Monday, January 7, 2019

Unsustainable Development Required

When it comes to failures, the planning field has broadly accepted that single-use zones applied monotonously across large parcels accounts for a great deal of consequential separation between where modern people “live, work, and play.” Planners understand these zoning practices, once intended to relieve the suffering conditions of the early industrial era, now serve as a barrier for people to experience the useful walk to a nearby destination. Remedies to zoning codes are broadly being applied to better zone for a mix of uses. However, there’s more to solving this riddle that is too often overlooked. Rather than letting these remedies actually foster better community development, there's still more fixes required. The following critique highlights another major example of how regulation applied uncritically has profound unintended consequences.

There's a formalized, efficient, and decisive test administered broadly across this country for almost every new development proposal and City-wide transportation plan to ensure that car-use is the most convenient, time-efficient, free-flowing form of transportation available in nearly every city and town across the county. This test is undervalued (or unknown) by many planners who have not challenged the merits of a fundamental traffic engineering metric. As planners standby, these tests oppress the potentiality of a sustainable relationship between people and their city. The test, applied with ultimate veto power, is defined by Traffic Engineering manuals as “Level of Service” (LOS) that is conventionally the bedrock of a “Transportation (or Traffic) Impact Analysis.” By requiring a passing grade on the LOS scale, a high degree of car dependence is required by design (often applied uncritically). To pass the test, developments often lose housing density or units or an optimal mix of uses for community vitality or relocate the project out on the fringe of town. These "mitigated impacts" (solving for flowing traffic, not livability) not only reduce potential profits for the developer, but lifestyles often associated with very popular destinations (developed prior to unhealthy amounts of car reliance).

Alternatives exist to the application of this LOS standard that is unwittingly hurled onto the people of a place, almost certainly without their consent or examining the costs. Largely, this decisive test is administered among “experts” who assume, without critical public discourse, the average car trips will be generated by a use, with some simplistic opportunities for “trip capture” (reduced traffic impacts to adjacent roads and intersections). The assumed value of free-flowing car use across a city is disassociated with commonly adopted goals of transit, active transportation, livability, equity, economic development, land use efficiency, cost of development, cost of maintenance, fiscal solvency, climate science, pollutant runoff, floodplains, household H+T index, community health, safe routes to school, aging in place, urban design, or many other worthy objectives that are drastically compromised (if not obliterated) with the ubiquitous requirement of a network of LOS A to C operating roadways devoid of a comforting, safe, and interesting public realm.

Until the errors of LOS are broadly understood by our profession, and the car culture assumptions challenged, the sad spread of sprawl will compromise the lives and the prosperous futures of more and more people trapped in a systemic failure of our making, all because we didn’t align our fundamental decisive tests of development with our comprehensive set of community goals.

For more on this critically important (and undervalued) topic, I direct you to writings by Dom Nozzi or Jeffrey Tumlin or the podcast "Level of Disservice" by Talking Headways.