Monthly Archives: June 2014

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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The Consequences of Muzzling Professional Public-Sector Staff

By Dom Nozzi

I was a town planner in Gainesville, Florida for 20 years. About three-quarters of the way into those years, I published a book about suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, and quality of life. It was essentially a “lessons learned” book about the wisdom I had gained from my years as a professional planner for an American city. I started giving public presentations about the book to audiences throughout Florida and around the nation.

I was flattered by the many compliments and praise I tended to hear from those audiences. A few local elected officials noticed, and asked that I make the presentation to the local “Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization” (MTPO), a group made up of elected city and county commissioners making decisions about transportation and sprawl in my county.

But when I asked my supervisors at my city planning office for permission to give the presentation, I was informed that I would not be allowed to give a speech to the MTPO.

Apparently, my views were considered “too controversial.” Or “too politically incorrect.”

This was despite the fact that the views expressed in my book and speeches were entirely compatible with the adopted policies of the City of Gainesville.

One of my friends, an elected county commissioner who had suggested I give my presentation to the MTPO, asked if I was given an official explanation for being told I would not be allowed to give a speech to the MTPO.

I informed my friend that I was told some citizens at the MTPO meeting (or watching at home) would hear me make controversial comments, get angry, and not know whether I was speaking as a spokesperson representing the views of the City of Gainesville planner. At that time, as an aside, I was also prohibited by my supervisors from having my views published by the local newspaper because, I was told, even if I explicitly stated up front a disclaimer that the views I was expressing were mine alone and not necessarily those of the City of Gainesville (which was my standard practice in any event), citizens would still believe the opinions were those of the City.

In other words, my rights to free speech were being denied.

This sort of muzzling exemplified how the City of Gainesville was running scared. Professional staff are to be prohibited from making any citizen unhappy, or having any opinion about planning at all. Staff are especially not allowed to make sprawl developers and property owners (or Not-In-My-Backyard no-growthers) angry or upset.

Have you ever noticed how whenever a bureaucrat writes a report or speaks in public, they always sound so empty and boring? How they use nothing but puzzling, meaningless jargon? The situation I describe above about how my ability to communicate was so severely restricted provides a superb example of how, over time, bureaucrats are conditioned to never say anything meaningful at all. A bureaucrat is well-schooled in being able to talk for 30 minutes without actually saying anything. These are the origins of milquetoast bureaucrats.

An important consequence of this is that written words or speeches of a bureaucrat are completely watered down pabulum that are designed to be empty babble. The training of a bureaucrat is to only say or write things that will offend no one. The bureaucrat is punished if she or he says anything meaningful or honest.

A corollary to this state of affairs is that when leadership is absent, professional staff is not allowed to engage in any form of common sense judgement or calibration of adopted rules, even when it is clear to all parties involved that following the letter of the law is, in some cases, absurd.

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The bureaucrat also learns another ruinous lesson: My job is not to strive to implement adopted policies or recommend new policies designed to achieve community quality of life objectives.

No, my job is simple and straightforward. Follow the letter of the law. No judgement or opinion allowed. Cover my ass. Nothing else is important.

This state of affairs shows the essential need for government and its elected officials to have some courage and leadership. If a public sector bureaucrat is stating a position in line with adopted policies of government, the role of the elected official (if the official is interested in being a leader) is to stand behind the staff person. Too often however, elected officials are not leaders. If a citizen complains to them about an opinion expressed by a staff person (including opinions that are consistent with adopted community policy), the knee-jerk response from timid, spineless officials is to unfairly blame or scapegoat the staff person.

“It’s not my fault, it is the fault of that staff person!”

A true leader takes a different approach. He or she informs the citizen that “the staff person is expressing adopted community policy, and I stand behind that staff person.”

By scapegoating staff rather than showing leadership, elected officials and their timid public agencies are wasting our time and money as Rome burns. And they are training their staff to be do-nothing, say-nothing bureaucrats.

Is it really worth it for us to offend no one? What objective does that achieve? I am convinced that such a tactical approach is a recipe for doing nothing.

 

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