Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rio Bike Night Speaker: Dom Nozzi

Enjoyed a talk at the Rio from Dom Nozzi last night.

Definitely enjoyed what he had to say, and learned some things. In urban planning, of course, due to all the tradeoffs involved, there is much opinion. There is also much data available for comparative purposes on street design. I wrote/remembered some down, I'll have to dig it up, or leave it to the user. Some highlights:

1. Narrower streets reduce traffic accidents and speeds.
2. Wider roads have partially been driven by demand for faster fire/EMS response, especially with larger fire apparati. It has been suggested, and implemented in various cities in the US and Europe, to consider the size of purchased fire trucks so as not to artificially create the spiral of needing/wanting bigger roads. Nozzi's suggestion is also to increase interconnectedness of roads -- ironically, we build big, wide roads, and then end them in dead ends and cul-de-sacs.

Ironically, he also mentioned, in the context of political will, the tough argument of EMS response: the 'burning baby in a building.' The irony is that slightly faster fire response, real or perceived, pales in comparison to the danger of increased traffic accidents.

3. "Attentive" vs. "Forgiving" streets
Nozzi argues, with quoted support and data from other studies and planners, that designing wide, straight streets promotes inattentive driving (the cause of 80% of vehicle accidents). There was a great quote from a Dutch traffic engineer about promoting 'idiotic behavior'

4. "The High Cost of Free Parking" -- it's a whole topic and book upon itself, but it touches on how cities/downtowns enter a vicious cycle of promoting driving/reducing biking and walking because of ample free parking -- which comes at an economic, enviromental, and quality-of-living-cost

5. Biking/walking is best promoted by a "herd" and familiarity. Nozzi had a prioritized list of what he thought would best promote transportation. He had interesting arguments about putting bike lanes low on the list, because if roads were designed appropriately for safe, mixed used (lower speeds in dense areas, better lines of sight, etc.), and people are out there cycling/walking, drivers will be more attentive to them. Another aspect of familiarity is having more 'normal', everyday people out there riding: women, businessmen, etc. He even suggested that pushing helmet laws too hard results in a 'dangerization' of biking, so that the bulk of riders end up being lycra-clad speedsters rather than everyday folk.

I like this argument, and I'll take it a step member of the audience asked about the problem of drivers receiving a 'slap on the wrist' for killing a vulnerable, law-abiding cyclist/pedestrian, and that inattentive driving resulting in death has nowhere near the stigma of a drunken driver killing someone else (which still is too acceptable, IMHO, but groups like MADD certainly have made a stastical dent in that problem). Nozzi understandably didn't have a solution to this legal conundrum.

My belief is that the more people that are out there cycling and walking, not only will drivers be more familiar, but they will be more likely to empathize with fellow human beings.; that is, more likely to be upset at accidents because it could be someone they know.


In sum, I enjoyed this talk and learned quite a bit. Why should everyday folks listen to stuff like this? Because we're a society that actively designs and pays for these things. I couldn't help but think of much of this in basic economic terms. Rather than accept big wide roads and free parking, let's think about what we lose. We spend quite a bit of public space just on pavement. This means less land available for homes, businesses, and recreation....and, as the data are showing, increased speeds and more accidents! Economically, we externalize these resource, environmental, and safety costs on others, while actually promoting even more speeding, lazy, and inattentive driving. We're actively enabling ridiculous behavior and ridiculous vehicles by accomodating it with our tax dollars. That is, for all the whining about paying for bike paths, why not commensurate whining about paying for big roads and parking spaces?

Nozzi claimed anecdotally that planners know all the tricks for traffic calming and increased mixed-use -- they just don't always get 'permission' to use it, so they're forced to stick to outdated defaults. With more education and political will, we can build better cities.

Of course, this is just his (and mostly my) opinion. As usual, I have to keep this in mind that one opinion isn't everyone's. It's also possible people love wide roads and strip malls, hate biking and walking and public spaces and weather, and can't-find-a-darned-parking-space as we speak.


  1. Did he mention anything about my letter writing campaign to ban all spandex except for hot chicks?

    As much as I try to find other modes of transportation, I HATE having to pay to park. For the Sox game during Boston Marathon weekend, some downtown lots wanted $50! Good thing I wasn't worried about walking a few extra blocks...

  2. Yeah, I think the point about parking was about charging exactly for that reason -- to encourage walking/alternative transportation. I, too, scoffed at parking prices in Boston, but enjoyed the Park 'N Ride/subway combination. In that regard, places like Denver are even more broken, since the mass-transit infrastructure isn't nearly as good, and there isn't free parking on the edges (at least, I haven't found a good way to get into the city on a weekend night without complaining about parking fees)...

    In another regard, that shows us that the "Invisible Hand" of the market reveals downtown parking to be worth on the order of $20-$50 during events -- quite expensive if we're subsidizing that regularly to provide for free parking!

    In another post, though, I'm going to hypocritically complain about pay parking in Aspen...