By Dom Nozzi
Greenville is not “overcrowded.”
There are not too many people. There are too many people in cars.
For there to be less “crowding,” we need more compact land use patterns. Counterintuitive, but true nevertheless.
True because the most important reason why most believe a community has become “too crowded” is that motor vehicles consume an enormous amount of space. Higher levels of per capita motor vehicle travel – levels that are highest when land use patterns are dispersed and low-density – are the primary cause of high levels of motor vehicle travel.
Compactness gives us better quality of life, less motor vehicle dependence, more transit use, more walking, more bicycling, more safety, better public health, better financial health for Greenville (and its small shops and its families), less air pollution, less car-crash deaths, and less climate change. Conversely, car-oriented development is a bankrupting Ponzi Scheme, because car-oriented development seems to produce attractive tax revenue up front, but actually fails to pay its own way, which bankrupts communities in the long run.
Oversizing for cars leads to a Greenville that is losing its desired “small town feel.”
Greenville has too much open space (most of us incorrectly think the reverse). We have excess open space because we over-allocate space for motor vehicles. Space for oversized roads, oversized parking, and oversized building setbacks needs to be replaced with buildings for a more human-scaled community. Two important ingredients for Greenville to be healthy: “agglomeration economies” (ie, clustered compactness), and slower speed vehicle travel. Indeed, there is a worldwide effort to create “slower-speed cities.”
Greensville needs to reduce excessive town center noise pollution to better promote compact development. Sirens are overused. We need emergency vehicle agencies (police, fire, medical) and trains to significantly reduce their siren use and decibels. There are several ways to reduce siren noise without compromising public safety. Greenville also suffers from an abundance of loud mufflers.
We can lower noise and improve safety by designing our streets to obligate motorists to drive slower and attentively. A healthy town center has no streets larger than three lanes, and almost never uses turn lanes. I count 14 oversized Greenville downtown roads over that size that need a road diet (removing excess lanes). Slower speeds also happen with priced on-street parking, and Greenville needs a lot more of that parking.
Greenville’s Main Street – formerly suffering abandonment, crime, and speeding – experienced the best restoration in the nation when it was road dieted. The diet for Main – what many call the pride of Greenville — makes Main a place that attracts people and brings prosperity due to human-scaled, slower-speed, community-building charm. There’s no reason we could not apply the same restorative medicine to the other 14 oversized roads. The first step? Take ownership of those roads from the South Carolina DOT.
A similar (and enormous) success: replacing the four-lane bridge at Falls Park with a pedestrian walkway.
It is untrue that a growing Greenville requires wider roads. Widening has failed worldwide to “solve” congestion for a century. Instead, congestion becomes worse – at great public expense.
Best congestion response? As the Beatles would say, let it be.
Congestion delivers many benefits if we don’t widen: less “low-value” car trips (such as driving at rush hour for a cup of coffee), more travel by transit, walking, and bicycling, more health for small shops, more financially healthy governments, more affordability for households, less air pollution, more compact development, less sprawl, and less deaths from vehicle crashes.
Congestion does not keep worsening if we let it be. By paying a “time tax,” travelers use roads more efficiently (less low-value motor vehicle trips, for example, and less rush hour trips). People also take alternative routes, drive at alternative times, live closer to destinations, or use transit, or walk, or bicycle.
That is, congestion self-regulates. If we let it be.
Congestion is inevitable because, like Soviet-styled economics, motorists don’t pay their own way – the gas tax is too low, roads are not tolled, and parking is underpriced). Congestion, as basic economics shows, is inevitable when you underprice something (such are road space). The Soviet Union failed because it ignored this. The result: long bread lines. In Greenville, the result is congested roads and overcrowded parking. Ironic that nearly all of us rightly oppose Soviet economics except for roads and parking lots.
Because motor vehicles consume so much space, it only takes a few motor vehicles to create congestion. Therefore, any city worth its salt has congestion. Instead of widening, we must create alternatives to inevitable congestion. Three examples: a congestion fee, making it easier and safer to walk, bicycle or use transit, and leveraging proximity with mixed-use infill development.
Consider what Greenville and South Carolina could do if, instead of spending millions of public dollars to worsen congestion, air quality, finances, and quality of life by widening roads, they opted for road diets. Taxes would stop rapidly increasing (or decrease!), and a lot of new money would be available for quality-of-life improvements such as sidewalks, bike paths, street trees, parks, and world-class transit – to name just a few items in dire need of public money.