Tag Archives: strip commercial

Making Cars Happy Is America’s Most Serious Mistake

By Dom Nozzi

October 14, 1999

One of America’s most serious societal mistakes is that since WWII, we’ve designed our communities to make cars instead of people happy. The better we “move automobile traffic,” the more we inevitably get:

  1. Costly, environmentally destructive, low-density, dispersed sprawl;
  2. Characterless, “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development featuring”auto architecture;”download
  1. A loss of a sense of place and sense of community;
  2. Unpleasant, unsafe neighborhoods;
  3. A loss of independence for those who cannot drive — especially seniors and children, who become captive to those that can give them a car ride; and
  1. A lack of transportation choice, because every trip is forced to be made by car, and because the relentless efforts to make cars happy is a zero-sum game: Every time we make car travel more pleasant, we discourage all other forms of travel (a classic viscous cycle).

To save ourselves, we must wean ourselves from our utter dependence on the car. A guy by the name of Pit Klasen recently said that “It’s true that Germans have always had a special love affair with the car, but there’s no reason you have to remain trapped in a bad and unhealthy relationship.”

 

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Debating Whether Transportation Drives Land Use with My Gainesville Planning Department Supervisors

By Dom Nozzi

February 17, 2000

I had a loud debate with my Gainesville, Florida planning department supervisors yesterday on what the Land Use portion of Gainesville’s Long Range Plan should say.

I pointed out that because transportation drives land use, it is hopeless, in the long run, for local government to fight proposed rezonings from single-family residential to non-single family on major, hostile streets. None of them agreed with me at all, and believe the City should continue our long, hopeless fight against rezoning proposals from single-family to non-single family on hostile streets. This is maddening, and obviously being colored by recent NIMBY attacks against the City.

After the meeting, I sent the planning manager excerpts from the West Palm transportation element. He responded with this:

Dom, I didn’t read all of this but I generally agree with the part I read. Transportation travel land use, and bad land use decision drive people away also.  If the Street is bad and the Land use is bad what do you think will happen.  For Gainesville the Streets are bad and the Land use is no so bad, so lets change the street and keep the land use. [this is the verbatim, uncorrected transcript of his message to me]

I responded to those comments with this:

“Glad you agree with West Palm and folks like Walter Kulash, who would say exactly what I and West Palm Beach would say on these issues. My main point: We are fooling ourselves and doomed to a life of permanent, never-ending battles with people who want to rezone single-family residential land that they own and cannot use as single-family residential land use due to the road.

“Granted, there are a few who could live in a single-family residential home and put up with the noise and reduced property value. Forty years from now, if we do not fix our arterials to make them more livable, we will, though incremental zoning changes, have those streets lined with offices and multi-family residential and retail. And over those 40 years, we will have a bunch of planners burned out on fighting those never-ending battles.street without on street parking

“In the long term, as Kulash points out, no force on earth – not even five no-growth advocates on the City Commission — can stop that incremental change. Yes, we can succeed, in the short term, in keeping the single-family. But that will only mean that we’ll have a bunch of vacant homes, and depressed property values.

“The best we can realistically hope for, in the long run, if we don’t fix the streets, is land use that makes sense for major streets (according to what the market wants), and helps transit, while minimizing strip commercial. That is why I think we should give some consideration to favorable recommendations on petitions that request going to office use or multi-family use (but not retail).

“Again, I am not recommending that we initiate the land use changes (that will inevitably come) — even though that would be most fair for suffering single-family property owners along major streets. Our message must be: “Either fix the street, or be fair and honest by realizing we are going to get incremental conversion away from single-family.”

West Palm Beach FL has shown clearly what can happen overnight (dramatic land use improvements and property value increases) when the street is fixed.

My comments to the Gainesville Comprehensive Long Range Planning Chief:

“I’ve not had a full night’s sleep for weeks, and have recently developed a severe case of insomnia. So when you see me dozing off at future staff meetings, you’ll understand.

“And it is not just student noise that is out of control. It is also emergency vehicles, vacuum trucks, police helicopters, etc… With regard to SW 13th Street (a major state highway running north-south through the middle of Gainesville), let me again try to make clear that the public sector, short of doing a major change to the street (such as we’re proposing for SW 20th Avenue), has nearly no meaningful way to affect the land use market. The Land Use plan I wrote for Gainesville, for example, will have a future land use map that merely adopts what is on the ground already, with a few minor tweaks based on what citizens have asked for on their individual property and we have agreed to. But even IF we could make wholesale, visionary changes to our land use map, such changes would have little meaning (or fairness) unless they are attuned to what the market calls for in those locations — and us planners would not be doing work to determine market feasibility of changed designations. Again, transportation drives land use. So unless we make radical changes to SW 13th, all we can expect is uses that are consistent with that sort of highway.

“Personally and frankly, I think converting SW 13th to a “4-lane urban street” is an oxymoron. Not to say that I’ve given up on 13th, because I think we’ll ultimately return to our senses and make it a 2-lane. I don’t know enough of the details to know what Chapel Hill has done, but I’m fairly certain that they are things we cannot duplicate anytime soon — such as buildings up to the street (which I would oppose on a 4-laner without on-street parking, since it is unfair to the business).

“I would have to see why Chapel Hill works well. I do not think it is feasible to slow traffic on a 4-lane state highway because FDOT would not allow it. It can happen with a 2-lane state highway due to things like congestion and a narrow street profile that does not create the illusion of a high-speed highway.

“More so than most, I can envision such a 13th Street corridor fairly easily. Given time and vision and courage, it can be wonderful. Many people consider me a pessimist on certain things, but hypocritically are extreme pessimists on things I’d like, such as a walkable city. I would strongly support what you suggest be done on 13th. But I do not believe it (a four-lane urban street) would dramatically change 13th to make it a good market for higher density residential or pedestrian vibrancy. Call me a pessimist, but I’m convinced we MUST remove travel lanes to make SW 13th work. And isn’t that necessary if we are going to install on-street parking there?

“But are we not skirting around the key effort? Don’t we need to admit that we need to slow the growth of UF, get more on-campus housing, or get better code enforcement (or a combination of such things)? I’m sorry, but I just don’t see a realistic way to transform SW 13th the way you and I know it needs to transform someday.

“In my humble opinion, we cannot realistically expect good redevelopment along SW 13th as long as FDOT forces it to remain a high-speed highway. I just don’t see colored crosswalks, landscaping, or wide sidewalks dramatically changing things. Don’t we, for example, have some colored crosswalk pavers out on Newberry Road near Oaks Mall now. Has that meant anything at all?

“I like your enthusiasm and ideas about Westgate, too, but am not sure even a Dover/Kohl charrette could do much unless the owners of the center felt the plaza was collapsing economically. There are things we might be able to do with an overlay district I’ve outlined in my urban design toolbox (which has been pulled from the urban design plan I wrote because it is “too new urbanist”). I’m hoping we can adopt such an overlay for places like Westgate, but the change will be painfully slow unless the plaza is torn down. That is the only way we can get the buildings re-configured in a proper way.

“Thanks for your comments, good suggestions and concern.”

More of my thoughts expressed to the Comprehensive Long Range Planning Chief:

“Probably our most enormous problem with ‘fixing’ this area is that we will not be able to do it as long as it remains a high-speed, 5-lane state highway. We can only save it if we can take out 2 travel lanes, but I suspect this is not politically feasible, given our FDOT people and our commission. SW 13th already has a bike lane that is excellent for bike commuters, but it would be interesting to create an off-street greenway trail there. Any opportunities? Any way to extort such a thing? Also, the existing buildings are way too far off the street to make for quality urbanism. We’d need code requirements that say that any reconstruction or new development must be on the sidewalk. Again, probably not politically feasible.

