Tag Archives: subsidy

Does Transportation Drive Land Use?

By Dom Nozzi

June 15, 2000

Often, I notice people express the opinion that transportation is dependent on land use. Similarly, I’m often told that land use comes first, and transportation planning and development follows to accommodate the land use. That “land use drives transportation.”

But let’s keep in mind that transportation is profoundly a vicious cycle and significantly changes behavior and markets over time. For example, when/if we add capacity or widen major roads, we set into motion some enormous political and economic pressures, and behavior changes. Widening a road will inevitably reduce the number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users (because it is now more difficult, unsafe, and unpleasant to use the bigger road). This creates more car trips (“induced travel”). And the induced travel created by the widened road, is used, post facto, to justify the widened road (a classic self-fulfilling prophesy). Because the bigger road carries more high-speed traffic, it becomes unpleasant to live along the road. So, over time, housing values decline along the road, and single-family gets converted to student rental, multi-family for students, office and retail. And because it is now more pleasant and fast to drive a car, people are better able to live in remote areas and commute to their jobs in the city.

Why? Because cross-culturally and throughout history, the average daily roundtrip commute is 1.1 hours. Some people will relocate to more remote locations to create a new equilibrium when the road is widened.

Many people dream of living in a “cabin in the woods.” Therefore, wider roads create a strong demand for sprawl housing, because the wider road reduces travel time from home to daily destinations. Is sprawl possible without car travel? Could a huge number of us live in remote locations if our transportation system did not provide cheap and easy car travel?

Most people would be unwilling to live in low-density, outlying, sprawling areas — or drive a car for every trip — unless roads are designed for high speeds and high volumes, and parking is both free and abundant. 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.

Another outcome is that our in-town streets become little more than “escape routes.”

Quite often, our transportation planning advisory boards are dominated by home building interests. Clearly, this industry realizes the fundamental importance of widening roads to create sprawl residential markets for them.

As for retail land use impacts caused by transportation, when there are so many cars being carried by a bigger road, business people cannot resist putting enormous pressure on staff and officials to rezone the businessperson’s property to retail in order to takearapahoe-ave-boulder-co advantage of all those potential customers driving by each day. This is precisely why we see so many big box retailers clamoring for sites at major intersections. In fact, in the planning department I work in, we get calls all the time from people who want to rezone from residential to office or retail along our major arterial streets.

High-volume big box retailers, except in large, high-density cities, are not viable unless the public sector provides large subsidies in the form of high-speed, high-capacity, multi-lane streets (big roads enable the big box to draw cars from a regional “consumer-shed”). Not only that. These retailers also depend on the public sector to allow them to build enormous and free surface parking lots, and enormous building footprints.

As expected, we so often have strip commercial – intense land use development pressure — on major roads near interstates. Could such streets have been anything else other than strip commercial, given the street design and the access to the Interstate? Are single-family homes viable along such a street? If you owned land along such a stretch, would it be rational for you not to do everything in your power to get the local government to grant you the right to sell to those 70,000 potential daily customers, as the “big box” retailer so often wants to do?

I’ve seen land use plans and maps prepared in the past, and I know that it is not a “plan” at all. Almost entirely, when we talk about a mostly built-out city, it is simply recording what is there already. Almost none of it is a proactive vision of what the planners want. If we engaged in wholesale land use changes in the land use map/plan to enact our sustainable, livable vision, all of the planners would be in fear of losing their jobs and all of the commissioners would be thrown out of office. Elected commissioners and staff are forced, by political realities, to be reactive in our land use “plan.” Transportation, on the other hand, is something we can make changes to, because it is often feasible, politically, to make the change.

It matters not a whit whether planners designate a site for retail or single-family residential. Over time, what will happen to the property is determined by the road design and traffic. If the land use designation does not correspond to what is happening on the road, the land use will get changed, or the land will be abandoned. If our street network is designed for modest car speeds, modest car volumes, connectivity, and access (in other words, transportation choice), we will get viable transit, bicycling, walking and neighborhood retail and mixed use, not to mention higher densities, more traffic congestion (which is, in cities, a good thing), compact development, and a control on sprawl. High-speed, high capacity roads will give us the reverse, regardless of what our land use “plan/map” says.

Is it not much easier to predict what will happen to the land uses along a street based on the way the street is designed than to predict what will happen to the street based on the land uses along it? Similarly, is it not more feasible to predict whether there will be a sprawled, dispersed, low-density community if we know, in advance, what the street system and form of travel will be, compared to whether there will be future sprawled community based on what the current land uses (or land use plans) are designated for various properties? For example, West Palm Beach FL is currently experiencing a dramatic, beneficial land use change throughout their city soon after they re-designed their streets by removing travel lanes, calming traffic, and doing substantial streetscaping. Land use improvements there are clearly driven by transportation changes.

Transportation engineers love to try to deny responsibility when their studies (which are flawed because they don’t accurately account for human behavior) show that a road must be widened. The engineer usually claims that land use drives transportation, and that their high-speed, high-volume roads are merely “meeting the demand created by the land uses.” “It’s not our fault that we must spend millions to widen roads, tear out houses, and ruin the environment. We are forced to because of the land use.” But this ignores the fact that high-speed, high-volume roads create a vicious cycle and substantially modify behavior, as noted above. The important danger of this highly misleading claim from many engineers is that it leads us to incorrectly believe that we have no choice. We must widen the road because of the land uses on the ground. Too often, we are mislead into believing that land use choices we made in the past are now forcing us to widen the road.

Engineers must not be allowed to wiggle out of culpability with such an excuse. The traffic engineer who explains it is the land use that “forces” the road widening seems sensible until you look closer and find out how the market brings enormous and unrelenting pressure to change the designations when we change the roads, and how human reactions to road conditions draws or repels residences. If we are incredibly courageous and true to our principles, we might be able to delay the re-zoning for a few years on a widened road that is now hostile for residences. But that just means that because the road carries so much high speed, high volume traffic, it is no longer feasible to keep the property residential 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 or subdivision.

Here is what Newman & Kenworthy (Cities and Automobile Dependence, 1989) have to say:

“In general, [transportation] modeling has assumed that land use is “handed down” by land use planners and that transport planners are merely shaping the appropriate transport system to meet the needs of the land use forecast. This is not the case. One of the major reasons why freeways around the world have failed to cope with demand is that transport infrastructure has a profound feedback effect on land use, encouraging and promoting new development wherever the best facilities are provided (or are planned).” (pg 106)

Why is Europe so walkable and compact, and the U.S. is not? Is it that they are just more educated and appreciative of the merits of walkable communities? Or is it that they mostly developed before the auto age, whereas we developed after the emergence of the auto age? And why is it that Europe is now, after entering the auto age, starting to see the sprawl we are experiencing?

The Florida growth management law requires that “level-of-service” standards be created, and that new developments only be allowed if they are built “concurrently” with the infrastructure and services they would need. But the only concurrency measure from the Florida law that matters is the road level-of-service. Every other concurrency measure – recreation, utilities, solid waste, etc. – is, for all intents and purposes, ignored in comparison.

We are fooling ourselves and doomed to a life of permanent, never-ending battles with people who want to rezone singe-family land that they own and cannot use as single-family due to a wide road (granting that there are a few who could live in a single-family home and put up with the noise and reduced property value – sometimes, this is called “affordable housing”). Forty years from now, if we do not fix our major streets to make them more livable, we will, though incremental zoning changes, have those streets lined with offices and multi-family buildings and retail. And over those 40 years, we will have a bunch of planners, citizens, and officials burned out on fighting those never-ending battles. In the long term, as Walter Kulash points out, no force, not even five “no growth” commissioners, can stop that incremental change after we have designed a street for high-speed, high-volume traffic.

Yes, we can succeed, in the short term, in keeping property zoned single-family. But that will only mean that we’ll have a bunch of vacant homes, and depressed property values.

Once the transport system is in place, the market/political pressure to take advantage of that system is overpoweringly strong, and will overwhelm any countervailing efforts. It hardly matters how courageous, visionary, or progressive a planner or elected official is. If the roads are designed to encourage sprawl, we will get sprawl. No zoning or land use designations (such as “large-lot” zoning) can stop it, and there is no community in the US that has succeeded by trying to control sprawl with designations. When we create and construct our transportation plans, we have, essentially and indirectly (and often unintentionally), established our future land use plans, not vice versa. It is as simple as that, and it is time for us to realize it.

All that said, I’m willing to concede that we should have our road and land use plans work concurrently. So yes, we should designate outlying areas for conservation and farms. But unless we concurrently get the transportation right, we are wasting our time.

In sum, keeping a road at a modest width with a modest number of travel lanes in the face of projected car traffic growth will, over the long term, result in less per capita car trips on that road, less new sprawl into outlying areas, less big box retail, more viable neighborhoods, a higher quality of life, and more residential density near walkable, livable, neighborhood-scaled town centers. Widening the road by adding travel lanes, over the long term, would give us the reverse. The excessive capacities that we typically build for our cities gives us too much sprawl, densities that are too low, and auto dependence. I believe that we should put a moratorium on adding street capacity to streets in our cities, before we wake up one day and wonder how we let ourselves become another auto-dependent south Florida, instead of a sustainable, sociable community featuring transportation choice, safety and independence for our children and seniors, and a unique community we can take pride in.

