Or until we run out of public dollars.

This vicious cycle brings us 4-lane roads. Then 5. Then 6. Then 8. Ultimately, we are left with dangerous, high-speed, overly wide, increasingly unaffordable roads that we dread and are repelled from. Roads that, again, are car-scaled and not human-scaled. Ironically, the roads we hate most are those we’ve spent the most of our tax dollars to build. What does that say about what we are doing to ourselves?

Agglomeration Economies

Cities, to be healthy, must leverage “agglomeration economies.” That is, thriving, vigorous cities are characterized by densification, concentration, compactness and clustering of people, buildings, and activities. As Steve Belmont points out in Cities in Full (2002), an intensification of property is a sign of city fitness and dynamism. As city property is converted to a less intense activity such as parking, widened roads or over-sized building setbacks, the energy of the city is dissipated, and is a sign of a city in decline. Therefore, the gigantism borne from the gap-tooth dead zones created when property is cleared for vehicular parking or roads is toxic to a city.

The vehicle “habitat” in cities (parking and highways) drains the lifeblood from the metropolis.

It is not only the directly deadening effect of replacing buildings and activities with roads and parking that kills a city. Highways and parking also indirectly eviscerate a city by powerfully fueling the residential and commercial dispersal of communities through sprawl.

Finding Our Way Back to the Future

It is said that both the dinosaurs and the Roman Empire collapsed due to gigantism. For our society to avoid that fate—to restore safety and quality of life to our cities in the future—will require us to return to the timeless tradition we have abandoned for several decades. For cities to become sustainable, safe, enjoyable places to live, we must return to the tradition of designing for people first, not cars. In cities, that means that we return to low-speed street geometries and compact building placements.

We already have models. The historic districts of our cities. The charming, lovable places that tourists flock to the world over. As James Howard Kunstler noted in 1996, “[From]  1950 to 1990…we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings, particularly civic buildings. Look at any richly embellished 1904 firehouse or post office and look at its dreary concrete box counterpart today.” “The everyday environments of our time, the places where we live and work, are composed of dead patterns…They violate human scale. They are devoid of charm. Our streets used to be charming and beautiful…[in] Saratoga Springs, New York, there once existed a magnificent building called the Grand Union Hotel…”

One element of this return is that the “forgiving street” design paradigm be replaced by the “attentive street” paradigm in cities. That is, streets must be designed not to “forgive” reckless driving, but to instead obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively, which, as European demonstration projects have found, improves traffic safety. Doing so will also restore human scale.

Ideally, given the enormous space consumed by motor vehicles and the much smaller spaces that most people (as pedestrians) prefer, the motor vehicle must feel squeezed and inconvenienced when it finds itself within the city.

Only then will quality of life for people, not cars, flourish.

References

Belmont, Steve. (2002). Cities In Full. APA Planners Press.

Downs, A. (1992). Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak Hour Traffic Congestion.  Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Kunstler, J. (1996). Home from Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 88, 90.

Litman, Todd. (2002). “Evaluating Nonmotorized Transport.” TDM Encyclopedia. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm63.htm

McNichol, Tom (2004). “Roads Gone Wild.” Wired Magazine. December.

 

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Right-Sizing a Road is Right for Boulder

By Dom Nozzi

Boulder proposes to right-size a portion of four streets starting in the summer of 2015: Folsom, Iris, 55th and 63rd.

Right-sizing a road involves repurposing road travel lanes from car-only travel to other uses such as bicycle lanes or on-street parking. Right-sizing happens on streets that are deemed to be inefficiently and unsafely oversized. Oversized streets tend to create many negative impacts, such as cars traveling at excessive, dangerous speeds. Right-sizing creates “Complete Streets” that can be used for all forms of travel – bicycling, walking, transit, and motor vehicle travel.Road-Diet

Many fear that right-sizing a road will result in unacceptable changes. Here are reasons why fears tend to be unfounded, as well as the many benefits of right-sizing:

