Tag Archives: roads

The Problem of Gigantism

By Dom Nozzi

January 13, 2017

Gigantism, in my opinion, is a HUUUUUGE problem in America.

Enormous roads, enormous setbacks, enormous (and improperly located) parking lots, enormous (and improperly located) stormwater basins, enormous distances between destinations, enormous road intersections, enormous subdivisions, enormously tall street lights, enormous signs, enormous retail areas.Monster road intersection

The enormity of the American land use pattern is obvious when one walks the historic center of so many European cities and towns. My recent visit to Tuscany with my significant other was, once again, so saddening and maddening because the streets we walked were so stunningly lovable, charming, and romantic. Americans have thrown all of that charm away in our car-happy world.

Not only is it impossible to love most all of urban America. It is also, as Charles Marohn points out so well, impossible to afford to maintain. A double whammy of unsustainability. And extreme frustration in my career as a town planner who toiling for decades to try to nudge our society toward slowing down our ruinous love affair with making the world wonderful for car travel. And finding that even most smart people in America strongly oppose going back to the timeless way of building for people instead of cars.

It is said that dinosaurs went extinct due in large part to gigantism. I believe the same fate is likely for America, unless our society wakes up and realizes we are way better off in so many ways if we get back to building our world at the (walkable) human scale.

A friend asked me recently what I would do if I were in charge, had a blank slate, and could design a community any way I desired.

If I had such an opportunity, my community would be much more compact and human-scaled. One can walk historic town centers in Europe for models of what I speak of here.

WAY less “open space” for cars is essential.

I would ratchet down our extreme (and artificial) auto-centric value system by making roads and parking and gasoline purchases and car buying directly paid for much more based on USER FEES rather than having all of society pay for happy cars via such things as sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes.

In other words, making our world much more fair and equitable.

We have over-used and over-provided for car travel and car housing in large part because the cost to do so is mostly externalized to society rather than directly paid for via user fees. Eventually — maybe not in our lifetimes? — car travel will be mostly paid for via user fees and externalized costs will be more internalized. Car travel will therefore become much more expensive, signaling us to cut down on our over-reliance on it.

When that happens, we will inevitably see the re-emergence of the lovable, human-scaled world we once had. Fortunately, we are starting to see car travel becoming much more expensive and unaffordable — even though it continues to fail to be user-fee based.

And we are seeing the Millennial generation showing much more interest in compact town center living and much less interest in being car happy.

It is way past time for our society to a people-happy rather than car-happy world.

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Departments of Transportation Consistently Worsen Our Communities

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 7, 2003

Here in Florida, and almost certainly in nearly every other state in America, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) is ALWAYS the enemy. On every single project they propose in a community, citizens find ourselves in a position to fight DOT tooth and nail.

EVERYTHING DOT proposes worsens the condition of our communities. Our quality of life street without on street parkingtakes what is usually a permanent and substantial nose dive. And sprawl is put on steroids.

What galls me to no end is that DOT is PUBLICLY funded. Large amounts of our own tax dollars are being used to ruin our communities.

I can think of no public OR private organization that is more thoroughly, effectively and consistently designing and building projects which destroy cities and towns.

No one.

We have met the enemy, and he is bankrolled by us…

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

What Direction Should the State of Florida Take With Regard to Local Government Planning?

By Dom Nozzi

September 25, 2003

The State of Florida contains an agency called the Department of Community Affairs, which provides directives and guidance to city and county governments in Florida regarding town planning, transportation and land development. That agency therefore plays a crucial role in how development and transportation should occur in Florida.

What should this guidance consist of?

As a 20-year long-range town planner in Florida, here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, planning directives from the state planning agency need to be more directive than to just call for communities to establish a “vision.” But instead of taking a heavy-handed approach in which the state dictates how communities should be developed, there should be a strong statement that calls for communities to:

(a) Create plans and regulations that promote lifestyle choices. All communities must provide ample opportunities for living an urban, suburban, or rural lifestyle. Currently, nearly all communities only allow for the suburban choice. We must be clear that one size does not fit all. We need a tiered regulatory system that applies appropriate regulations for each lifestyle choice, instead of providing only suburban design regulations. We need to make urban and rural lifestyles legal again (in appropriate locations).urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-sm

(b) Create a transportation system that is rich in transportation choices. Again, this needs to be a tiered approach where one size does not fit all locations. In core (urban, compact) areas, the pedestrian is the design imperative. Streets are modest in size, calm in design speed and no more than three lanes in width. Roads get progressively larger and higher in design speed as you move outside of core. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), in particular, needs to radically change their approach to design so that state roads are context-sensitive when going through communities. FDOT must become a helpful partner with local communities, instead of an adversary only looking out for the needs of the state.

In many communities, being serious about controlling sprawl and protecting or restoring quality of life will require a long-term healing process. Damage wrought in the past by building monster high-speed roads will often need to be incrementally reversed by putting many of these roads on a diet (ie, removing unnecessary, toxic, dangerous travel lanes).

In the interim, as communities struggle to correct the design of their streets and roads, an urban growth boundary will probably be required. Without a strong boundary, no plans, regulations or strong elected officials can stop the sprawl tidal wave induced largely by big roads in a community.

(c) Many important efforts are necessary to reverse our long-standing pattern of being our own worst enemies. The Florida Growth Management Act (which dictates rules for plans that local governments in Florida must adopt) needs to be revised so that road “level of service” (the level of congestion found on a road) is not applied in urban areas. The State concurrency rule that obligates level of service for urban roads is a powerful sprawl engine (because “adequate” road capacity tends to only be found in outlying areas rather than within towns).

In addition, public schools must end the practice of inducing sprawl by curtailing the widespread construction of new schools in outlying areas. An important element is this is to revise school standards that make walkable, in-town, neighborhood-based schools difficult or impossible (such as large ballfield requirements).

Large emergency service vehicles must not dictate excessive road design standards by being the standard that engineers use to design roads (the “design” vehicle). Doing so promotes high and dangerous car speeds.

Similarly, modest, human-scaled streets and building design must be made legal again in the urban portions of a community.

In sum, a strong stand must be taken by planners that we stand for CHOICE, and that one size does not fit all.

 

 

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Filed under Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Why Are Americans Unable to Afford to Build Lovable Buildings?

Why Are Americans Unable to Afford to Build Lovable Civic Buildings?

By Dom Nozzi

December 15, 2006

I was recently vacationing in Europe. When we were enjoying the magnificence of the public realm in Italy, I remarked that the stupendous buildings and streets and piazzas we observed were built by communities that were quite poor compared to most American image12communities, yet these Italian villages were building public facilities that even hundreds of years later make American communities look like slums in comparison.

I suggested that an important reason for that is that American communities have impoverished themselves by pouring enormous public dollars into their ruinous Carmageddon highwayroad system. Indeed, a crucial reason for the financial dire straits was that even in the early days of the car, motorists were powerful enough (even though there was only a handful of them) to successfully stop government from getting road modification dollars from user fees such as the gas tax (a gas tax was sometimes established, but it was a tiny fraction of what was needed).

Here is an observation about the early years of cars in Colorado from a book I’m reading: “…three-quarters of the state’s outstanding debt [in the 1920s] was for highways and about a third of the statFlorence Uffizi & Piazza della Signoria May02e’s annual budget went to the Highway Department.”
“[In 1930], the state spent 50 percent more on highways each year than it did on education. Only one-third of this state money was raised from motorists.”

It does not require rocket science to figure out why most every US community builds boxy, low-budget, embarrassing public buildings and pathetic, tiny, uncared for public parks, instead of building a Piazza Navona or a Duomo Catania.

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A Dinosaur Piloting the Titanic

By Dom Nozzi

September 2, 2008

Car happy suburbanites must be bewildered that the costs to operate and maintain a car — as well as to build the road and parking facilities cars need — are skyrocketing in recent years.

After all, they have had a love affair with the “freedom” that they fervently believed the car delivered to people formerly trapped in the “dense and dirty central cities.” A freedom that allows them to flee to the bliss of the drivable suburbs.

But with exploding car travel prices, the suburban dream is rapidly becoming an unsustainable, unaffordable nightmare, because a car-based lifestyle is bankrupting governments, businesses and households, and leading to an national epidemic of outlying suburban homes rapidly losing their value and attractiveness, as large number of Americans are now flocking back to the more sustainable and more convenient walkability of compact, charming, historical downtowns (where housing values are rapidly increasing due to the growing demand for such housing).

The free-market libertarian variety of the drivable suburban resident should be ashamed of his- or herself for stubbornly supporting the most heavily subsidized (read: socialized) artifact in world history: the American car (largely due to free parking).

Why do suburbanites insist on enlarging this subsidy by calling for governments to force private businesses to provide even MORE excessive, often bankrupting, car-travel-inducing parking? Why do suburbanites loudly argue for road-widenings, traffic congestiondespite the fact that doing so amounts to extreme socialism for motorists?

Such suburbanites have become dinosaurs in a society teetering on the edge of economic collapse. Dinosaurs because we are in an enormous oil and gasoline predicament. Our nation must take action immediately to avoid costly, agonizing pain that soaring automotive costs are bringing to America.

Given the horrifying and unstoppable rise in car travel costs, a suburbanite must feel like the captain of The Titanic just after learning that icebergs will send his or her unsinkable ship to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Without delay, we must take steps to avoid societal icebergs. We must immediately start adopting effective mechanisms to reduce car dependence.

Such as reforming our local development regulations to make compact, mixed-use, walkable, low-speed lifestyles legal again (most all cities make such sustainable development largely illegal).

Such as starting to re-build a national train system.

Such as putting an end to the enormous government subsidies issued to cars and suburbs.

Such as providing a full range of lifestyle choices and travel choices, instead of only allowing one choice: car-dependent suburban living.

Are suburbanites willing to be part of the solution instead of part of the (obsolete, dinosaur-like) problem?

Do they naively think that oil would somehow miraculously be abundant forever, and that gas would always be cheap? How many future wars will America be forced to engage in to continue the desperate, hopeless struggle to keep oil abundant?

