By Dom Nozzi
What sort of future can Gainesville and Alachua County, Florida expect? We must start with the crucial premise that Alachua County and Gainesville are locked into the downwardly spiraling death grip of urban sprawl because the fathers and mothers of this North Central Florida region built big roads with big capacity: Archer Road, Newberry Road, NW 39th Avenue, I-75, Tower Road, and many other monstrous, over-sized roads.
Alachua County and Gainesville are condemned to sprawl out to the town of Archer and beyond because of that vast Big Roads blunder, which has been committed in an almost endless number of communities throughout America.
It will matter hardly at all that Alachua County government adopted an “urban services line” or incorporated “cluster regulations,” or the many other rules, policies, plans the County adopted to “forbid” sprawl.
Admirable as that stuff is, it will not have any longevity. It is politically unsustainable. The minute the current county commission ideology is changed by future elections, if not sooner, those rules, regulations, and plans will be deep-sixed.
Why? Because transportation drives land use. Big roads — not comprehensive plans or regulations or courageous, wise politicians — determine if we will sprawl.
The big roads have created a POWERFUL market that screams sprawl, sprawl, sprawl to property owners in peripheral sprawl locations. No force on earth can stop that tidal wave of market demand created by big roads. In the face of big roads, the restrictions on development beyond the “urban services line” only means that the commission will witness a relentless parade of hostile demands from developers and property owners to remove the line or extend it.
In the long run, Alachua County and Gainesville only have one realistic way to avoid sprawling to the western edge of the county (and beyond). Those big roads either need to be put on a serious diet (by, say, shrinking the roads from 5 lanes to 3), or such roads need to become gridlocked with congestion. Granted, road diets for such roads, or major congestion, is a LONG way off, but Alachua County and Gainesville need to be honest about their predicament. This is no time to stick their heads in the sand, or think that they can complacently congratulate themselves for making sprawl “illegal.”
In general, larger cities only have quality transit because they have congestion and parking problems (NYC, DC, Philly, Pittsburgh, Portland, Boston, Cleveland, LA, Phoenix, SF, Chicago, Detroit, to name some of the more obvious examples). Yes, it is “too little, too late” to create transit in those places, but in America, with our wildly unlevel playing field in which massive public car subsidies and community designs force everyone to drive a car, how could it be otherwise? Of all the levers available, congestion is by far the worst one we can use to incentivize transit. But what other choices do communities have than to passively let congestion become worse? Most cannot find the political will to charge user fees (ie, tolls) on their roads, or price their parking.
So we are left with the worst option: congestion.
Let’s fantasize wildly for a minute: Let’s say that a community finds the several million or billions necessary to create quality transit. Does that put people on transit?
It is still stunningly irrational to use even high-quality, free transit when you compare it to all the massive advantages of driving alone in a car. Travel by car is way too fast, convenient, cheap, unrestricted, status-building, a suit of armor, etc. Transit cannot compete with such important benefits unless the community has lots of congestion. Unless the streets are relatively connected, dense, and modest in size. Unless parking is expensive and scarce. Unless there are relatively high residential densities (which, by the way, are unavoidably created, over the long term, by congestion). A community cannot expect transit to be desirable without housing being mixed together with shops and job locations. In other words, people cannot be expected to find transit a preferred way to travel unless developments are walkable and compact.
Quality transit exists in most of our big cities because they have lots of these essential ingredients, not because they have lots of money for transit, or brilliant, fearless politicians.
There is nothing more urgent, if we expect a desirable, sustainable transformation in travel and land use patterns than putting all our major roads on a diet.
Yes, we should seek to establish a transportation system that provides transportation choices in advance of being forced to by conditions such as extremely high gasoline prices. To do so is extremely prudent, since it would be screamingly painful to have the need to quickly construct such travel choices due to an abrupt economic or energy catastrophe.
It is not only prudent to start installing needed infrastructure such as bike lanes or higher residential densities sooner rather than later. Doing so also makes it more feasible, politically, to adopt needed sustainability policies such as a prohibition on future road widening, or adopting more modest parking supply rules. For example, “We are requiring you to set up a Transportation Demand Management program and, fortunately, your employees have the option of using the buses we are already providing.”