  • An enormous number of right-sizing projects have been immensely successful throughout the nation – including in cities that are rapidly growing.
  • Despite the conventional wisdom, providing things like adding bike lanes, building new sidewalks, or improving bus service are not effective ways to effectively encourage more bicycling, walking, or transit use. The key is to reduce the space allocated to motorists, reduce the speed of motorists, reduce subsidies allocated to motorists, and shorten distances to destinations. Right-sizing achieves two of those, which makes the tactic a powerful tool to grow the number of active travelers.
  • Boulder has previously right-sized portions of Baseline, Table Mesa, 13th Street, and North Broadway (Pearl Street downtown was actually closed to traffic to create Pearl Street Mall). In each case, there was very vocal opposition. Nevertheless, the fears expressed did not materialize, and a large jump in bicycling and walking was the result. This tracks national experience, where hundreds of right-sizing projects have succeeded. In nearly all such cases, large majorities opposed the proposal, which was followed by large majorities supporting the right-sizing AFTER they were installed.
  • Opponents of right-sizing tend to throw around alarmist, hysterical, misleading, end-of-the-world comments about right-sizing. That the community proposes to prohibit car travel. Or force everyone to ride a bicycle. But there is an enormous difference between creating a modest delay in car travel versus prohibiting car travel. Indeed, the tactic is much more accurately described as a way to NUDGE people toward more desirable ways of traveling, rather than FORCING them to give up their car.
  • Due to excessive speeds or insufficient space for bicycling, the four candidate roads discriminate against bicycle travel, walking, and transit users. Right-sizing therefore creates more equity. More transportation choice. Roads that are car-only are toxic to communities.
  • Peter Swift conducted a study in Longmont CO that found that efforts to reduce fire truck response times by increasing roadway dimensions INCREASED the overall number of injuries and deaths in a community because the number of injuries and deaths associated with fires is tiny compared to the large increase in injuries and deaths caused by high speed car travel. By increasing car speeds through excessive road sizes, public safety declines. Fire safety is a subset of life safety. To reduce overall injuries and deaths in a community, therefore, suboptimizing on fire safety by speeding fire trucks is counterproductive. On the four candidate roads, there have been 419 car crashes over the past three years. This is far, far lower than the number of fires near these roads over that time period. Right-sizing therefore is a big win for reducing injuries and deaths. As an aside, it should be noted that the Boulder Fire Department is not concerned about the proposed right-sizing, largely because of the installation of a center turn lane.
  • Right-sizing tends to be beneficial not only to bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. It is also beneficial to small retailers, residential homes, and overall community quality of life.
  • There tends to be very little loss of road capacity when a road is right-sized. This is particularly true when a road is right-sized from four lanes to three, because the inside lanes of a four-lane street frequently are serving as left-turn lanes. When a car makes a left turn on a road without a turn-lane at an intersection, the road is essentially already functioning as a three-lane road. In addition, right-sizing reduces average car speeds. When cars are moving at slower speeds, they tend to travel closer to other cars on the street, because less stopping or slowing time is needed at lower speeds. When cars are closer together, the road lane is able to handle a larger volume of cars. Road lanes with faster car travel are able to handle smaller volumes of cars.
  • Models used by traffic engineers tend to be unable to take into account “induced” car trips and “discouraged” car trips. Induced car trips are those trips that would not have occurred had the community not previously over-sized a road (or because the motorist is not obligated to pay a fee to use the road). Discouraged car trips are those trips that are relatively flexible. When a road becomes slower, some trips shift to non-rush hour times, or happen on alternative routes. Because traffic models – which engineers use to predict traffic volumes and congestion due to various road configurations – don’t do well in incorporating induced or discouraged trips, such models tend to exaggerate problems such as congestion. In the real world, then, problems associated with right-sizing are much less significant than predicted by engineering models.
  • Commonly, when a right-sizing project is proposed, there are fears of “spillover” traffic on parallel routes. This fear tends to be vastly overblown due to the issues described above. A great many trips on streets are discretionary in the sense that they can happen at non-rush hour times, on alternate routes, or not at all. In other words, not all car trips are emergency trips or otherwise essential trips that must be made on that route at that time. This is a very common misconception, and creates “worst case scenario” thinking that is unsustainable .
  • Right-sizing results in a significant increase in road safety. This is due to lower average car speeds, more attentive driving, and the inability of motorists to weave from lane to lane as they attempt to pass other cars. When there are multiple travel lanes in the same direction, the fastest car sets the pace. Safer roads invite and dramatically increase the use of the road by bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users.
  • Commonly, there is a fear that a right-sized road will make it more difficult to enter the road from a side street (due to cars being closer together). In fact, right-sized roads often make entering easier. This is because the entering motorist needs to cross less travel lanes when making a left turn onto the right-sized road (and wait in the left-turn lane if there is not an opening). In addition, slower car speeds on a right-sized road makes it easier to enter the right-sized road, because smaller gaps are needed to safely enter.
  • Motorists are understandably often inconvenienced or annoyed by “flashing light” mid-block crossings for pedestrians. Because right-sizing reduces crossing distances and car speeds, such annoying crossing treatments are less necessary and therefore less used.
  • It is common for opponents of right-sizing to claim that increased congestion from right-sizing will increase air emissions and fuel consumption. In fact, the reverse tends to be the case, because right-sizing commonly discourages trips – particularly “low value” trips such as a trip to get a cup of coffee at rush hour. To the claim that this is an unacceptable form of “social engineering,” it should be pointed out that the massive subsidies provided for the car-dependent suburban lifestyle is the most substantial form of “social engineering” in world history. Right-sizing nudges society towards a more efficient, natural state of affairs.
  • Overall quality of life increases for neighborhoods near right-sized roads, such as reduced air emissions, reduced noise pollution, less regional car trips impacting the neighborhood, and more safety.
  • For the first time in history, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is leveling off and starting to decline. This trend, which many believe is long-term, means that fears of excessive congestion due to right-sizing should be lower.
  • Right-sizing increases travel by bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. It reduces noise pollution, air emissions, speeding, and fuel consumption. It improves conditions for homes and retailers near the right-sized road. Right-sizing reduces the number or injuries and deaths on the road. It provides more space for landscaping, on-street parking, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and stormwater management. Right-sizing reduces maintenance costs. All of these benefits improve the quality of life for those near the corridor and community-wide.