In the long run, the street shapes the land uses that will form along it much more profoundly than how the land uses would shape the street that forms through them. Let’s not let the traffic engineer fool us. Let’s not put in big roads and then valiantly try (and fail) to stop the sprawl and strip, and then flog ourselves when we are unable to stop the land use degradation. Transportation comes before – and determines — land use. A high quality of life, and sustainable future, depends on our realizing that.

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Should We Subsidize a Town Center?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2002

Why have property values have risen recently in American town centers? As someone who has lived in a town center neighborhood since the late 1980s, I would attribute the recent increase to a number of things.

First, many cities have seen a dramatic improvement in the health and perceived safety of downtown in recent times, which makes town center neighborhoods a more hip and fun place to live. For those yuppies who are concerned about safety, an apparently safer place to live is another reason.

Yuppies and other wealthy people have been gentrifying town center neighborhoods by renovating homes and bidding up the value of homes by moving into such neighborhoods at increasing rates. The yuppies are being attracted by the other improvements I mention here.

Town center neighborhoods tend to be built with timeless design strategies that will NEVER go out of style. That is, unlike contemporary neighborhoods, it is walkable, human-scaled, romantic, and safe for kids and seniors and pets. It is designed to make PEOPLE happy instead of cars. It is therefore a sociable, friendly place where people know each other and watch out for each others’ collective security. It comes as no surprise, as a result, that many town center neighborhoods now have the fastest rate of property value increase of any neighborhood in the region.

The tragedy? Nearly all local governments in America make it largely illegal to build these kinds of neighborhoods in other parts of the city. The streets are too narrow, the setbacks are too modest. There is too much mixed use and mixed housing types. The street intersections are too small. Etc. Etc. Etc. We have met the enemy and he is us…

In recent years, a growing number of people have been getting sick of the congestion, street without on street parkingtraffic danger, sterility, auto-dependence, and lack of neighborhood friends that they find in Sprawlsville. As a result, in growing numbers, we are seeing people seek out the traditional, in-town neighborhoods nationwide. They are seeking a sense of place. A sense of community. Things they are denied in their suburban, antiseptic lifestyles.

Does It Make Sense for a Community to Subsidize Their Town Center?:

I believe we are using a very important principle when we “subsidize” a town center. The principle that says we should tax what we want less of and subsidize what we want more of. We want less sprawl and a more healthy town center.

Sadly, too many cites mostly subsidize sprawl and add burdens to their town center.

I don’t think there can be any question that a healthy town center benefits the entire community. Even those who live in the suburbs. A healthy town center increases suburban property values. Instills civic pride. Creates a sense of community. Creates a necessary lifestyle choice.

Assuming we can agree that we ALL benefit from a healthy town center, why should we not subsidize something we want more of, or want to improve? Is it not a matter of fairness and equity? After all, we’ve  poured BILLIONS of tax dollars into ROAD subsidies in sprawlsville (interstates, multi-lane arterials, etc.). WAY more than we would ever subsidize in a town center. Many suburban road subsidies induce the market to build large shopping areas and shopping malls. Without the Big Roads subsidy, those places don’t exist. With the subsidy, the malls swoop in and in the process KILL town centers. So a TINY subsidy for downtown is simply a tiny way to try to even the playing field, and compensate for how public tax subsidies have destroyed the town center. Nevertheless, the town center subsidy pales in comparison to the sprawl subsidy for roads, utilities, emergency service, postal, etc. It is those who live in sprawl that are on welfare in a BIG way. When so many suburban dwellers attack tiny town center subsidies, they are demonstrating hypocrisy.

And getting back to why suburban folks should support a healthy town center: A healthy town center means that people are less likely to desire to flee in-town locations for sprawl locations. And as we all know, it is WAY more costly to provide services and public facilities in those remote locations (and by providing those facilities and services, we subsidize people in remote locations). THAT costly sprawl is the primary reason why we have “high” and growing taxes at the local level. Costly sprawl lifestyles, NOT tiny town center subsidies, are the prime drivers of high and growing local taxes.

Another way of putting this: If we desire to moderate the property tax burden, the most effective way we can do that is by ending subsidies for sprawl, and increasing subsidies for in-town locations. By proposing we stop the public assistance for a healthy town center, suburban folks cut their own throats. Because a downwardly spiraling town center means more flight to costly sprawl locations. This flight ultimately causes our taxes to go through the roof.

