Category Archives: Visioning

A Community Visioning Checklist

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Throughout the nation, there is a growing interest in, and concern about, whether the community has a clear, proud, effective vision that will lead to a quality future. Oftentimes, this interest and concern is borne from citizens who
look around their community and are appalled by the changes that have occurred due to new development. “Where is the vision?,” they ask, when they see the growth of an Anywhere USA strip commercial corridor being created on one of
their major roads. “Do we have a plan? Do we have development regulations to protect and promote our quality of life? What will this community be like 20 years from now? Will my children be safe and happy?”

Below is a checklist that can be used to determine whether a community will be able to establish and maintain a vision that delivers a quality of life in the future.

  1. Has your community elected a courageous, wise elected leader (or leaders)? Such people have a clear vision for the future of the community, have hired the staff which is effective in achieving the vision, and are willing to make decisions that will make some people unhappy. (If you are not making some people unhappy, you are not doing anything. You are not a leader.)
  2. Does your community acknowledge that the lynchpin for a quality future is a strong, overriding focus on seeing that future design is making people happy, not cars? A community with vision should have a plan for putting some of its overweight roads on a “diet.” (by removing unnecessary, ruinous travel lanes) The focus on making cars happy has been the default strategy in nearly all development that has occurred in the United States since approximately WWII.
    Without courageous, wise leadership, future development in your community will continue with this status quo, and will result in a downwardly spiraling quality of life. Designing for cars instead of people defines an absence of vision. And an absence of leadership.
  3. Do your elected officials insist that the staff within the Public Works Department, the Fire Department and the state Department of Transportation adhere to the community vision? Typically, the staff from these three agencies tend to have the most powerfully negative impact on a community vision because they tend to suboptimize on their narrow agency agenda instead of the broader community vision, and these three agencies have a long, powerful, relentless history of creating a car-happy community of big, high-speed roads and other elements that subvert a walkable, high quality of life for people.
  4. Does your land development code acknowledge that one size does not fit all? That the full range of lifestyles must be provided for in the community? Not just the suburban, car-oriented lifestyle, but also the walkable urban lifestyle
    and the rural, pastoral lifestyle. As the Toronto planning director once said, the greatest threat to cities in North America is suburbanization. Suburban design should be one of manylifestyle choices, not the only choice.
  5. Does your community use a “transect-based” regulatory system that enables #4 above? That is, creating urban, suburban and rural zones in your community, and applying variable, appropriate regulations for each zone that are designed to
    maximize the quality of each zone for that lifestyle. Transect-based regulations help unify “overlay” plans, which have proliferated in recent decades as a way to try to customize regulations for special places in the community. This
    proliferation often results in an enormous number of overlays throughout the community, which becomes confusing, contradictory and difficult for administrative staff and developers. Instead of one transect vision, there are several. Transect planning consolidates all the “urban” overlays into one or two regulatory zones. All of the “suburban” overlays are placed into a second or third zone, and all of the “rural” overlays are placed into a subsequent zone.
  6. Does your community benefit from a charrette process? That is, a visioning process in which an intensive, relatively brief education and design session is accomplished by expert urban designers, architects, planners and citizens to create a neighborhood, community-wide or regional vision.
  7. Is your community proactive or reactive? For several decades, American communities have been reactive. Passively sitting back with regulations designed to prevent things from happening when a development proposal is brought in by a private developer. The rare proactive community, by contrast, has established a strong vision that is strictly followed by elected officials, staff and developers. Developers know, up front, what is generally planned for an area – particularly in terms of the street layout and design, building disposition, and the mix and location of uses intended for the area. That is, a clear vision has already been established for the area to be developed.
  8. Has your community coupled transect planning and a proactive method of regulation with “form-based” codes? Form-based codes are primarily focused on the form and design of buildings and streets. The traditional codes used in nearly all American cities are use-based codes, which are primarily focused on separating “incompatible” land uses from each other. The use-based approach creates no vision for the neighborhood or community. Such codes also promote a maximum separation of houses from offices and parks and culture and shops. While this was fairly important over 100 years ago, it is much less important today (because workplaces are now relatively compatible with homes). Use-based codes, by separating uses, promote auto dependency and make walking, bicycling and transit very difficult, if not impossible. Form-based codes acknowledge that over the course of time, a quality of design for a building is much more important for quality of life than what goes on inside the building. Buildings and streets, moreover, tend to have a much longer life span than land uses, which further increases the importance of getting the design of buildings and streets right, instead of the location of land uses.
  9. Have your elected officials shown enough courageous leadership to give your government staff “permission” to propose visionary plans and regulations? Nearly always, the staff has the knowledge necessary to be visionary and describe what
    a community needs to do to achieve its vision, but never proposes such strategies because they do not feel as if they are allowed to do so by elected officials. Officials who are willing to stand behind staff when staff is challenged (usually by developers or property owners) about visionary plans or regulations that are consistent with the community vision. Without leadership, a community often finds itself in the position of frequently hiring out-of-town consultants to prepare a plan. While this can sometimes be beneficial in jump-starting a better community path, it can also be easily ignored by elected officials and staff who are not vested in the ideas of the plan.
  10. Has your community hired one or more full-time urban designers to help promote the vision? Without such staff, a community can lose focus on the vision over time, or not be assisted in imaging possibilities. Or not have the skills
    needed to review development plans.
  11. Is your community vision graphics-based? Images, drawings, and photographs are much more assessable to non-professional citizens. Images are easier for citizens to understand than numbers or written (often jargon) words. They
    therefore more clearly convey to the largest number of citizens what the vision looks like.
  12. Is your vision based on a long-range, 20- or 50-year time horizon? If not, your vision may be too timid. As Andres Duany reminds us, with time, anything is possible. Don’t limit yourself to only those things that can be financed or otherwise achieved in a few years.
  13. Are the local government attorneys in your community willing to work to find a legal basis justifying aggressive visions? Often, public sector attorneys are overly conservative and unwilling to support design concepts for fear of losing lawsuits. A confident legal staff can be a powerful tool in achieving goals.
  14. Has your community acknowledged that quality of life is a powerful economic engine and a win-win strategy? As Richard Florida points out in his Rise of the Creative Class, the tradition for communities striving to promote economic
    development is to become more of a “doormat.” That is, attract jobs to the community by lowering regulatory standards. Or lowering taxes. Or providing subsidies. Increasingly, however, this is a losing strategy for economic development (and one that lowers community quality of life). Increasingly, the most effective strategy for economic development is to protect and promote the quality of life of the community. Doing so not only is beneficial to existing residents. It also helps retain quality people to stay in the community (instead of repelling them with an awful quality of life – often referred to as “brain drain”). Furthermore, a high quality of life tends to attract quality people from other communities. The result is that increasingly, job-producing companies are re-locating to communities with a high quality of life (instead of places with low taxes and meaningless development regulations). A great many companies now know that such communities will mean it is easier to retain and attract quality employees who will have a positive impact on the productivity of the company.
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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Visioning

Model Urban Design Strategies

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

In general, we don’t tend to find model cities that have good urban design standards embedded throughout their land development code. Mostly what one finds are cities and towns that adopt a very impressive urban design ordinance that are added as an appendage (or overlay) to a portion of the land development code.

In nearly every community, what we find is that the “conventional” land development code contains an overwhelming number of regulations/ordinances that actually work against what is known as “smart growth” or what I would consider to be quality urban design.

In other words, much of the reform that is needed in almost every community is to get the adopted regulations out of the way of those seeking to build desirable developments. To expand the options that the development community has in providing for the full range of housing and commercial choices, instead of just being forced to limit themselves to conventional suburban, car-oriented development.

Sometimes, the marketplace actually seeks smart growth design. That is increasingly true today, as baby boomers, empty nesters and seniors, in growing numbers, are seeking walkable, denser, mixed-use, more vibrant, in-town living arrangements. Yet too often, developers find that the local government, astonishingly, has quite a few regulations that make such smart growth development illegal.