The question of trade-offs must be asked: Is the loss* of, say, 30 seconds of your travel time more valuable than reduced injuries and deaths, the reduced air emissions, the increase in bicycle, pedestrian and transit travel, the reduced noise pollution, the improved visual quality, the improved conditions for homes and retailers, the reduced speeding, and the lower cost for local government?

For nearly all of us, I don’t think so.

I think the case is clear that the many large benefits of right-sizing far outweigh the relatively minor increase in travel time. The success and popularity of right-sizing throughout the nation demonstrates this quite well.

* Note that right-sizing does not necessarily result in a loss of any travel time at all. For example, some motorists respond to right-sizing by avoiding rush-hour travel or opt for alternative routes.

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Sub-Optimizing on Law Enforcement and Fire Services

By Dom Nozzi

“Three-quarters of San Jose’s [CA] discretionary spending goes to its public safety workers alone – police and fire fighters. The City has closed libraries, cut back on park services, laid off many civil servants and asked the rest to take pay cuts. By 2014, San Jose, the 10th largest city in the US, will be serviced by 1,600 public workers, one-third the number it had 25 years ago.” — Fareed Zakaria, Time Magazine, June 25, 2012.

Law enforcement and fire services are essential local government services. But in nearly all American cities, an excessive amount of the city budget is devoted to law enforcement and fire services. This leads to a “sub-optimizing” of law enforcement and fire services, which means that such an extreme amount of resources are devoted to these services that other essential community services are provided with inadequate amounts of resources. The end result of sub-optimizing, typically, is a net loss in achieving important overall community objectives.

Law enforcement and fire services in the city may be the best in the world, but the provision of dollars to other city services is so meager (due to the excess going to fire services) that the overall quality of life in the city is in a poor, downwardly-spiraling condition.

