The Top Ten Things You Can Ask Your City Government To Do

dart Train in West End Dallas

1. Change zoning codes to allow urban buildings to be built on lots as small as 25 feet wide and eliminate any setback requirements
Smaller buildings make for busier, more interesting streets, with a variety of faces and storefronts. While 25 to 30 feet was the standard lot width in the early 20th Century, too often cities later made the minimal lot requirement larger in order to accommodate the automobile. Even today not only do the busy mixed-use neighborhoods of yesterday no longer exist, they are forbidden to exist by law.

2. Change or eliminate zoning to allow for mixed-use neighborhoods
Before the automobile it was necessary for stores and places of employment to be near home because most people traveled by foot. As the car became affordable and infatuation with it grew, it seemed necessary to separate uses. There would be shopping districts for shopping, office districts for work, and residential areas for living. Slowly cities came to mimic this suburban mold, making it inconvenient to live in a city and adding to their decay. Neighborhood storefronts and corner stores, as well as places to live in traditional office districts, are necessary to make a city lively and attractive.

3. Implement traffic-calming measures such as two-way streets, wider sidewalks, bump-outs and lower speed limits
Places where cars move fast are not places where it’s pleasurable to live or nice to walk. High-speed roadways through cities have the purpose primarily of letting someone get through the city fast, not to it. This diminishes economic and social activity in the city and effectively forces city residents to pay for suburban sprawl with their money and their health. Wider sidewalks, two-way streets, and lower speed limits help maintain the safety and quality of life in urban areas. Adding trees will also aid traffic calming and provide shade for pedestrians.

4. Put park benches and other places to sit in commercial areas
If the streets aren’t being used for legitimate purposes, they will be used in other ways. Good people hanging out and keeping an eye on things will discourage vandalism and criminal activity. Providing places for people to sit while waiting for public transit makes it easier to use it. Also change zoning laws to allow for commercial sidewalk seating such as outdoor cafés.

5. Eliminate laws that forbid sidewalk merchants
There are too many stories about lemonade stands being shut down because they were competing with nearby businesses. Sidewalk vendors add life to a city street and attract people. They should be encouraged, not forbidden. If a permit is required, it should be simple and affordable. Sidewalk merchants are also the first step for entrepreneurs without the capital to set up a storefront retail outlet. They are essential for mobility. Street merchants also provide many items not readily available in urban neighborhoods.

6. Build or extend light-rail and streetcar systems and add high-speed subways
The ease at which citizens can get around a city is perhaps the most important ingredient in making a city work. Light rail and streetcars fill the sidewalks with people and encourage dense development around transfer points. Subways provide a quick way to travel across town.

7. Add bicycle lanes and parking facilities to streets
The bicycle is underutilized as a transportation device in the United States. One reason is the difficulty of maneuvering through auto traffic and the dangers presented when using a bicycle in many cities. Adding bike lanes (and outlawing double-parking in them) is a big step in making it easier to use a bicycle for transit. Parking facilities are essential to keep parked cycles out of the way of pedestrians and keeping them safe from theft. Allowing bicycles on buses and light rail vehicles is another important ingredient for making a city bicycle-friendly.

8. Raise gasoline taxes and lower transit fares
Motor vehicles are the single largest source of air pollution and a major source of water pollution. The automobile is heavily subsidized and its use scars cities and pollutes the environment. Too many automobiles in cities are not convenient, efficient, or desirable. Raising gasoline taxes will discourage automobile use and require drivers to pay more of the actual cost of their preference. (For more on auto subsidies, go here: It is also unfair to spend public funds on autos since many citizens (the young, the aged, disabled, economically disadvantaged) can not use them. Public transit on the contrary can be used by everyone. Lowering the cost of public transit or making it free will encourage its use and help make more citizens mobile by eliminating transportation inequities.

9. Establish topnotch city services
Cities spend billions on attracting fancy department stores, sports arenas and other amenities that largely benefit a suburban population. Encouraging or even mandating that cities spend money only on budget items that directly benefit residents of the city proper will help make it desirable to live in the city. Sidewalks, lighting, street cleaning, debris removal, transit, public art, crime fighting, festivals, and public parks are all examples of things many cities could pay a lot more attention to and spend a lot more money on. Urban malls, baseball stadiums, advertising campaigns, and freeway building tend to benefit people who live elsewhere, at the expense of city residents.

10. Establish an annual Car Free Day
Each year Car Free day is growing. Car free days are a pattern break. They do not aim to take all cars off the streets as a long-term solution; instead, they encourage people to think about the impact of their transport choices and how cleaner, more effective forms of transportation can enhance our quality of life.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at