Or we accept a lower quality of life. Or both. The tax increase due to tiny town center subsidies are trivial by comparison.

If it were up to me, we’d pour a lot more subsidy into our town centers, because I believe doing so would be equitable and beneficial to the entire community.

 

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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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Motorists Do Not Pay Their Fair Share

By Dom Nozzi

The point is made over and over again. Motorists pay their own way in the costs they impose on society (road construction and maintenance, air and water pollution, “oil wars,” injuries and deaths, etc.) because they pay gas taxes.

Those making this point are wrong.

Over the years, I have done quite a bit of research on this topic, and have learned a number of little-known facts.suburbia-reburbia-image

A Harvard study found that motorists pay only 25 to 40 percent of the cost of their transportation. The remaining costs are borne by employers (through such amenities as free parking), by other travelers (due to increased congestion, reduced safety, etc.), and by governments and taxpayers who pay for the expansion and maintenance of roads.

Several additional studies have found large subsidies for autos.

Gas taxes and user fees pay for only 60 percent of the $35.4 billion spent by governments in 1990 to build, modify, and repair roads. The remaining money came from taxpayers and other sources (mostly sales taxes and property taxes, which non-motorists pay). For example, motorists in the greater Boston and Portland (ME) areas pay — through user fees such as gas taxes — only 24 to 53 percent of government outlays for driving.

Taxpayers pay a $2.4 billion annual subsidy to provide road infrastructure through property taxes. Over 80 percent of local government spending for auto infrastructure is raised through general fund taxes.

The costs not directly paid by motorists each year include $13.3 billion for highway construction and repair, $7.9 billion for highway maintenance, $68 billion for highway services (police, fire, etc.), and $85 billion for free parking.

In Minneapolis, less than half the $90 million the City spends on driving-related projects comes from transportation user charges (such as gas taxes) and nearly a quarter of all city residents do not own a car, yet all residents pay for road construction and maintenance through property taxes.

The social costs of driving that are not paid by the driver amount to a $300 billion subsidy each year. The EPA (Lowe, 1988) found that if employees were directly handed this subsidy, transit and bicycle use would go up and auto traffic would go down by 25 percent. A Seattle study found that society pays a $792 subsidy to each motorist each year (excluding a $1,920 annual free parking subsidy). In New York City, the metro area loses $55 billion each year in hidden auto costs associated with safety and environmental damage. More than 90 percent of all commuters park for free at work.

The market demand for dispersed, auto-dependent residential property is artificially high due to the heavy income tax subsidies for owner-occupied homes, federally-funded wastewater systems, provision of police and fire services, provision of postal and garbage services, as well as the road and parking subsidies.

When new developments are built in areas remote from water plants, wastewater plants, and schools, it creates higher incremental (or “marginal”) costs for adding new capacity to these services. By contrast, the marginal cost of new development near such services is lower. However, because costs are evenly distributed among all citizens by average-cost pricing, those who live in remote locations pay proportionately less. As a result, citizens living in remote locations enjoy an enormous price subsidy courtesy of citizens living closer to the services. And because new homes in remote locations tend to be only affordable for high-income buyers, the inequity results in poorer citizens subsidizing richer citizens.

In Tallahassee, capital costs for sewer hookups in central city neighborhoods are about $4,450, compared to $11,450 in remote, low-density neighborhoods, yet everyone pays the same hookup cost regardless of their location. “The poor families living near the sewer plant not only have to endure its odor, but also have to pay far more for their sewer hookup than it actually costs government to serve them. Meanwhile, the affluent lobbyists and politicians, who typically reside in distant suburbs on the north end of town, escape both the odors and the full bill for their waste treatment.”

Dispersed, auto-dependent development in Loudoun County, Virginia, is a net loss to the tax base of $700 to $2,200 per dwelling unit. In San Jose, California, planners determined that such development would create annual deficits of $4.5 million compared to a $2 million surplus if future development is compact.

In a case study in Lexington, Kentucky, a new development in a remote, auto-dependent area increased private and public costs by $272,534 per year. Some of these costs were borne by residents of the development in the form of higher travel costs (they presumably paid less for land and housing than they would have at a more accessible location). The remaining costs, however, were borne by other consumers and taxpayers in the area, who ended up subsidizing the remote development. Note also that the social costs of auto use were not factored into the calculation, even though such costs are comparable in magnitude to the direct costs of the auto use.

The Natural Resources Council (1993) notes that as long as gasoline is cheaper than bottled water, it is easy to use too much of it. The real cost of gas, if all of the social, financial, and environmental costs were factored in, has been estimated to be over $3 per gallon. Another study puts the cost at $2.50 to $5.00 per gallon.

