Taking My Views to More Appreciative Audiences and Communities

By Dom Nozzi

In 2005 or thereabouts, the City of Gainesville FL – my employer at the time – started expressing serious concerns about the speeches I was giving about transportation and urban design (a “lessons learned” presentation about what I had learned in my many years as a town planner). It was becoming screamingly obvious that my views were too high-octane (read: controversial) for spineless Gainesville. My response was that I decided to rarely make a presentation in Gainesville anymore. At the time, I was on a crusade to let folks know what I had learned about urban design and transportation, since I believe I’ve come to realize some crucial things about what works and what does not regarding quality of life.

Frustratingly, I was not only strongly discouraged from providing this knowledge locally through speeches. I was ALSO not allowed to submit written comments for publication by the Sun any longer (according to the censorship board that arose at my office at the time).  This troubled me a great deal, as I have always had  a strong desire to share with others the critical things I’ve learned about transportation and land use. Because I was gagged locally, I resigned myself to the second best alternative: Speaking in OTHER cities. And trying to get a book published regarding my views. That way, even if Gainesville did not appreciate or want my views to be heard, maybe I could help other communities.

Gainesville was so terrified of offending ANYONE that my idea of having the City sponsor a James Howard Kunstler talk here was nixed immediately a few years earlier (Kunstler is internationally known for his provocative, important views regarding transportation). So I considered it a badge of honor that I’d also been severely restricted (and ultimately prohibited) from speaking in Gainesville.

At this time, I had given a presentation to the local Kiwanis Club.

Wow.

You would think that I was Hitler or something. In all my speeches around the state, that speech elicited the most negative reaction from the audience.

By far.

I increasingly questioned whether Gainesville should be re-considered as a place with “progressive” views. Given the reception I got at the Kiwanis Club event, I’d say Gainesville is, if anything, quite reactionary.

My speeches outside of Gainesville were generally happening through word-of-mouth advertising (primarily because Gainesville so severely restricted my ability to give presentations). When I gave a speech somewhere, there was almost always someone in the audience that enjoyed what I had to say and decided to invite me to THEIR town for a future speech.

“Progressive Gainesville”? I don’t think so.

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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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Being Gagged by Gainesville, Florida

As a town planner well aware of the detrimental impacts of a community that too systematically seeks to outlaw non-suburban (that is, more compact, walkable) development, I was quite frustrated working in the proudly suburban community of Gainesville, Florida. Indeed, my frustration often compelled me to have the local newspaper run columns and letters I’ve written about local issues pertaining to urban design and transportation. The result, too often, was that I enraged a number of citizens and most all of my supervisors. Because of what I had published in the newspaper, the City of Gainesville (my employer at the time) established a new policy that states that opinion pieces written by city staff cannot be submitted to the newspaper unless first approved and edited by the city manager or a supervisor.

About mid-way through my years as a town planner, I decided I wanted to share the lessons I had learned about quality of life, sustainability, and the threats to such objectives. I created a PowerPoint public presentation to describe sprawl and congestion, and started giving the presentation throughout the city. It was a strong indictment of conventional, car-oriented planning ideas.

But again, the presentation made citizens and supervisors uncomfortable. My supervisors soon began to strongly discourage my giving the presentation locally.

City planners are not allowed to have opinions in Gainesville, in other words.

A number of people who had heard the presentation, I am flattered to say, were very impressed by the presentation, and encouraged me to write a book based on the presentation. I eventually agreed to do so, and in 2004 had my first book published by Praeger Publishers – a leading academic publisher in the US.

The presentation became so popular (and I enjoyed giving it so thoroughly) that I ultimately made the presentation to well over 20 communities throughout the state of Florida.

Having the book published and giving the speeches outside of my city were the result of my concluding that I have an important message to convey.

If Gainesville was not interested in hearing my message or benefiting from it (but instead wanted to censor it), I felt compelled to nevertheless speak to other communities around the state and nation in the hopes that others could appreciate and benefit from my message.

Because of all of this, I came very close to running for city commission in Gainesville, largely because I wanted to share the wisdom I had acquired about town planning by being more strongly involved in the community decision-making process.  In the process of considering a run for local office, I assembled a long list of things that I thought the City needed to get done – things that I did not have the power to get done as a lowly city planner.

