By Dom Nozzi
In the late 1990s, the City of Gainesville, Florida asked me to prepare the long-range transportation plan for the city. I was honored, but not surprised. After all, I had spent most of my academic and professional career studying transportation reports, plans, and studies, and was therefore well-versed in the “best practices” necessary to write an effective plan.
After my draft plan had gone through years of very hard work on my part, nearly endless revisions; departmental meetings with Public Works, Police, Fire, and Alachua County; and approval by the City Plan Board; I attended the most painful staff meeting of my career as a town and transportation planner in August of 2000. The official subject for the meeting was “Educating the New Commissioners on the Transportation Plan.”
I knew better.
In fact, I realized in advance that it was the “Gut and Emasculate Dom’s Transportation Plan” staff meeting.
Nevertheless, I was insufficiently prepared for what was in store at the meeting.
Apparently, at the June city commission meeting, two new commissioners expressed comments about the transportation plan that made it obvious that they were completely uninformed, car-loving know-nothings on the subject. Here is some of what I am told they want to quickly delete from the plan:
1. Dump the policy calling for “no net increase in surface parking for public and University of Florida buildings.”
2. Immediately stop the “road diet” plan to remove travel lanes from Main Street and University Avenue.
3. Get rid of the objective that says the City should not use road widening as a way to get rid of congestion.
4. Kill the policy that explicitly states we shall not build a new road wider than four travel lanes (five with a turn lane). Commissioners apparently wanted to have the option of building 12-laners in town…
There were a few other things too horrible and agonizing for me to remember.
(As an aside, I heard that one of our new commissioners expressed concern that traffic calming and road diets would be catastrophic for emergency vehicles, big trucks, and University of Florida football game days.)
Part of the recommendation from my supervisors at the Emasculation meeting in the wake of this stunning display from our two new commissioners was this:
Pick all of the policies in the plan that are even remotely controversial (i.e., the ones that actually are meaningful instead of limp, wishy-washy pabulum or bureaucratic gobbledegook), and have staff propose to the commission up front, at the next commission meeting, that such policies be deleted. The pathetic hope is that if such a thing is offered by staff up front, that the new commission majority will be comfortable enough not to vote down the entire transportation plan.
My reaction to that was twofold.
First, if staff recommends we delete the few good policies in the plan and thereby gut it, we SHOULD want the commission to vote it down. After the deletions, the plan would be an almost meaningless, feel-good document. It will be an embarrassment.
Second, what if staff recommends deleting effective policies that the commission majority did not notice or did not intend to delete?
In other words, Gainesville’s situation at the time was as follows: The City was positioning itself to make a mad dash to do whatever it could to ruin itself in a downward spiral into a south Florida future. Its quality of life would be doomed in its hopeless efforts to spend millions of public dollars to (briefly) make cars happy.
What frightened me about this situation was that the no-growth “NIMBYs on steroids” (as I liked to call the wild-eyed citizen opponents to nearly all forms of development in Gainesville) had joined forces with lower income Gainesville residents and the suburban, upper-class business/motorist lobby to do everything in our power to make cars happy. It was a sure recipe for destruction of the future of the city.
Iin recent years, I was flattered to be asked to deliver my “Road Widening to Ruin” speech to several large audiences around the state (at the time, I was scheduled to give the speech in 3-5 venues in the coming months). Often, I was complimented afterwards by having a number of folks in the audience approach me to let me know that they learned a great deal from my speech, that it opened their eyes, and that they wished they had planners in their community who were like me.
A few weeks ago, I let the Gainesville regional transportation (MTPO) staff know that I was interested in giving the speech to the MTPO since, oddly, I had not yet given it to that local transportation planning group. My thought was that maybe I could help the new commissioners understand more about transportation, land use, and quality of life. After all, if I was providing useful information to communities outside Alachua County (where Gainesville is located), why not do the same at home?
I was soon informed by my planning office supervisors that I would not be allowed to give the speech to the MTPO. Apparently, my views were now considered “too controversial.” Or “too un-PC.” Gainesville had become a terrified city. Instead, I continued to soldier on and gave the speech to a large number of communities outside of Alachua County, where my views were more welcome…
In preparation for the “Emasculation” meeting I mentioned above, I assembled my best research articles regarding sprawl, transportation, and land use, thinking there may be an opportunity to pass along a “white paper” to the two new commissioners.
This summary I prepared was an 11-page bulleted factoid report, jam-packed with nuggets of information about transportation.
Knowing that if I expected to persuade the two new commissioners, I would need to include information that would resonate with them. I therefore sought to push the hot buttons of their agendas, which were strongly pro-business/jobs/economy. The report therefore started with a number of outstanding comments from economists about how communities with several transportation choices tended to be economically healthy. These economists, my summary went on to say, pointed out that by contrast, auto-dependent communities suffered, economically, because of how costly such an environment was for businesses, households and governments. Jobs, investment, and income improved noticeably when there was transportation choice, and suffered significantly when there is no travel choice. My paper has about three to five pages of such bulleted economic comments.
The paper then went on to briefly describe the success stories around the nation where road diets or traffic calming were used. My focus was on places like West Palm, Lake Worth, and Seattle (highlighting such things as the big increase in property values for businesses and the big reduction in vacancies along dead downtown streets that were quickly revived — economically, socially, and in terms of safety — almost overnight after removal of travel lanes. I also provided a long list of successful road diets from around the U.S. I finished the paper with a few articles clearly explaining why it is futile to try to “build your way out of congestion.”
Included as well were excerpts from an article in the authoritative Institute for Transportation Engineers Journal that describes the revolution going on in the transportation field — how we now understand that downtowns need to be compact and walkable with on-street parking and modest, slow streets, instead of building surface parking (which reduces compact walkability) and wide, high-speed streets (what Ian Lockwood calls “escape routes.”)
Nevertheless, since there was no interest expressed by the staff at the Emasculation meeting in showing the report to the commission, it appeared that my report would end up collecting dust somewhere. I resigned myself to the thought that I would just go ahead and upload the report to my urban design web site so that maybe other communities could benefit from it.
One of the most terrifying aspects of that situation was this:
Usually, when you have elected officials who are extreme right wing conservatives, they can — on rare occasions — admit their ignorance about certain issues and therefore be educable on certain progressive issues. The horror is that unlike nearly any other issue, in the field of transportation, EVERYONE thinks they are an expert who knows how to design our transportation system to correct problems. The two new commissioners were apparently demonstrating this misplaced expertise. It was blatantly obvious to me that they were completely ignorant about transportation planning. Yet they were apparently CERTAIN that they know what to do (or not do).
It is quite frustrating to know, in advance, that what we do with regard to transportation is guaranteed to destroy our community, and yet not have any ability to do a thing about it. While living in Gainesville, I looked around in west Gainesville. I saw ENORMOUS intersections and roads with too many travel lanes. I realized that such facilities — built at great public expense, no less — were sure to lock Gainesville into the misery of South Florida or Atlanta. Would the citizens and elected officials of Gainesville wake up one morning and wonder how they let themselves become another Houston?
Previously, I had pointedly told my Gainesville planning office supervisors that the Urban Design plan I authored for Gainesville a few years ago was so viciously gutted that I was embarrassed by it and no longer wanted my name associated with it. Given the above emasculation of my transportation plan, I once again informed my supervisors that I wanted to disassociate my name from what would soon become a pathetic shadow of its former self — a transportation plan that was good enough that the Florida state planning office (the Department of Community Affairs) and various other state agencies and individuals were singing its praises.
Hopefully, if they had any self-respect, those complimenting state agencies ended up revoking their endorsement of my adopted but gutted plans.
My book, 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
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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