Population Growth, Density, and Cars

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 3, 2016

I have a friend who fears a huge growth in population in our area due to how attractive our area is considered, and is worried that it will result in intolerable density.

I informed her, to the contrary, that for the past 80 years, America has seen population growth WITHOUT higher density. There is absolutely no certainty that more people in the area will mean more density. If the NIMBYs remain powerful in the region (extremely likely), we will instead see more low-density, car-dependent sprawl.

In addition to a lot more cars on the road.

We will see a lot more cars on the road than would be the case if the NIMBYs did not block cities like ours from having the projected growth in our area live in more compact settings. The NIMBYs fighting for low density, in other words, are responsible for giving our area a traffic jam on huge hwyLOT more cars. What an irony, since NIMBYs HATE more crowded roads and parking lots.

Yes, there is a trend over the past several years of people (especially young people) to want to move into town centers and not want to live in sprawl. A huge problem in our community, I informed her, is that the NIMBYs loving low density will continue to violently fight to stop ANY development in the town center because they HATE more compact development.

So while much of the remainder of the nation will see a growth in town center housing, the NIMBYs in our community — who love low density — will do whatever they can to stop pretty much all of that healthy trend.

Ironically, the NIMBYs will fight new housing to keep roads and parking from getting more crowded. The result of their efforts will, however, be MORE cars than would have been the case had they not fought against new housing.

Be careful what you fight for, I told her. You might get it.

 

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Traffic Congestion and Parking

 By Dom Nozzi

June 30, 2014

An essential ingredient for a healthy city is to be compact (not sprawled), and able to leverage “agglomeration economies.”

Because a healthy city ALSO provides for the full range of lifestyle choices (rather than forcing everyone to live the same way), we must provide for the full range of land use patterns. The town center should be relatively compact (agglomerated), and outlying areas should retain a more dispersed pattern.

Given that, it is not at all appropriate or feasible to have a “one-size-fits-all” measure for the level of motor vehicle travel delay a community adopts. If we adopt a measure that strives for too little delay citywide, the town center loses its competitive strength: compactness and agglomeration. In a healthy, thriving city, it is essential that traffic congestion measures such as “travel delay” be calibrated geographically.

Can we say up front what we believe to be the MAXIMUM size for parking? For roads? For intersections? I believe we MUST (and can) do that. We must draw a line in the sand. We can say, for example, that our quality of life means it would NEVER be okay to have a six-lane highway in the town center. In fact, when I wrote Gainesville FL’s transportation plan, I succeeded in having that plan contain a policy that did this very thing: “No road in city limits shall exceed 4 through lanes.” Much as I hate to make this concession, we might also want to say that “no intersection shall exceed 2 turn lanes in the outlying areas, or one turn lane in the town center” here in Boulder.

Boulder, like nearly every other American city, has a very large oversupply of parking lot space — mostly because cars consume so much space, and most all of it is free. Because imagesnearly all parking is free, there tends to be an endless effort to try to provide “enough.” This process is endless because a free product or service in great demand induces a nearly infinite demand for such a product or service. The enormous and infamous Soviet bread lines is an excellent analogy.

“Free” parking is paid for in higher costs for groceries and haircuts by those retail and service shops providing all that parking, and the inducement of too many unnecessary car trips.

The biggest problem with parking is not too little space. It is too much space. Too much asphalt space means, among many other things, flooding problems, stormwater quality problems, lack of walkability, lack of community aesthetics or civic pride, creation of spaces that feel unsafe or uncomfortable (particularly for women and seniors), high/unaffordable costs for households, governments and consumers of goods and services.

Calibrating the price of parking so that supply of parking and demand for parking is “in balance” is successfully being used in a great many cities right now, and is one of the most important principles pushed by the national parking guru (and hero of mine) – Donald Shoup. Shoup has successfully gotten a great many cities to use the “Goldilocks” principle in parking pricing. Prices vary throughout the day and week based on demand (quite easy with today’s electronic technology) so that approximately 80 percent of the parking spaces are being used at any one time. If more than 80 percent are used, prices automatically increase. If less than 80 percent are used, prices automatically decrease. The “Goldilocks” price (“just right”) is the price that results in about 80 percent use.

