By Dom Nozzi
Roads have a profound influence over the quality of life of our neighborhoods and our overall community. The design of roads has a significant influence over how much speeding traffic is found on the road. How many crashes occur. How dependent we are on cars for travel (and conversely, how unlikely it is that we can travel by foot, by bicycle or by transit). How much noise pollution is found in our community (cars are, by far, the major source of noise pollution). How comfortable people feel when they go for a walk. How proud (or embarrassed) people are by their community. How expensive transportation tends to be in the community (the more car dependence, the more unaffordable transportation becomes). How far flung various important community institutions are from each other (the more car dependence, the more inconveniently dispersed these places are for us). How much our community resembles a lunar asphalt landscape due to the prevalence of parking lots and wide roads.
In sum, there may be no facilities built in our communities which has a more direct and significant influence over how much we admire (or despise) our community than roads and parking lots.
The great tragedy is this: Traffic engineers – the professionals we hire to design our roads – are trained to be expert specialists in road and parking lot design, but have very little – if any – training or knowledge about the urban design needed to create public spaces that people love and feel comfortable living in.
Yet because road and parking lot design are the lynchpins for community quality of life, the designers of roads and parking play the key role in shaping community quality of life. It is therefore traffic engineers, not planners or even architects, who are the main shapers of whether a community is designed well or not.
And the traffic engineer, it goes without saying, is not up to the job of designing all of the complex ingredients needed to create a quality community.
For the traffic engineer, much of their schooling, nearly all of what they are asked to do by supervisors and elected officials, and much of their road design manuals have but one, specialized design objective: Maximizing car speeds and maximizing the number of cars that can be driven and parked in the community. The schooling and design manuals of the traffic engineer say absolutely nothing about how to build and dimension streets or a parking lots (or buildings) so that people feel happy, safe, comfortable or proud.
The traffic engineer is a specialized genius when it comes to designing a road or a parking lot. But the typical engineer is a moron when it comes to designing spaces that make people feel wonderful. Because cars consume so much space, traffic engineers (and town planners) in a car-dependent society almost exclusively design streets, parking lots and building setbacks that are excessive in size. Our cities, as a result, are being ruined by the disease of GIGANTISM.
And this utterly dominant, almost omnipresent car infrastructure is designed by those who only know how to make cars happy. By people who have no training or manuals that instruct them about designing for happy people. No supervisors or elected officials requesting that they design for places that make people feel comfortable or pleasant.
Instead, traffic engineers are only asked — and largely schooled — to design for places to make cars comfortable.
Therefore, Americans have, since the emergence of the car a century ago, been designing communities that are almost entirely unlovable and which destroy civic pride. Most American cities now exemplify what Jane Holtz Kay accurately describes as an Asphalt Nation.
It is no coincidence that the places we love best are those places designed over 100 years ago, before cars came on the scene.
The car is truly the enemy of the city. And the enemy of a world we can love.
What is to be done? First and foremost, we must hire and elect supervisors and elected officials who will request that traffic engineers design to make people comfortable, and make secondary what is needed to make cars comfortable.
Our society needs to start moving away from the academic and professional imperative of training people to be specialists. Traffic engineers must be given substantial training in designing not just for happy cars, but also for happy people.
And rule number one for community design that promotes comfortable people and civic pride is keeping street, parking lot and building setback sizes small. Sizes that are human-scaled, not car-scaled.
At the same time, it is essential to engage in those tactics which are effective in reducing car dependence, because even if we have generalist rather than specialist traffic engineers who know how to design for both happy people and happy cars, if car travel is obligatory by a world that makes bicycling, walking and transit impractical, even generalists will be forced to design for comfortable car travel. And comfortable car travel is so entirely incompatible with a world conducive to a lovable community that even the most well-rounded engineer is likely to be obligated to make car-happy choices when designing roads and parking, at the expense of people. And because providing for car travel is almost always a zero-sum game, the more an engineer – even a well-rounded engineer — provides for ease of car travel, the worse life becomes for those on foot, on bicycle and on transit.
And the worse becomes our overall community quality of life.
As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, this is not a call to “get rid of all cars,” but instead a call for enacting strategies that significantly reduce our need for a car. To build a community where the car is a (rare) choice, and not a requirement. A call for making people happy first, not cars.
The first and most important step in restoring community quality of life is training traffic engineers to be generalists who are well-versed in human-centered (not car-centered) urban design. That is, designing for streets, parking lots, and buildings that are activated for pedestrian comfort and enjoyment. The next most important step is having supervisors and elected officials giving traffic engineers the permission to design for happy people, rather than happy cars.
After all, as Enrique Penalosa once said, a community can design for happy people, or happy cars. But it cannot design for both.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: email@example.com