Tag Archives: suboptimizing

Suboptimizing on Trees

By Dom Nozzi

June 14, 2002

“Suboptimizing” occurs when one objective is so single-mindedly and aggressively pursued that other important objectives are neglected.

I observed a stark example of this when I was a town planner for Gainesville, Florida. Gainesville strongly suboptimized trees, to the substantial detriment of walkable urbanism.

For example, few years ago, I was forced by my supervisors to insert in several confusing, silly sentences into a “traditional neighborhood development” (TND) ordinance I had written to promote compact, walkable, human-scaled neighborhood development.

The inserted language needed to describe “engineered soil.”

Not only was the definition inherently confusing and complex. I was told by a number of local landscape architects that (a) they have never heard of such soil and/or (b) that such soil would be quite expensive to install. So the TND ordinance I had drafted — which was already too onerous for a rational developer to use to build a subdivision — became even more difficult to use by developers because Gainesville’s elected officials wanted big trees.

This is yet another reason why it is rare for developers to build walkable places. In this case, this unfortunate state of affairs persists because big trees are quite often incompatible with a modest, walkable, human-scaled building-street-sidewalk design.

All of the above is not to say that street trees are expendable. No, street trees are essential for a great street, but are not sufficient. And it is important that when street trees are selected that they not be too large to undercut the essential, human-scaled needs of the pedestrian.

In another example, I had been directed to amend my “Traditional City” ordinance (also designed to promote compact, walkable, human-scaled design) to make street trees required in the Gainesville town center (landscaping was currently not required in the town center). The rules would require that the City require town center developers to jam street trees into all developments and redevelopments. This would add additional complexity, burden, and confusion to the ordinance, and add another disincentive to build or infill in the town center.

A third example was when I heard there was a very good chance that for a proposed new county courthouse parking garage, the town center would not be getting desperately needed on-street parking (one of the most crucial amenities needed for a quality pedestrian experience) along the courthouse street frontages.

Why?

Well it was not, at least, for the goofy reason that stopped the designer from installing on-street parking in front of the new courthouse itself. In that case, the reason was that there is a childish fear of truck-bombers.

No, on-street parking next to the new garage was not going to be stopped because of a fear of a terrorist boogie monster like Timothy McVeigh.

On-street parking was not going to be possible because Gainesville was requesting big trees. The city could have both on-street parking and trees, but trees such as palm trees were unacceptable…

The end result was predictable and nearly certain: Gainesville would soon amend its walkablility codes (in particular, walkability regulations for TND, Traditional City, University Heights, and College Park) for the all-important suboptimizer of big trees. Doing that would push buildings back from the street, discourage desperately needed in-town, infill, walkable development, and substantially increase the cost of infill development. Thereby creating less-walkable streets.

By suboptimizing on big trees, Gainesville misses an essential design principle: In the town center, the needs of pedestrians come first. Not the needs of live oak trees. By neglecting this principle, Gainesville shows either a lack of awareness of the important needs of a town center. Or has no real interest in creating a healthy town center.

The lush, big-tree landscaping looks wonderful from your windshield as you whiz by in your car in Atlanta and Gainesville. But where are the pedestrians? Why are they not img_0263out walking? Isn’t it enough that we provided a lot of shading live oaks?

Has there been a time over the past 30-40 years when Gainesville has not suboptimized on big trees as the number one priority? Has that done anything to stop Gainesville from taking big steps toward becoming a sprawling, car-happy place? Has that done anything to promote walking on Gainesville’s sidewalks?

Lessons from Other Parts of the World

Which cities and streets are the most popular tourist destinations in the world? Are they the cities with streets that look like a forest due to being lined with oaks? Nope. They are the cities with narrow, treeless streets. Why? If it were true that street trees were the most essential element to a street that the world loves to flock to, we’d find everyone flocking to the streets with the most incredible canopy.

But it is very rare for one of the most popular, famous, loved streets in the world are famed because of their tree canopy.

Again, while street trees are nearly always essential for a quality street, they are not sufficient and are not the top priority for designing a street that the world loves. The top priorities for creating a great street are these:

  1. Higher residential density along the street.
  2. A mix of residences, offices, and shops along the street.
  3. Modest dimensions for street widths and building setbacks.