If motorists had to pay the full cost of driving, transit would require less (possibly no) subsidy to operate efficiently.

An important reason why so many citizens are attracted to remote sprawl subdivisions is that hidden subsidies generally make such residential areas less costly for households, even though this choice is more costly for the community overall. “If some government is going to wave a lot of money in my face to move someplace, I’ll go…People want to live in low-density environments only if they can shift the costs on to someone else.”

Free parking is anything but free. As Donald Shoup points out, for example, free parking provided by retailers results in the price of goods and services inside the stores where free parking is located to be higher. The price of goods and services are higher to allow the retailer to pay for the land and maintenance costs of the “free” parking. If the parking was properly priced – in other words, charging a fair user fee for parking – the price of goods and services inside the stores would be lower.

In sum, American motorists are among the most heavily subsidized people on earth. Motorists pay nowhere near the costs they impose on society. Such a “distorted price signal” induces a great many Americans to own cars and drive cars a lot more than they otherwise would. Starting to eliminate such motorist welfare would substantially reduce driving, significantly increase bicycling, walking and transit use, reduce air and water pollution, reduce sprawl, increase affordability, improve household and government financial health, improve civic pride, and create more physically healthy communities.

Isn’t it time to take motorists off welfare?

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America Has the Lowest Level of Bicycling on Earth: What We Can Do to End the Shame

By Dom Nozzi

In his 2010 book, One Less Car, Zack Furness points out something that should utterly shame all bicycle advocates, alternative transportation activists, planners, and elected officials: no nation on earth has a lower percentage of bicyclists than the United States. A pathetic one percent of all commuting in the US is by bicycle. Even in places with bitterly cold, forbidding weather – such as the Northwest Territories adjacent to the North Pole – bicycling rates are higher.

How could this be? After all, those promoting more bicycling and less motoring have successfully convinced towns all over the nation to install bike lanes, bike paths, bike showers, and bike parking.

The reason, as Michael Ronkin, former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the State of Oregon has brilliantly and provocatively pointed out, is that it is NOT about providing facilities for bicyclists. To effectively convince large numbers of Americans to commute by bicycle, it is necessary to TAKE AWAY SPACE FROM CARS (and increase the cost of car travel).

[Note that in this essay, I am referring to “commuter” bicyclists. Commuter/utilitarian bicyclists are those who use a bicycle for travel to work or shop, for example. “Recreational” bicyclists, by contrast, are bicycling for entertainment or exercise.]

A new paradigm is needed for effectively promoting a large increase in bicycling in America. For several decades, there have been two large advocacy groups aggressively promoting their idea of the best way to recruit more bicycling:

1. The “vehicular cyclists,” led by John Forrester. The VC advocates claim that no in-street bike lanes or separated-from-the-road bike paths are needed for bicycling. The best, safest way to bicycle is to have a bicyclist travel by following the same rules of the road as the motorist (largely to increase predictability and visibility). I subscribed to this view ever since reading Forrester’s Bicycle Transportation in grad school back in the early 1980s.

2. The “separated bicycle path” group, which holds that the way to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists is to separate them physically from dangerous, high-speed car traffic. The assumption of this group is that the main reason we don’t see large numbers of bicyclists in the US is that most people are put off by the danger inherent in bicycling in the street with cars.

Both of these tactics have miserably failed to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists in the US. The US continues to have, by far, the lowest number of bicyclists in the world.

Why?

The vehicular cyclists take an approach that even in theory is only applicable to a small number of people – those who have the courage, skill and athleticism to bicycle in the street with cars. Even VC advocates admit that their approach, even if widely used, would not result in a large number of new bicyclists.

While they believe their approach would lead to a large number of new bicyclists, off-street bicycle path advocates fail to understand that “perceived danger” for bicycling is only a minor reason why commuter bicycling is not popular in the US.

Car travel is so heavily provided for and promoted in the US that it is highly irrational to travel by foot, bicycle or transit (even if we provide bike paths, sidewalks, better transit, etc.). There are a great many reasons why nearly all trips in the US are by car. Some of the more important reasons why the car is more rational in the US is that compared to other forms of travel, the car excels in the following ways:

Comfort

Protection from weather

Climate, music and noise control

Cargo-carrying capacity

Passenger-carrying capacity

Status

Ego

Protection from violent people and strangers

Speed

Travel range

Subsidized fuel and roads

Subsidized parking

The perceived safety provided by off-street bicycle paths, when compared to the above car benefits, does not even come close to convincing the vast majority of Americans that bicycling is preferable to car travel. In other words, the above list of car travel benefits far exceed the benefits of safer bicycling.