Minimum parking requirements for new development has been used by nearly every American city has been used for 100 years now. The required number of parking spaces is almost never based on studies estimating expected parking demand for the development in question. Instead, it tends to be quite arbitrary and not based on local conditions, as the required number is based on a survey of national parking requirements.

The required minimum number of spaces is almost always excessive, largely because the parking is available for use by the motorist at no charge. Such “free” parking inevitably induces excessive demand for parking because even relatively trivial motor vehicle trips – such as buying a cup of coffee at rush hour on a major street – are encouraged by the lack of a fee for parking.

If we convert minimum parking requirements to MAXIMUM parking requirements, the business owner — rather than government mandate using arbitrary numbers — is able to decide how much to provide: Zero to the maximum. The minimum parking requirement says the owner MUST provide AT LEAST “X” spaces, and that number, again, tends to usually be too many spaces. Since a property owner is much better able to assess how much parking he or she needs to provide (to be profitable or to make financiers happy) than government, a maximum gives the owner a lot more flexibility than a minimum.

Priced parking is a superb way to assess how much parking is appropriate. The developer or the city decides how much parking is “enough,” and if the use is more than 80 percent of available spaces, the price of parking is increased. If less than 80 parking, the price is reduced.

No need to increase the amount of asphalt parking.

It is important for cities that use a maximum traffic congestion level of service (LOS) standard to sunset the auto LOS measure in the town center, since such a standard undermines a great many objectives for a healthy town center (low speeds, agglomeration economies, safety, reduction in car trips and fuel emissions, etc.). Instead of measuring and capping traffic congestion, we need to find a measure that creates disincentives for adding more road, intersection or parking capacity, and creates incentives for shrinking the space we allocate to car travel and car parking.

In my view, the over-allocation of space to cars is a HUGE problem in American cities. And most LOS measures incentivize providing larger roads, bigger parking lots, and more massive road intersections.

Some favor a “people” LOS or a “multi-modal” LOS, which I believe are big improvements over our auto LOS. But it seems that both might create incentives for wider roads, or bigger intersections.

 

 

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Is a Road Bypass (Beltway) a Good Idea for Cities?

By Dom Nozzi

November 12, 2016

An extremely common suggestion for “improving” or “easing” car travel in cities is to create a bypass road (sometimes called a “beltway”) to take regional motor vehicle trips not destined for the city center away from the city center to reduce congestion.

I question the conventional wisdom that traffic congestion is bad for cities. I have written and given speeches extensively on this topic. See here and here, for example.

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that it is a good idea to reduce city traffic congestion. Will a road bypass reduce congestion and help make for a better city?

I think it is now clear that a bypass does not reduce congestion, and has been toxic for many cities throughout the nation.

By funneling a large number of motor vehicle trips away from the city center, a bypass drains the lifeblood from a city center: retail shops, offices, homes, and dollars depart from the city center and into remote, sprawling locations as they chase after the disappearing trips and dollars and vibrancy.

The idea that a road bypass would only accommodate regional trips not needing to go into the city center has not been realized, as a bypass tends to attract a large number of local trips (due to the promise of faster trips).

All of these big downsides for a city in exchange for saving seconds or minutes in a car trip — savings that usually end up being a loss of time for the motorist, as they tend to end up driving much greater distances.photo_verybig_174793

We also find (due to Anthony Downs Triple Convergence) that the bypass tends to become congested in a few short years, because the bypass induces new car trips that would not have occurred had the bypass not been built.

The solution, in my view, is not to funnel urban trips on a few large capacity roads and highways but to move away from the hierarchy of roads toward a more connected street system that more evenly distributes slower speed (and less congested) traffic. Such an approach also more successfully recruits transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians (which, among other things, creates more parking spaces for motorists).

Another big plus: by avoiding building a bypass, there is a big reduction in the need for initial and on-going transportation dollars for capital projects and operation and maintenance expenditures.

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Traffic Safety in Boulder

By Dom Nozzi

As a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board, I am alarmed  by the recent uptick in serious injuries and deaths caused by vehicle crashes on roads in our area. I am ashamed that our community seems poised to respond with the same old song and dance.