The “3 Ds” — density, diversity, dimensions — when in place together, are usually sufficient. They are the first things we must require of a street when looking for the ingredients to create a great street. Only then do we worry about installing those important street trees.

A number of great Italian cities demonstrate this — Florence, Venice, Siena, Rome. The 3 Ds are therefore the first things we must require of a street. Only then do we think about installing trees, and maybe more ample sidewalks.

The problem all over America: We always put in way too much space on our streets, we prohibit density, and we separate homes from offices and shops. We then wonder why streetscape tactics such as street furniture, street trees and wide sidewalks don’t “fix” such a street. Unless we install the 3 Ds up front, street trees and wide sidewalks are a trivial band-aid for a terminally ill patient.

The issue is not whether we could fit shade trees within our most narrow streets. That is a given. In a city where it is all about trees, it is a given that we will find a way to retrofit trees on such streets. No, the real issue is what our land development codes require for new development. That is the battle I’m interested in here. It is very difficult for me to live in a city (Gainesville) in which so much auto-oriented slum has been built so consistently for so many decades.

This was somewhat mitigated for me as a town planner for Gainesville, as I was able to find I had a marginal amount of influence in not seeing car-happy design dominate all development in Gainesville. What drove me to persist was that I did everything I could to see that the new stuff that was built without making the same suburban mistakes — at least in zones I mentioned above (such as Traditional City and TND).

And that is the rub. Gainesville was consistently watering down and suburbanizing their codes. Staff, commissioners, and citizens see to it that any time modest, walkable, human-scaled dimensional standards are proposed that we immediately emasculate the regulations by enlarging the dimensions for our fire trucks and live oaks. In other words, the new stuff will continue to march us towards being an Atlanta instead of a Florence.

An enormous problem all over America: We always put in way too much space, we prohibit density, and we separate uses. We then wonder why street trees and wide sidewalks don’t “fix” such a street. Unless we do density/mixed use/modest dimensions up front, street trees and wide sidewalks are a trivial band-aid for a terminally ill patient.

 

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Suboptimizing Bicycling Part 2

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 28, 2003

I love bicycling. I have been a lifelong bicycle commuter, wrote my Master’s thesis on bicycle transportation, have been a member of several bicycle advocacy groups, worked professionally to promote bicycling as a town planner, and have had many books and articles published that promote bicycling.

But there is a problem I see here in my city all the time.

We are either removing on-street parking to install a bike lane, OR we are resisting on-street parking due to an existing bike lane. As an urbanist who strongly believes that in cities, the pedestrian is the design imperative, these street design decisions ENRAGE me.

Largely, what has happened in too many communities is that there emerges a strong, pro-bicycle lobby that suboptimizes on their needs to the detriment of other objectives. VERY FEW communities have a pro-pedestrian lobby to counter or at least balance the pro-bike lobby, and even fewer communities have engineers/designers who are well-schooled in pedestrian design.on-street-parking

In the low-speed town center environment, bike lanes tend to be inappropriate (what New Urbanists call a “transect violation”). They are inappropriate for such streets, in part because bicyclists can safely share the lane with motor vehicles. Bike lanes are suburban, large-street facilities.

Bike lanes in that environment are also a problem because they will increase the average motor vehicle speed and will create a street surface that is too wide for a human-scaled, walkable environment.

Ideally for pedestrians, the street cross-section is as narrow as possible. Bike lanes therefore degrade that ideal.

What I try to convince the bicycle advocates of is that an environment that is pleasant for pedestrians is an environment that benefits bicyclists as well. First, a pleasant pedestrian environment is one where car speeds are modest (which bicyclists prefer). Second, a pleasant pedestrian environment will improve the retail/office/housing markets so that those markets are less likely to abandon in-town locations for the remote locations in sprawlsville (which create excessive distances that bicyclists dislike).

It is only in the past 10 years that I have seen the light and realized that my design focus should be on pedestrians, not bicycles.