As an aside, an important reason why the off-street bike path tactic is highly counterproductive, is that even if it were possible to find the trillions of public dollars necessary to install a comprehensive network of off-street bicycle paths, doing so would essentially abandon the road to it always being a “car sewer.”

A Third Way for Bicycle Promotion

The key to successfully creating a large number of new bicyclists, and reducing undesirable car dependence, is to establish a “third way:” End the extreme pampering of the car so that the list of reasons why it makes sense to bicycle outweigh the reasons why it makes sense to travel by car.

Tactics for Effectively Creating Large Numbers of New Bicyclists

A. Government Measures

  • Narrow roads in the community (popularly called “road dieting.”). In general, streets in a town should be no larger than three lanes in size.
  • Reduce the amount of off-street car parking (particularly FREE parking). Governments should end the highly counterproductive, costly practice of requiring new development to provide off-street parking. Much existing off-street parking should be shrunk in size and often replaced with buildings.
  • Design streets to obligate slower and more attentive driving. Tactics include provision of on-street parking, use of relatively narrow travel lanes, requiring buildings to be pulled up to abut streetside sidewalks, removal of traffic safety devices (such as traffic signals, flashing lights, stop signs, etc.), installing bulb-outs, reducing the height of street lights and traffic signals, installation of canopy street trees, shortening block lengths, and other traffic calming measures.
  • Electronically pricing roads and parking so that drivers pay their own way with user fees, instead of being heavily subsidized with free roads and free parking (free parking is the biggest subsidy, by far, in the US).
  • Substantially increase the state and federal gas tax. The gas tax has not been raised in 18 years (1993). By not increasing the gas tax, the US transfers an enormous amount of national wealth to oil-producing nations in other parts of the world. The relatively low gas tax is another in a long list of examples of motorist subsidies that promote excessive car travel. This loss of user fee revenue severely strains government finances, because in order to pay for the enormous costs of providing for car travel, governments must raise (non-gas) taxes such as property taxes or sales taxes or income taxes to pay for car travel. Alternatively, governments must cut other government services, which harms quality of life and makes our society less civilized.
  • Require relatively large employers to provide a “parking cash-out” program, and use such a program for all government offices. Parking cash-out, as Donald Shoup points out, is a program that offers the car commuter a choice: Either keep your free parking space at work, or give up the parking space in exchange for a higher salary, a bus pass, or other perks.
  • Require that the cost of parking be “unbundled” from the cost of a home or business. Currently, nearly all homeowners and consumers of goods and services pay a hidden parking cost – housing, goods, and services are more expensive because it is expensive to be required to buy extra land to provide for (and maintain) car parking. If this car parking cost was unbundled, housing, goods, and services would be less expensive, and people would be less compelled to drive a car excessively.
  • Requiring relatively high levels of street connectivity. When streets are connected, bicyclists that are less comfortable on main roads are able to find lower-speed, lightly-trafficked side streets for bicycling. Existing dead ends and cul-de-sacs can sometimes restore bicycle connectivity with connector paths linking the cul-de-sac with a nearby street.
  • Converting one-way streets into two-way streets. One-way streets strongly discourage bicycling because such street design promotes excessive car speeds, motorist impatience, and inattentive driving, not to mention the loss of residential and retail development along such streets. Increasingly, towns in the US are converting one-way streets back to two-way operation, and seeing extremely rapid improvements. See my blog for my thoughts about one-way streets.
  • Reducing trip distances. Governments are able to do this by finding ways to increase residential densities in appropriate locations, allowing “mixed-use” development (where homes are combined with offices and retail, for example), and keeping “community-serving social condensers” such as farmers markets and important government offices in the town center (rather than allowing them to relocate to remote suburbs).

B. Citizen Measures

  • Civil disobedience. There are a number of measures which are being used increasingly in the US to protest excessive, detrimental car dependence in the US. These measures include various forms of civil disobedience, “guerilla” tactics, or direct action. Examples include “critical mass” bicycle rides (where large numbers of bicyclists will gather and ride in large groups on streets in such a way as to inconvenience motorists), temporarily converting car parking into parks, etc.
  • Elections. Citizens can campaign for candidates who support the measures described above.
  • Normalizing bicycling. Bicycling in the US is substantially marginalized because bicyclists dress in ways that visibly set them apart from “normal” people. Most wear a bicycle helmet, which tend to be unfashionable, messes up hair, and sends a message that bicycling is dangerous. Many bicyclists also wear brightly-colored lycra bicycle clothes, which gives a very unusual, “elite athlete” appearance. It is important that bicycling be seen as more “normal” if bicycling is to become more common in the fashion- and status-conscious US. Bicycling advocates, then, can better promote bicycling by dressing in everyday leisure or work clothing while bicycling, and using a bicycle helmet less often (particularly when bicycling in relatively safe, low-speed environments such as town centers). See my blog for my thoughts about bicycle helmets.