Gainesville FL, where I worked as a senior planner for 20 years, is an excellent example of the problem.

When I say “excessive,” I refer to a study I conducted where I compared the law enforcement and fire department budgets for Gainesville to that of several comparable cities throughout the nation. Gainesville had, by far, the highest per capita law enforcement and fire services expenditures of any comparable city.

This state of affairs occurred because for decades, Gainesville police and fire departments have been invariably getting all requested budget increases pretty much every year. A number of city and county commissioners I spoke to in the Gainesville area agreed with me that their budget allocations for police and fire have been excessive, but they feel helpless to do anything about it. They are unable, politically, to slow the growth in fire and police spending, even though these elected officials know that police and fire have long gotten excessive funding.

My research over the years has clearly shown that Gainesville is not alone in this sub-optimizing of police and fire. Nearly all communities have this problem in the US.

Again, when I conclude that police and fire expenditures by local government are excessive (given the above), I am NOT saying that law enforcement and fire protection are not important. Such a services are very important. My point is that it is highly likely that the politics of fear will lead us to sub-optimize on certain services (we spend too much on a service to the detriment of other services).

“If you don’t put another $20 million dollars into the fire department budget, babies will die in burning buildings!” Or “If you don’t give the police department another $15 million, your daughters will be mugged and raped!” These too-often-used scare statements are powerfully effective. How can elected officials not seem insensitive to public safety if they deny this request and instead put more dollars into, say, environmental restoration?

At some point, increased funding for a service leads to diminishing returns. At some point as more and more dollars are spent for the service, each additional dollar spent delivers less and less in the way of better law enforcement and better fire protection.

The federal government spends more on the military than the next eight highest military spending nations on earth COMBINED. When I join others in saying that this is excessive spending, I am NOT saying we should eliminate the military or that the military is not important. What I am saying is that the federal, state and local governments have limited dollars. If we spend too much on certain services, we starve other important services. It is disingenuous nonsense to suggest that those pointing out our expenditures for police or fire (or military) is excessive are, in other words, saying that we don’t value police or fire protection (or democracy). We all agree that such services are essential.

Elected officials are now (in 2012) screaming that the federal government is spending too much, but when reasonable suggestions are made to at least slow the growth in bloated military expenditures, elected officials tell us we must continue our decades long pattern of INCREASING military spending. That by calling for military spending cuts, such people making this suggestion don’t care about reducing terrorism or protecting democracy or having a strong national defense.

Again, this is nonsense.

What are examples of starved services that, like fire and police, provide important quality of life and safety services? A few examples: Environmental protection and restoration of environmentally degraded natural areas, road diets, traffic calming, efforts to reduce noise pollution, parks and recreation, health care, open space acquisition, town and regional planning, bus service, and bike and pedestrian paths, to name a few.

None of the above-mentioned starved services are more important, necessarily, than police and fire, but in my humble opinion, by cutting the budgets of each of these programs (and keeping their budgets tiny), communities in America have, on balance, seen their quality of life become much lower than it could have been had such services not been inadequately funded. Had these starved services gotten more funding (because we opted not to give fire and police a huge budget increase almost annually for several decades), the quality of life would be much higher in American communities.

As an aside, a recent study has found that when roads are widened to reduce fire truck response times (which is done regularly in the Gainesville area), there is an overall INCREASE in the number of injuries and deaths in a city. Why? Because the wider roads increase the in car crashes (due to higher car speeds caused by wider roads) far more than the reduction in the number of injuries and deaths caused by faster fire truck response times.

Yes, police and fire services are essential. But are they so essential that we should continue to allocate enormous sums of public money to them, and only pocket change to all other important public services (or eliminate them completely)? Should police and fire be the only public services provided by a community? Many folks on the Right think that, but I happen to believe there are other public services important enough to deserve a decent budget, rather than be starved.

Allocating a REASONABLE amount to police and fire (which means cutting their budgets drastically, given how much we have hysterically given them big budget increases for so long – like the Pentagon) does NOT mean that we think police and fire are not essential. It DOES mean that some of us don’t think police and fire are the ONLY legitimate public services.

