Tag Archives: sprawl

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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Filed under Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

What Do I Think of the Diverging Diamond Interchange?

 

By Dom Nozzi

Febuary 2, 2017

Superior, Colorado built a “diverging diamond” interchange that opened in October 2015. It was only the second such interchange to ever be built in Colorado. Traffic engineers are imagessinging its praises throughout the nation. A newspaper article appearing in the February 2, 2017 edition of the Boulder Daily Camera fawned over the fantastic new addition to the region’s transportation system.

I am not joining the engineers or the newspaper in their love affair with the design.

Instead, I find such designs a colossal waste of money – money that could have been used for, say, transit. They are also a colossal waste of land. An entire city could fit inside one of these intersections.

The diverging diamond is a boondoggle for those reasons. But it is also a blunder because they promote increased per capita car travel. Why? In part because they are nearly 51df393d218c6-imageimpossible to cross by foot or bicycle. And in part because in the long run they will further disperse land development in a more sprawling way. Those increased distances will make it increasingly impractical to walk, bicycle or use transit.

Ironically, the major justification for the car-only design is that it briefly reduce intersection congestion, which will initially save a few seconds of motorist time (think of the fiscal irresponsibility of spending millions of public dollars spent to save a few seconds temporarily). Ironic because by artificially inducing more car trips than would have occurred had the diverging diamond not been built, the design will lead to MORE traffic congestion and MORE time delay for motorists in the long term (both at their location and areas in the region).

To hide the embarrassing fact that the millions spent ($14 million in this case) to briefly save a few seconds of time, the publicly proclaimed explanation is that it will improve safety. For the conventional traffic engineer, “improved safety” actually means that motorists can now drive faster and more inattentively with less fear of crashing. No mention is made of the fact that the intersection is much less safe for pedestrians or bicyclists, or that faster, less attentive driving is very dangerous for everyone.

The diverging diamond, therefore, is an excellent example of the century-long failure by conventional traffic engineers to understand induced car trips that are created by (briefly) reducing traffic congestion with these designs. There is a reason, after all, that many researchers repeatedly urge us to understand that it is impossible to build our way out of congestion. It is like loosening your belt to solve obesity.

But wait. There’s more.

Not only is the diverging diamond a boondoggle in the above mentioned ways. It also damages our world by adding more auto emissions into our air (by increasing per capita car trips) and reducing potential tax revenues in the region (by encouraging dispersed rather than compact land use patterns).

Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief over why our generation built these monstrosities.

There is one tiny upside to this overwhelmingly negative idea: it produces future jobs for people hired to remove these mistakes after we regain our senses.

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Filed under Bicycling, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

The Undesirability of Autonomous Cars

By Dom Nozzi

December 16, 2016

Autonomous cars remind me of the many techno optimists in the 60s and 70s who assured us that we would soon be driving flying cars like The Jetsons.jetsons

So much faster! End of traffic jams! No air pollution!

Assuming autonomous cars become a significant part of our lives — which is highly unlikely given enormous difficulties associated with making autonomous vehicles work in the real world — such vehicles are likely to create a great many negative unintended consequences.

First, there will be a huge increase in per capita car travel due to the relative ease of car travel by such vehicles. Many trips that were formerly made by walking/biking/transit (or not at all) will now be by car — including by kids, the handicapped, and seniors who are now unable to drive.

Second, there will be a need for wider roads to handle that per capita increase.

Third, we will see higher average car speeds.

Fourth, we will see more pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars since the software will direct the car to kill such people rather than the driver.

Fifth, there will be a big increase in obesity due to the increased amount of travel by car.

And finally, we will suffer from a perpetuation of unsustainable transport energy consumption, toxic air emissions, and dispersed land use patterns.

uber-carOverall, like standard cars, autonomous cars are extremely toxic to cities. To be healthy, cities require slow speeds (which promote the agglomeration economies that cities require). Higher speeds induce more low-density dispersal, which destroys city health and the essential need for social capital. Cars isolate us, yet our genes and our cities need interaction.

In general, autonomous cars are a solution looking for a problem.

Given the consequences I mention above, we need to hope that autonomous cars are as “successful” as George Jetson’s flying cars. I’m not worried because I am confident autonomous cars will soon be forgotten.

What bothers me most is that such pie-in-the-sky vehicles distract us from pressing city and human needs we have neglected and failed to address for several decades.

How much progress have we made on passenger rail design and implementation, for example?

