By Dom Nozzi
In January 2000, I submitted a draft of the long-range transportation plan I had written for the city of Gainesville, Florida to my supervisor. My plan was based on a thorough understanding I had developed over the years about effective, sustainable, smart transportation and land use planning, and won the praise of the state planning office.
My supervisor read me the riot act after reading through it. He told me he would need to chop about two-thirds of it out. His comments consisted of an angry tirade from a man who made it clear by his comments that he was a totally uninformed suburbanite. It was obvious that he had strong libertarian leanings, because he kept telling me that we cannot control what the marketplace wants, such as everyone driving everywhere, no one wanting to mix homes with stores and offices, and huge Big Box retailers being okay when they are located next to poor African Americans. I gave him several responses, such as, “Does this mean that we are wasting our time as public planners?”
He claimed the plan should be silent on the issue of what to do about roads outside the city in the urban area. I was stunned to hear that. Not only do roads have a regional impact far beyond city limits, but our city commissioners sit on a regional board and vote on road projects in the unincorporated urban area. Therefore, their votes have some meaning for roads outside the city (a majority vote is necessary for the regional board to take action). As a result, I said, it is highly legitimate for the City to take a stance on roads in the unincorporated urban area.
I went on to point out that “the market” was showing high and increasing property values in the historic, walkable, town center neighborhood in Gainesville (the “Duckpond”) that was faster than anywhere else in the county. Does this mean, I asked, that our plan should state that we agree with the market on how to design neighborhoods, and henceforth, all of them will have narrow streets, buildings close to the sidewalk, no snout houses, sidewalks, curbs, modest turning radii, on-street parking, higher residential densities, and within walking distance of a town center? Also, since “the market” does not find the ability to widen major arterials, should our plan state that local government will not widen either?
Because my draft transportation plan included effective strategies to build facilities that promote transportation choice, and because the plan does not mince words (but instead cites the overwhelming research literature on the subject), my supervisor — as a committed motorist and suburban advocate —became quite defensive. His life was being indicted. He started to defensively claim (using the tired old strawman) that I unrealistically wanted to get rid of all cars. That my plan was not balanced. That I unfairly attacked cars for most of our problems. Pedestrians are often to blame for being run over, he very oddly and embarrassingly pointed out. He told me the studies I cited were not applicable because they were not done in Gainesville and we are somehow “different” (which is a classic anti-scientific stance that exposes a biased, personal lifestyle belief).
The “conversation” with my supervisor supremely exemplified why I had originally declined to author transportation and land use plans for Gainesville after being asked to do so. I knew my views would be completely rejected. I knew we would continue our practice of not being serious about transportation choice and land use choice. That instead, we would continue to pay lip service to all those progressive ideas, and then flog ourselves in the future when we don’t achieve our objectives.
Of course, by only paying lip service to needed reform rather than actually implementing the reforms, we would find ourselves eventually bashing progressive transportation ideas I had called for in my draft plan. Because we opted not to reform transportation and land use patterns and policies to promote transportation choice, our future would be one where nearly all of us continued to drive our cars nearly everywhere. We’d then falsely claim that the marketplace proved we cannot get people out of cars. That people don’t want to live in walkable neighborhoods.
We would conveniently ignore, in other words, the fact that “the market” remained distorted by pro-car subsidies, policies and infrastructure design that made it highly likely that the status quo of car dependency would continue for the vast majority of us. We would wrongly conclude that there was nothing we could do about this unsustainable state of affairs.
It became clear to me that once my supervisor had my transportation plan utterly gutted and emasculated, that I would be completely embarrassed to present the plan at public meetings — because it would seem like such a meaningless, feel-good plan was my doing.
My supervisor was, without question, an anti-planner. And I was in the awful position of being seen as an ineffective, do-nothing planner who had written a do-nothing, feel-good plan.
The discussion made it clear that Gainesville was obviously going to stay on the road to becoming the car-crazed nightmare of South Florida, Part II. It was quite painful to watch the steps being taken by my community to unknowingly ruin itself, and my being helpless to change the course. As Andres Duany points out, the town drunk has more credibility than a public planner — even, at times, inside his own planning office…
My memoir can be purchased here:
The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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