Providing New Bicycle Facilities

I would be remiss if I did not mention the need to provide well-designed bicycle facilities and parking. While neither would recruit large numbers of new bicyclists, both are important for at least two reasons. First, it is important that bicyclists be given safe, convenient places to bicycle and park. Second, providing such facilities sends the important message that the community respects and promotes bicycle travel.

The Bicycling Transect

There is an emerging concept in urban design known as a “transect.” The concept essentially posits that there is a place for everything and everything has its place. Dennis McClendon states that it is “a way of classifying different kinds of neighborhoods along a continuum, from rural to suburban to city neighborhood to downtown; things that belong in once zone would be out of place in another.”

In the Smart Code introduction, version 6.5, Andres Duany says that “one of the key concepts of transect planning is the idea of creating what are called immersive environments. Successful immersive environments are based, in part, on the selection and arrangement of all the components that together comprise a particular type of environment. Each environment, or transect zone, is comprised of elements that keep it true to its locational character…planners are able to specify different urban intensities that look and feel appropriate to their locations…a farmhouse would not contribute to the immersive quality of an urban core, whereas a high-rise apartment building would. Wide streets and open swales find a place on the transect in more rural areas while narrow streets and curbs are appropriate for urban areas. Based on local vernacular traditions, most elements of the human habitat can be similarly appropriated in such a way that they contribute to, rather than detract from, the immersive character of a given environment.”

Applying the Transect to Bicycle Facility Planning

Appropriate bicycle travel routes vary based on their location in a community in the following generalized ways:

Walkable Town Center

In this location, the pedestrian is the design imperative, which means that quality design emphasizes a low-speed street design. This means that there are generally no more than two travel lanes (and possibly a turn lane or pocket). Curb radii are modest, and combined with intersection and mid-block bulb-outs, minimize crossing distances for pedestrians.

Further enhancing the safety, comfort and convenience of the pedestrian is on-street motor vehicle parking, sidewalks, and buildings abutting the back of sidewalks.

There is a dense, connected grid of streets with short block lengths.

When designed properly, the modest motor vehicle speeds mean that most all bicyclists are able to safely and comfortably “share the lane” with motor vehicles (that is, ride within the motor vehicle travel lane). Those bicyclists who are not comfortable sharing the lane with vehicles are able to ride on nearby parallel streets.

In walkable urban locations, in-street bicycle lanes should generally be considered a “transect violation,” since their installation usually means that average motor vehicle speeds are increased (due to the perceived increase in street width for the motorist). Bicycle lanes also tend to increase the crossing distance for pedestrians, and are often incompatible with on-street parked cars unless an excessively wide bicycle lane is created.

Note that I do acknowledge that when a walkable, compact urban location contains major (arterial) streets that such streets generally require the installation of in-street bicycle lanes. However, when such major streets require bike lanes, it is a strong indication that the street itself is a transect violation. Ideally, such streets should be re-designed to be compatible (or “immersive”) in the walkable location through such techniques as removing travel lanes, adding on-street parking or other mechanisms that dramatically slow down motorists and obligate more attentiveness in their driving.

Also incompatible in this location are bicycle paths separate from the street. Such paths are not only unaffordable to install in this location, but significantly increase bicyclist danger.

Suburban

In this location, in-street bicycle lanes tend to be most appropriate on major (“arterial”) streets, due to the increased average car speeds. Bicycle lanes should be 4-5 feet wide.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to be used somewhat less on suburban roads than on walkable urban streets. Building setbacks are larger, as are turning radii.

In general, bicycle lanes are not necessary on intermediate (“collector”) streets, due to low traffic volumes.

Like walkable urban locations, bicycle paths separate from the street are generally incompatible in this location. Such paths significantly increase bicyclist danger, largely due to the number of cross streets, the reduced visibility of the bicyclist, and the false sense of security created for the bicyclist.

Rural

In this location, bicycle paths separate from the road tend to be most appropriate, due to the relatively high speed of motor vehicles here, and the relative lack of crossing roads.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to not be used on rural roads. Building setbacks are largest in this portion of the transect, as are turning radii.

In-street bicycle lanes are sometimes appropriate here, but are not as appropriate as in suburban locations.

Transect Summary

In sum, bicycle travel routes are increasingly separated from motor vehicles as one moves along the transect from walkable urban to suburban to rural.