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

Transportation Drives Land Use Despite What Transportation Planners Tell Us

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 5, 2000

Nearly all transportation planners say they are widening the roads just to follow the land-use decisions that already have been made by the community.

Nonsense.

While almost all transportation planners make this claim, it is an old, discredited, conventional wisdom that is so conventional that even most non-transportation people believe it. Of course, it is quite handy for the transportation people because they can escape guilt when the strip commercial and sprawl happen. “Not my fault. It was those planners and elected officials who changed the land use.”

Seems sensible until you look closer and find out how the market brings unbelievable and relentless pressure to change the designations when we widen the roads and the intersections, and expand the parking.

If we are incredibly courageous and true to our principles, we might be able to delay the re-zoning caused by those enlargements for a few years. But that just means that because the road carries so much high speed, high volume traffic, it is no longer feasible to keep in street without on street parkingresidential because the quality of life is so miserable (as a result, the residential building eventually is abandoned, or is downgraded from owner-occupied to rental), or it is no longer rational to keep it as a farm because you can make millions by selling it for a shopping center.

Also, all the conditions that people dislike about the city — whether real or perceived — such as noise, crime, etc., can be more easily fled if the newly widened roads allow you to get to work each day in a reasonable period of time, even if you live in an outlying area. The ultimate result is that as we add capacity to streets, we set in motion a pattern of sprawl and strip, we wipe out farms, and we accelerate the decline of in-town areas.

And I’m convinced that the driving force is our roads, NOT our inability to hold the line on our land use and zoning maps.

Hard to believe, but before WWII, planners were god-like. Here is an apropos comment I found on the new urbanist listserve a few days ago:

“…[A] colleague suggested in passing that planners and architects abandoned urban design as such in the late 1940s and retreated to their respected spheres of influence – policy and buildings, respectively, leaving the ground to the public works engineers.  Note, the Amer. Soc. of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a division devoted to “urban design” (urban highways, streets, water and sewer and drainage systems).  The American Institute of Architects does not.”

So yes, let’s return to the golden age of cities and planning before we ruin ourselves in our insane efforts to make cars happy…

 

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Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Is It a Good Idea to Build Walkable Developments in Greenfields?

And Will a Strong Plan and Strong Elected Officials Be Sufficient?

By Dom Nozzi

August 2, 2000

I think as a culture, we need to make sprawling, poorly-located projects and happy cars the Great Satan, the Number One Moral Evil.

And we need to figure out what conditions will result in such a change.

Frankly, I think one of them is building traditional, walkable neighborhood developments (TNDs) in greenfields. Admittedly a compromise, but it is one of the few market-based leverage points we have. I think that once most of us become convinced that our future development can ONLY be TND, contiguous, properly located development rules will inherently follow. As it stands now, only a few pointy-headed intellectuals understand seasideaerialthat important need, because we’ve poured trillions into building big highways and thereby locking ourselves in to having a huge majority that wants to flee the city for the cabin in the woods.

It seems to me that broadly speaking, we have two realistic tools for reversing unsustainable sprawl:

 

  1. Use TNDs as a leverage and educational tool in greenfields; or
  2. Stop widening roads and starting road dieting a great many roadways.

In the near term, I think #1 is much more likely. The outrage is that #1 means the loss of important natural areas (not to mention fragmentation), but it is almost certainly the price we must pay in the near term for committing the sin of pouring trillions into highways. I do not think it is feasible for us to find the political will and cultural values shift in the near term to fight for:

  1. TNDs, and only contiguous to an existing town.

Yes, polls encouragingly show that the majority across the US oppose sprawl. But we know that there have been huge majorities that support environmental conservation for DECADES. Of course, this has merely been lip service. It is so easy to tell a pollster what you think is best, based on what our culture says is moral, but then not walk the walk in our own lives.

It is a concept known as “Social Desirability Bias,” where people dishonestly tell pollsters how they think or behave not because they actually think or behave in such a way, but because they do not want to admit to the pollster that their thoughts or behaviors are unethical.

We need to be careful and not kid ourselves about how successful we can be in the near term to discourage development in undesirably remote places. Boulder CO, for example, typically elects Council members who are strongly in favor of tightly controlled growth and development. And history shows that south Florida somewhat similarly fought hard for environmental conservation and against sprawl.

The results are not pretty.