 

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Secretly Gutting the Transportation Plan

Late in my career as a city planner for Gainesville, Florida, I tried to blow the whistle on what I believed was a clear violation of adopted protocol for the adoption of local government plans, policies or regulations.

What I experienced was quite remarkable, breathtaking and enraging. And my effort to blow the whistle failed.

It pertained to the draft transportation plan I had authored for the Gainesville Comprehensive Plan.

In a nutshell, what happened was that the City Public Works Department had gutted and emasculated the draft transportation plan.

How much had they gutted it? The department so substantially watered down the plan that I informed my supervisor that the revision would require me to disown the plan. I would no longer want my name associated with it, and would refuse to present it at public meetings — largely because presenting it would give the false impression that I implicitly supported the current version. Essentially, the changes created a blatant internal contradiction in the Comprehensive Plan, since the transportation plan would be aggressively promoting sprawl and a downward spiral in our quality of life – the opposite of what the overall Comprehensive Plan for Gainesville was seeking.

This gutting of the draft plan had been achieved by the Public Works Department despite the fact that at least a strong majority of commissioners (if not all five) would support the language that was removed, revised, or otherwise converted to meaningless pabulum by Public Works staff.

The emasculation of the transportation plan by Public Works were, in effect, done “behind closed doors,” so to speak. It was done secretly because staff had made substantial changes that would be almost impossible for elected officials or citizens to notice. This was because earlier, the version of the plan I had prepared was approved by the Plan Board (an advisory board for the elected officials) a few months ago.

But in a shocking departure from long-standing protocol, the elected officials never saw the version their advisory board had reviewed at a public meeting and recommended to the elected officials for adoption.

The radical, emasculating changes to the plan which were requested by Public Works were hidden from elected officials because the version officials were to see a their next meeting would not show any strike-throughs or underlines to call out the extreme changes demanded by Public Works staff. Changes to the version adopted by the advisory board.

This is never done.

In all my years as a city planner, this kind of underhanded, secretive shenanigans was never engaged in by staff, and for good reason. It is completely unethical and out of line for staff to make major changes to a draft public document without showing the decision-making officials the changes via strike-throughs and underlines.

Again, as I noted above, this veiled tactic to slip changes through the elected officials without their realizing what was happening took my breath away, largely because in my previous conversations with the elected officials, it became clear to me that there was broad support for the language I had placed in the earlier draft of the plan. Elected officials would almost certainly have approved of my language.

But elected officials would never know of my original language because it was removed without showing elected officials the language that was being removed (language that they would have supported).

In my opinion, staff should never hide major policy decisions from the decision-makers.

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“Concurrency” for New Development?

By Dom Nozzi

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

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

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

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

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

The rule is fairly harmless for, say, parks or schools. But for roads, maintaining per capita road capacity with a concurrency or adequate facilities rule is ruinous.Burma-207

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

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

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

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

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

We need to start over again on concurrency.

Concurrency must start finding proxies for quality of life.

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

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

And what a bitter irony that would be.

 

 

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Finding the Political Will to Revolutionize Transportation and Land Use

By Dom Nozzi

Many of us have spent decades trying to identify the lynchpins that will catalyze needed reforms in our transportation system and our land use patterns. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that if we continue on our century-long path of making car travel the only reasonable way to travel, our future will be grimly unsustainable.

The most common solutions discussed? “Educating people” is perhaps the most common “solution.” Sadly, our education efforts to change behavior or values are fighting against decades of trillions of dollars spent by the public 91-of-teachers-have-computer-access-infographic--3a4b23f933and private sector to make cars (and suburbanites) happy. Every single day, a person drives their Lexus and a huge, blaring educational message screams at them: “Widen this arterial! Reduce gas prices!!! Make me happy driving my Lexus by allowing me to drive fast!!”

Other common “solutions”: Elect the “right” politicians.  Build more bike lanes and sidewalks. Improve our bus (transit) system.