The approach that the more forward-thinking communities are starting to take is to establish a “transect-based” code. Instead of using the conventional approach of only having regulations to provide for a suburban lifestyle, progressive communities with visionary leaders are creating codes that are “context-sensitive.” In other words, the code has 3 to 6 lifestyle zones ranging from walkable urban to farm- and preservation-oriented rural. Each zone contains its own set of appropriate, customized regulations. That is, regulations designed to maximize the quality of the lifestyle intended for that zone.

These communities are moving away from the idea that “one size fits all.”

Note, too, that conventional, one-size-fits-all suburban land development codes (zoning regulations) use a reactive, negative approach to regulating development. The regulations have no vision for what the community seeks. They generally only state what is NOT allowed.

An important problem with the conventional approach is that it provides very little predictability for the community. Neighbors of a project are unable to know what to expect of a nearby development project. This unpredictability is also economically harmful, as businesses, developers and lending institutions are more healthy and comfortable with investing and developing when there is more predictability. Investing and developing is more risky when one cannot predict what a neighbor might develop in the future.

Conventional codes also tend to be “use-based;” striving to segregate land uses from each other, and focused on preventing “too much” residential density (after all, zoning regulations were born in an age when it was very important to separate “dirty” industries from houses, and to prevent overcrowding conditions). Today, such concerns have become rather anachronistic and counter-productive. Segregating land uses and restricting residential densities promotes auto dependence and discourages transit, bicycling and walking. These sorts of regulations also hurt small businesses and promote larger, corporate retailers.

Furthermore, conventional codes are meticulously designed to ensure that each development provides vast quantities of off-street parking. As Donald Shoup points out, such regulations are not at all based on objective, scientific studies about how much parking should be provided. They are adopted because “that is the requirement in other communities” (instead of being based on local studies).

In general, such regulations are a self-fulfilling prophesy because they assume everyone will drive a car to the development. By making that assumption, vast seas of parking are provided, which reduces the ability to travel without a car, which promotes additional car travel. And so on, ad infinitum. (free parking is also an enormous subsidy that strongly encourages travel by car)

Such parking requirements end up striving to provide sufficient parking for the “worst” day of the year (usually a week before Christmas).

Which means that most parking lots are nearly empty for 99% of the year.

“Worst case scenario” planning tends to be extremely costly, disastrous, and wasteful.

Shoup shows how the off-street parking regulations worsen traffic congestion, promote suburban sprawl, encourage car use for nearly every trip, increase air pollution and fuel consumption, reduce the ability to use transit (or walk or bicycle), significantly discourage small businesses which are unable to afford the high cost of providing such parking, and significantly increase the cost of housing (affordable housing is nearly impossible when off-street parking is required).

A newly-emerging example of smart growth regulations that seek to reform these problematic, conventional codes is known as a “form-based” code. A form-based code is ideally embedded within a transect-based land development code. The essential difference between a form-based code and a conventional use-based code is that a form-based code takes the position that the design of buildings is much more important and long-lasting for the community quality of life than the conventional focus on what uses are allowed in the building.

Instead, a form-based code has regulations that explicitly and positively state the community vision for the full range of lifestyles found in the community: urban, suburban and rural. The imperative becomes place-making, community-building, self-sufficiency, sustainability. Cities with well-designed buildings in neighborhoods containing the full range of daily needs — buildings that are integrated with other buildings to form comfortable spaces and energize the public realm, instead of being stand-alone, “look at me,” “object” buildings that deaden and turn their backs to the public realm. Use segregation, residential density maximums, and off-street parking are de-emphasized in a form-based code.

Form-based codes also return us to the tradition of emphasizing the quality and vibrancy of the public realm — the streets, the sidewalks and the buildings.

Given the above, examples of communities that have taken the lead on urban design are:

Sarasota FL

Miami FL

Madison WI

Austin TX

Belmont NC

West Palm Beach FL

Davidson NC

Nashville TN

Boulder CO

Ft Collins CO

Hercules CA

Hillsborough County FL

Huntersville NC

Orlando FL

These cities have not necessarily reformed their entire zoning/land development code. Some may simply have adopted a form-based code that they have appended to their land development code and applied it to a discreet location within the community.

Almost always, progress in urban design regulations is extremely incremental. It usually starts off by establishing “overlay” zoning districts which are overlaid onto the existing, underlying land development regulations. Overlays are a step in the direction of creating a form-based, transect-oriented land development code, but by themselves tend to be rather ad hoc “patches” (particularly when there is a proliferation of them in the underlying Code). Overlays tend to create code inconsistencies, and confusion for both planning staff, developers, and citizens. There is no unifying vision in this form of eclecticism.

Another note: Given the scarcity of communities which have reformed their entire land development code to promote smart growth, nearly all of the impressive urban design occurring in America is being driven not by local government regulations. Instead, smart growth is being created mostly by private sector developers who are building quality urban design (usually large infill projects in a downtown, or a new, traditional neighborhood).

 

An article pertinent to the above comments:

 

Working Toward a New Understanding of Zoning

By Roger K. Lewis Saturday, March 4, 2006; F05. The Washington Post

 

Urban design thinking and practice have greatly advanced over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, conventional zoning, the crude but all-powerful regulatory tool shaping cities, has changed little. Given the need to transform land-use planning and development, why is it so difficult to transform conventional zoning?

Impediments to zoning reform are predominantly political, social and economic, usually having little to do with design. Holistically amending a jurisdiction’s zoning statutes and regulations requires both executive leadership and legislative action. Because strong political sentiment always arises in opposition to proposed changes in land development, most elected officials and their constituents are reluctant to contemplate and push for such changes.

Zoning is potent because once zones are mapped and categories of land use, land-use intensity and building criteria are prescribed, the future character of the physical environment, along with its potential economic value, is substantially determined.

Land zoned for only single-family detached houses, with lots no smaller than 10,000 square feet, is likely to be less valuable than land zoned for attached homes or apartment buildings. If that same land is zoned for commercial use, its value becomes even greater.

Zoning creates vested land-use rights and potential wealth for property owners. In fixing boundaries, uses, densities and building form, zoning also presumably creates stability and predictability.

Thus many oppose zoning changes because they see it as a threat to their neighborhood and property. In many areas, zoning effectively excludes less affluent people from property ownership by generating land scarcity and unaffordable land costs through constraints on use.

Although many have benefited economically from zoning, it has become increasingly ineffective as an instrument of urban design. Zoning’s fundamental flaw is that it operates primarily by setting limits, spelling out what cannot be done, while remaining relatively mute as to what should be done.

Zoning laws often were written by lawyers, not by planners and designers. Regulations adopted decades ago under radically different circumstances are still on the books. Among the most obstructive regulations are these limiting types of use and mixing of uses.

People once believed that proper planning required clearly separated, single-use zones. A further belief was that, within a zone, buildings should be similar in bulk, height and character.

Today, urban designers advocate mixing uses and building types, blurring lines of demarcation between urban and suburban neighborhoods. They strive for connectivity rather than separation, heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. Density is another concern. Over time, new technologies, new architectural design strategies, new transportation modes and new patterns of human behavior make previous assumptions about density obsolete. Allowable densities stipulated 40 or 50 years ago for a city may make little sense today in the face of dramatic changes in demographics, infrastructure, building types and land development costs.

But by far, zoning’s most significant deficiency is its failure to mobilize regulatory power in determining the quality of the public realm — the design of streets, civic spaces and public parks.

Typically, jurisdictions address the public realm, if at all, in broad-brush master plans, but often vaguely and without the kind of exacting constraints imposed by zoning. Rarely do zoning ordinances and master plans set forth adequate design standards for street cross sections, planting, furniture, lighting, sidewalk dimensions and finishes, building porosity at sidewalk level, or graphics. Rarely are plaza geometries or landscaping spelled out. Instead, most jurisdictions fabricate a patchwork quilt of uncoordinated ordinances that deal separately with transportation, public works, utilities, building and public safety codes, and parks and recreation.

Ideally, a new set of principles and rules for urban design and development, superseding zoning, would explicitly and comprehensively address all of these issues: patterns of land use, densities, infrastructure, building form and, equally important, cityscape and landscape. And to be effective, its mapping and design criteria would be fine-grained, ranging in scale from districts and neighborhoods to specific sites.