Reaction to such elected officials in Boulder sometimes results in the election of folks relatively supportive of unrestrained development, and even with a majority of Council members supporting strong growth management, such an aggressive stance tends to result in poorly designed sprawl occurring in towns around Boulder that are not affected by Boulder’s regulations. Most of that sprawl houses people who commute into Boulder. And we know what has been done in south Florida.

I wish we could successfully manage new development with nothing more than political will and well-crafted plans. But if the market, HEAVILY DISTORTED BY GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES, calls for the opposite, we will get what the market wants, regardless of having even the most impressive elected officials and plans.

I often get into a shouting match with my Gainesville, Florida planning department supervisors, who still fail to realize that the long-range comprehensive plan merely records what has already been decided or what is already on the ground. This is the case despite Gainesville currently having a majority of “liberal” (albeit spineless) commissioners for a number of years. I’m hoping to have a minor effect with the transportation plan, but my early call to have “no net increase in road capacity” has already been chopped out by my supervisors.

The comprehensive plan is nearly irrelevant with regard to development that occurs, even if it calls strongly for no sprawl and is backed by five no-growthers on the city commission. What matters is the market. We must change that, with the few tools we have, if we want to have an impact. End public subsidies that fuel sprawl, stop widening roads, stop requiring a huge amount of parking, stop making mixed use and slow and narrow streets and granny flats illegal, encourage admirable model TNDs, etc.

More Thoughts on the Above Topics

We are nowhere near putting a halt to sprawling, remote, car dependent development. Given that political reality, I’m much happier with a TND in remote locations than a conventional sprawl project in such a location.

We certainly need to determine what it will take to muster the political will to effectively stop sprawl. Mostly, we need to stop widening roads, start putting a huge number of roads on a diet, start requiring pedestrian-friendly and auto-inconvenient mixed use projects via development regulations, and modify market preferences for cabins in the woods. How can we do that? I’m hoping that part of the solution will be to get some of the sprawl subdivisions (which is 99.9% of what is built) to be TNDs instead, so they can stand as visible INDICTMENTS of auto-dependent shlock. We need more envy on the part of the upper classes (who tend to be opinion-leaders and power-brokers) for new urbanism, and an excellent way to do that is with greenfield TNDs.

We need greens to stop fighting like mad — and burning themselves out in the process — to stop an infill project in order to save a few trees. They will win a few battles, but lose the war as they turn a blind eye – comparatively speaking — to the eco-rape happening at a much larger, more environmentally costly scale, in our greenfields. Too often, it seems like greens fight hard against TNDs, yet barely raise a peep when it is an auto-friendly project in a remote location.

It is fortunate that Sierra Club is finally starting to realize that a key lynchpin on saving our remaining, important natural areas is to address transportation. Transportation drives what happens with our land use (and, indirectly, our conservation). If we fail to stop our single-minded efforts to make cars happy, our natural areas are doomed to the sprawl steamroller even if every single elected official in the US supports strong growth management.

I agree that time is of the essence. We must therefore work quickly to reverse our car dependency trends, since, more than anything else, such trends are wiping out our greenfields with a HUGE number of new  subdivisions every week. I don’t think it is healthy or sustainable for us to keep fighting against greenfield developments. There are too many battles, and not enough of us. And the market forces — mainly due to the huge roads we’ve built — are too overwhelming.

As for concerns about such things as habitat fragmentation, it is a clear threat. And the number one cause? Not greenfield TNDs. The big culprit is roads and auto dependence.

I agree that requiring only contiguous development will buy us time. But our car culture makes that rather unlikely, since the market pressure to leapfrog is huge.

I like the jujitsu concept here. I’m often trying to figure out a way to use the power of the enemy against it. We need to get the market to help us. Remove subsidies. Build admirable models. Tax what we dislike…

I guess our ultimate dilemma is that stopping the road-builders remains a MONSTROUS undertaking. Perhaps as difficult as finding the will to simply stop sprawl development through, say, an urban growth boundary. I’m convinced one of our best hopes is that it soon becomes unaffordable for us to continue widening.

Then we need traffic congestion to do its many positive things.

 

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Filed under Economics, Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Educated Environmentalists and Missing the Forest for the Trees

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 22, 2000

It is common for those opposed to new development (the extreme form of this being the “not in my back yard” NIMBY) to cloak their opposition to a new development under the moral-high-ground mantle of environmentalism.

Nearly always, it is suburbanites who do this.

But it is far too often the case that intelligent environmentalists — who perhaps should know better — get caught up in the NIMBY hysteria. It has only been recently that the national Sierra Club has stopped their widespread NIMBY efforts and focused more attention on the real culprit — sprawl.

