Monthly Archives: October 2014

Sprawl, Traffic, Taxes and Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

We live in troubled times. Times that require wise, courageous leadership. Here is what I see in our communities, and what we should do about it.

Taxation

Taxes are high and are constantly rising because new growth is not paying its own way.

All levels of government are financially strapped. Households are struggling to be able to afford the skyrocketing costs of transportation and rising property taxes.

Aren’t you tired of high and rising taxes?

Transportation

Automakers keep producing gas-guzzling cars. There is no quality transit system. We have no transportation choices. Little Billy and little Suzie cannot safely go for a walk or ride a bike in their neighborhoods because traffic is too dangerous.

Our hard-earned money and national wealth is vanishing. Our money (and the lives of soldiers and civilians in wars instigated by the Pentagon) is being used to enrich Middle Eastern oil-producing nations—many of which are not our friends.

Aren’t you tired of our unhealthy transportation system?

The Quality of Our Neighborhoods and Communities

Our farms are vanishing because they are being paved over by sprawling subdivisions.

We keep getting DUMB growth instead of SMART growth. Our neighborhoods are afflicted by rising levels of noise pollution. We’ve lost the tradition of having neighborhood-based schools, which means our kids cannot get to school on their own. We have forgotten that a high quality of life is a powerful economic engine.

Aren’t you tired of the sprawl? The ugly, dangerous, costly, “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development that keeps popping up in our communities?

My Vision

Let’s restore our communities.

  • Imagine communities rich in transportation choice. A place where we and our kids can get around safely by car, by transit, by walking and by bicycle. A place where cost of living is much more affordable for households because they are not required to spend an enormous percentage of their incomes to buy and maintain several cars. Communities, in other words, where one has the choice to be able to walk to get a loaf of bread, instead of being forced to drive four miles to get that loaf.
  • Imagine communities where our property taxes are reasonable and our government is able to afford to build quality public facilities and provide quality public services.
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our beautiful forests, natural areas and farms bulldozed, acre-by-acre, day-by-day, to build endless, sprawling subdivisions.
  • Imagine communities where streets are not choked by rapidly growing numbers of cars (containing people who are driving to get a loaf of bread).
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our roads torn up and widened every year, causing infuriating road construction delays.
  • Imagine communities with pleasant, safe, beautiful, slow-speed shopping streets instead of communities full of 10-lane strip commercial monster roads.
  • Imagine communities with healthy air and water, and neighborhoods that place public parks a short distance from our homes.
  • Imagine communities that provide choices about how to live. Communities where one can happily live an urban, suburban or rural lifestyle.
  • Imagine communities where it is actually LEGAL to build smartly. Traditionally. Sustainably. Where building smartly is the rule, rather than the exception. Local government regulations encourage smart growth, and are not an obstacle to it.  Communities that makes it fast and easy to build smartly, and makes it more difficult and costly to build unlovable crap.
  • Imagine communities full of energy-efficient homes and offices.
  • Imagine communities that are QUIET. Where one can sleep peacefully each night without being awoken by endless sirens and the roar of traffic.
  • Imagine places with a strong sense of community. Places that are A COMMUNITY, not a crowd.

villageImagine communities, in other words, that we can be PROUD of.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

The Shocking Number of Street Segments in Town Center Boulder that are Off-Limits to Bicyclists

By Dom Nozzi

What are the factors that induce people to bicycle?

Two of the most important are relatively short travel distances, and relatively slow motor vehicle speeds.

Given this, the town center of a community should be one of the most popular, welcoming places to ride a bicycle. And indeed, bicycling in a town center is very often the most popular place in a city for bicycling in many communities across the U.S.

I have lived in the Mapleton Hill neighborhood in Boulder for five years now. The neighborhood is adjacent to the Boulder town center. Because I am a daily bicycle commuter, I am bicycling in the Boulder town center nearly every day.

Much to my surprise (given how often Boulder is recognized as a bicycle-friendly community at the national level), the Boulder town center is extremely inhospitable to bicycling.

I will discuss the factors that make this so, and end with a few recommendations about how the town center can be made much more safe, popular, and welcoming for bicyclists.

Some Important Obstacles to Bicycling in Boulder

As most all of us here in Boulder readily recognize, high-speed streets with more than three lanes are exceptionally hostile to safe, comfortable bicycling – especially when such streets lack bike lanes. Unfortunately for Boulder, the Colorado Department of Transportation, long ago, constructed two high-speed state highways that cut through the middle of the Boulder town center: Canyon Boulevard and Broadway. Due to the very high “speed differential” between motorists and bicyclists on these two highways (where motorists tend to drive at much higher speeds than bicyclists ride), both of these roads (what Charles Marohn would call “stroads”) are seemingly suicidal, nearly impossible corridors for even the most experienced, brave bicyclists to ride for more than 50 feet or so.