A new code still would need to prescribe limits where appropriate, but its aim would be higher: to achieve desired aesthetic quality and functionality within the public realm.

Of course, debates about desired aesthetic quality won’t go away. Urban designers share many goals, but competing aesthetic philosophies persist, just as in other design fields, such as architecture, furniture and fashion design.

Boiled down, the debate is between those embracing historical continuity and those advocating innovation. The former generally want to be more prescriptive about both cityscape and architecture, while the latter, fearful that freedom of artistic expression could be stifled, seek to promote design flexibility.

But each community must engage in this debate, a necessary part of the process required to transcend conventional zoning. No matter which aesthetic philosophy a community chooses, residents must remember that cities are at once permanent and organic, durable yet mutable. While laws regulating urban development should not be changed solely in response to rapidly shifting trends in taste, they nevertheless must change from time to time. For zoning, this is one of those times.

 

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

 

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A Realizable Smart Growth Vision

by Rick Cole

 

The Planning Report, Los Angeles CA, Dec/Jan 2005

Rick Cole, currently the City Manager of Ventura, has been for years a leading Southern California voice for good government and planning. Rick has been City Manager of Azusa, and before that served as Mayor of Pasadena. TPR is pleased to publish excerpts from a recent speech he delivered in November as part of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development’s Urban Growth Seminar lecture series, titled “Smart Growth in Southern California: How Pasadena Made It Happen; How Ventura Will Make It Happen.”

 

I want to start with a disclaimer. This is not about planning. This is not about architecture. This is about vision. I am in awe of the kind of people who understand the planning and the architectural elements that go into smart growth. But the reality is we’re not going to get smart growth in Southern California (or anywhere else) until there is an alternative vision of smart growth that is as compelling as the suburban vision that has animated public policy and popular imagination since World War II.

I am convinced that the places that offer that vision, that alternative model, will change the world. Because the stakes are not about Southern California. In Southern California, there are seven parking spaces for every car, and there are more cars than there are registered drivers. This is a problem. But in China, when they end up with more cars than registered drivers – if they follow our pattern of development and put seven parking spaces for every car, that’s eight billion parking spaces. That’s not a problem; that is an ecological and social catastrophe. If we cannot fix the way we live and build in Southern California, the mother of sprawl, we will be responsible for a worldwide economic meltdown. So we have an opportunity and a responsibility. And I think we can change the world one city at a time.

…What happened [when Pasadena collaborated on a new General Plan in 1992] was little short of miraculous, because we stopped asking the question, “Should we grow?” which is a question that bedevils all of Southern California. It turns out that “Should we grow?” is a really stupid question, because we’ve been growing for 100 years and no one has figured out how to stop growth. Instead, when we shifted the question from whether we should grow to “How we should grow?” and “Where we should grow?” two things happened. One, a lot of the polarizations literally melted like snow in the spring. Second, a lot of the people who had been ready to strangle each other suddenly found themselves fast friends. The people all agreed that growth ought to happen in the places where growth would benefit neighborhoods that were either worn out through disinvestment or neighborhoods that had infrastructure capacity and vacant land, and not in low-density, healthy, intact neighborhoods. Once we figured out the “where,” then the “how” was something we now call “smart growth.”

…You can’t beat sprawl without an alternative vision. In Pasadena, the alternative vision was called “Imagine a Greater City.” The seven principles were written specifically so that people could understand them. Literally these 85 words that articulate the seven principles were the words that people voted on. The ballot said: “Shall the voters of the City of Pasadena adopt a new General Plan, based upon the following seven principles?” The majority of the citizens of Pasadena checked “yes” to these seven principles at the November 1992 election – the highest voter turnout until this last November.

…The lessons from Pasadena that apply to Ventura and other communities begin with asking the right questions. It’s not copying Pasadena’s plan, nor even the seven principles. Not every place wants to have a downtown like Old Pasadena. Some places want to be towns, some places want to be cities, and some places need to be metropolises. This is something about New Urbanism that gets really mangled by proponents and opponents alike. Opponents particularly seize on the claim: “New Urbanism is all about higher density!” “It’s all about one way of doing things!” It’s not. Smart growth is about choices. It’s about appropriate choices. There’s a place in the polycentric fabric of Southern California for a variety of places – for towns, for regional centers, and for the metropolitan center of Los Angeles. And Pasadena knows its place. It is to be the Paris of the West San Gabriel Valley.

…Here’s the problem: We keep trying to do smart growth projects in a “dumb growth” landscape. And we wonder why they don’t work. It’s like trying to run Microsoft Word on an Apple computer. We get all these error messages, and it’s really frustrating. And yet, we keep trying to do smart growth projects. Instead, we have to establish a new operating system…New Urbanism. It’s an integrated approach to landscape. It’s made up, not of projects, but of streets and corridors and neighborhoods and districts. It’s a comprehensive alternative to the suburban sprawl model. It works. But you can’t just take pieces of it and make it work. You have to replace the auto-oriented suburban model we have now with a new operating system.

…What are the key elements of smart growth in Ventura? The battle is over when it comes to deciding whether we’re going to pave over the farmlands, pave over the hillsides, or pave over the greenbelts. The voters have decided: we’re not going to do it. That means, we either grow smart or we don’t grow at all. It’s that simple. And “where” we’re going to grow smart is on our Westside and in Midtown and Downtown. The Westside is an older urban area that cries out for revitalization. Midtown has a strong urban grid of stable neighborhoods, but with really ugly strip corridors. Downtown has come back strongly in recent years. Everyone agrees these are the right places to grow.

There is beginning to be consensus that says we’ve got these corridors, these long strip streets that have an old Burger King, and a used car lot, and a vacant lot, and a little tiny office building, and a strip of one-story retail stores. That all needs to be replaced with handsome boulevard housing. There’s a crying need for workforce housing. That will be tough at first, because there are neighbors to those corridors, and they will think that it’s more dumb growth. But if we show it can be done right and we do it right a few times, it will actually spread very rapidly.

In Ventura, an essential element of smart growth is “green” building. It’s not enough to just do growth in the right place, but to do growth that is environmentally sustainable. That’s particularly true in existing suburban areas. The real battleground at the moment is traditional neighborhood design. Again, as in Pasadena, it’s critically important to respect the history of what’s already there. We learned how to build cities for 4000 years of human history, and then in 1945 we forgot, and we went through 50 years of amnesia, and listening to false prophets. We have got to relearn some of the basic ways in which cities were built. That does not mean that there’s no place for modern architecture, or for new design. But it simply means that human beings still need doors, they still like windows, they still walk.

…A critical piece of New Urbanism is that there’s no such thing as “one size fits all.” You don’t want to put a skyscraper next to low-density residential. You don’t want to put low-density residential in the middle of a downtown. There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place. And that has all kinds of beneficent outcomes… Again, you can’t just do projects that are called “smart growth” where you paint a bike lane and proclaim: “You have the opportunity to ride a bike.” You have to make neighborhoods and cities bike-friendly again, and people-friendly again, and transit-friendly again.

For those of us who advocate smart growth, the most important problem is that everything we believe in is illegal in 50 states. I want to make this clear: It’s illegal to do smart growth. It’s illegal in every city in California except Azusa, which last year unanimously passed a smart growth General Plan. All this stuff has to be jammed through by exception, by variance, by creativity, by pounding on developers, by incredibly brilliant and tenacious developers who try to move things through. It’s illegal. And the only way to fix that is to repeal the laws that make it illegal.

I know I sometimes sound like sort of a desperate guy in the 12th hour of a filibuster. “You’re talking about repealing zoning? What planet are you from?” I’m from the planet Earth. And for the last 50 years we’ve been taken over by aliens: people who don’t understand how to build for people. The idea that instead of walking a block to get a loaf of bread, you should have to drive three miles to get a loaf of bread is a fundamentally alien idea. We have to change the codes. We have to abolish the zoning strictures that make it illegal to put natural human activities in close proximity.