But none of these tactics will be effective, because none of them will motivate the majority of citizens to change their views and desires about transportation and land use. Without a change in what a community desires, it seems to me that only a benign dictatorship can create changes needed for a better future.

I’m not optimistic at all that we can build much public support for transportation choice until traffic and parking congestion, high parking fees, scarcity of parking, or high gas prices force us to think and behave differently. We made progress on this in the 1970s because the oil price increases forced us to. Candidates for office that supported needed change were doomed from the start (i.e., had no chance of being elected) because it was too cheap and easy to drive a gas guzzler to rent a video across town.

What can be done at the local level that are effective in nudging behaviors and desires toward those which will give us a brighter future?

Gas price increases can be extremely beneficial. Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to increase gas prices locally.

The things we can change are things I often push for:

1. Scarcity of parking. We can revise our land development regulations to make it much easier and less costly to replace deadening asphalt surface parking lots with offices, shops, and residences. We can also change our local regulations to eliminate “minimum parking” requirements (by converting them to “maximum parking” requirements. “Minimum” requirements require developers to provide excessive amounts of free parking as part of their development. Requiring this is ruinous to a city and undermines housing and business affordability – not to mention increasing our cost of living, increasing our taxes, and reducing our quality of life.

2. Increased parking charges. Similarly, we can convert free parking in our community to priced parking. Currently, nearly all of our parking is free. That state of affairs induces “low-value” car trips, increases the costs of goods and services we buy (because “free” parking ends up being paid by the business owner), and forces us to make a vast percentage of our community land area to consist of awful asphalt parking. Besides making our driving and parking more efficient, properly priced parking will provide us with new revenues we can use to improve our transit system and the landscaping along our streets, among many other pressing community needs.

3. Travel lane removal. Too many of our roads and highways are over-sized. Like free parking, free roads have induced too many “low-value” car trips, which have congested our roads and compelled us to excessively widen our roadways in a hopeless, bankrupting, never-ending process of trying to “build our way out of congestion.” As a result of this state of affairs, a great many of our roads and highways are too big, and can be substantially improved by being put on a “road diet” (converting the road from, say, a four-lane to a three-lane roadway).

4. Moratorium on street widening. Coupled with road diets, we should put a stop to future widening of roads and intersections. Widening roads and intersections is extremely costly initially, and leads to gigantic future costs due to increased operation and maintenance expenses, increased car crashes, degraded public health (due to increased car emissions and reduced bicycling, walking, and transit), worsened household/government/business finances, degraded community aesthetics, and worsened suburban sprawl (among many other problems associated with road and intersection widening).

5. Local models. It is also beneficial to revise counterproductive local development regulations to make “smart” development (development that is walkable, compact, and sustainable) more likely. Too often, local development regulations make us our own worst enemy because they require unsustainable, ruinous, car-dependent development, and make sustainable, lovable development illegal. If we revise our local development regulations to make the lovable and sustainable development the default, and make the unsustainable, car-dependent development hard to do (in other words, reverse the current approach we use), we can more quickly see a proliferation of on-the-ground models — models where we can see with our own eyes that sustainable, walkable design is not only popular, but highly profitable.

In each of the above five tactics, we have local control to effectively nudge our community behaviors and desires toward those that are consistent with a better future.

In my opinion, it will only be then that we can find success in achieving the changes we have so long desired.

 

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Design Blunders When Gainesville FL Put It’s Main Street on a Diet

By Dom Nozzi

In the first decade of the 21st Century, Gainesville, Florida made the highly admirable decision to put its over-sized Main Street on a “road diet” by taking that street from four and five lanes to three lanes. Doing so would create a safer, more pleasant ambience, reduce speeding, improve the attractiveness of the street, promote the health of businesses on that street, convert the street from a “drive through” to a “drive TO” experience, and reduce overall operation and maintenance costs.

However, a number of important blunders were committed when this decision was made.

First, the decision was made to increase the size of the “turning radii” at several intersections by making the corner angle at the junctions of the two streets more of a gentle slope. Doing this was intended to make turning movements by larger vehicles more feasible. The unintended consequence, however, was that smaller motor vehicle turning movements were made much faster and less attentively, which reduced traffic safety. It also substantially increased the crossing distance for pedestrians, which significantly reduced pedestrian safety.