In the name of better cities (for both pedestrians AND cyclists), I hope a growing number of cities can win the battle to retain the on-street parking in the face of the over-zealous pro-bike lobby.

 

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The Red Herring of Transit and the Poor

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 1, 2005

A common red herring argument, when transit supporters seek to improve transit operations to serve areas based on ridership, is that doing so will “hurt the poor.”

But this is nonsense. And counterproductive.

The problem with serving low-ridership areas in order to serve low-income areas in a community is that to do so is to SUB-OPTIMIZE the poor.

The result of that sort of tunnel vision is to run empty buses in low-income neighborhood routes for the sole purpose of “helping” poor people. By running low-ridership routes,
the transit system suffers, which results in worsening transit service quality SYSTEM-WIDE.

Incrementally, even if you only put transit money into serving low-income neighborhoods, bus service in low-income neighborhoods declines — bad news for poor people in low-income neighborhoods.

Is it just that it is somehow unethical to enrich the trancity-bus-1sit system (thereby improving service throughout the urban area) by serving more wealthy routes that generate large volumes of riders?

Many cities have a long, sorry history of running transit service almost exclusively to serve poor people.

Majorities of commissioners and administrators champion the poor every time they mentioned transit. The result is a system that is pathetic in ridership and service quality for a long time (including for the poor).

The lesson is that ridership growth depends, in part, on quality service. Successful ridership growth, as an aside, also depends on properly managing car parking by restricting the quantity of such parking and properly pricing it, and ensuring that compact development occurs in areas to be served by transit.

By contrast, a system that prioritizes helping the poor (instead of creating system quality) is doomed to be forever a system with low-quality service that only those without travel choice will use (in other words, almost no one).

 

 

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Suboptimizing Trees: A Common Anti-City Tactic

By Dom Nozzi

“Suboptimization” occurs when efforts are made to achieve a lower-order goal to the detriment of a higher-order goal. A common instance of suboptimizing is when there is a single-minded effort to reduce fire truck response times, and doing so to the detriment of peace and quiet in a community (and to the detriment of traffic safety). A study has found, for example, that using excessive street geometries to speed fire truck response time results in a net increase in injuries and deaths, as the number of people saved from fires by faster fire trucks is overwhelmed by the big jump in car crashes due to excessive street dimensions.

When I was a town planner in Gainesville, Florida, I experienced what is surely a very common national occurrence: obsessively and emotionally suboptimizing on trees, to the substantial detriment of a walkable city.

During my time as a planner in Gainesville, I was forced to cram in several confusing, silly sentences in my “traditional neighborhood development” (TND) ordinance — designed to create a compact, walkable neighborhood — describing “engineered soil” (said by some to be needed for relatively large trees). Not only was the definition inherently confusing and complex. I was told by a number of local landscape architects that such soil would be quite expensive to install.

So the TND ordinance, which was already too onerous for a rational developer to use to build a subdivision, became even more difficult to use by developers because city-hating Gainesville citizens and elected officials wanted enormous trees above all else (including walkability).

This is yet another reason why we don’t see developers building walkable places. Huge trees are quite often incompatible with a modest, walkable, human-scaled building-street-sidewalk design. And a large number of Americans have strong emotional feelings toward protecting trees.

The tree suboptimizers also won another battle. I was directed to amend my walkable town center ordinance (somewhat similar to my TND ordinance) to make street trees a requirement in the Gainesville town center. Like most cities, Gainesville had properly exempted developers from needing to install tree landscaping in the town center, as the town center tends to require compact, human-scaled spaces to deliver the charming, quality urbanism we seek in a town center. The new suboptimizing rules ended up requiring that developers jam street trees into all developments and redevelopments in the town center. This added additional complexity, burden, and confusion to the ordinance, and added another disincentive to build or infill in a town center that has long been sorely in need of development and redevelopment (as so much development was being strongly pulled to sprawl locations).