You know, we have this weird new phrase, “mixed use.” It’s like “horseless carriage.” Remember when cars first got started, nobody had a word for cars, so they called them “horseless carriages.” Well, it’s the same with “mixed-use development.” Do any of you live in a house or an apartment? Those would be called “mixed-room development.” But in the world of zoning, the bathroom would be six blocks away. The bedroom would be on the other side of the freeway, because you wouldn’t want the bedroom close to the kitchen, because they might rub off on each other. And you wouldn’t want to have high-income bedrooms next to low-income bedrooms. So the kids would have to sleep somewhere else, because they don’t make as much money as you do.

The phrase “mixed use” is an exotic, weird thing – yet that’s the way human beings have lived since we started building cities. “Mixed use” is redundant. “Segregated use” is the problem. But that’s what is legal, what’s required, in 50 states. Instead of legalizing mixed use, we need to abolish the zoning codes that make mixed use the exception. It should be the rule.

Now, there are a number of developers here. And my message is very simple: it is the responsibility of the local community to set quality rules. We need to figure out what we want, and offer developers a clear code on what that looks like. There ought to be one door to City Hall, and there ought to be a sign next to the door: “This is what is allowed.” If you look at our code and you want to build it, then by all means, come on in and we’ll give you a permit. It shouldn’t take years. It should take six months. If you want to build quality, you should get a permit promptly. If you aren’t interested in quality, you should have to wait forever. You should never get a permit. Even if you lobby or go to lunch with people or make campaign contributions or schmooze with neighbors, you will never get a cruddy project through, because cruddy projects should be against the law.

…2500 years ago, the original people who invented democracy and built pretty cool cities understood that making great places is everybody’s job. It’s not a planner’s job or a politician’s job or an administrator’s job or an architect’s job. It’s a citizen’s job to build great places. It’s everybody’s job. And when you became a citizen of Athens, you had to swear that you were going to leave the place better and more beautiful than you found it. I think that’s the basis of democracy. I think that’s the basis of building cool cities. And I think that’s the basis of saving China from building 8 billion parking spaces.

 

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Sprawl and Suburbia, Visioning

The Merits of New Urbanism

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

The standards and principles of new urbanism are designed to make areas more livable, more vibrant, and more people-oriented, and to build community pride in the city and the work of its developers.

The people-oriented, traditional areas of the city share a number of desirable characteristics that provide us with many benefits. We should strive to preserve, celebrate, encourage and emulate how these areas are designed because of such benefits. For example, a traditionally designed city provides the following benefits:

Gives people without access to a car, such as children, the elderly, and the disabled, more safety and independence in their world.

Enhances urban livability, which reduces the desire to flee to the suburbs, which, in turn, reduces the pressure for costly sprawl and strip commercial development.

Substantially reduces government and household costs — especially because of the enormous savings in the building and maintaining of road infrastructure, and the purchase and maintenance of cars.

Reduces the need for travel.

Helps retain historic structures instead of replacing them with parking or large suburban retail “boxes””

Features streets designed to slow traffic. It increases travel choices and reduces the length and number of vehicle trips.

Makes neighborhoods more memorable and dignified.

Contains structures built for permanence, instead of structures designed, as too many contemporary structures are, for a short-term “throw-away” life.

Integrates income groups by mixing housing types and providing a public realm available to all incomes.

Makes walking feel more enjoyable.

Is not characterized as much by strip commercial visual blight.

Increases citizen access to culture.

Creates a good environment for smaller, locally-owned businesses to become established and to operate in.

Puts “eyes on the street” and promotes “citizen surveillance” of public places where citizens watch over their collective security, crime is reduced, as are public law enforcement costs.

Stabilizes, reinforces the identity of, and improves the value of nearby older neighborhoods.

Preserves and promotes community character.

Promotes neighborhood and community self-sufficiency and, therefore, sustainabilty.

Reduces per capita gasoline consumption and air pollution.

Coupled with regulations that are designed to promote and preserve its features, restores the traditional citizen hope and expectation for a better future with each new development in the city, and, in so doing, reduces the extreme polarization between developers and neighborhoods.

Provides affordable housing options.

Creates a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of belonging and restores civic pride and place-based loyalty.

Strikes a balance between the needs of the car and the needs of the pedestrian. It creates a pedestrian ambiance and interesting pedestrian features, and makes the pedestrian feel safe, convenienced, and comfortable.

Creates a good environment for smaller, locally-owned businesses to become established and to operate in.

Increases transit viability, primarily through density, access, traffic calming, community-serving facilities, compactness, mixed use and pedestrian amenities.

Currently, developers are often reviled and their developments feared. This is manifested in the contemporary epidemic of NIMBYs (not in my backyard), NIMTOOs (not in my term of office), BANANAs (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything), and NOPEs (not on planet earth). Largely, these attitudes have emerged because since WWII, developers and cities have sought to make cars instead of people happy.

Typically, American suburbs are characterized by this design. Suburban design features:

Large setbacks that are inconvenient for pedestrians and fail to define a comfortable public realm

Large parking lots in front of buildings

Large street blocks with no cross access or connecting streets

Buildings with their backs or sides turned toward the street. Instead of an entrance or windows, the pedestrian is confronted with blank walls, air compressors, dumpsters, and long walks to the building

Pedestrian-hostile features that are designed to promote car use, such as drive-throughs, single-use zoning, segregation of land uses, and “armoring” with fences and walls

To make Gainesville a safer, more livable place, and to increase citizen pride in its developments, the new urbanist standards are designed to primarily promote the health, safety, and welfare of pedestrians, while still accommodating the needs of the car. More specifically, the design is intended to make the pedestrian feel:

Safe and secure

Convenienced

Pleasant and comfortable

With enhanced safety, livability, civic pride, and visual appeal in these older parts of the city, the city will establish an important engine in job recruitment and a strengthened tax base. A downtown that adheres to these standards will be a city that provides an important incubator for new, entrepreneurial, locally-owned small businesses and entry-level job opportunities. A healthy downtown also protects the property values of surrounding residential areas.

Some Principles of New Urbanism

Build-To Line

Overly large setbacks are inconvenient and unpleasant for pedestrians. They are inconvenient because they can significantly increase walking distances from the public sidewalk. They are unpleasant because they prevent the pedestrian on the public sidewalk from enjoying the building details and the activity within the building. In addition, they prevent the building from contributing to an intimate, pleasant, comfortable street wall, which harms the sense of place and makes the pedestrian feel as if she or he is in “no man’s land.” Buildings pulled up to the street sidewalk have more of a human scale. The intent of a build-to line is to pull the building facade up to the street to abut the streetside sidewalk. By doing so, building facades along a block face will be aligned to form a street wall that frames the public realm, while retaining sufficient width for people to walk, and sufficient space to provide a formal landscape created by the shade of street trees. The street wall shapes the public realm to provide a sense of comfort and security for the public space.

Building Height of At Least Two Stories

“Low-slung” one-story buildings are more appropriate in low-density residential areas designed for motor vehicle travel. They reduce the density and intensity needed to make transit, walking, and bicycling viable, and typically are too low in profile to form a desirable, intimate, comfortable public realm with facing buildings across the street. They also reduce the opportunity to create mixed-use buildings containing, typically, both commercial and residential uses. Low-rise multi-story buildings two to five stories in height are an important component of the compact, walkable city. The building profile forms the desired street wall and the additional stories allow the establishment of the number of residents needed for a viable urban neighborhood.

Parking Located at the Rear or Side of Building Instead of in Front

Parking areas located in front of buildings are inconvenient and unpleasant for pedestrians. They are inconvenient because they significantly increase walking distances from the public sidewalk. They are unpleasant because they often make for hot expanses of areas to walk in, prevent the pedestrian on the public sidewalk from enjoying the building details and the activity within the building, and increase safety problems since pedestrians must dodge cars in the parking area. In addition, they prevent the building from contributing to an intimate, pleasant, comfortable street wall, which harms the sense of place and makes the pedestrian feel as if she or he is in “no man’s land.” Buildings pulled up to the street without intervening motor vehicle parking have more of a human scale.

Hidden Trash and Recycling Receptacles and Loading Docks

Trash and recycling receptacles and loading docks typically provide an unsightly appearance and an odor problem for pedestrians. In addition, improperly located and improperly screened receptacles and docks can cause noise problems for nearby land uses when the receptacles and packages are being loaded or unloaded. Therefore, they should be located as far from public sidewalks as possible and screened from view.