Another unfortunate town center street system decision made in Boulder long ago was to convert a great many two-way street segments into one-way operation. One-way streets create enormous problems for bicyclists. Because they reduce “friction” for motorists, they tend to strongly induce excessive levels of inattentiveness, higher speeds, and impatience on the part of motorists, and such factors can be quite a dangerous recipe that often produces unsafe motorist behavior. Healthy town centers depend on slower speeds, retail health, and “agglomeration economies,” and one-way streets substantially undercut each of these needed attributes.

An additional problem with one-way streets — particularly for bicyclists — is that they tend to induce frequent, dangerous “wrong-way” travel, as many people (especially bicyclists) decide it is just too inconvenient to travel blocks out of their way to get to a destination. Instead, many will simply ride the wrong way on a one-way street (at least for a short distance).

Because one-way streets, in recent decades, have very clearly been seen by many of us as detrimental to town center health, a growing number of cities are converting their one-way streets back to two-way operation.

An Inventory of Streets Off-Limits to Bicycling

In my five years of bicycling through the Boulder town center, it has become obvious to me how difficult it is to bicycle in the town center. Recently, I decided to prepare an inventory map of street segments in the Boulder town center that are, in effect, off-limits to bicycling. The attached map shows in red those town center street segments that are inhospitable to bicycling – either because they are high-speed state highways or one-way street segments.Boulder town center streets hostile to bicycles

As you can see, a rather large percentage of street mileage in the Boulder town center is off-limits to bicycling. Again, if any place should be comfortable and heavily used by bicyclists, it should be a lower-speed, compact town center. Yet in a city that regularly is given recognition for being “bike-friendly,” town center bicycling in Boulder is shockingly very difficult and dangerous.

Interested but Concerned

Admirably, Boulder now strives to find ways to encourage the very large number of citizens who are “interested but concerned” about bicycling to become more regular bicyclists. Many experimental designs and policies are now being tested in Boulder as the City strives to create an environment where those citizens will be more likely to ride a bicycle. Indeed, as can be seen in many European cities, town centers tend to be the place where many of the “interested but concerned” bicyclists can be found.

This is not surprising, since town centers tend to offer the slower speeds and shorter travel distances that attract such bicyclists.

Unfortunately, the street segments in red on the attached map are strongly undercutting this worthy objective of encouraging the “interested but concerned” citizen to ride a bicycle.

A Lesson from Copenhagen

In the 1980s, Copenhagen’s bicycle planners observed that large numbers of bicyclists were using the same major streets that motorists were using. Planners convinced the City to build a high-quality bicycle route on a slower-speed, less-used parallel street.

To the surprise of planners, hardly any bicyclists used the parallel routes. The planners realized that bicyclists wanted to follow the same ‘desire lines’ as motorists – that is, choosing the most direct route. The result was a sea-change in modern bicycle planning, where efforts to direct bicyclists to parallel streets changed to efforts to accommodate bicyclists along the same major streets that motorists preferred.

Copenhagen realized that you can’t tell bicyclists (or pedestrians) where to go. Rather, bicyclists (andCyclists-in-Copenhagen-001 pedestrians) will show you where they want to go and you should listen to them and plan accordingly. Unfortunately, Boulder has not yet fully adopted this approach, as can be seen by City efforts to use the parallel 13thStreet and 9th Street as places for bicyclists to ride, instead of Broadway.

Some Suggestions for Making the Boulder Town Center More Bicycle-Friendly

  1. I am often the first person to point out that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to successfully mix bicyclists with pedestrians on a sidewalk or a path. In general, we should not try to mix bicyclists with pedestrians. However, I believe it was a mistake for Boulder to outlaw bicycling on sidewalks along commercial streets where the sidewalk is not designed or designated for bicycling. On each of the street segments shown in red on the attached map (where bicycling is relatively dangerous), it is incumbent on a community which wishes to promote bicycle travel (especially for those who are “interested but concerned”) to allow slow-speed bicycling on sidewalks. Repealing this counterproductive law would be TEMPORARY, as I would recommend that the prohibition be re-instated when or if the “red segments” shown on my map are redesigned as I recommend below. In addition, during this temporary period where bicyclists would be allowed on sidewalks until the street is re-designed, city rules would require that bicyclists ride responsibly, courteously, and relatively slowly on the sidewalk (preferably, bicyclists would ride at pedestrian speeds). By not allowing bicyclists on sidewalks, the “off-limits” streets create a tremendous amount of inconvenience for bicyclists, as it can mean that the bicyclist must ride one to three blocks out of her or his way to reach a destination.
  2. As noted above, town center health depends on slower speeds, agglomeration economies, and human-scale design. Canyon Boulevard and Broadway, as high-speed state highways, dramatically undermine these necessary attributes, and make bicycling a dangerous, impractical form of travel on those corridors. A low-cost, effective treatment for improving the health, safety, aesthetics, and pleasure of the Boulder town center is to re-purpose each of these highways to be three-lane streets. Doing this would slow motor vehicle speeds to speeds more conducive to both bicycling and a healthy town center, and would create needed space for such beneficial treatments as on-street parking and bike lanes.
  3. Boulder should join the growing revolution where cities throughout the nation are converting their one-way streets back to two-way operation. Doing so is a quick, effective, low-cost way to dramatically improve town center health, comfort, and safety. Motorists would drive more slowly, more attentively, and more patiently.
  4. Intersection controls should convenience bicyclists, not motorists — particularly in the town center. Stop lights and stop signs, even in relatively bicycle-friendly Boulder, are surprisingly inconvenient for bicycling. I have noticed that signal lights in the town center are timed for motorist speeds. In a community seeking to promote transit and bicycling, signal lights should rather be timed for buses and bicyclists. In addition, Idaho has revised its state laws so that bicyclists are allowed to treat red signal lights as stop signs, and stop signs as yield signs. Doing this would make bicycling much more advantageous (an important way to encourage more bicycling). Boulder should seek state authorization to apply the Idaho law here in Boulder (if not statewide).

In sum, Boulder’s town center is shockingly off-limits to bicycling. Fortunately, there are ways for the City to correct that – particularly as a way to encourage the large number of “interested but concerned” citizens to become regular bicyclists, and to substantially grow the overall number of bicyclists in Boulder.

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Curbing the Expectation of Driving at High Speeds

By Dom Nozzi

Many of us who seek to make our world more conducive to happy people rather than happy cars are adamant about the importance of slowing car speeds in communities.

Residential streets typically do not promote the problem of high-speed, free-flowing traffic, but sometimes they do act in such a way when they are used for “cut-through” trips or if they are relatively large neighborhood streets which “collect” traffic fed from smaller streets in the neighborhood (usually called “collector” streets).

Lowering the average motorist speed is one of the most essential ways I can think of to improve quality of life. And the most effective way to do that is through calming strategies which design the street to force slow car travel. It is critical that we LOWER THE EXPECTATION of motorists to be driving at high speeds. High speed car travel in a community should not be considered the “default” way for a motorist to travel.

Tragically, conventional traffic engineers have designed our streets for the past 100 years to promote high-speed travel – even on what should be quiet, low-speed streets. The result is that too many motorists now believe that relatively high-speed driving is the norm.

If we instead start designing our communities so that, eventually, most streets in a community are designed for slow car travel, general expectations will evolve so that a motorist realizes that the normal manner of driving is to drive slow (except on interstate highways, of course). With such an expectation, there will be significantly less road rage (and related hostile driving) in calmed areas, because the motorist EXPECTS to drive slow.

Designing streets for slow speeds is particularly important on residential streets, because such streets are the places where we most expect children and seniors to be, and where people are in homes and bothered by the noise of high-speed car travel. We also need to slow cars on the BIG roads in our community to ensure we solidify a general motorist expectation that they are driving in a slow speed community.

“Road rage” and fast driving are NOT genetically programmed into humans. A slow-speed community is NOT unrealistic.

In a discussion about slower car speeds, it is important to note that speed limit signs have little or no impact on how fast a motorist drives. Average driving speed on a street is dictated by the “design speed” of the street. The conventional traffic engineering philosophy is to assume that safety is best achieved by designing the “forgiving” street. That is, to design the street so that the motorist is “forgiven” if they, say, drive too fast and lose control of their car.

What this means is that the street is made wide and obstructions are kept away from the shoulders so that a fast, out-of-control motorist will not smash into anything.

Unfortunately, this fails to take into account the motorist psychology. If you design a street for safe driving at 40 mph, the average motorist will drive 40 mph, even if the posted speed limit signs say 30 mph, because average driving speed is determined by the maximum speed a motorist feels comfortable driving.

Typically, this philosophy means that a street with a speed limit of 30 mph has been designed with a “design speed” of 40 mph. We should not be surprised when a large number of motorists drive 40 mph on such streets. Enforcement is nearly impossible, short of a police state.

Therefore, in my opinion, the “forgiving street” philosophy gives us LESS safety due to higher speed (and more inattentive) driving.

The effective solution for slowing cars is to “retrofit” our streets (including residential streets) with calming designs that force cars to slow down (which is why things like speed humps are often called “sleeping policemen”).

However, “vertical” treatments like humps are almost never, if ever, appropriate for streets (including residential streets) – particularly those that are on designated emergency vehicle routes (where calming needs to be carefully designed to not excessively impede such vehicles).

In the case of such routes, “horizontal” calming is usually called for. Horizontal treatments include such things as curb extensions or other forms of street narrowing, as opposed to “vertical” calming like humps.

Does Traffic Calming Increase Air Pollution?

A common objection to traffic calming is that air emissions will increase due to “stop and go” traffic that is induced by calming. But this concern makes the mistake of  being overly reductionist. Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy effectively point out why reductionism in this case leads to erroneous conclusions. Newman and Kenworthy correctly point out that those who fear higher emissions due to calming forget about changes in motorist behavior that occur with calming. Reductionist thinking in this case only looks at what is coming out of a tailpipe of individual cars.

But Newman and Kenworthy, take a broader and more accurate view by pointing out that changes in travel behavior (caused by higher development densities, shorter travel distances, congestion, calming, etc.) completely swamp any air pollution gains that can be realized from individual cars that have less stop-and-go travel.

I will grant that it is possible there will be “micro-level” increases in air pollution levels due to calming. But at the “macro” (community) level, I’m convinced there is a net reduction in air pollution. That is, there is LESS air pollution at the community level.

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Some New Urbanist Developments are NOT Walkable!

By Dom Nozzi

Admirably, “new urbanist” developments strive first and foremost to be walkable (and human-scaled). Indeed, the movement started a few decades ago as a reaction against the fact that nearly all development that has been built over the past century is utterly car-oriented and unwalkable.

But as a correspondent pointed out to me eight years ago, a number of new urbanist developments are not particularly walkable.

How can that be?

In my view, this should not be surprising. After all, America has been aggressively ANTI-pedestrian for several decades. Not necessarily intentionally, but certainly inevitably. Why?

Because for nearly 100 years, we have been compelled to be obsessed about making cars happy. The emergence of the car (and the existence of cheap oil) has led to the inevitable degradation of conditions for all other forms of travel. Economists call this the “barrier effect.”

Designing for car travel almost inevitably makes all other forms of travel more difficult. And that sets up a powerfully vicious cycle. Cars consume an enormous amount of space, because of their size and the speeds they attain when driven. Motorists therefore have a strong interest in seeing that the community be designed to accommodate their form of travel.

The result is that development must be dispersed, low-density, and served by wide roads and large parking lots. Houses must be separated from workplaces, shopping areas, parks, offices and schools.

Because this form of community design increases the difficulty of non-car travel, new motorists are continuously recruited (transit users, pedestrians and bicyclists increasingly find that car travel is safer and more convenient). Those new motorists join existing motorists to form an ever-growing army of cheerleaders demanding that conditions be improved for cars.

Which, of course, ends up recruiting even MORE new motorists…

New urbanist developers in America must build their projects within such a strongly pro-car environment. In nearly every community, therefore, almost all of the government regulators, political activists, lending institutions, insurance companies, elected officials, citizens, retail establishments, and buyers of new homes have been conditioned to believe that the only reasonable way for 99 percent of the population to travel is by car.

Consequently, even though new urbanists are essentially the only group of developers in America who are sincerely seeking to build traditional, walkable communities (and know how to do it), they are almost always faced with a tidal wave of opposition. Regulations, financing, citizens, and elected officials are implicitly shouting: “Walkability is unrealistic! It is illegal to build that way! Babies will die in burning buildings if you design in a compact manner! We will not lend money to you for your project! Quality of life is dependent on free-flowing traffic and lots of parking! What you propose will make our cars unhappy”!

As a result, building something truly compact, mixed use and walkable is nearly impossible for mere mortals in America today. When it is (rarely) done, it is usually because it was somehow able to overcome GARGANTUAN obstacles.

It should be no surprise, then, that even committed, sincere new urbanists often end up being compelled to build compromised developments that are not walkable.

And the problem grows worse each year, due to the vicious cycle I mention above. Even older, suburban developments can sometimes be more walkable than newer “new urbanist” developments, as my correspondent pointed out regarding the “Rio Vista West” development in Florida.

While the situation is grim today (even some of the new urbanist plans prepared by Peter Calthorpe are compromised and not very walkable), I am optimistic about the long term.

Our car-centric development patterns are not sustainable, and we are reaching the day in which we cannot afford to keep pampering car travel. Even state departments of transportation are starting to be forced to realize that they can no longer afford to try to build their way out of congestion. It is getting too costly to widen roads. A growing number of people (particularly younger generations) are starting to see the merits and lower costs associated with living in walkable places. The rising oil prices are certainly helpful.

In my humble opinion, there will be an enormous growth in jobs that are involved in healing our communities to make them more sustainable and walkable, because rising costs (particularly energy costs) will make such work essential if our unsustainable culture and cities are to avoid extinction and collapse. Roads will need to be put on a diet. Parking lots will need to be redeveloped and activated as buildings. road diet before and after

Residential-only neighborhoods will need to start accommodating corner stores and jobs.

Tragically, a large percentage of places will be too costly to retrofit in such a way. They will become the white elephants of the future that will be abandoned.

“Re-localizing” will be an overwhelmingly important task. I increasingly wonder if our society will be able to adjust to such a world.

The future will be more pleasant for those of us that can adapt, as our world will be more walkable and less car-centric. But I fear our transition to such a world will be slow, painful and not possible for a great many.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Run for Your Life When a Traffic Engineer Wants to Make a Road More “Safe”

By Dom Nozzi

Conventional traffic engineers (the people who have been designing our roads for the past century) often like to make the claim that their design strategy is to make the road more “safe.” The tragic irony is that a great many of their “safety” tactics actually make the road much less safe.

And that helps explain why today, we have an epidemic of unsafe, inattentive motorists driving at excessively dangerous speeds. What could be more ironic?

Here is an excellent, common example of how our roads become less safe in the name of “improved safety”:

A road intersection have what are called a “turning (or “curb”) radius.” This radius is a measurement of the tightness or width of the corner of the intersection. The following image illustrates a tight radius vs a wide radius…curbradius

Too often, the conventional traffic engineer will recommend a wider turn radius for “safety.” He or she will frequently state that a wider radius is needed to help improve pedestrian safety. Without a wider radius – the engineer will often claim—motorists will sometimes jump the curb, which would endanger pedestrians.

Nonsense.

What actually happens in the real world is that the wider radius allows most motorists to negotiate the turn at a much higher (and more inattentive) speed, and there is very little that is more dangerous than a motorist driving at excessive speeds inattentively. If a motorist “jumping the curb” was truly a problem, hardened bollards should be placed at the curb to to punish or otherwise discourage reckless, excessively speeding driving.

Another canard that the engineer often pulls out is that the wider radius is needed because the road is used by very large vehicles (such as buses or trucks). The large vehicle becomes what is called the “design vehicle” that the engineer uses to design the road geometries.

But again, the unintended consequence emerges. By enabling the large vehicle to negotiate a turn with a wider turn radius, we induce the high-speed, inattentive driving by the much more common passenger vehicle. Overall safety goes down as a result, because while a large truck jumping a curb is perhaps averted by the wide radius, such vehicles are quite rare, whereas the smaller passenger vehicles which are induced to drive more recklessly are much more common.

In a walkable downtown, it is ass backwards to use a large vehicle as the design vehicle for designing the streets. The pedestrian should be the design “vehicle” if a town center is to be designed for walkability. Using a large vehicle as the design vehicle utterly undercuts the objective of creating a safe, walkable street design for pedestrians.

There are much more appropriate strategies for dealing with large vehicles in a town center that is intended to be walkable. First, the effective turn radius can be made wider without creating the unintended consequences I mention above. This can be done quite simply by adding on-street parking close to the intersection. Or, the community can prohibit the use of large vehicles in the town center.

When conventional traffic engineers mention “safety,” watch out. Usually, it is just a smoke screen to grab the moral high ground at a public meeting concerning street design. Meanwhile, the man behind the curtain that we are not supposed to notice is designing the street for a single-minded objective: Higher motor vehicle speeds — which, of course, degrades our safety and quality of life.

Tactics such as wider intersection turn radii usually fall under the category of the conventional “forgiving street” philosophy, whereby we “forgive” reckless, high-speed, out of control driving by eliminating things that motorists might run into, such as trees, pedestrians, buildings, parked cars, etc.

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