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Such a design decision is entirely inappropriate for a town center, where slow speeds and the need to make the pedestrian (not the motor vehicle) the design imperative is essential.  The last thing we should be doing in a town center is creating conditions that are unpleasant and unsafe for pedestrians. A walkable ambience is critical if town center expects any sort of competitive leverage with strip commercial areas. After all, being walkable is one of the key ways a town center can outcompete the strip areas.

Another extremely important factor that is undermined by a larger turning radius at intersections is the “small town”, historic feel that a small turn radius imparts. One of the most powerful ways to destroy a small town ambience that so many of us love is to create over-sized turn radii at intersections. Conversely, insisting on retention of a small turn radius is a superb way to retain a small town feel (not to mention retaining and promoting pedestrian safety).

The second major design blunder that Gainesville opted for in its otherwise desirable road diet of Main Street was to remove the historic, charming, lovable brick that was under the asphalt.

A brick street surface is a very effective calming device. It also creates spectacular, romantic, historic ambience (which explains why cities like Orlando, Florida have spent millions to uncover the brick underlying many of their streets. In addition, despite the conventional wisdom, bricks reduce maintenance costs in the long run — asphalt is more expensive to maintain in the long run.

What I found most puzzling about the removal of the historic brick and the increased size of turning radii on Main Street was that doing so did not even raise a peep of protest from the local historic preservation people. This despite the fact that retaining the historic brick and the historically modest turning radii on Main Street were two of the most powerful ways to engage in priceless protection of Gainesville’s historic heritage on Main Street (by preserving its historic character).

Third, the decision was made to not only keep the curbs at the same location (rather than moving them closer together), but to not add more than a tiny number of new on-street parking spaces when the excess through lane in both directions was removed. This occurred at least in part because the City opted to install in-street bike lanes on the newly configured Main Street. A decision was also made to include bus pull-outs on the new Main Street.

Several problems are associated with these decisions.

Reducing crossing distances for pedestrians by moving the curbs closer together, and adding several new on-street parking spaces are very important benefits of a road diet, because doing so dramatically improves pedestrian safety, improves the health of retail stores, improves conditions for any residential that may be on Main Street, reduces car speeds (by moving away from a “highway-oriented ambience” of an overly wide street), and creates a more human-scaled feel to the street. Not moving the curbs or adding a lot of new on-street parking after the diet was therefore unwise.

Installing in-street bicycle lanes on a street that should be designed for slow speeds and human scale undermines those objectives because the bike lanes increase street width, which increases average car speeds and increases pedestrian crossing distances. They also make it very difficult or impossible to install the on-street parking that a healthy town center thrives on. A well-designed town center main street is one that obligates slow speeds and attentive driving by motorists, and doing this allows bicyclists to safely, comfortably share the travel lane with cars, rather than needing a bicycle lane.

The City also opted to add bus pull-outs on the new Main Street. Again, doing this undermines the critical need to create a more pleasant, safe pedestrian realm. Bus pull-outs are inappropriate in a town center because they increase crossing distances for pedestrians, increase average motor vehicle speeds, reduce the amount of on-street parking that can be added to the street, and slow down bus speeds (largely because buses often find they must often wait to find an opening in car traffic before re-entering the travel lane).

Finally, the City opted not to install “post-mounted” traffic signals on the 7390694268_93120010d5_znew Main Street, despite my strong recommendation that they do so. “Post-mounted” signals create a slower-speed, human-scaled ambience for a street (not to mention restoring historic design). Motorists must drive slower and more attentively with post-mounted signals, which make them highly appropriate for a town center. By contrast, the mast-arm signals the City opted to retain creates a more high-speed, highway-oriented ambience thatCroton-on-Hudson_Dummy_Light degrades the character that a health town center needs.

In sum, Gainesville’s road dieting of Main Street was a highly desirable decision, but many ill-advised design decisions created a new street that could have been so much better for pedestrians, businesses, civic pride, and overall quality of life. Had the City avoided these design mistakes, future road diets would have seemed much more desirable, as the Main Street diet would have produced much more obvious benefits.

 

 

 

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