Sidewalks Sufficiently Wide and Aligned for Convenience

Sidewalks, when properly dimensioned and maintained, can provide the pedestrian with a pleasant, safe, and convenient place to walk. Sidewalks that are too narrow are inconvenient, especially in areas with large volumes of pedestrians, pedestrians walking side-by-side (which requires a minimum sidewalk width of five feet unobstructed), and people using wheelchairs. In addition, sidewalks that must wrap around large block faces are a serious impediment to pedestrian convenience.

Building Oriented to the Street, Instead of Turning Its Back to It

A successful commercial establishment is designed to provide convenience for customers by minimizing walking distances from public sidewalks and nearby buildings. Rear or side entrances, or entrances oriented toward a parking lot, make travel highly inconvenient for pedestrians and transit users. Such a design also cuts the building off from street life. In addition, a building with its main entrance directed away from the primary sidewalk and street “turns its back” to the public realm, reduces urban vibrancy, and is harmful to promoting street life. When a building is located at an intersection, the most convenient entrance is usually abutting the public sidewalks at the corner of the intersection. Often, the most convenient sidewalk is formally aligned diagonally and aligned straight to minimize walking distance.

Facade Treatment Creates Interest for Pedestrians

All building shall be designed to provide interest for pedestrians. Long expanses of blank walls tend to be boring and unattractive for the pedestrian. In addition, windows attract pedestrians, which act as a security system for the business. Buildings without such relief and interest tend to create a “massive scale”, and makes the public realm impersonal. Such an appearance is inconsistent with the “human-scaled” and pedestrian-oriented character of the a traditional area of a city, and inconsistent with a city intent to restore such character to the traditional city area.

Hidden Outdoor Mechanical Equipment

Outdoor mechanical equipment, such as heating or AC units, when improperly located on a site or improperly screened, can contribute to noise problems and create visual blight.

Formal Landscaping

In the traditional, pedestrian-oriented areas of a city, landscaping should be used both to soften the “hardness” of the urban area for the pedestrian, and make the pedestrian feel more comfortable by providing cooling, reducing glare and helping to form public spaces, “outdoor rooms,” and street corridor edges. Such formality of landscaping adds dignity to the traditional area of a city, instead of a chaotic one, thereby inspiring a sense of civic pride.

Properly Scaled Lighting

Lighting can often detract from the intimate, pleasant, romantic character a city seeks to promote in the traditional, pedestrian-oriented areas of a city. But lighting designed for cars tends to be not human-scaled. Lights on tall fixtures cause light pollution by casting light into areas not needed by pedestrians. In addition, the lights present a poor, bleached out atmosphere as the pedestrian views an area from afar, and hides the nighttime sky completely. A new urbanist, pedestrian-oriented street lighting design features shorter and more numerous light fixtures and structures.

Prohibited Auto-Oriented Uses

Certain uses are oriented toward or designed to attract motor vehicles, and therefore contribute to danger, visual blight, inconvenience, and lack of human scale for pedestrians. Therefore, such uses are not compatible with the a people-friendly downtown area.

Alleys

Alleys allow the developer to place garages, driveways, waste receptacles, and overhead utilities in a less conspicuous location away from the public street and therefore less likely to detract from the pedestrian ambiance of the neighborhood. Alleys also provide an additional location for emergency vehicles to gain access to a building, and a relatively safe place for children to play.

Front Porches

When they are set back a modest (“conversational”) distance from the sidewalk, porches allow persons to sit on their porch and interact and socialize with their neighbors. They therefore add safety (by putting “eyes on the street”) and friendliness to the street. As a result, porches contribute to an enjoyable walk by pedestrians in the neighborhood.

Narrow Streets

Narrow streets force cars and trucks to travel slowly through the neighborhood, which significantly contributes to neighborhood safety, low noise levels, low traffic volumes and, therefore neighborhood livability.

Mixed Housing Types

Mixed housing types provide the neighborhood with a mixed income environment, since the mixed types provide a range of housing affordability. Mixed housing types enable lower income workers to live within walking distance of their jobs, instead of creating traffic problems by being forced to commute by car to their jobs.

Transit Links

When a neighborhood contains — or is near — safe, pleasant, and convenient bus stops, a larger number of trips are made by bus, which reduces excessive neighborhood trips to and from the neighborhood by car. This provides more transportation choice, enhances neighborliness, and reduces household transportation costs (every car a household can shed saves the household the equivalent of the monthly home mortgage payment on a $51,000 house, at 10 percent interest).

On-Street Parking

Buffers pedestrians from vehicle travel. Narrows the street in order to slow traffic to a safer, more livable speed. Provides convenient parking locations for nearby businesses. Allows businesses and residences to reduce the amount of off-street, on-site parking, which reduces the “heat island” effect and enhances urban vibrancy by improving the public realm.

Mixed Use

Reduces trip distances to the point where walking, bicycling, and bus trips are much more feasible for a number of different types of trips. Adds to neighborhood and urban vibrancy by increasing the number of places people can meet — such as a pub, on the way to work or a civic event, a grocery store, a fitness center, etc. Provides children with more of an awareness of community land uses other than parks, residences, and schools.

Resessed Garages

Enhances the neighborhood walking environment for the pedestrian. Houses appear people-oriented and interesting to walk along, instead of sending a strong message that “a car lives here.”

Narrow, Smaller Lots

Provides a more compact, walkable arrangement of houses. Provides a more pleasing alignment of houses along the streetside sidewalk, which enhances civic pride in the neighborhood and makes the residential street seem more “cozy.” Blocks are reduced in size, which makes the neighborhood more walkable. Narrower lots increase the frequency of front doors along the street, which greatly enhances the vibrancy of the street. Houses appear to be associated in a neighborly way, instead of isolated and cocooned from the neighborhood. Smaller lots also make home ownership in such a subdivision more affordable. In addition, the higher, yet livable, density that smaller lots provide makes transit more viable.

Connected Streets

Makes walking, bicycling, and using the bus more feasible by significantly reducing trip distances and increasing the number of safe and pleasant routes for such travellers. Provides motorists and emergency service vehicles with more “real time” route choices. A route that is impeded or blocked can be avoided in favor of a clear route, which is not possible on a cul-de-sac. In combination with the fact that connected streets distribute vehicle trips more evenly, real time route choices on connected streets reduce congestion on collector or arterial roads. As a result of this distribution, there is little or no need for neighborhood-hostile collectors or arterials, which, because of the volume and speed of vehicle trips they carry, are unpleasant for residences to locate along.

Terminated Vistas

A concept in which a prominent building is placed at the “visual termination” of a street. Provides dignity and prominence to important civic buildings, such as post offices, libraries, city halls, churches, convention centers and performing arts centers. Sends the message that the building is an important place for the community. In addition, terminated vistas make walking more pleasant by giving the pedestrian a “goal” to walk toward. The walk therefore does not seem endless. It also provides an impressive view to strive to reach. Such vistas also make trips more memorable by helping to orient a person as to their location in the community.

Livable, higher densities

The conventional way in which we address land use conflicts is to put distance between conflicting activities, and minimize the number of dwelling units per acre. But this does little to encourage land users to reduce the damage they do to the environment. Also, by segregating uses, we increase the amount people have to travel by car, which itself reduces the quality of the urban and natural environment.

By contrast, the more compact, higher density “new urbanist” development reduces trip length; and makes bicycling, transit, and walking more viable. For these reasons, compact development generates about half as much vehicle travel as does sprawl development, making such a land use strategy one of the most effective in reducing auto dependence.

Minimum densities necessary for a viable bus system are approximately eight dwelling units per acre. Newman and Kenworthy indicate that only when densities exceed 7,000 to 8,000 persons per square mile (Gainesville’s density is currently 2,000 per square mile) do mixed land uses and shorter travel distances become predominant enough to significantly reduce auto dependence. These researchers note that a dramatic reduction in per capita gasoline consumption occurs when population density reaches 12 to 16 persons per acre. “Low density land use ensures almost total dependence on automobiles, enormous travel distances, no effective public transit, and little possibility of walking or [bi]cycling. Below five or six people per acre, a city almost ceases to exist, and requires enormous transportation energy to hold the scattered parts together.”