When I worked as a town planner in Gainesville, Florida, there were many neighborhood development proposals (including a bike path, of all things!) that were battered by NIMBYs. In each case, these in-town projects were hammered by intelligent environmentalists — environmentalists who were comparatively silent in the face of the incremental, relentless, profound, larger-scale ecological destruction that happens in outlying areas (and, ironically, at an accelerated pace due to the actions of in-town NIMBYism).

By the way, I did not hold up most of those proposed developments in Gainesville as models of good design. I just think they are, in the grander scheme of things, in much more ecologically preferred LOCATIONS — I prefer the loss of a few trees in urban, disturbed woodlands, and the loss of a few raccoons and squirrels, to the loss of hundreds of acres of nearly pristine woodlands, and high-quality habitat that is home to, say, eagles, fox squirrels, and gopher tortoise. I honestly don’t believe there is a third choice: Loss of neither. I believe that south Florida and southern California are testaments to the belief that there WAS a third choice.

I continue to remain highly annoyed (but not surprised) that for many intelligent environmentalists, minimizing residential densities is the be-all-and-end-all of environmental conservation when it comes to urban development. There is little that I can think of that is a more ruinous strategy for our future than to persist in the strategy of thinking that low densities will save us. Environmentalists MUST get on board with the idea that we need more compact development in proper locations. If this does not happen, we will have no chance of averting a south Florida future…

My experience, in other words, is that it is NOT just suburbanites cloaked as environmentalists. Many educated environmentalists must share the shame.

The key to a future rich in sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and civic pride is modest size. Modestly sized street dimensions. Modest distances between land uses french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1(and, implicitly, modest community and neighborhood size). Modest building setbacks. By stark contrast, sprawl is most accurately defined by LARGE size. Big setbacks, huge street dimensions. Monstrous setbacks.

In other words, the latter is scaled for cars, not people.

 

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Filed under Environment, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Can We Fix Sprawl by Making It Cleaner and Prettier?

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 2, 2001

A friend recently created a “Worst Streets” list. Overall, I think the Worst Streets list is a fantastic idea.

One thing I’d hate to have happen with the Worst Streets list, but nevertheless expect, is that a number of folks might think that the nastiest thing about auto-oriented sprawl is how ugly it is, and think that all we need to do is Keep America Beautiful litter campaigns and sign control along our ugly streets and everything will be peachy keen.

This is not even remotely accurate.

In fact, one could argue that one of the things that sprawl is good at is making things look pretty and clean (compared to those “grimy, ugly” inner cities).

The attractiveness of a street is comparatively trivial to the key issues of buildings and street trees being close to the street, designing for transportation choice, no more than three lanes, no double-left turn lanes, and low design speed. If we get those elements right, the street will inevitably be attractive and free of such horrors as screaming signage, and no transportation choice.

If we don’t, we’re not doing anything sustainable or effective to fix the street.

So while I think the “best” and “worst” street list would be great for communities, we need to strive to get the publicity for the lists focused on what REALLY matters. As Ed downloadAbbey once said, it’s not the beer cans I mind – it’s the roads.

Following some media publicity about the worst streets, some have disagreed with the ranking of their street. One said that “Sprawl and auto dependence is not bad. We don’t think the street is ‘dirty’ or ‘ugly.'”

Such comments are missing the point, as I note above. In fact, sprawl and strip commercial is usually more attractive (to a motorist, at least) and clean than places which boast quality urbanism. Again, we need the ranking of worst streets to focus on function problems, not visual problems, so that citizens do not get confused about what we mean by “worst.”

The worst streets are those with large building setbacks, a large number of roadway lanes, lack of street trees, lack of transportation choice, etc.

Let’s avoid the Martha Stewart solutions and concerns. We don’t want to mislead people into thinking that sign control or litter control are the problems that will fix a bad street. To me, those are mostly the unpleasant secondary outcomes of a street with poor functional design. Get the underlying functional problems corrected, and the secondary litter, signage, and franchise architecture schlock will start fading away on its own.

Ultimately, it comes down to having street designers respected by citizens. We have the citizens agree that a street is bad. The citizens then turn to their trusty professional designers and say: “Tell us how to fix the street so it is good.” We certainly do not want them (or conventional traffic engineers or most elected officials) to come up with solutions that don’t get at the root of the problem.

The street is not bad primarily because of litter or sign pollution.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation