Response to an Editorial by the Editor of the Boulder CO Newspaper

By Dom Nozzi

July 2, 2017

On July 2, 2017, Dave Krieger, the editor of Boulder, Colorado’s major newspaper — the Boulder Daily Camera — published an opinion piece called “Traffic Engineering Rules Still Apply.” The piece contained several unfair misstatements.

Mr. Krieger refers to something he calls “basic traffic engineering.” One must assume by this comment that the reference is to the conventional methods traffic engineers have used for over a century: Widening roads and intersections to “reduce congestion” or “accommodate expected growth in area car trips.”

There is one small little problem with such “basic traffic engineering.”

It has utterly failed for a century.

The trillions spent on widenings not only failed to resolve congestion. By ignoring the well-documented, inevitable impacts of induced demand (caused by what Anthony Downs calls the “triple convergence”), the widenings over the past several decades have also worsened land use patterns, increased per capita car trips, decreased per capita bike/walk/transit trips, increased household transportation costs (they are now higher than all or nearly all other household costs), increased air emissions, and caused severe financial strain not only to households but to all levels of government.51df393d218c6-image

To call Boulder council members “ideologues” is inflammatory and ironic, since those calling for widenings have a much stronger ideological bent (the ideology of a car-based, high-speed, anti-city lifestyle). Similarly, to suggest that not widening is a form of “social engineering” is hypocrisy, given the fact that the most extreme form of social engineering engaged in by a society — by far — is the social engineering of compelling millions for over a century to be car dependent.

It is mis-informed to suggest that the “complete streets” road design tactics sometimes employed in Boulder and Boulder County are ineffective in modifying behavior, as a great many studies conclude that this form of “nudging” is extremely effective in guiding many motorists to drive in more socially desirable ways.

I choose the word “nudging” deliberately, as complete streets road design tactics retain the choice to travel by car. By contrast, pro-car design tactics such as widenings are much closer to forcing most of us to travel by car.

Which is, by definition, a strong form of social engineering.

Is it okay to engage in social engineering if doing so compels a lot more people to drive by car? (ie, the normalized way to travel)

It again is an inflammatory (yet common) falsehood to claim, as this opinion piece does, that not widening forces most or all motorists to abandon their car in order to walk, ride a bike, or use transit (which the author asserts is impractical for most). Such a claim is silly, unless one can make the case that a car trip that takes seconds or minutes longer will “force” people to abandon their cars.

It needs to be pointed out that many wrongly assume, as the author does, that a growing number of people inevitably requires there to be a growth in the number of travel lanes on local roads to accommodate such growth. If this were true, cities such as NYC and LA, which are home to several million people, would have needed to build roads that are hundreds of lanes in width to avoid gridlock.

Furthermore, the author forgets that transportation is a zero-sum game. That is, when conditions are modified to further increase the ease travel by a larger number of cars, traveling by walking, bicycling, or transit is made more difficult (what Todd Litman calls the “barrier effect”), The barrier effect recruits even MORE per capita car travel.

In addition, another overlooked, yet highly important impact – particularly for the residents of Boulder – is the highly negative downstream impacts of the larger volume of cars that road widening induces. By enabling and therefore inducing higher car volumes on Arapahoe, widening imposes more noise and air pollution on Boulder, puts more wear and tear on Boulder streets, consumes more parking (which obligates Boulder to build even MORE parking), makes Boulder streets more dangerous, and dramatically reduces overall quality of life in Boulder.

Finally, it is highly misleading to assert or imply, as the author does, that all trips on Arapahoe are long-distance, relatively important and time-sensitive commuter trips from small towns (ie, trips that can only be practically made by car). We know from many studies that a large number of trips on Arapahoe are relatively low-value (ie, trips to buy a cup of coffee). Such trips are induced at times that include rush hour by over-sized, non-tolled roads such as Arapahoe, and by the lack of compact, connected street, mixed use neighborhoods. These lower value trips are less affected by slower travel times due to the relative ease of shifting when such trips occur during the day.

In sum, the author criticizes Boulder for failing to follow “basic traffic engineering rules,” yet ironically, it is he who is unaware of a great many basic engineering rules, such as the triple convergence, the barrier effect, the travel time budget, the variable nature of trip value, downstream impacts, the zero-sum game, and the social engineering that compels car travel. Worst of all, the author ignores something that has been known for several decades and is so invariable that it can be considered not only a “basic rule” but an iron law: We cannot build our way out of congestion. Widening a road to reduce congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity. It wrongly assumes that car traffic behaves like water flowing through a pipe. In fact, for reasons I cite above, car traffic behaves like gas. That is, when the pipe is enlarged (widening) — car traffic — like a gas, inexorably expands to fill that larger pipe.

It is a great disservice to Boulder that we have an editor-in-chief of our local newspaper that is writing poorly-informed opinions that severely undermine many important community objectives, convince many citizens that Councilmembers and their adopted long-range plan are wrong-headed (to the point of being evil and undemocratic), and make it more likely that there will be increased political will to have the community adopt ruinous tactics that have almost universally failed for over a century.

Someone on Facebook responded to my comments by asking what to do about the 50,000 commuters that drive into Boulder each morning. We don’t have a clean slate, he told me. My response:

A fundamental principle is that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Stop treating Boulder like a doormat repeatedly (by continuing to widen, as Boulder has done over and over again historically), in other words.

There are several tactics that can be employed to positively address the large number of commuters. An obvious tactic is more housing — particularly more affordable housing. We can also start tolling major roads, provide more transit coupled with more park-n-ride, provide more compact and mixed use development, make major roads more like complete streets (rather than the car-only stroads they are), create more priced parking and parking cash-out (particularly at workplaces), reduce the quantity of free parking, convert minimum parking regulations into maximum parking requirements, and reduce the size of over-sized roads and intersections. NONE of those things PROHIBIT a person from continuing to in-commute by car to Boulder.

A person can continue to do that.

What each of these equity-enhancing tactics do is NUDGE travelers toward more socially, economically, and environmentally desirable travel. Some motorists will be inconvenienced in the short term, which many of us consider to be a very fair trade-off, since the inconvenience creates more equity, less air and noise emissions, lower taxes, less wear and tear, more safety, and less per capita car travel. In the long term, such tactics will improve the region, as they will induce more commuters to live closer to their destinations, enhance transit service, increase the amount of in-town housing, reduce higher speed car travel, improve conditions for smaller stores (rather than Big Box stores), and increase Boulder’s ability to shrink oversized parking lots, roads and intersections.

Note that most all of the motorists would be commuters, but it must be kept in mind that a large number of motorists on Arapahoe are NOT commuters (which means they will have more flexibility about where or when or how they travel).

Economists have calculated the approximate financial cost of travel by car, bike, walk, or transit. Those calculations show that each car trip imposes a financial COST on the community (a cost that most or all in the community must pay, regardless of whether they drive a car or not). Each bike/walk/transit trip results in a positive financial BENEFIT for the community (a benefit that most or all in the community enjoy, regardless of how they travel).

Knowing this, what should we do to be fair and to achieve community objectives? In other words, how do we make our community more financially sustainable?

Many of us believe that should one choose to travel by car, one should compensate for the cost imposed on the community. The most fair way to do this is to deploy user fees such as a gas tax, tolls, a VMT fee, etc. (rather than have everyone pay, through sales taxes, property taxes, higher grocery bills, or lower quality of life, regardless of whether they travel by car or not).

Again, user fees are nudges. They do not force people to stop driving a car. Therefore, they rightly acknowledge that many trips must be made by car. User fees simply make transportation more equitable, and nudges those with a choice to consider traveling in more socially desirable ways.

Note, too, that traffic congestion is a form of nudge. As Todd Litman would say, congestion imposes a “time tax” on the rush hour motorist, which nudges those with a choice to consider driving at non-rush hour times or live closer to their destination, or choose a different route. A time tax is obviously easier to achieve than a more effective and efficient tolling of the road, of course.

Temporarily reducing congestion by widening short-circuits that relatively affordable and achievable form of nudging.

Many cities in the past put all of their “eggs” (their trillions of public dollars) into the conventional “basic engineering” tactics that the author promotes. They did so while being in precisely the same situation that Boulder is in: What to do about congestion? What about all the in-commuters? They all greatly worsened their transportation situation and their quality of life. Examples of those cities include Phoenix, LA, Houston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.

I don’t want the Boulder region to go down the path of any of those unfortunate cities by opting for “basic engineering” tactics that the author urges, because those “common sense” tactics greatly worsened the situation.

We can do better. Let’s not keep making the same ruinous, bankrupting mistakes.

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Reducing Car Trips in Boulder

By Dom Nozzi

July 25, 2017

Way back in 1989, Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy showed that traffic congestion REDUCES air emissions and gas consumption at the regional level. This is in part due to the reduction in low-value car trips caused by the time tax that congestion imposes.

The compact development pattern that can result from more housing being built in Boulder would reduce the PER CAPITA trips made by car. Since Boulder currently has very low-density, dispersed patterns of development (and WAY too much free parking), per capita car trips are very high.large lot subdivision

Boulder is way better off — and is much more affordable and equitable — if the City successfully encourages more compact development patterns through the construction of more housing.

It would mean a lot more Boulder residents can choose to travel by walking, bicycling, or transit.

Environmental quality goes way up when per capita car trips go down. And Boulder will be a much friendlier and happier and healthier place, as healthier, more enjoyable, sociable interaction is much more likely when using transit, when walking, or when bicycling.

Boulder has made a huge tactical error over the past several decades by thinking that minimizing population growth and reducing density was the way to reduce car trips. Instead, that tactic has put too many Boulder residents in cars, made it much more difficult to travel without a car, and has made Boulder a lot less affordable.

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Behind the Times: Making It Difficult to Walk or Bicycle in Boulder CO

By Dom Nozzi

July 24, 2017

Despite the conventional wisdom – that Boulder CO has long been a mecca of cutting edge, progressive transportation — Boulder has spent several decades making it very difficult to be a bike commuter (or a pedestrian). This happens in part because the citizens of Boulder are behind the times regarding transportation, but also because many actions taken by the City of Boulder are not easily seen as being detrimental to cyclists (or pedestrians).

Some examples.

Many signal lights at intersections are timed for car speeds rather than cyclist speeds.

Slip lanes and continuous left turn lanes are used in the Boulder town center. Such design is extremely hostile to pedestrian safety and significantly undermines the need to create low-speed, human-scaled design in the town center.

The construction of oversized roads and intersections that are too often deadly or intimidating for those not in a car (streets such as Colorado, Broadway, Arapahoe, Canyon, and the many double-left turn intersections are examples).Arapahoe Ave Boulder CO

Terrible design of bike parking racks (or insufficient amounts of racks) all over town. Like a great many American cities, bicycling is trivialized by assuming that “innovative” bike parking rack design is desirable, instead of functional, easy-to-use design. This assumption trivializes bicycling because we all know that there is only one acceptable way to design a car parking space. Why do we allow an “anything goes” approach when it comes to bike parking?

Traffic rules that are designed for heavy, high-speed cars rather than cyclists. An example is something that only a tiny number of places in America have avoided: the requirement that bicyclists must stop at stop signs. Another example: traffic signals that are needed for cars but not bicyclists.

High-speed road geometries. Examples include overly wide car travel lanes, overly wide intersection turning radii, banked curves in a road (so cars can travel on the curve at higher speeds). Street lights and street signs that are too tall – thereby creating a highway ambience that induces higher car speeds.

Too often allowing a business to place car parking in front of a building. Among the great many problems associated with this all-too-common urban design mistake is the fact that parking lots in front of buildings substantially increase walking and bicycling distances, and destroy the human-scaled ambience that most people enjoy.

Not requiring developers to unbundle the price of parking from the price of the home or business. This action means that bicyclists or pedestrians who don’t need the car parking pay higher prices for goods and services to pay for expensive parking they do not need.

Lack of on-street bike lanes on many hostile, high-speed roads. Roads such as Broadway, Canyon, and East Arapahoe are nearly impossible for all but a tiny handful of bicyclists to feel comfortable bicycling. Boulder’s major streets are so hostile because Boulder has strongly bought into the failed, outdated concept of the “street hierarchy” system of roadways. In this system, roads are designated as arterials, collectors, and local roads. Local, low-speed, low-volume neighborhood roads (relatively safe places for bicycling a walking) feed traffic into collector roads (which are more unsafe due to higher speeds and larger widths), which feed into arterial roads (which are the most dangerous, high-speed, very wide roads). Because of the hierarchy of smaller roads feeding larger and larger roads (in the same manner as a watershed, where smaller streams feed larger and larger creeks and rivers), the larger (arterial) roads often become congested because they must handle car trips from throughout the community. Similarly, larger rivers often flood because they must handle water flowing from throughout the watershed. In addition to increasing the likelihood of congestion, the road hierarchy system also and inevitably creates roadways that are not complete streets. They are too high-speed, too wide, and too hostile for safe, comfortable walking or bicycling.

Lack of compact development, which disperses destinations so they are too far to bike or walk to.

Traffic signals that don’t detect cyclists or pedestrians, which means that cyclists and pedestrians must often suffer the indignity and inconvenience of having to wait for a motorist to arrive before the traffic signal will change to a green light.

There are many, many more examples.

Many of the above impediments to cycling or walking are due to the ruinous transportation imperative that all American cities (including, shamefully, Boulder) have pursued for more than a century: high-speed, unimpeded, free-flowing car traffic. This objective has — as an unspoken objective – been designed to keep cyclists and pedestrians out of the way so motorists can avoid being slowed down in their oversized, high-speed cars.

Stepping up enforcement of the pedestrian crossing rule, for example, masquerades as a way to improve pedestrian safety, but the primary reason is to allow motorists to drive at high, inattentive speeds without needing to slow down and pay attention. Such a rule is a form of victim-blaming.

Boulder and nearly all American cities have a lot of work to do if it expects to remove the many obstacles to safe and easy bicycling and walking in town.

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Convenience

By Dom Nozzi

July 23, 2017

I was talking with my girlfriend this morning about the high levels of litter we see in our society. One of my thoughts was that litter exemplifies how Americans (or all humans?) have – as an important life pursuit – regularly sought ways to make life more convenient. Litter means a person can enjoy the convenience of not needing to find a trash receptacle. Much of the convenience we have found over the past century or so has beenhk-litter brought to us by using “energy slaves” – using cheap energy to do work for us, such as using a leaf blower rather than a broom (or using motorized travel versus walking or bicycling).

I recall my friend and colleague Michael Ronkin once mentioning how lazy he found Americans (and humans in general) to be.

Convenience is such an important human objective that we have equated anything that makes our lives more convenient to be, invariably, a sign of progress. Surely, many of us look upon going from walking and bicycling to motorized travel as progress.

As a sign that our lives have improved.

I’ve always felt that the societal imperative for more convenience (exerting ourselves less) will only abate when energy costs rise substantially, so that energy slaves are less affordable.

One way I feel encouraged these days is to see what I believe is a growing desire to enjoy the convenience of living in a town center (where people can enjoy the convenience of a quick walk or bike ride to destinations). Convenience in this context, though, is a funny thing: On the one hand, a motorized lifestyle is seen as more convenient because we are able to exert ourselves less to travel. But on the other hand, we lose convenience with motorized travel because distance to destinations has grown so large that it requires more time to get to places — not to mention the hassle of having to climb into a car and back it out of a garage, needing to contend with other cars on the road, and eventually find a parking spot.

It is not clear to me, though, why we are seeing the growing desire for town center convenience (compared to the past century, where most sought to live in outlying suburban areas).

Have the costs of living a suburban, motorized lifestyle grown so much that those costs are reaching a tipping point?

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Another Example of Boulder CO Being Behind the Times on Transportation

By Dom Nozzi

August 15, 2017

On July 20, 2017, the Boulder Police Department reported that they will step up enforcement and steep fines for pedestrians who do not activate warning lights when crossing the street. This is a form of victim-blaming akin to fining a rape victim for wearing provocative clothing. Why is the Boulder Police Department not stepping up enforcement of serious threats to public safety such as motorist speeding, motorist drunk driving, or motorist texting?texting

I believe the two most important issues that a community must address when it comes to community planning are the related topics of urban design and transportation.

Tragically, most citizens in Boulder CO are about 20 years behind the times when it comes to urban design. The above pedestrian enforcement issue is one of many examples of how most citizens in Boulder are about 50 years behind the times when it comes to transportation planning.

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Redesigning North Broadway in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

July 17, 2017

My city of Boulder CO has plans to redesign a portion of a major north-south street in Boulder – Broadway Avenue. As a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board, we periodically receive notes from Boulder citizens about such things as proposed street projects. In the summer of 2017, I responded to a member of Community Cycles – a community-operated bicycle shop who had sent my Board a note. The following is my response…

Dear “Tom” (not his real name),

Thank you for sending this to my Board. As you probably know, I am very supportive of much of what is called for by Community Cycles. In particular, I often call for low-speed street geometries in appropriate (compact, walkable, urban) settings. Smaller turning radii and more narrow street lanes are substantially more effective in inducing low-speed, attentive (ie, safe) car speeds than Warning paint, Warning signs, Warning education, Warning signal lights, and Warning enforcement. These five categories of warnings are the conventional tactics that all US cities – including Boulder – have used for the past century.

And continue to use.

Obviously, this section of Broadway is appropriate for low-speed geometries – and will be even more appropriate when we see more buildings pulled up to the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway.

I agree that the street design is too strongly tilted toward delivery (and other) trucks.

With regard to that issue, I believe that when more buildings are pulled up to the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway, there will be a substantial increase inmedian-octavia pedestrians crossing (or wanting to cross) mid-block, rather than at intersections. To design for that inevitability – and to support the low-speed design we need for this section of north Broadway – the design needs to include raised medians along the street. Raised medians reduce average car speeds, increase motorist attentiveness, substantially shorten pedestrian crossing distances, and promote street beautification. I therefore believe raised medians should be included in the Community Cycles recommendation.

When I proposed that raised medians be installed on North Broadway at the last Board meeting, staff responded by noting that it would be difficult or impossible to install raised medians because this stretch of north Broadway has a lot of delivery vehicles using the continuous left turn lane to make deliveries to businesses. However, I believe it is quite feasible to accommodate both pedestrian safety needs and delivery vehicle needs with raised medians.

For example, raised medians do not need to be continuous throughout the entire stretch of north Broadway. By having, for example, turn pockets interspersed with raised medians, delivery areas are largely maintained. Yes, this will sometimes require a delivery person to have to walk 20 or 30 feet further to make a delivery, but this tradeoff is a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the dramatic pedestrian safety (and other) benefits provided by the raised medians.

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Boulder Shows It Still Doesn’t Get It on Proposed Widening of Arapahoe Road

By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2017

A news article and an accompanying op-ed by the editor in chief were published in the Daily Camera in June 2017, and it made my blood boil.

Here we are in 2017, and despite over 100 years of repeated failure, too many citizens, elected officials, and staff continue to be convinced that it is necessary to spend a huge amount of what I thought were scarce public dollars (not so scarce when it comes to road/intersection widening and buying Pentagon weapons, though…) to worsen transportation, taxes, land use patterns, and quality of life by widening roads and intersections.

My friend Michael Ronkin informed me later that day, after I read these disheartening newspaper submissions, that even Geneva, Switzerland is not truly getting this.

It galls me that those proposing these road or intersection “improvements” in the face of growth projections consider themselves to be “far-sighted” in calling for this in advance of the growth. Part of the thinking, as Charles Marohn points out, is that road and intersection widenings in the past were not widened “enough,” the road or intersection was soon overwhelmed with “excess” car trips, and it was discovered that the need for a SECOND widening was far more expensive, overall, than if the road or intersection was widened “enough” in the first place. “Enough” so that the second widening would have been unnecessary. The solution? Deliberately overbuild the size of the road or intersection so that the unexpected surge in car trips in the future could be accommodated without the need for a very costly second widening. This is considered being “farsighted.”

However, by widening roads or intersections, at great public expense, such “far-sighted” people are locking their communities into a far worse future. They don’t have a clue about things like induced car travel demand (new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened) and how bigger roads/intersections inevitably lead to more sprawl and car dependence. And a loss of a sense of place or a sense of small town charm.

They don’t realize there is an alternative to the century-long ruinous widenings. “Let It Be,” as the Beatles once said, and socially desirable results will emerge (rather than be undermined by widening). If we don’t try to “solve” anticipated congestion by widening, we will realize slower speeds, less car travel, more bicycling/walking/transit, more compact development, more of a sense of place and charm, lower taxes, less car crashes, less obesity, etc.

I am convinced that once a society commits itself to a car-happy world by building happy-car infrastructure (dispersed low density development, big parking lots, big roads, big setbacks, big intersections, single-use development, etc.), it traps itself in an irreversible downward spiral, because even in “enlightened” communities such as Boulder, the car-oriented road infrastructure and the dispersed land use patterns needed to make car travel free-flowing obligates citizens to angrily insist that car-happy design (which is extremely hostile to non-car travel) continue to be provided. After all, the community now forces citizens to travel by car. There is seemingly no alternative. We must dig the hole deeper. We must lock ourselves further into car dependence.

Given this downwardly spiraling trap, America and its cities will need to run out of money before it is forced to stop the unsustainable insanity of widening roads and intersections. After all, even a century of failed widenings has apparently taught us nothing at all.

A final note: Boulder and Boulder County pride themselves in being smart, progressive, and cutting edge — particularly when it comes to transportation. But these planned road and intersection “improvements” on Arapahoe Avenue illustrates that Boulder is far behind the times and continues to be moronic when it comes to transportation.

By the way, a number of folks in Boulder like to respond to my pointing out that Boulder doesn’t get it regarding widenings by saying that Boulder no longer widens roads. While that may be true, Boulder continues to widen INTERSECTIONS (by creating double-left Arapahoe Ave Boulder COturn lanes, for example) all the time. But bigger intersections are worse than wider roads in many ways. For example, oversized intersections forever lose the ability to create a small town sense of place. It will always be a placeless, car-based location where people will never want to hang out. Such intersections will forever fail to pay for themselves because they eliminate the sales tax and property tax potential of those locations.

One of our societal problems is that news reporters often perpetuate myths when they write on topics they are not informed about. Many readers assume that if the comments are published in a newspaper, they are probably true.

This is a particularly big problem on the topic of transportation, as citizens (including reporters) tend to think it is so obvious what needs to be done to improve transportation. It is common sense! They fail to realize that many effective transportation tools are counter-intuitive.

Unfortunately, I will be stepping down from the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board before I get a chance to speak out against this tragic mistake and cast a lone vote against the proposed Arapahoe Avenue “improvements.”

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