A recent study found that distance is the most widely cited reason for not walking more often, thereby showing the importance of compact development as a strategy to encourage walking. People living in high-density areas are much more likely to walk than those living in low-density suburbs, even when suburban trips are less than one mile (note that higher population densities seem to be more strongly correlated with higher walking rates than does a compact land use pattern). There also seems to be a correlation between the shorter commute distances associated with compact cities and higher bicycling rates. Compact, mixed-use development has been cited as much more likely than improved bicycle facilities, congestion fees, or fuel price increases to recruit motorists to bicycling.

Residential development that averages 14 dwelling units per acre requires half as much road mileage to serve vehicle trips than development at 3.5 dwelling units per acre. Another study found that for each doubling of residential density, vehicle miles traveled is reduced 30 percent. Thus, if the population of an area doubled due to infill development, vehicle miles traveled would probably increase by only 40 to 60 percent, rather than the 100 percent it would increase if the population increase occurred in dispersed suburbs.

A recent study has confirmed that the shift from car trips to transit and walking does not occur until certain job and housing densities are achieved. For work trips, the thresholds are 50 to 75 employees per gross acre, or 12 dwellings per net acre. For shopping trips, it is 75 employees per gross acre and 20 dwellings per acre.

One way to increase development densities is to remove land development policies that reduce development densities, such as minimum lot size zoning and minimum parking requirements.

Public service vehicles scaled small enough so that they do not dictate unsafe, wide streets

New urbanism encourages the use of public service and emergency vehicles (such as fire trucks) that are scaled to be compatible with neighborhoods. Increasingly, such vehicles are quite large, and their size often dictates rather wide streets and unsafe turning radii. Yet studies show that the dangers of such street design typically far outweigh the safety benefits that larger streets and turns will provide for emergency vehicles. In general, this is because the probability of traffic injury or death due to over-sized streets is much higher than the chance that injury or death would be averted because the emergency vehicle can shave a few seconds off of a trip. Therefore, smaller service vehicles can help a City keep average neighborhood vehicle speeds lower, make the streets safer and less noisy, make the neighborhood more walkable and, in general, more livable and sociable.

Streets and sidewalks straight, not curvilinear

Streets are more memorable and less disorienting when they are straight. They are more dignified, and can be terminated with a prominent vista. It is important that sidewalks be straight, since pedestrians have a strong desire to walk the distance that provides the minimum trip length. Curving sidewalks promote the creation of “cow paths,” as pedestrians take short cuts along their route. In general, curvilinear sidewalks are only appropriate when needed to avoid a large tree or other important physical feature, or in an area in which most pedestrians are walking strictly for optional recreation or exercise. This is generally not the case in an urban area, where almost all trips are utilitarian. Mostly, curving sidewalks are intended to improve the view of motorists driving along a road, and provide no important benefits for the pedestrian.

One-quarter mile walking distance

It is generally recognized that the convenient walking distance ranges up to one-quarter mile, or roughly a five- to ten minute walk. It is therefore important that for a neighborhood to be walkable, most homes should be within one-quarter mile of public parks, schools, civic buildings, retail, office, and various forms of culture. The one-quarter mile design yardstick also enhances the viability of transit.

Short, walkable block faces

In general, a neighborhood or commercial block face length should not exceed approximately 500 feet. Longer blocks tend to create inconvenient walking distances. When long blocks must be created, they should be shorted with cross-access walkways.

Ground-floor retail. Offices and residential above.

This form of mixed use enhances vibrancy and provides more affordable housing choices. It reduces the need for trips by car, since employees of the retail establishment can live above the shop. It is important that such “vertical mixing” of uses not place residential on the first floor, since it is disruptive for the residence when users of the office or retail must walk through the residence. It is also important that such mixed use include retail on the first floor so that more energy and interest is at the street level – -thereby benefiting pedestrians.

Eyes on the street. Citizen surveillance

Law enforcement agencies increasingly see the merits of citizen policing, in which citizens are able to watch out for their collective security. Such “eyes on the street” are promoted when buildings, windows, entrances and porches are near the street and sidewalk. Citizen surveillance is also promoted when the neighborhood or commercial areas are designed for regular, frequent pedestrian activity. Areas without pedestrian activity are areas where illegal, inappropriate, or unsafe behavior can occur more easily since there is no one to observe the deed and report it or intervene.

Diagonal usually the shortest walking distance

In general, the shortest walking distance is a diagonal route. Frequently, sidewalks are designed with right angle turns, which increases the walking distance and increases the likelihood of “cow path” shortcuts.

Centrally-located schools, parks, squares, civic w/in walking distance of most homes

When schools, parks, squares, and civic buildings are within easy walking distance of most residents, a sense of community and neighborliness is promoted, and vehicle trips are greatly reduced. If children are able to walk to school or a park, such areas can become social and recreational gathering places for students, because they are able to go to the school or return home on their own, as opposed to being required to leave when the bus leaves at the end of the class day.

Parks, squares and civic uses are more frequently used when residents have easy, non-vehicular access to them. When centrally located, they become the focal point of the neighborhood, and maximize the number of residences that are within walking distance.

Square street curbs

Square street curbs provide more safety for pedestrians, and provide a more attractive, urban appearance for the neighborhood.

Modest curb radius

A larger curb turning radius at an intersection or a parking area ingress and egress point allows vehicles to negotiate a turn rapidly, whereas a smaller radius forces a vehicle to slow down. Conventional traffic engineers often prefer a larger radius for vehicle convenience and curb protection, but such a radius makes life more inconvenient and dangerous for pedestrians. A larger radius also significantly increases the distance for crossing the street, which exposes the pedestrian to more danger from moving vehicles.

Note that large garbage trucks or delivery trucks or buses or fire trucks should not dictate the design of neighborhood curb radii. To do so is equivalent to obligating an architect to increase the size of the front door opening so that an overly large TV set can be brought into the house. No, the correct solution is to request that service and emergency vehicles be scaled for neighborhoods…

 

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Filed under Bicycling, New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Parking, Sprawl and Suburbia, Traffic Congestion, Visioning

Economic Merits of Road Diets and Traffic Calming

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

In a great many cases, “improved safety” is a reason cited as a rationale for adding travel lanes to a road (“widening” a road). Indeed, because “improved safety” is a “moral high ground” argument (i.e., the argument should be accepted for ethical reasons), the safety rationale is perhaps the most common reason given for why a road “must” be widened.

In effect, public policy makers, when confronted with the “public safety” justification, are forced into an uncomfortable position when a decision must be made to widen or not widen a road: Either agree to the widening, or take a position that seems to suggest an uncaring attitude toward public safety.

It comes as no surprise that a large number of decision-makers are persuaded solely on the basis of the public safety argument.

Because road widenings are enormously expensive, speed up car traffic, and can profoundly worsen quality of life as well as accelerate strip commercial development and urban sprawl, we must be certain that road widenings do, in fact, deliver on the promise of dramatically improved safety.

The Forgiving Road

The “Forgiving Road” is a road that “forgives” a motorist when a driving mistake is made. That is, being reckless, or driving at high-speeds, or driving inattentively is not followed by the “punishment” of consequences such as crashing into something on the side of the road. For several decades, we have designed forgiving roads. We have been pulling buildings, parked cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, trees and other “obstructions” away from the sides of roads so that even an unskilled motorist can travel at high speeds without crashing into something.

The forgiving road was thought to be a way to promote “safety”(the hidden agenda, for many, was to promote high-speed travel by large volumes of car traffic).

Of course-human nature being what it is-such a design encourages reckless, high-speed, inattentive driving because human psychology compels us to tend to drive at the highest speed that still feels safe. After all, we are always “running late.” We are always in a hurry. And we are so busy.

The forgiving roadway lulls us into a false sense of security. Vigilance and concentration wane on the forgiving road. Is it any wonder that today, we increasingly see motorists driving at high speeds with one hand, while putting on make-up, drinking coffee, or chatting on the cell phone with the other?