Far from being the source of “prosperity” and “freedom,” as many suburbanites assert, cars are rapidly becoming a dysfunctional millstone around the necks of large numbers of suburban Americans who are trapped in a world where they are now forced to take out a bank loan every time they buy gas. Their living arrangements don’t allow them the freedom to opt for walking, bicycling or using transit. Instead, they must cut corners to afford expensive gas. Less money for food. For health care. For entertainment. For housing. For savings. As Peter Maass writes in the 8/21/05 NYT, “[Dwindling oil supplies]…could bring on a global recession…The suburban…lifestyles, hinged on two-car families…might become unaffordable.”

How ironic. And how tragic that the suburbanite’s support of socialism for cars and hostility to transit is akin to The Titanic captain not ensuring enough lifeboats on his ship and ordering “all engines full ahead.”

And by the way, if, as many suburbanites say, cars are not detrimental to our quality of life, why do we not find Detroit and Houston and Atlanta to be a paradise, where cars and highways have long been king? Why are they, instead, an awful place to live? (and where housing prices plunged most steeply during the 2008 real estate crash).

Why do people the world over flock to enjoy the timeless charm of the great European cities, built before the emergence of the car?

 

 

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

“Concurrency” for New Development?

By Dom Nozzi

“Concurrency” is a regulatory rule that seeks to ensure that new development does not result in a diminishment of the amount of parks or schools or potable water per person. Some communities call it an “adequate facilities” rule.

I worked as a town planner for 20 years as a long-range comprehensive planner in Florida, and a great deal of my work involved helping my community implement the state concurrency rule adopted a year before I started my job.

This state growth management law goes into great detail and requires an enormous amount of study to determine, precisely, concurrency needs for facilities (primarily adequacy for roads to avoid congestion). The concurrency rule seems, on the surface, to be a good proxy for our determining if we are “managing” growth and protecting our quality of life.

In fact, it is an incredibly bad measure for sustainability and quality of life.

Despite first impressions, the rule tends to move communities in the opposite, downwardly-spiraling direction.

The rule is fairly harmless for, say, parks or schools. But for roads, maintaining per capita road capacity with a concurrency or adequate facilities rule is ruinous.

In most or all instances where concurrency is adopted by a community to manage new development, the rule says nothing meaningful about needing to maintain a level-of-service for the most important elements of a quality community: quality neighborhoods, transportation choice, housing choice, urban design quality, compact development, mixed use, or quality of life.admin-ajax (3)

Instead, nearly all applications of the rule forces the community to divert an enormous amount of time and energy into putting together a huge amount of data that is nearly meaningless for creating quality communities — data that is often counter-productive. And little more than mindless, bureaucratic bean counting.

Because of this, communities with a concurrency rule often have very little available staff time that can be devoted to putting together a vision for quality of life and sustainability. Such communities could have time, but it would require more money to hire more planners — and visionary planners at that. By setting up a concurrency rule, most communities get lowest common denominator planning.

The smaller towns with no planning staff or history of planning are helped to at least start doing something to fight the Wal-Marts and sprawl developers, but for bigger, more sophisticated cities, the rule typically means that planning staff squander a huge chunk of their time on bean counting: working up huge amounts of numbers that don’t help the community — and usually hurts the community.

Almost never does a community with a concurrency rule ask or expect any visioning or designing for quality of life. They are so busy counting beans that they kill themselves to assess concurrency numbers, and then delude themselves into thinking that such a number-crunching effort will somehow give them, magically, a pleasant, walkable town.

We need to start over again on concurrency.

Concurrency must start finding proxies for quality of life.

The road concurrency rule (which is the only concurrency rule that matters for most or all of the communities which have adopted concurrency regulations) means, instead, that all the community cares about is a quality of life for cars.

The unintended consequence of such a misguided focus on a quality car habitat rather than a quality people habitat? The community makes it inevitable that sprawl will be accelerated and the quality of life trashed. Indeed, both sprawl and quality of life end up being much worse than had the community not adopted a concurrency rule.

And what a bitter irony that would be.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Specialization is Killing Cities

By Dom Nozzi

Andres Duany has made the essential point that specialists are killing cities. Conventional traffic engineers, for example, specialize in the narrow needs of how to design a road for maximizing car movement – and very little else. Many civil engineers produce scenes such as what is shown in the photo at right. As specialists, many such engineers have only one task: Move stormwater as fast as possible to reduce flooding.

Instead, we need traffic engineers who have the training (and permission from their community leaders) to incorporate the needs of walkers, lovers, bicyclists, transit users, seniors, children, admirers of quality urbanism, and others so that the street is a lovable, quality experience for more than just someone who is in a hurry while driving a car. Traffic engineers need to know urban design and architecture, which includes an understanding of human psychology (so that the engineer understands what designs will produce various forms of human behavior and human affection).

More so than most any profession, traffic engineers profoundly shape the quality of our community – positively or negatively. They must therefore be generalists, not (car-happy) specialists. The fact that the vast majority of them have been the latter goes a long way towards explaining why so many of our (mostly more recent) communities are so lacking in charm or lovability.

In sum, we need a paradigm shift in how we train traffic engineers. And town planners (the failed profession of public town planning is the subject of another blog I need to write).

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