By Dom Nozzi
One of the most long-standing, vigorous debates in Boulder, Colorado is the question of whether Boulder is too dense or has too many people.
It’s all a matter of perspective, actually.
The first thing to understand is that cars consume an ENORMOUS amount of space. On average, a person in a car takes up as much space as 17 people in chairs. When the car moves, it takes up 100 times as much space.
The result, naturally, is that even without a lot of other people around, a motorist regularly feels that the city is too crowded or the roads are too congested or there is not enough parking. It seems like there are slow-pokes in their own metal boxes clogging things up everywhere.
As a result, even with relatively large, efficient-for-cars roads, motorists are often frustrated by delays.
Despite Boulder’s reputation, a large majority of us are required to make most or all trips by car, which means that ANY city projects to slow down cars to safe speeds is met with extreme hostility by the many frustrated people in huge metal boxes. Designs that deliver enormous benefits in cities around the nation are met with outrage in Boulder by motorists who are already sick and tired of existing delays: No to traffic calming! No to right-sizing!
Another result is that there is a near consensus in Boulder that development and population growth must be stopped! If we cannot do that, we must minimize residential densities! The objective, of course, is to keep additional cars from delaying us on roads and parking lots.
Tragically, however, this obsessive objection to new growth in Boulder has unfortunate consequences – particularly for the Boulder Town Center. Cities form because they promote an exchange of ideas, services, products, friendship, and love. To have a healthy amount of exchange, then, a town center needs slower speeds and compact clustering (what economists call “agglomeration economies”).
A compact, slower speed community is a community that allows a much larger number of us to safely and happily walk, bicycle or use transit.
Given this, the car becomes the enemy of the city, because cars deliver very high speeds and low-density dispersal – both of which are toxic to a town center. Because such a large number of us are obligated to travel by car, there is a great deal of political pressure to damage the city even more. We end up with more dispersal, higher speeds, more air emissions and noise pollution, more crashes, more asphalt, more loss of small businesses (which are replaced by national chains), and isolation from our fellow citizens. All of these things undermine exchange, which are the lifeblood of a city.
By being delayed so often in our cars, most of us understandably confuse easy car travel and parking with quality of life. Yet on the contrary, ease of car travel — because cars are so large and fast and isolating — is the death knell for quality of life (and small-town ambience).
Finally, obsessing about stopping development and minimizing density distracts us from a very important quality of life task: Seeing that we craft land development regulations that will result in lovable, quality buildings. By being distracted, Boulder’s design regulations have not been crafted to do that regularly.
Hopefully, adopting form-based codes – which pay a lot more attention to building design and placement than conventional zoning codes — will start to change that.