Since we tend to be busy and in a hurry, forgiving streets deliver lots of motorists who drive as fast as they can and “multi-task” while driving. Why? To save time.

The predictable result: An increase in crashes due to speeding, inattentiveness, and recklessness.

Ironically, motorist safety declines and driving skills atrophy, because the forgiving street conditions motorists to be less careful drivers, and lowers the need to maintain or improve driving skills. Increasingly, American motorists drive dangerously, and more ineptly.

Three Lanes vs Four Lanes

Some safety analysts point out that 3-lane roads are noticeably safer than 4-lane roads, in part because, when comparing 3 lanes to 4, average vehicle speeds are reduced, there is less variability in vehicle speeds, and there is less speeding. In addition, there is a significant reduction in what engineers call “conflict” points, and an increase in “sight distance” for turning and crossing traffic on a 3-lane versus 4-lane road (Welch, undated).

This is particularly important for senior citizens who are motorists, because fewer conflict points and increased sight distances means fewer decisions and judgements have to be made to enter or cross a 3-lane road.

Similarly, a 3-lane road reduces the street-crossing distance for pedestrians. Compared to a 4-lane road, a 3-lane can create “refuge” areas where a pedestrian can safely wait until there is a safe gap in traffic before crossing the other half of the street. A refuge is also created for motorists with 3 lanes.

A review of the research on this question raises significant questions as to whether wider roads are safer roads.

Fewer Travel Lanes

A study published in 2002 (Huang, Stewart, Zegeer, 2002) reported that in Oakland CA, a street carrying 24,000 trips per day was converted from four lanes to three. The number of annual crashes went from 81 before to 68 after. On another street in Oakland was narrowed, crashes went down 52 percent. In Minnesota, a road diet resulted in a 33-percent reduction in injury crashes. In Billings MT, a road diet resulted in 62 percent fewer crashes after travel lanes were removed. In Lewistown PA, removal of travel lanes saw the number of crashes drop to almost zero. Finally, these researchers found that in Seattle WA, a number of road diets were analyzed, and a 34-percent reduction in total crashes and a 7-percent drop in injury crashes was noted.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project (1999) released a study in 1999 that found a strong link between aggressive driving deaths and increased road capacity. Those living in states with the largest number of lane miles per capita were 65 percent more likely to die in an aggressive driving crash than in states with less lane miles per capita. Similarly, those metro areas that added the most lane miles over a five-year period had higher levels of aggressive driving deaths. See their 2003 report for additional information about how big roads are less safe.

The Iowa Department of Transportation (2001) has found that converting a four-lane undivided road to three lanes can improve safety while retaining an acceptable level of service. Their review of research found that when such conversions occurred, there was a reduction in average speeds, a significant reduction in speeding, and a substantial reduction in the total number of crashes.

According to Engwicht (1989), straighter, wider roads encourage greater speed. Accidents that do happen are therefore more severe, resulting in more injuries or a greater likelihood of death.

There is a large body of research which suggests that increasing the safety of a car or road simply encourages the driver to take greater risks. Drivers are willing to take a certain amount of risk in exchange for the benefit of faster traveling time. This risk is added to the safety limits of the car or road. The new safety features lull the driver into a new sense of security. Vigilance, concentration and attentiveness wane.

Welch (Welch, undated) conducted an analysis of converting a two-lane road to a four-lane road in Ft. Madison IA. This conversion resulted in a 4 percent increase in traffic volume, a 4 percent increase in corridor travel delay, a 2.5 mph increase in mid-block 85th percentile speed, a 14 percent increase in accidents and an 88 percent increase in injuries. The report also found that traffic traveling more than 5 mph over speed limit increased from 0.5% to 4.2%.

Welch reports that in Billings MT, when a four-lane was converted to a three-lane road, the number of reported accidents decreased from 37 in the 20 months before to 14 in the 20 months after conversion. No increase in traffic delay was found.

Despite initial apprehension from the local community and its engineers, Welch indicates that a conversion from four lanes to three in Storm Lake IA (US 71) resulted in an observed improvement in safety (“an immediate large reduction in accidents”). The Iowa DOT Office of Transportation Safety has begun actively promoting conversion of four-lane roads to three-lane when a concern about safety is expressed. In Helena MT, an urban primary highway (US 12) was converted from four lanes to three. (City staff and other state staff engineers now support the conversion after observing an improvement in traffic operations and a reduction in accidents.) In a study conducted for the Minnesota DOT, it was found that the highest urban corridor accident rates are found on four-lane undivided roads. In fact, the collision rate was 35 percent higher than on urban three-lane roads. Howard Preston, who conducted the study, stated that he would convert most four-lane roads with less than 20,000 car trips per day to three-lane roads “in a heartbeat.”

In Duluth MN, a conversion from four lanes to three (21st Ave East) was initially opposed by many. After conversion, the Duluth News-Tribune editorial had this to say: “When Duluth officials announced they would convert busy 21st Avenue East…from four lanes to two, with a turn lane in the middle, some armchair analysts predicted it wouldn’t work. The News-Tribune Opinion page was among them. Well, it works. About everyone agrees-from city traffic officials to neighbors-that the change has eased congestion and reduced drivers’ speed making it safer for pedestrians…”

Frequently, according to Welch, emergency vehicles find it difficult to travel down four-lane roads. Emergency vehicles typically need to wait for traffic to move over to the curb lane to get out of the way. But a center two-way left-turn lane usually has less vehicle conflicts, and often produces less delay for emergency vehicles traveling down it.

Hoyle (1995) points out that widened roads are alleged to be safer roads based on data provided by those in favor of many road widenings. However, data showing a decrease in crashes per vehicle mile don’t take into account the fact that widened roads encourage extra car trips that would not have happened had the road not been widened. Widened roads also encourage longer trip lengths. When such factors are taken into account, crash rates per trip or per hour spent on the road remain nearly the same.

Michael Ronkin (2001) suggests that the most effective way to reduce vehicle speed is by reducing the number of road lanes. “With two lanes in each direction, regardless of width, a driver who wants to move faster than the car in front can get into the adjacent lane and pass. With one lane in each direction, the slowest car sets the pace for all cars behind it.” While driving in Boston recently, he found that “lanes are narrow, very narrow, but on multi-lane one-way streets, cars zipped along at incredibly high speeds for urban streets, around 40 MPH…”

Ronkin notes a great deal of misunderstanding among pedestrian advocates about the speeds. “Pedestrians are more threatened by the occasional car going much faster than reasonable, than by cars travelling at an average speed.” On multi-lane roads, “the crossing pedestrian has several threats and challenges: the possibility of a car going faster than the rest of traffic could be invisible as it is masked by another car, its speed may not be apparent to the pedestrian. That makes it very difficult to judge adequate gaps. With one lane in each direction, a gap is a gap.”

One of the most frequent types of fatal crashes “is the multiple threat-a driver stops to let pedestrian cross on a multi-lane road, and the pedestrian is struck (and usually killed) by a driver passing in the adjacent lane.” Ronkin points out that this type of crash is not possible if there is no adjacent lane.

For Ronkin, another important contributor to crashes, besides speed, is the “complexity” involved in crossing a street. After analyzing a great many fatal crashes, he concludes that many of those crashes presented both the pedestrian and the driver with a relatively complex situation. According to Ronkin, “there just wasn’t enough time for both parties to react to an unforeseen event.” He concludes by pointing out the importance, in designing a road crossing, of creating an environment that that minimizes the number of decisions that must be made simultaneously..

In sum, Ronkin indicates that there have been “demonstrated reductions in crashes” when a road had lanes removed-convincingly so.

Narrow Lanes

Joseph R. Molinaro (1991) reports that wider travel lanes are more dangerous because they encourage higher-speed driving. Larger neighborhood collector streets work well with only 26 feet of width, and smaller neighborhood streets are safe at 20-24 feet. He also points out that residential streets should use tighter turns in order to force slower motorist speeds. With a smaller turn radius, motorists are more likely to come to a full stop than a more dangerous rolling stop.