We are starving services much more important to public safety and quality of life than the benefits we get from increasing spending for police and fire services by millions of additional dollars each year. It is time for American communities to recalibrate and rebalance their budget allocations so that police and fire services are not sub-optimized at the expense of other local government services essential to quality of life. In future years, giving less to fire and police services, and more to other essential services, is the effective path to a more pleasant future.

_________________________________________________

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Gainesville’s War Zone

 
 

 

By Dom Nozzi

THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPA!

 

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE . . . OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO . . . EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

These assaulting, incessant, head-rattling sounds occur 24 hours a day. Seven days a week. They are the sounds of living in the middle of a war zone.

Saigon in 1970? Beirut in 1980? Baghdad in 2007?

No. It is the ambience that those who reside in and near downtown Gainesville have had to endure now for several years.

Over the years, when I lived in Gainesville, visitors from out of town invariably told me how astonished they were by the frequent, alarming sounds of low-flying helicopters and emergency vehicle sirens in Gainesville. How it seems much louder and much more frequent than what they experience in cities such as Washington, D.C., or Miami.

For me, it led to sleep deprivation. Frayed nerves. Tension. And rage. I called the Gainesville Police Department on a regular basis between midnight and 6 a.m. to complain, and beg the police to stop the menacing, circling the helicopter in downtown neighborhoods so I could get some sleep.helicopter

How many who live downtown verge on a nervous breakdown due to this unrelenting, screaming, troubling noise?

How many have resigned themselves to what seems like a constant state of emergency, and have decided to somehow tough it out by taking sleeping pills or wearing ear muffs in bed?

How many have given up on downtown living and have vowed to move to the “peace and quiet” of a suburban home?

How many have vowed to never live in downtown—unable to stand the siege-like atmosphere?

Many assaulted citizens simply don’t know who to complain to. Or that it is even possible or appropriate to complain.

Others are (inaccurately) convinced that constantly circling helicopters and incessant, 24/7 convoys of shrieking emergency vehicle sirens are necessary to capture dangerous criminals or put out raging fires.

Some simply have lowered their expectations of the amount of quiet they can expect at night. They have given up on having a serene, calm, peaceful city.

News flash: There are not dangerous murderers running around downtown who must be apprehended several times a night by a helicopter. The constantly circling police helicopters are circling not because they must, but because they can.

On balance, does tracking shoplifters with helicopters at 3 a.m. result in a net benefit for our quality of life, despite the Baghdad-like tone it creates?

racing-fire-truckIt is not necessary to use fire truck and police car emergency sirens as promiscuously as does the city of Gainesville. A friend tells me his (much larger) city has a policy whereby emergency vehicle sirens are used significantly less between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. And that when the station is near a neighborhood, the siren is not activated until a major road is reached. After all, there are significantly fewer cars on the road at that time, or on neighborhood streets. And a great many citizens are trying to sleep.

At 6 a.m. one recent morning, I noticed (silently) flashing police car lights here in Richmond, Va., where I now live. It reminded me that I’ve heard significantly fewer sirens in this city than while living in Gainesville. Richmond is much larger than Gainesville. And it led the nation in murders in 1994. If Richmond can have quiet nights, why not Gainesville?

Is Gainesville truly interested in promoting quality of life? In promoting an increase in the number of people who live in or near downtown? If so, it is imperative that city-induced noise pollution be reduced.

First, the police helicopter needs to be permanently grounded or employed significantly less. I’m not convinced that helicopters reduce crime.

Let’s assume, though, that the chopper is useful when pursuing dangerous criminals . How often do we have dangerous murderers running around in Gainesville? Maybe once every 25 years? Certainly not three times a night.

Second, the city police department and fire department need to follow the lead of most every other city in the nation. Significantly reduce siren use in the early morning. Especially on neighborhood streets.

After all, I don’t believe Gainesville has more crime and fires and car crashes than D.C. or Miami that would justify more sirens in Gainesville than in those enormous, problem-prone cities.

Is Gainesville truly serious about quality of life and increasing the desirability of living in or visiting downtown?

 

 

A version of this essay was published by the Gainesville Sun on 4/13/08.

 

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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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Who a Community Hires as a New Fire Chief is Crucial to Safety and Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

Your community needs to hire a new fire chief.

I’ve given a bit of thought to what sorts of questions should be asked of applicants to fill that vacancy.

And I realized that this hire is not just a simple matter of hiring someone who is well-equipped in knowing how to quickly put out fires.

No, it goes far beyond that, in terms of implications for overall safety in your community (not just the narrow subset of fire safety), and significant implications for overall quality of life. Hire the wrong fire chief, and your community can be in serious danger of setting a course for much worse overall community safety and much worse quality of life, even if your fire chief is skilled in putting out fires.

The following simple questions are crucial in determining whether your new chief will promote overall safety and quality of life, or worsen it.

  1. What are your thoughts about reducing the size of fire trucks? The now gargantuan and growing size of trucks used in cities all over the nation means that our fire chief, perhaps more so than the traffic engineer, is profoundly dictating — every time she or he decides to purchase a big fire truck — that our neighborhood and arterial streets will be monstrous in width in order to “safely” allow passage by the big hook and ladder trucks. The result is more dangerous, high-speed community streets filled with reckless, inattentive drivers, and lower neighborhood quality of life. Recent studies (the Swift study in Longmont CO, for example) have found that when a city overemphasizes fire safety to the point of excessively enlarging street and intersection Big Firetruckdimensions (to reduce fire truck response times), the number of injuries and deaths caused by the increased motor vehicle speeding and inattentiveness (induced by the enlarged roadway/intersection dimensions) far exceeds the injuries and deaths averted by faster fire truck response times. The result is that life safety declines, even if the subset of fire safety may improve slightly. Overall community safety therefore declines. Despite having a few fires are put out more quickly.
  2. What are your thoughts about reducing a bloated fire department budget? (fire department budgets throughout the nation are terribly bloated, and a bloated department budget sub-optimizes the services of that department and starves important services such as health, social services, housing and street maintenance/design).
  3. What are your thoughts about minimizing the use of emergency vehicle sirens? (I’ve been told by more than one person that the emergency service sirens in the small Florida city I formerly lived in are out of control — even compared to major cities such as DC. This problem is found in an enormous number of cities throughout the nation, as the hyper-concern for perfect (and unachievable) public safety fuels a siren “arms race” of ever louder sirens, in the name of safety. This growing noise pollution problem confirmed my own “jangled nerves” experience of living in a town center of a town that did not have the leadership to stand up to the fire chief and demand that quality of life considerations, at some point, start to trump the seemingly endless (and hopeless) quest for more and more “safety.” (there IS such a thing as too much emphasis being placed on “safety”). While living in that Florida city – a city that lacked the leadership to stand up to the “babies are dying in burning buildings” hysterics of the fire department – I was being tormented by what amounted to nearly 24/7 siren wailing. In a city that justifiably strove to encourage more town residential development, why were we chasing folks out of the town center by creating a “war zone” ambience there?

These are, in my humble opinion, the three most crucial questions that should be asked of candidates for the fire chief position. It is not just about putting out fires…

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Light Pollution and the “Buildings as Sign” Problem

By Dom Nozzi

There is an “invisible” — yet nevertheless important — quality-of-life issue: light pollution. Invisible because it is rarely discussed as a problem. In my opinion, light pollution has become an epidemic in our communities because, increasingly, retailers discover that excessive lighting is a handy way to attract the attention of the 40,000 motorists driving by each day on arterials. It is also a convenient way to evade those pesky sign ordinances because excessive lighting allows the retailer to make her/his entire building a sign at night. This, then, is the “building as sign” problem that we often see in our towns — especially with chain retailers, who also like to use “icon architecture” to make their building a sign during the day. Solar-Gas-Sation

Light pollution problem has accelerated in recent years as a result of many cities engaging in more effective enforcement of their sign ordinance.

A number of newer gas stations will use a high canopy over the fueling stations. The bright, glaring lights underneath the canopy makes the place look, in the words of Jim Kunstler, like a “UFO Landing Strip” which can be seen from miles around. Other retailers like to line their exterior walls or parking lots with lights that spill upward and across property lines.

Of course, retailers like to grab the moral high ground on this issue by claiming that the sole purpose of all this excessive lighting is for “public safety,” or the “safety of customers.” As a result, citizens and decision-makers often look upon those concerned about light pollution as people who are insensitive to public safety. We often forget, however, that bright lights can make shadows darker, thereby creating better places for criminals to hide, or that glaring lights can cause traffic accidents.

It is only a pleasant coincidence for the retailer that this “safety” lighting happens to make the entire building a glaring billboard to attract customers.

Controlling light pollution is an important element in retaining a pleasant ambiance for our community, not to mention the needs of our wildlife and star-gazing public.

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Quality of Life the Key to Compact Development

By Dom Nozzi

January 31, 1998

It is important for Gainesville, Florida to strive for quality of life as a way to encourage people to live in more central, compact locations and, therefore, to discourage sprawl through personal choice rather than Draconian regulations.

I am rather annoyed by what seems like an excessive use of sirens by the emergency vehicles of both the city and county. A number of other people have mentioned the same annoyance, and some have toyed with the idea of moving out of their more central location to a more remote area away from the constant sirens. I’ve also heard from some (and my own observation confirms this) that there is a noticeable difference between the level of siren use in this city compared to other cities. It has gotten so bad that I often feel like I am living in a war zone like Beirut, or Berlin during WWII.8330087

I remember reading in the noise control literature when I re-wrote the Gainesville noise ordinance that Boulder CO was able to significantly reduce the siren problem by simply having their emergency administrators instruct their staff to go easier on the sirens. And, there was no epidemic of babies dying in burning buildings after this happened. I do not know if that would work here, but it shows that the problem can be reduced without major loss of life or other feared outcomes.

The Duckpond neighborhood where I am living in downtown Gainesville has had an ongoing problem with vacuum trucks, which many shopping centers are now using to clean their parking lots. We’ve had this problem for about 3 or 4 years. I’ve called the Gainesville Police Department about 15 times over the years on this, and it is always interesting to observe how the officer will try to claim that it is either not a violation, or that they are simply trying to run a business — and then being a bit surprised when they learn that I wrote the noise ordinance and therefore know a few things about whether it is a violation. Given the fact that you can hear the high-pitched whine of the trucks for a distance of 10 to 20 blocks, and the fact that the twice-weekly vacuuming occurs at hours like 5 am or midnight, it is rather obvious to me that we are experiencing an on-going violation.

I often hear the argument that this is the price one must pay for living in a central city location. I don’t buy it. While there are certain ambient noises that a person in a healthy central area should expect, such as the sound of people, cars, music, ballgames, etc., I do not believe that excessive siren use or vacuum trucks are a necessary part of a vibrant, healthy downtown. I agree that people should have lower expectations of peace and quiet if they choose to live in a central area that is vibrant. But increasingly, I believe we have growing noise problems due to factors such as technological changes that have little, if anything, to do with a vibrant downtown.

I believe it is in our power to reduce these noise problems, and to do so as a way to further our sprawl discouragement and quality-of-life objectives. We’ve already instituted several financial and regulatory mechanisms in which we encourage people to flee to sprawl locations. Let’s not further encourage this with things that we can control.

Springs limits medical sirens

COLORADO SPRINGS

1/31/98

Fire engines and ambulances will no longer use their red lights and sirens when responding to minor medical emergencies, fire officials announced this week. Fire department spokesman Lt Tom Barron said the risk to both responders and the public is greater than the reward for faster response to non-life-threatening calls when emergency vehicles respond with lights and siren.

To ensure an appropriate response, dispatchers at the Colorado Springs Public Safety Communications Center have been trained in how to categorize calls for help, Barron said.

The dispatcher will remain on the line to instruct the caller on how to care for the patient until help arrives.

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