Bicycle Parking

My master’s thesis in graduate school emphasized providing properly-designed bicycle parking. It has become quite common for bicycle parking to be provided improperly. So many strange, unusual, non-functional forms of bicycle parking are provided that I have concluded that the main criterion for selection of bicycle parking is aesthetics and low cost. Like car parking, there is only one form (or with very minor variations) of acceptable bicycle parking design: the “inverted-U” (also known as the “Hitch-To”). This relatively low-cost, durable bicycle parking design is vastly superior to most all other forms of bicycle parking that have proliferated in the US. Communities should require this design in the same manner as they require only one form of car parking. Doing otherwise trivializes bicycling.

Summary

It is quite possible for the US to end its humiliating, unsustainable lead in the world for lowest level of bicycling. Americans are NOT genetically predisposed to drive a car rather than bicycle. The effective tools are not a mystery. Using them is simply a matter of leadership on the part of citizens and elected officials. Yes, it will be difficult to “take away from the car” to increase bicycling. But if we are, as a nation, truly serious about reducing ruinous, unsustainably high levels of car dependence, and substantially growing the number of bicycle commuters, the steps I outline above are essential.

There are very few, if any, “win-win” tactics for car and bicycle travel. Instead, car travel and bicycle travel are more of a zero-sum game. Increasing the level of bicycle travel inevitably means taking away space from cars, inconveniencing cars, and making car travel more expensive.

It is important to point out here that for over 100 years, the US has engaged in the opposite: We have taken away space from bicycles, inconvenienced bicycles and made bicycling more expensive.

For the sake of improving our health, the health of our cities, and our future quality of life, we must begin the incremental, long-term practice of ratcheting down car pampering. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be.

_________________________________________________

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Better Transit Arises from Motorist Discontent

By Dom Nozzi

The origins of quality transit in a community are largely based on motorist discontent. When motorists face high costs for driving or parking a car, or face traffic congestion, political will emerges to create ways to escape such travel pain: higher residential densities, mixed use, and better transit.

Better transit is almost never the result of foresighted planners, educated citizens or wise elected officials. Discontented motorists facing higher costs are the inducement.Small bus

Yes, there are certainly quite a large percentage of Americans who do not have good access to transit. Such an unfortunate circumstance is unsustainable. The inevitable adjustment to a transit-friendly, oil-scarce society will not be painless.

But it is clear that the sooner we create a nation rich in transportation choices, the less pain will be experienced.

We must therefore adopt effective policies and pricing that will more quickly induce the creation of transportation choices. I know of nothing that is anywhere near as equitable and effective as increasing the cost of driving a car.

This is one of the many reasons I support a much higher gas tax. I remain concerned, however, that increased gas tax revenue is likely to counterproductively be used to widen roads.

Despite this, on balance I believe that a significantly higher gas tax must be established. And soon.

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Filed under Transportation

It is Irrational to Not Drive a Car

By Dom Nozzi

People fool themselves into thinking that we’ll get great bus ridership or much higher levels of walking or biking if we create good facilities for such travel.

That is nonsense.

It is WAY too rational to drive alone by car, given our heavy car subsidies. Unless a person is an ideologue, like me, it is senseless to opt for a form of travel that is less safe, less convenient, WAY less pleasant. You can haul more cargo. Your speed is much greater (critical in this day and age). You have perfect flexibility to travel when you please. You can give friends and family a ride.

Best of all, you only have to pay a fraction of the true cost of enjoying all those benefits.

Better bus service, bike paths or sidewalks simply cannot compete in such an unbalanced playing field.

The research literature shows that we can only make headway on SOV travel if we level the playing field by charging congestion fees and parking fees, limit car parking, letting congestion get bad, achieve high residential and commercial densities, have mixed use, reduce travel distances, make our streets interconnected, etc.

I’m hoping we can make such meaningful changes someday, and have always realized that we need to have the bus, bike and sidewalk infrastructure in place so that people are not forced to bear huge burdens of car dependency in a happy future in which it is no longer rational to drive SOV.

To me, that is a key role of planning and sustainability. Will we have choices when the shit hits the fan? The important strategic/political question, though, is how do we get the bus, bike and pedestrian stuff in place? And I’m convinced it will only happen in a meaningful way when we are forced, by environmental/economic conditions, to provide it.

As a planner, I’d love it if we could have these facilities in place in advance of the coming hard times. But that is not how it works in a democracy, where we are inherently reactionary. That is why I lean more and more toward wanting a benign dictatorship to save us.

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Filed under Bicycling, Transportation, Walking