At the same time, I learned that the new county courthouse parking garage planned for the Gainesville town center would NOT be getting desperately needed on-street parking (one of the most crucial amenities for pedestrians) along the garage. Why? Surprisingly, it was not for the goofy fears that kept on-street parking away from the courhouse itself. In that case, the embarrassing reason was that there was a childish worry of truck-bombing terrorists (which, coincidentally, also just happened to be in the interest of motorists who dislike being slowed by on-street parking, by the way).

No, on-street parking next to the garage is not going to be stopped because of a fear of Timothy McVeigh. On-street parking was stopped because the City desperately wanted big trees.

For the record, on-street parking and trees could be deployed together, but trees such as palm trees are “unacceptable” by those who wish to suboptimize tree ecology for quality walkability.

The end result was predictable and nearly certain: Gainesville would soon amend its walkablility codes (in particular, the two ordinances I mention above, as well as walkable ordinances for student-oriented neighborhoods adjacent to the University of Florida) to push buildings back from the street — so that the human-scaled sense of enclosure is lost — or discourage desperately needed in-town, infill, walkable development.

Thereby creating less-walkable streets.

I’ve stated this over and over again in my work as a town planner: In the town center, the needs of pedestrians come first. NOT the needs of live oak trees.

But only if we care about having a walkable, healthy downtown.

Maybe we really do want sprawl, and aspire to be another Atlanta. If so, we are using tactics that are sure to get us to be another Atlanta. And I was probably working in the wrong community…

The lush landscaping looks wonderful from your car windshield as you whiz by in your car in Atlanta and Gainesville. But where are the pedestrians?

Why are they not out walking? Isn’t it enough that we provided a lot of shading live oaks???

I was left to wonder: Was there ever a time over the past 30-40 years when Gainesville had not suboptimized on big trees as the number one priority? Has suboptimizing live oak trees done anything to stop us from taking big steps toward becoming a sprawling auto slum? Has that done anything to promote walking on our sidewalks?7390694268_93120010d5_z

Is it any wonder that the anti-city, tree-suboptimizing attitude in America led to such a nearly universal development of cities throughout America that are utterly unwalkable, uncharming, and unlovable? A nation with cities that only an Oldsmobile could love?

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Sub-Optimizing the Poor

By Dom Nozzi

To “help” poor people, a counterproductive tactic that is commonly deployed is to run empty buses on routes that are so sparsely populated that it is inefficient (uneconomic) to run buses on such routes. Such routes are often maintained because they serve lower-income locations in a community and therefore are thought to “help poor people.”

By running low-ridership routes, the transit system suffers, which results in worsening transit service quality system-wide.

Is it somehow unethical to enrich the transit system — thereby improving service throughout the urban area — by serving more wealthy routes that generate large volumes of riders? Maybe if the bus system had the bloated budget of most city or county law enforcement agencies, they could afford to run what amounts to a social service agency that only ran routes in low-income neighborhoods with sparse ridership.

But bus system budgets are suffering, not bloated.

Many cities have a long, sorry history of running buses to serve poor people. A history that, as a result, sees a decline in the quality of service city-wide, which leads to a decline in ridership.Ottawa, Canada

Majorities of elected officials and administrators tend to champion the poor every time they mention transit. The result is a system that is pathetic in ridership and service quality for a long time (including for the poor).

The lesson, as a transit director friend says, is that ridership growth depends, in part, on quality service (it also depends, as an aside, on parking management, as well as residential and commercial and job density). A system that prioritizes helping the poor (instead of creating system quality) is doomed to be forever a system with low-quality service that serves only those without travel choices (in other words, a mediocre system that serves almost no one).

Let us also acknowledge that we need to have iron-clad evidence from quality studies and peer cities, prepared by qualified economists, showing a big jump in ridership before we move toward a costly transit system change.

A common change considered is to reduce or eliminate bus fares to increase ridership. However, I am unconvinced that there is good evidence showing substantial ridership growth with fare reductions.

Without being coupled with scarce and priced car parking, frequent service, and relatively high residential densities, low fares will be almost entirely ineffective in attracting motorists to transit — given the enormous financial as well as unquantifiable benefits of car travel.

Even today’s “high” gas prices are nowhere near enough to compensate for the significant, rational reasons to drive a car everywhere for all but a tiny minority.

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