But Is It Feasible for Us to Be Proactive in This Way?
However, despite what I’ve said above, I don’t make this “be proactive” point much these days because I’ve come to realize that material conditions rather than good ideas are what drive needed change in nearly all cases.
Conditions must force us to react because we are a reactive society.
Like good transit, and population growth, I am well aware of the fact that it is madness for us not to get things in place in advance of being forced to. But I’ve come to find out that our society is such an inwardly focused, consumptive, short-sighted democracy that we are forced to be reactive instead of proactive.
Sure, it is perfectly logical to have transit in place in advance of being forced to. But it is almost never possible, as far as I can tell. Being stuck in a reactive culture is a reason why I often found it to be extremely frustrating to be a public planner.
I know we are doomed, but there is nothing I can do to help us avert ruin. Why? Because the remedies are politically impossible.
But there are things we CAN do in the interim period before we have material conditions in place (much higher gas prices, severe economic woes, etc.) that will give us the political will to provide better transit, for example, that many people will happily and regularly use.
We can, for example, start providing more choices in the sorts of neighborhoods that people can choose to live in. Nearly all of the neighborhoods in America are suburban in design, where all trips must be by car. Yet there is a large and growing demand for more compact, walkable design. And since there are so few neighborhoods that provide that, the tiny number that DO provide it tend to be extremely expensive.
The solution is to adopt regulations that either require more walkable neighborhood development, or at least make it an allowed form of development if the developer wishes to construct it (currently, most all communities make it illegal to build walkable neighborhoods, even if the developer is motivated to provide it).
Many developers continue to furiously, unrelentingly build auto-oriented crapola. Or are prevented by local regulations from building anything else.
As an aside, we now have even MORE of a pressing need to make walkable neighborhoods legal again (rather than illegal through local government regulations). The housing crash in recent years showed that conventional and drivable suburban design was a financial loser and walkable design was a financial winner. We also are seeing that the younger generation demographic seeks more walkable design than older generations. All this means that a growing number of developers are seeking, voluntarily, to build walkable places. We need to get out of our own way and ensure our local development regulations are not preventing such developers from doing the right thing.
Ask yourself: Does your local government allow a developer to build exceptionally narrow streets with on-street parking? Or mix shops in with the housing? Or build houses (including higher-density multi-family houses and accessory dwelling units) on tiny lots with very narrow setbacks? If not, why not?
The demand for compact, walkable neighborhood design is much higher than the supply of such neighborhoods in America. It is time to require a lot more of it. Or at least make it legal to build it. It is shameful that nearly all communities make such places illegal, given the demand. And our growing desire (and need) for sustainability.
When it comes to our local parking regulations, one important and relatively quick change we can make to reduce the unsustainable subsidies and car-based conditions we have throughout our community is to change the regulations in such a way as to establish modest parking MAXIMUMS instead of minimums. Conventionally, nearly all communities require parking minimums wherein at least “X” number of spaces must be provided per house or square foot of development. Doing this inevitably leads to an oversupply of parking, makes places much less walkable, makes lenders more likely to demand that a new development provide excessive parking before money will be loaned for the development, and makes it much more desirable and necessary to drive a car everywhere. Today, communities need to be much more worried that the developer will provide TOO MUCH parking, not that the developer will provide too little.
That is an important reason why parking regulations should be calling for maximums instead of minimums.
Communities can do something else in the near term that is very important: Put a prohibition on road widening. Widening roads is ruinous, financially unsustainable, and is never able to durably reduce congestion.
By the way, many community improvement activists like to oppose nearly all forms of development, even if they are compact and walkable. But this is misguided. Is the only choice a choice between such compact design, or permanent farmland and open space?
It is not at all that choice. It seems to me that our choice was between walkable projects and auto-oriented crap. Until the conditions right, it seems like our only choice in the case of new development is drivable suburban design or walkable design. It is naïve to think that an undeveloped property can be forever protected as open space or farms.
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