“So without removing travel lanes and without pulling buildings close, we have a long-term, huge problem. And this is not even to mention the fact that our residential density and commercial intensity along there is way too low. Once again, all we can do as the public sector to move the market in that direction is to remove travel lanes.

“I think we’d probably need some special, non-Traditional City [walkable Gainesville regulations I wrote for downtown] overlays for the two areas, and perhaps hire Dover to do the plan. Retrofitting such miserable places is a monstrous job that requires a lot of political courage and staff time. (which is why people like Dover are helpful) I could do overlays for the areas, but it will take a LONG time for them to transform those areas.

“An example of the problem of Trad City applied to Westgate: Would it be feasible and appropriate, without an internal street plan, to require all redevelopment there to demolish the strip store and put it up on 34th or University? Seems like we first need to adopt an internal street plan, and then find the courage to get the plan adopted and conformed to. And then have enough redevelopment interest to see meaningful redevelopment over a reasonable period of time.”

 

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Knoxville TN Road Diet

August 2017

Compare these two photos of Cumberland Avenue – a “before” photo, shot by a News Sentinel photographer several years ago, and an “after” photo taken this morning (August 2017).

With the reconstruction of Cumberland mostly completed, visitors will notice wider sidewalks, turn lanes at intersections, and a landscaped median. About 100 trees will be planted this fall, further greening up The Strip.

The massed utility poles are gone, too. Decorative LED streetlights have replaced the standard roadway lights on wooden poles.

Plus, new development and private investment – totaling more than $190 million – are changing the look and increasing the vibrancy of The Strip.

For details, click on this link to read a City Blog post:

http://bit.ly/2wTkFeV

Join Gov. Bill Haslam, the City team and Cumberland merchants and stakeholders at 4 p.m. today, Baker Center, for the official ribbon-cutting for the new Cumberland!

Knoxville TN road diet

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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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The Ruin of Frontage Roads

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 19, 2002

I’m getting ready to lead a transportation and land use “revival” in a coastal Florida town this weekend. Those folks are apparently drowning from sprawl and auto dependence, their elected officials don’t “get it” (as is true everywhere), and some of their activists have invited me to speak at a big growth management forum there to see if I can to open their eyes before they continue on their road-to-ruin path.

Should be a lot of fun. Say hallelujah!!

A friend recently asked what I thought of “frontage roads.” (roads paraldownloadlel and flanking a larger, typically strip commercial road designed to keep local shopping trips from slowing more regional trips on the main road).

The following is what I told her.

Walter Kulash – a traffic engineer who strongly shaped my views over much of my career – briefly addressed frontage roads in a famous speech he gave a number of years ago. He didn’t say much about them in the speech, but did indicate that he thought they were a bad idea.

I told her I didn’t have anything else in my files about frontage roads, but I did know enough o warn her that from an urban design and transportation perspective, frontage roads must be avoided at all costs.

For the uninformed, they seem like a common sense, obvious solution to avert a congested strip commercial future. But as I will say until I am blue in the face, we cannot build our way out of congestion!

In fact, trying to add more capacity to hopelessly try to avoid congestion (which is an important justification for frontage roads) will lock us into a downward spiral of accelerated suburban sprawl, extreme auto dependence, unbearably high taxes, declining in-town (and locally-owned) businesses, a miserable quality of life, bankrupted households and local governments, a loss of a unique community identity, a loss of civic pride, higher levels of congestion (which is helpful in a town center but generally a problem in suburbia), less walking/bicycling/transit, and worsened safety conditions.

From an urban design perspective, frontage roads are a disaster. To be convenient for bikes/ped/transit and to promote a quality ambience, buildings must be as close to facing buildings across the street as possible. Frontage roads spread buildings further apart, destroy any sense of human scale, and make it impossible to cross the “street” to go from one building to a building across from it. Every trip where you have frontage roads and big parking lots in front of buildings set way back from the road MUST be by car.

The inevitable result of frontage roads, like every single other urbanizing or strip commercial area where they have been tried, is worsened transportation and quality of life. It is impossible to EVER build enough capacity to handle the demand for car travel in any place besides a declining rural farm town with no growth foreseen. In fact, adding more road capacity with frontage roads will INDUCE car trips that would have never occurred had the capacity not been added.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Traffic engineers urge more road capacity. When the capacity is added, the widened road induces new car trips above and beyond the number of trips before the widening. The result is that the widened road quickly gets choked with car gridlock, and the engineers say, “See! We told you! It was a good thing we widened or the traffic would be ‘worse’!!!” Actually, what would really happen without the widening is that there would be a lower demand for car trips — congestion regulates itself unless we let road widening short-circuit the process…

In sum, frontage roads are a wonderful way to spend millions of public dollars to destroy a community. What a bargain! We are essentially bankrupting ourselves to foul our own nest. Have we lost our minds?

Work to stop the frontage road idea at all costs.

Hope that helps, and hope you are well.

 

 

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How Road & Intersection Size Influences Development

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 3, 2004

In 2004, I came across the following comments on an email list I subscribed to regarding urban design. The comment were written by Seth Harry:

“No, we can’t expect commercial to stay off them [big roads], and that is all the more reason to be mindful of how we design our arterial networks, both in terms of specific design of the actual street, and the network itself, such that we don’t automatically load all of our trips onto a few, overscaled arterials that represent an irresistible invitation to the huge box retailers.”

“The other part of the equation, however, is that fact that all of our housing developments also now typically empty out directly onto those same large scale arterials, with no intermediate street networks to diffuse and disseminate that traffic (and thereby creating more viable opportunities for smaller, more locally-focused retail to occur).  By putting all of those cars directly out there on the highway, we are inadvertently sending them out there at the mercy of those same mega-boxes.  As I referred to the occupants of those cars during a recent regional planning initiative —  Those aren’t just cars, those things represent self propelled “free-ranging consumers…” just looking for place to land and spend their money.  And there are all too many mega-retailers just waiting to accommodate them…”

Here are my thoughts about Seth’s comments, including my concerns about 4-lane vs 2-lane streets and the influence they have on future development:

Over the years, I have seen countless studies and books that touch on this crucial question of whether the size and character of roads (and intersections) determines the land uses that develop along it. Indeed, I find the question so crucial that I put a great deal of effort into trying to clearly show how road design DOES drive land uses adjacent to it, and start off with this point in my speeches.

Nearly all transportation engineers, chambers of commerce, citizen activists, and elected officials DENY that roads determine land use. Instead, most people naively believe that land use plans or development regulations or elected officials or enlightened staff can save us from ruin even if we build a monster road.

Here is what Walter Kulash, one of my heroes, has to say on this question:

Containing this type of use of 50/50 [50 mph and 50,000 cars per day] streets is far beyond the will and ability of the typical local government. The 50/50 arterial is a gift-wrapped, gold-plated, gift to strip development. Once in place, almost no power on earth will stop its march toward strip commercial. Time spent berating local governments (counties and admin-ajax (7)cities) for not doing better with these monstrosities (and I’ve done my share of this) is satisfying to the critic, but is unproductive. Once in place, it is too late to do much about the 50/50 arterial. – Walter Kulash

Walter Kulash was formerly a principal and Senior Traffic Engineer with the Orlando-based community-planning firm of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Lopez Rinehart, Inc. A licensed professional engineer with an academic background in engineering at North Carolina State University and Northwestern University, Mr. Kulash has worked on traffic and transit planning projects throughout the U.S. and Canada. Clients include private developers, local and state governments and non-governmental agencies.

Since the early 1990’s, Mr. Kulash has specialized in the rapidly emerging field of “livable traffic” design. This view of traffic engineering recognizes that the narrow traffic planning goals of the past few decades—moving the most traffic at the greatest possible speed—are giving way to a far more inclusive view. In the new view of traffic engineering, traffic performance is balanced against other desired qualities of the street, such as its value as an “address”, its retail friendliness, and its role as a premiere public space of the community.

Some recent projects for private developments that incorporate principles of livable traffic include neotraditional communities throughout the U.S. and Canada, community shopping centers that serve as centers of walk-in communities, resort villages, outdoor shopping villages and “park once” districts. Some recent projects for public agencies include city-wide mobility plans and reintroducing walking to formerly automobile-blighted areas.

Recent projects for non-governmental agencies include downsizing of road plans, re-introduction of on-street parking in shopping environments, substituting the improvement of existing streets for new freeways, and university campus mobility plans.

My observation as a planner (and that of Kulash and many others) is that big, multi-lane, high-speed roads make it CERTAIN that the road will be forever hostile to residences and transportation choices. The only things that can emerge and thrive along such “car sewers” is single-occupant vehicle travel and strip commercial development (with accompanying billboards, glaring lights, etc.).

By stark contrast, roads that are 2 or 3 lanes and designed for slower car travel will inevitably deliver residential development, higher densities, more locally-owned retail, less Big Box retail, and transportation choice. Big Box is only possible when big roads are built. Big roads ENABLE Big Box.

Indeed, Big Box can only survive if it has the 4- and 6- and 8-lane roads that allow them to take advantage of a HUGE regional “consumer-shed.”

 

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Hometown Democracy: Should We Give Citizens the Right to Vote on Proposed Development Projects?

By Dom Nozzi

I worked as a long-range town planner for 20 years.

In 2007, a constitutional amendment was advanced in the state of Florida that would give citizens the right to vote on whether they approve of or disapprove of a proposed development in the community, or a proposal to change the zoning or land use designation of a property. On the surface of it, such a form of direct democracy sounds like a great idea.

But is it?

Over the past several decades in America, even town center residents (who live in a relatively dense, compact, mixed use location) have regularly been angry opponents of infill development in very appropriate locations.

This is predictable.

Predictable for two reasons. First, because nearly all development that has occurred over the past century has been awful, car-based schlock. And second, because when one lives in a world of massive subsidies for car travel and suburban sprawl, the citizen concern that overwhelms all others is the single-minded focus on MINIMIZING DEVELOPMENT EVERYWHERE.admin-ajax (7)

The citizen must plead for this because nearly all Americans live in dispersed, low-density, single-use locations that require car travel for nearly every trip. This means that the number one priority for most Americans is minimizing density (or opposing any form of new development) everywhere (including in the relatively dense town center, where compact development is most appropriate and desirable).

Why?

Because cars consume space so voraciously, car travel becomes dysfunctional and nearly intolerable with even a relatively small population. The level of frustration goes up exponentially when the neighborhood population increases, because there will now be even more people consuming enormous amounts of road and parking space!

Therefore, if one is compelled by community design and government subsidies to drive everywhere, the only possible community design agenda is to angrily oppose density increases (or any new development) every time it is proposed – and no matter where it is proposed. I am (but shouldn’t be) astonished by how many times I’ve seen even town center neighborhood residents fight like the dickens to oppose new development (and the fear that “spillover” parking by the new development will take away “our” neighborhood parking) in or nearby the neighborhood. Again, this is predictable in a society where car pampering — and the extreme car dependence that results from such artificial promotion of the car — means that nearly all of us have a vested interest in fighting to stop new development.

The same sort of negative citizen response regularly occurs if there is a proposal to change the zoning or land use of a property within the community. After all, one would think that the adopted land use and zoning plan for a community is designed to promote quality of life. It therefore seems wise to “follow what the community long-range plan specifies for land use and zoning designations,” instead of letting some “greedy developer” harm the community plan by selfishly changing such designations.

However, city and county land use and zoning maps don’t tend to be a “plan” at all. For nearly all communities, the adopted land use and zoning maps are not designations chosen by planners, citizens and elected officials to achieve a better quality of life. Rather, such maps tend to merely adopt what is on the ground already. If an area has low-density residential development, the map will specify “single-family” for that area. If another area has offices, the map will specify “office” for that area.

That ain’t plannin.’

It is a spineless, leadership-less way of memorializing what already exists. No thought whatsoever went into an evaluation of whether certain parts of the community should evolve into a different land use pattern to achieve community quality of life objectives. Maybe once or twice in my 20 years as a town planner did my city meaningfully propose a land use that differed from what was on the ground already.

In the early years of our nation, Thomas Jefferson pointed out that a healthy democracy depends on an educated electorate. I don’t believe he wanted the direct democracy envisioned by giving citizens the right to vote on proposed developments or proposed changes to land use or zoning designations. I don’t think that direct democracy is at all workable – logistically – nor do I think it improves decision-making. Indeed, particularly when there is little citizen education, having large numbers vote inevitably dumbs down decisions when lots of uninformed people are able to vote about complex societal decisions.

Are we comfortable with the idea of dumbing down community design decisions? What sort of future can a community expect if citizens are given the such “direct democracy” power, and use it in a short-sighted way? A way that is now unduly, artificially distorted by car pampering, which leads most citizens to desire low-density sprawl and happy car travel? Won’t that lead to decisions that leave a community without a “Plan B” when faced with extreme climate change or peak oil problems? A community, in other words, without the resilience to adapt to a changing future? A community that suffers significantly because it did not plan for land use and transportation patterns that would reduce costs and provide options when the price of low-density land uses and car travel become unaffordable?

An important concern with the direct democracy of citizens voting on proposed development or proposed land use changes is the risk of driving development further out into the countryside, away from existing town centers.

As I look around the nation over the past several decades, this sort of sprawling is already happening – even without the added boost of citizens voting for more sprawl.

When I see remote subdivisions sprouting up like weeds, all I can think about is how we are paying for the ugly sins committed by our forefathers and mothers who were part of a pro-car generation. We are still embedded in that pro-car world. A world where the price of car travel is substantially hidden from us, so we drive more than we would have without such a clouding of our awareness. A world where we feel it is necessary for us to vote for nest-fouling, pro-car, pro-sprawl decisions because we are trapped in car dependency. In the end, we have become trapped in being our own worst enemies.

I am firmly convinced that representative democracy works better than direct democracy – particularly in larger, more complex societies such as ours. Most citizens do not have the time, interest, or wisdom to be sufficiently knowledgeable about community planning or transportation issues that must be decided upon.

Despite all of the above, I must admit that I have some sympathy for direct democracy applied to planning and transportation decisions to the extent that the amendment is an expression of unhappiness about the long parade of awful car-centric road projects and strip commercial sprawl developments that have occurred in American communities so frequently since the 1940s. I would have loved the opportunity to have been able to vote against the monster highway widening projects and massive shopping center developments that have been built in my community (and using public tax revenue to boot).

So in a sense, I am sympathetic to the idea of applying direct democracy to town planning. But overall, I believe the idea does more harm than good. It is a sledgehammer that wipes out the good with the (admittedly) bad.

Examples of good? Increasingly, developers and property owners are proposing high-quality, sustainable projects because there is growing evidence that compact, mixed-use development that promotes a higher quality of life, an affordable lifestyle, and transportation choice is the most profitable way to go. In part, this is due to the emerging Millennial Generation, which seeks more of a lifestyle that is based more on town center living and reduced use of car travel than previous generations. And in part, it is due to price signals and growing concerns about a sustainable future in a world where unstable energy and climate change are making a car-based lifestyle seem increasingly inadvisable.

By killing good and bad, we are left with the status quo, which is awful in so many instances (every American community is infected by unlovable, unsustainable, strip-commercial sprawl). We NEED developers and property owners to propose projects that will heal such car-happy insults to our quality of life.

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Policies in Our Plans Won’t Save Us

By Dom Nozzi

Nearly all of our elected officials and many of our citizens have convinced themselves that widening roads and extending utilities are technical decisions and therefore non-political. “We’re just protecting public health and safety, or providing jobs for poor people, or helping the economy.” They either don’t realize or deliberately hide the fact that such decisions are profoundly political, and are the most powerful factors driving sprawl, economic decline, harm to quality of life, and environmental destruction.

People that make the mistake of thinking that such decisions are technical rather than political perhaps comfort themselves by agreeing to adopt land use policies that discourage sprawl or environmentaladmin-ajax (2) destruction. They perhaps believe such words are effective in stopping undesirable community development actions. That road widenings or utility extensions have nothing to do with inducing such things as sprawl development.

In theory, a community long-range plan could state something like “The City shall not add road capacity” or “The City shall not extend utility service beyond the urban service line.” But in the real world, it is nearly impossible, politically, to adopt such policies. Adopting such policies takes politicians with courage and enlightenment, and we simply do not have such a thing.

So we continue to fool ourselves by thinking that a policy such as “The City shall prohibit sprawl” or “The City shall create a greenbelt” or “The City shall create large-lot zoning” will save us, not realizing that the critical land use and quality of life political decisions were already made when we decided to widen a road or extend a sewer line, and that such “technical” decisions will overwhelm any chance of non-infrastructure policies having a chance to be effective. These non-infrastructure, feel-good statements only have a chance if we strongly intervene on the marketplace by our infrastructure decisions.

An example I see a lot in my work is the relentless avalanche of re-zoning petitions planners get from people who have a single-family house along a widened, unlivable street. Naturally, the house now has much more value as an office or retail building (after all, who’d want to live along a hostile, high-speed street?), so it is to be expected that the decision to create the speedway has set into motion the never-ending political pressure to beat planners and elected officials over the head until the re-zoning is granted (and we take a step toward more strip commercial). The alternative we often see is decline or abandonment of the home.

Sure, we could have a long-range community plan policy that says we shall not allow strip commercial, and we shall protect residential along this street, but who are we kidding? Who’d want to live in such a home? It is unfair not to grant the re-zoning in such a case. So incrementally, regardless of who our elected officials are, we get sprawl and strip when we decide to make the street a speedway. That decision is, in the larger sense, not a technical decision. It is a political decision that indirectly says the community has opted to create strip commercial sprawl. When the decision to widen the road is made, it is merely ineffective lip service to have long-range community plan policies that say strip commercial sprawl won’t be allowed.

In sum, communities need to figure out a way to stop the decisions that drive bad land use — things like road widenings and utility extensions. The question, then, is what tools we have to make the right decisions and prevent the ruinous decisions – the decisions that seem technical but are actually political. The long-range community plan is not that tool unless that plan is adopted by a community that consistently elects wise, courageous leaders. Because we are a reactive society that usually only takes such action when a serious crisis emerges, it is my opinion that only major crisis or significant discontent is experienced by the community. Such things as a substantial economic downturn, an enormous increase in gasoline prices, or severe traffic congestion.

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A Road Diet for Main Street

by Dom Nozzi

I’ve spent the past several years, as a city planner, learning what works and what doesn’t work with regard to transportation planning. I’ve done research, and talked with a great number of city residents and transportation experts. I even wrote a book (and a second, shortly).

In many ways, what I have learned is the opposite of what I, and most other people I know, have always believed. The overwhelming consensus is that the way we’ve done things for the past few decades no longer makes sense.

What I have learned leads me to strongly recommend that cities put a number of their town center streets – particularly their Main Street – on a “road diet,” where travel lanes are removed and the road becomes, say, 3 lanes rather than 4.

Again, making a road more modest is the opposite of what we’ve always believed. But there are a number of very important reasons why a road diet (such as a conversion from 4 lanes to 3) would be beneficial for a city:

 No Meaningful Loss of Capacity. At first glance, it would seem irrefutable that removing travel lanes from a street would create congestion. However, the inside lane of a 4-lane street is generally used as a left-turn lane and therefore cannot be used as a through lane. As such, only the curb lane can handle most through trips if the street has no left-turn lane. Consequently, a 3-lane street with a left-turn lane handles about the same number of vehicles as a 4-lane. In fact, studies show that 4-lane and 3-lane streets carry about the same number of vehicles.

No Spillover. Because there is no real loss of capacity, going from a 4-lane to a 3-lane street would not cause any increase in “spillover” vehicle trips-the trips that might be diverted to adjacent streets near the road-dieted street by motorists seeking to avoid a congested street.

More Safety. A 3-lane is noticeably more safe than a 4-lane, resulting in a substantial reduction in crashes. Vehicle speeds go down, there is less variability in vehicle speeds, and there is less speeding. In addition, there is a big reduction in what engineers call “conflict” points and an increase in “sight distance” for turning and crossing traffic on a 3-lane. This is particularly important for many of our senior citizens who drive, since fewer conflict points and increased sight distance means fewer decisions and judgements have to be made to enter or cross a 3-lane street. Similarly, a 3-lane reduces the street-crossing distance where a pedestrian must be exposed to moving vehicle traffic, and creates a “refuge area” where a pedestrian can safely wait until there is a gap in traffic and safe crossing is possible (4-lane streets do not have a refuge area). A 4-lane street is a hostile, unsafe, high-speed highway that creates a safety barrier for those trying to cross it. For these reasons, a 3-lane street would be substantially more “permeable” for residents seeking to cross the street.

No Loss of Travel Time. Even though average vehicle speeds are lower on a 3-lane, travel time either stays the same or actually declines, according to studies I have seen.

 Reduction in Blight and Strip Commercial. One of the regrettable aspects of a great many 4-lane streets is that the high-speed nature of them often incrementally converts the street into an ugly, glaring, blighted, “Anywhere USA” commercial strip featuring huge seas of asphalt parking and buildings that retreat from the hostile the street. A 3-lane street can lead us back to an attractive, walkable, human-scaled street and building design that can restore a civic pride in the street, instead of being a street we don’t care for. Streets that are treated by removing travel lanes becomes a drive-to destination, rather than a drive-through “no man’s land.”

Improved Health of Main Street Land Uses. One thing that nearly all road diets deliver as a community benefit is the restoration of a healthy place for buildings. The “diet” will result in improved retail and office health along the dieted street, and actually make it possible again to see the establishment of new residences along the street. Indeed, dieted streets can become what we have traditionally called a “shopping street.” A bustling, fun, safe street that induces community pride.

It is a no-brainer. Put your “overweight” town center streets on a road diet.

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Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Buildings at Intersections

By Dom Nozzi

When constructing or renovating a building at a street intersection in a town center, it is critical that such a building be beacon hill bostonpulled up to the corner so that it abuts the sidewalks. Parking must be behind the building.

In my opinion, the public sector provides windfall benefits to the property owner at the corner of an intersection (high visibility to a large number of cars enabled by public expenditures). We therefore should realize that it is fair for the public sector to demand something in return. My demand is that the building be pulled up to the corner, where it can provide important convenience to pedestrians, and form a very pleasant public realm in the most critical “space forming” location in a city: our intersections.

When you think about it, the most profound way a town creates an image for itself — be it a traditional, walkable town or a sprawl/strip commercial town — is at its intersections. If the buildings at intersections are pulled up to the street and the parking is at the rear, we’ve pretty much achieved that “small town” ambiance we all love.

Think about standing at the intersection of a town you love, and you’ll realize the buildings are pulled up, not way back behind parking and landscaping.huge turn radius for road

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