Three factors are primarily responsible for enormous traffic safety problems that persist in Boulder.bike-car-crash1

First, roadways and intersections have grown enormous in size in Boulder. Roads such as Arapahoe, Canyon, Colorado, 28th Street, and Baseline now have such a large number of travel lanes and turn lanes that pedestrians and bicyclists must now cross a huge distance made more daunting by the high speed car traffic on these roads. Anything more than 3 or 4 lanes is extremely dangerous to cross, and these roadways now contain up to 7 or 8 lanes. This oversizing has been driven by an effort to promote “free-flowing” traffic – even at rush hour. Given the enormous size of cars (a person consumes 17 to 100 times more space in a car than in a chair), and the large number of regional commuters coming to Boulder each day, retaining “free-flowing” traffic — even at rush hour — is a recipe for finding yourself oversizing streets and intersections. Boulder has certainly done that. By doing so, Boulder now has a number of oversized roads that are too big for a city, too big for safe bicycling or walking, and too big to have any reasonable chance to achieve an emerging plan of “vision zero” for crashes (reducing the number of traffic deaths and serious injuries to zero). To put the oversizing problem in perspective, if we want to carry 50,000 people per hour in each direction of a road, we’d need one lane worth of road if they are carried by train, two lanes if carried by bus, and 18 lanes if carried by car.

Second, it is important to note that at the dawn of the auto age a century ago, nearly all American cities – including Boulder — adopted forgiving roadway design. Forgiving design “forgives” a motorist for driving too fast or not paying attention by increasing the width of travel lanes, adding travel lanes, and removing “obstacles” from the areas flanking roads (trees, buildings, etc.). The naïve thought was that this would reduce the number of things motorists would crash into.

The unintended consequence, however, was that this design significantly increased motorist speeding and inattentiveness, as a motorist tends to drive as fast and as inattentively as the roadway design allows. The result of forgiving design is that there is an epidemic in motorist speeding and inattentiveness – aggravated by the concurrent epidemic in sleep deprivation that causes most all of us to occasionally fall asleep at the wheel.

Third, for 100 years, nearly all US cities — every few years — have “renewed their efforts” to improve traffic safety. We “redouble our work” to institute the “Five Warnings:”

Warning signs are installed. Warning lights are erected. Warning paint is painted. Warning education is introduced. Warning enforcement is pushed.

After all those campaigns over the past century have been waged, what has been the result? We have, today, the most dangerous streets we have ever had. Clearly, the Five Warnings have been ineffective.

For several decades, we have been so successful in providing for fast, unobstructed travel by car that it has substantially undermined transit ridership, walking, and bicycling. “Danger” is an all-too-frequent reason given in surveys for not bicycling, for example.

Wide travel lanes and multi-lane roads exert a nearly irresistible influence over a motorist. Even motorists who are not inclined to drive fast creep up to highway speeds. Amplifying this problem: large numbers of drug- or alcohol-impaired drivers, sleep-deprived drivers, and time-starved drivers. These factors are a dangerous mix, as they induce a great deal of high-speed, inattentive, reckless driving.

As noted above, making a street “safer” too often increases vehicle speeds, which makes the streets less safe – particularly for pedestrians and cyclists. One result: a disproportionate number of serious injuries and deaths in Boulder are suffered by pedestrians and bicyclists. About 40 percent of all children killed in motor vehicle crashes nationally are killed while walking or riding a bicycle.

Measured by “years of life lost,” motor vehicles fatalities rank third.

Since 1930, over 30,000 Americans die in motor vehicle crashes annually.

This is appalling. And should be completely unacceptable to any civilized society.

The Importance of Traffic Calming

One of the most common requests by citizens to our Board is the need to reinstate the neighborhood traffic calming program that was defunded in the early 2000s. Speeding, cut-through vehicles are a serious problem for many neighborhoods. Such traffic discourages bicycling and walking, substantially increases noise pollution, endangers our most vulnerable (seniors, children, the handicapped, and pets), is a primary cause of loss of neighborhood quality of life, and fuels opposition to infill development.

Traffic calming, which is a street design that obligates motorists to drive more slowly and attentively, has been shown to dramatically improve street safety. Desirable design examples include traffic circles or roundabouts, curb “bulbouts” (which reduce the width of the street), and removal of travel lanes or turn lanes. Roadway geometry in safety-sensitive areas, such as schools, needs to keep speeds near 20 miles per hour. Traffic circles reduce crashes by 50 to 90 percent, compared to two-way and four-way stop signs and traffic signals, by slowing cars and reducing the number of conflict points.