The ITE Transportation Planning Council Committee (ITE, undated) cites the American Association of State Highway Officials, which found that “‘[t]he number of accidents increases with an increase in the number of decisions required by the driver.’ A corollary to this truism is that the actual and potential effects of each driver-decision become more significant as the speed of the particular motor vehicle increases.”

It is quite common for engineers to design a road for the rare large truck. Such design requires large turning radii and wide travel lanes. These relatively large dimensions far exceed those of passenger cars most common on residential streets. The overscaled design of these roads encourage faster passenger car speeds by the most frequent motor vehicles on these roads.

“Clearly, reducing the width of a street,” according to ITE, “has the effect of reducing vehicular speeds.”

The Conservation Law Foundation (1995) finds that vehicle speeds increase when roads are widened because there is an extra “safety cushion” provided by the increased lateral distances and increased sight distances. Psychologically, the wider road tells the motorist that it is safer to speed up, and since motorists tend to drive at the fastest speed they feel safe at, faster speeds are seen on wider roads with a higher perceived “safety cushion.” In addition, the field of vision of the motorist shrinks as speed increases, which reduces the ability of the motorist to see things (such as cars or pedestrians) that are ahead.

The Foundation also points out that designing for faster driving speeds, while possibly reducing the frequency of crashes, also increase the severity of car crashes.

Swift, Painter, and Goldstein (1998) conducted a study that analyzed the safest street widths with regard to accident frequency. Their study found that “as street width widens, accidents per mile per year increases exponentially, and that the safest residential street width is 24 feet (curb face).”

Indeed, crash rates were 18 times higher on 48-foot wide streets than on 24-foot wide streets.

The authors concluded, in part, by calling for a re-evaluation of public safety. That local governments recognize that the chance of injury or death due to, say, a neighborhood fire, is quite small compared to the much higher probability of injury or death in a neighborhood due to speeding traffic. That the reduced number of injuries or deaths resulting from wide streets and allegedly faster fire truck response time is tiny in comparison to the comparatively large number of injuries or deaths that occur due to speeding cars-a problem that increases in frequency due to widened streets. The local government should “ask if it is better to reduce dozens of potential vehicle accidents, injuries and deaths [through the creation of more modest streets], or provide wide streets for no apparent benefit to fire-related injuries or deaths.”

Even if more modest streets increased fire injury risks slightly (a problem not found by the study), modest streets would still be safer than wide streets because the risk of car injuries is so much higher than fire injuries.

In other words, by focusing public safety on life safety, rather than fire safety, a much larger number of community injuries and deaths can be managed and perhaps reduced.

A large number of firefighters are starting to understand that over-sized streets have resulted in streets that are not safe for families, while providing few, if any, benefits regarding fire safety and emergency response times, according to Siegman (2002).

Siegman relates a story from Dan Burden, a colleague who works in the field of safe street design:

While in Honolulu last week doing two school traffic calming charrettes our team had two tragic nights. In both cases a squad of firemen were with us for the evening, learning about and giving good input into traffic calming their neighborhoods. They had their truck with them in case they received a call. When asked by a member of the audience what they thought of the traffic calming plan the Captain said that they rarely, if ever, can expect a fire in the area….and that their concern is to lessen the speeds on area roads so that they are protecting rather than rescuing lives. They had good reason to say this … during the evening the firemen were called out to respond to a pedestrian tragedy several blocks from our meeting room, and in our project site.

The next school traffic calming meeting we again had four firemen, and their apparatus. We had just settled them down to a design table to design traffic calming solutions when they leaped up to attend a call. They, too, came back before the meeting was over. They had provided first assistance for a head-on crash of two motorists.

The meeting ended at 9:00. At 9:05 a bicyclist was hit (and presumably attended by these firemen). The cyclist was a star athlete on the University of Honolulu campus. She was killed one block from our school, in one of our crosswalks.

“Many firefighters,” according to Siegman, “realize that traffic crashes are a far greater hazard in our communities than fires, because they so often have to pick up the pieces.”

Siegman reminds us that “for every one person killed in a fire, more than eleven die in traffic crashes. And that for every one person injured by fire, 148 are injured in traffic crashes.”

A great many firefighters also tell us that fire truck response time does not depend simply on the width of a street.

For example, Siegman tells us that fire departments know that response time is a product of the speed of travel and the distance from the firehouse.

When streets are walkable and connected as they were in traditionally designed neighborhoods, they “usually allow far more direct routing than disconnected cul-de-sac designs.” Even when narrow (or “skinny”), the connected streets, Siegman points out, “can often deliver equal or better response times.” Connected streets also reduce the probability of traffic congestion, and congestion slows response times. “That understanding,” notes Siegman, “is apparently not yet reflected in fire codes, which discuss street width, but…have no specifications whatsoever on directness of routing, or distance from home to the arterial, or to the fire station.”

Siegman points out that a number of other fire departments are “no longer ordering U.S.-made fire engines, choosing instead the more maneuverable European models, which work well with smaller, safer, pedestrian-friendly street designs.”

According to Siegman, “we aren’t yet at the stage where all firefighters have excellent training in street design and traffic safety.” He wonders “how many communities still design their streets and intersections to accommodate the largest fire truck in the fleet, without having weighed pedestrian safety effects as part of the truck purchase.”

In conclusion, Siegman presents us with the following eye-opening statistics for fire and traffic fatalities and injuries in 1999 in the United States. In that year, “3,570 civilian (i.e. non-firefighter)” fire deaths occurred, and 21,875 civilians were injured. In addition, 112 fire fighters died while on duty-11 of them in traffic crashes. He also reports that “41,611 people were killed and 3,236,000 people were injured in the estimated 6,279,000 police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes. 4,188,000 crashes involved property damage only.”

As reported by Finch (1994) and Preston (1995), every one mph reduction in traffic speed, in general, reduces vehicle collisions by five percent, and reduces fatalities to an even greater extent.

Narrowing travel lanes made things safer unless the narrowing was done to accommodate more travel lanes, according to a report from the Transportation Research Board (1994).

References Cited

Conservation Law Foundation. Take Back Your Streets. Boston MA. May 1995.

Engwicht, D. (ed.) Traffic Calming: The Solution to Urban Traffic and a New Vision for Neighborhood Livability. 1989.

Finch, D.J., Kompfner, P., Lockwood, C.R., Maycock, G. Speed, Speed Limits and Accidents. Transport Research Laboratory (Crowthorne, UK), Report 58, 1994.

Hoyle, C. Traffic Calming. American Planning Association. Planning Advisory Service Report Number 456. 1995.

Huang, H.F., Stewart, J.R. and Zegeer, C.V. Evaluation of Lane Reduction “Road Diet” Measures on Crashes and Injuries. Transportation Research Record 1784: 80-90. 2002.

Iowa Department of Transportation. Guidelines for the Conversion of Urban 4-lane Undivided Roadways to 3-lane Two-Way Left-turn Lane Facilities. April 2001.

ITE Transportation Planning Council Committee, Traditional Neighborhood Development: Street Design Guidelines. 5P-8. Undated.

Molinaro, J.R. Rethinking Residential Streets. Planning Commissioners Journal. Vol. 1:1. November/December 1991.

Preston, B. “Cost Effective Ways to Make Walking Safer for Children and Adolescents,” Injury Prevention, 1995, pp. 187-190.

Ronkin, M. Pedestrian & Bicycle Program Manager, Oregon Department of Transportation. March 27, 2001.

Siegman, P. Siegman & Associates, Town & Transportation Planning, 260 Palo Alto Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94301. August 4, 2002 email submitted to a Dan Burden/Walkable Communities internet discussion group.

Surface Transportation Policy Project. Aggressive Driving. Washington DC. April 1999.

Swift, P., Painter, D. and Goldstein M. Residential Street Typology and Injury Accident Frequency. Copyright Peter Swift, Swift and Associates. 1998.

Transportation Research Board. Low-volume rural roads (Roadway Widths for Low-Traffic-Volume Roads). Transportation Research Board. NR362, 1994.

Welch, T.M. The Conversion of Four-Lane Undivided Urban Roadways to Three-Lane Facilities. Transportation Research Board. TRB Circular E-C019: Urban Street Symposium. Undated.

 

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Traffic Congestion, Visioning