Note that in general, “horizontal calming interventions” such as circles and neck-downs are more desirable than “vertical calming interventions” such as speed humps. Among other things, humps cause noise pollution problems and can dangerously impede fire truck and other emergency vehicle response times.

Motorists are more likely to collide with pedestrians at higher speeds. At 60 miles per hour, the field of vision of the motorist is two-thirds less than at 30 miles per hour. In addition, the probability of a pedestrian being killed is only 3.5 percent when a vehicle is traveling at 15 miles per hour, but jumps to 37 percent at 31 miles per hour and 83 percent at 44 miles per hour.

Despite the conventional wisdom, stop signs do not affect overall speeds or control speeding. Posting lower speed limits and enforcing them is not sufficient to achieve needed reductions in speeding. Modest physical reconfiguration of streets is the only reliable and cost-effective way to slow and control inattentive speeding.

Calming helps reduce neighborhood noise pollution. Higher speeds substantially increase noise pollution.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) notes that the importance of reducing traffic speed cannot be overemphasized, and has stated that traffic calming is one of the more cost-effective ways to promote pedestrian and bicycle use in urban and suburban areas, where walking and bicycling are often hazardous and uncomfortable. And as for children, Stina Sandels, a world authority on children and road accidents, says that the best road safety education cannot adapt a child to modern traffic, so traffic must be adapted to the child.

Fortunately, there are effective street design tactics to substantially increase road safety, and these methods can be deployed without significantly slowing emergency vehicle response times.

I urge Council to restore funding for neighborhood traffic calming. Since the City does not have the authority to introduce safe, speed-slowing designs on larger state roads, I urge Council to lobby the State legislature to give Boulder the authority to do so.

Summary

How about if we do something effective to improve traffic safety?

  1. What if, instead of pursuing the ruinous objective of maintaining “free flowing” traffic (even at rush hour), we start the process of shrinking the size of the many over-sized roads and intersections in Boulder to induce slower, more attentive driving? (not to mention a financially healthy atmosphere for retail, and a higher quality of life for homes)
  2. What if, instead of continuing the counterproductive “forgiving” street design paradigm, we revise Boulder’s street design manuals to obligate slower speed, attentive driving? (including a restoration of the Boulder traffic calming program)
  3. What if, instead of continuing the failed, century-long effort of using the “Five Warnings” — which amounts to a form of blaming the pedestrian and bicyclist victim — we put more of the onus on traffic engineers to design streets to obligate safe motorist behavior? How about if we return our transportation system to people, instead of our on-going effort to be a doormat for ruinous levels of car travel?

In addition to the above, I recommend more compact development in appropriate locations, sponsoring a transportation safety speaker series, and more street connectivity.

We have a duty to make Boulder streets much safer.

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The Growth Ponzi Scheme

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2016

In Charles Marohn’s 2012 book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, we find a five-part essay about how suburban growth is an unsustainable Ponzi Scheme.

New suburban development initially costs little for local government, infrastructure like roads is built by the developer then handed over to local government for free, and tax revenue starts flowing in quickly. Looks like a great deal.

Initially.

But what is not well understood is that the long term maintenance and repair cost is huge. And the tax revenue from the low-density development comes nowhere near paying for the ongoing costs for those roads and sewers. The “solution” has been to try to endlessly promote even MORE suburban growth. The revenue from the new growth is used to pay for the old growth. But endless new suburban growth is impossible. Particularly in Boulder and Boulder County.

The result of having new growth pay for old growth is a classic Ponzi Scheme.

Could the road funding controversy in Boulder County be at least partly explained by Marohn’s Growth Ponzi Scheme?

Compact, slower speed, human-scaled urban development creates wealth. Lower density, higher speed, car-scaled suburban development destroys wealth.

How can suburban development pay for itself? We can start, implies Marohn, by nearly doubling property (and other) taxes in new suburban neighborhoods.

Since this is not politically feasible, the future will be, shall we say, challenging.

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What Are the Obstacles to Making Our Streets Safer?

By Dom Nozzi

July 1, 2016

There have been a great many traffic injuries and deaths in the Boulder area in recent weeks. This is a terrible tragedy and tracks what is happening nationally. If we are to call ourselves a civilized society, there are effective things we must do to make our streets safer.

A very large percentage of neighborhood streets in Boulder (and the region) are excessively wide, which induces excessive driving speeds and dangerously inattentive driving. Boulder needs to redesign many of these streets to be safer. Good tactics are the common and effective traffic calming measures which narrow the street (yet still allow adequate emergency vehicle response times), including the use of slow streets, give-way streets, design-for-slow-streetsand shared streets. Each of those designs deliver slow design speeds which are crucial for neighborhood safety. A quick, easy and low-cost way to create slower, more attentive neighborhood streets is to allow and encourage a lot more on-street car parking, in addition to bulb-outs, traffic circles and chicanes. Slow speed neighborhood streets dramatically improve neighborhood quality of life and safety, and effectively promote more walking, bicycling and sociable neighborhood interactions.

An extremely common suggestion to address dangerous speeding is to lower speed limits. But mounting signs with lower speed limits, as nearly all traffic engineers know, is highly ineffective unless we also redesign the street. The typical motor vehicle speeds are generated by the design speed of the street rather than speed limit signs (which are so commonly disregarded that many derisively call them “suggested” speed limits). It is also unfair to the motorist to install a speed limit sign that is far below the street design speed. When the street design strongly encourages motorists to drive at higher speeds than the speed limit, a large number of speeding violations and tickets result.

I have been a bicycle commuter in a great many cities in the US, and in my opinion, the state highways in Boulder (in particular, Broadway, Canyon, and 28th St) are among the most hostile, deadly state roads I have ever bicycled or walked. The state highways in Boulder are death traps not only for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users, but also motorists. Those streets (and their huge intersections) are too big and therefore too high speed to be located within a city. It is important to note that city health is promoted with slow speeds, so these state highways are undermining the quality of life in Boulder.

The fierce opposition to the Folsom street reconfiguration project, as well as opposition to other safety and quality of life street redesign measures such as the traffic calming program in the 1990s, suggests that many in the Boulder population are not ready to accept enactment of street designs which effectively improve street safety and quality of life.

Even in Boulder, it is nearly impossible for the vast majority to travel anywhere without a car. American cities (including Boulder) are designed so that regular, safe, convenient travel by bicycle, walking, or transit is out of the question for almost all of us (mostly because roads are too big and distances are too large). That means, inevitably, that large numbers of people are obligated to drive a car even though it is too dangerous for them to do so. They have had too much to drink. Or they are angry or emotionally upset. They are distracted or exhausted by their multi-tasking, busy lives. Or their driving skills are questionable due to age or poor eyesight or other factors. In a society where nearly all trips must be made by motor vehicle, this problem is large and unavoidable.

It is incumbent on us, therefore, to design our streets and communities to be more compact and slower in speed. Otherwise, dangerous streets and unacceptably high numbers road crashes will always be a part of our lives.

 

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Do People Inevitably Ruin Pleasant Places?

By Dom Nozzi

May 22, 2016

Do humans inevitably ruin pleasant places? I hear this proclamation often from a good friend.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Making cars happy by fighting against traffic congestion and fighting for more free parking inevitably and powerfully fouls the human habitat – our neighborhoods and cities. Many of us have fled our car-happy fouled nests for greener pastures.july-2015-2

Why did we foul our original nest to make cars happy? Why don’t we return to the timeless tradition of making our nest PEOPLE-happy places?

Because it is inconceivable to us to make car travel inconvenient and costly. We have made the awful mistake of equating happy, cheap car travel with quality of life. It is a recipe, ironically, for fouling our own nest and fleeing to the “untouched” outlying areas.

In sum, this pattern has little or nothing to do with population growth or humans being hard-wired to want to destroy what they love. It has a LOT to do with our drive to make the car habitat wonderful, which unintentionally and unknowingly fouls the human habitat.

Humans don’t hate compact living arrangements. Indeed, we LOVE such design when we travel to ancient European cities.

Humans in space-hogging cars hate compact living arrangements.

When we get behind the wheel of a car, we think like a car. We think paradise is wide open highways and huge free parking lots. What we don’t realize until it is too late is that our cities then become like Houston. Or Buffalo. Or Detroit. Or Phoenix.

A huge number of Boulder CO greenies and intellectuals, for example, unknowingly promote loss of Colorado wilderness by ruinously thinking the key to their quality of life is to “stop growth,” fighting against traffic congestion and fighting for more free parking.

Shame on them. Shame on most all of us for agreeing with this.

 

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