Vested Interests in Drivable Suburbia or Compact Development

By Dom Nozzi

July 10, 2015

Because walking, bicycling and transit need short distances to be practical, enjoyable, and safe ways to travel, those who walk, bicycle or use transit have a strong vested interest in compact development. Such travelers, in other words, have a vested interest in mixed use, taller buildings and higher densities (above 5 dwelling units per acre) because of the substantially reduce travel distances these development patterns deliver.

Research shows that below four or five dwelling units per acre, walking, bicycling and transit are largely impractical due to excessive distances to destinations and the small number of people in such settings. At such low densities, it is only practical, for most all, to travel by car. Much (nearly all?) opposition to higher density, compact development in Boulder, Colorado (as well as opposition to taller buildings) is driven by the fact that most Boulder residents live in these very low-density residential neighborhoods where it is nearly impossible to travel without a car. For such residents, there is therefore a very strong vested interest in maintaining low densities and short buildings. Traveling by car is enormously difficult and costly when densities are above 5 dwelling units per acre, as well as when there are mixed use patterns and taller buildings. This is because cars consume an enormous amount of space (17 to 100 times as much space as a person sitting in a chair, depending on whether the car is stationary or moving).

Christopher Leinberger, in The Option of Urbanism, points out that given the above, for those living in compact neighborhoods, “more is better,” because more houses, retail, and jobs compactly added to the neighborhood enhance the quality of their walking, bicycling, or transit lifestyle. By contrast, for those living in more dispersed, drivable suburbs with relatively low densities, “more is less,” because more houses, retail, and jobs added to the neighborhood degrades the quality of their drivable lifestyle. Why? Because it is more difficult and costly to drive a car when new development is added to the neighborhood.

“More is Better”? Or “More is Worse”? The question tends to be answered, therefore, based on where you live in the community.

The above explains why many in Boulder oppose higher density, compact, mixed use development, as well as taller buildings. Because nearly all residents in Boulder live in places where car travel is the only practical way to travel, higher density, compact, mixed use development, as well as taller buildings are vigorously opposed, because prohibiting such development is an essential way to retain the ability to travel relatively easily by car.

Travel lane removal proposed for a street in Boulder in 2015 led to an avalanche of letters to the editor opposing the idea, despite Boulder’s reputation as being “green” and pro-bike, pro-walking, and pro-transit. Why? Partly it is due to the extremely high level of entitlement felt in Boulder (“I’m entitled to live in a place without parking or traffic road diet before and aftercongestion!). But mostly because most residents in Boulder live in neighborhoods that are very low in density and consist of “single-use” land use patterns. Only housing is found in the neighborhoods. Jobs, services, shopping, culture, and recreation tend to be several miles away, and often reachable only on high-speed, dangerous roads. This state of affairs means that for nearly all Boulder residents, it is impractical to travel by any means other than car. Given that, most all Boulder residents see travel lane removal as severely restricting their ability to travel.

I spent 20 years implementing the “adequate facilities” law (called “growth management concurrency” in Florida) in Gainesville FL. Cities were required to adopt “level of service” standards (for example, at least 5 acres of parks per 1,000 people or 5,000 cubic feet of landfill space per 1,000 people). New development, to be “concurrent,” needed to demonstrate that they were not degrading the adopted levels of service. There were15-20 features or services that had adopted levels of service. At the end of the day, however, Gainesville’s citizens and elected officials (and nearly all of the other cities and counties in FL) only cared about ROAD level of service. This was the only standard were developers were required to be “concurrent.” The only standard that was important enough to prohibit the development if the project was not “concurrent.” None of the many other level of service standards mattered at all. “Concurrency” was therefore code language for “road concurrency.”

Why is road level of service the only standard that “matters”? Because in nearly all communities – including Boulder – quality of life is ruinously equated with maintaining free-flowing traffic and retaining abundant free parking. Lip service is paid to other quality of life measures (as I list below), but the issue that significantly bothers most all Americans every day is traffic congestion and parking woes. It is a daily reminder on our drive to work or to run errands that (1) the roads are not wide enough; (2) there is not enough parking; and (3) growth is too rapid (“out of control”) because local government is too lax in stopping growth and too willing to allow high density development. It seems like common sense to even a child that if we widened roads and intersections, added more free parking, and kept residential densities very low that we would not have these daily traffic and parking headaches. Right?

If Boulder adopts an adequate facilities law, I am nearly certain that it will substantially increase the likelihood that roads and intersections will be widened, free parking will be expanded, and new development will face elevated obstacles to developing anything other than tiny rural-like housing densities. All of this increased asphalt and increased car speed will substantially degrade Boulder’s quality of life and “small town ambience,” and fuel an increase in the rate of residential growth in outlying towns (because the ability to live in a less expensive home outside of Boulder will now be more practical due to the increased road and parking capacity in Boulder).

Adequate Facilities (concurrency) laws, to be objective and quantifiable (necessary to be legally enforceable in a court of law) end up being little more than a bean counting exercise. Planners in Florida spend enormous amounts of time listing and counting and manipulating numbers for roads and water and park acreage. But in the end, bean counting has almost nothing to do with maintaining or improving community quality of life or quality urban design. All of the numbers can be “adequate” or “concurrent,” and the community can still be utterly awful in quality.

What are the categories and attributes of quality of life and civic pride in Boulder? Pearl Street Mall and the Boulderado Hotel; low crime rate; proximity to the scenic Flatirons, the Foothills, Skiing, Hiking, and Rocky Mountain National Park; desirable climate and air quality; transportation choice and reduced car use; seniors and children feel relatively safe and independent; the Boulder greenbelt open space; culture and quality restaurants; small town ambience; highly-educated creative class population; quality jobs; quality schools; housing choices; and low levels of noise pollution. An adequate facilities law has either no impact on these quality of life features, or has a negative impact on such features.

Road, intersection and parking expansions for motorists are a zero-sum game, as such changes inevitably reduce travel by walking, bicycling, and transit, and degrade both safety, finances, and overall community quality of life. Such expansions are also a lose-lose proposition because motorists also experience harm. For example, by increasing travel by car, such changes mean less road space and parking space for existing motorists, and motorists also suffer from increased car crashes, more stress, more noise pollution, higher taxes, and an overall decline in quality of life. Improvements and expansions for walking, bicycling and transit, by contrast, are win-win tactics because not only do pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users benefit, but motorists also enjoy more parking, less congested roads, and the many quality of life benefits.

Adequate facilities laws will enshrine and elevate the importance of car travel in Boulder, and increase the counterproductive yet widespread belief that free-flowing traffic and easy, free parking is the key to quality of life.

Adequate facilities laws (concurrency) promote larger, more wealthy businesses who can afford the studies and the mitigation. It reduces the viability of smaller, less wealthy businesses.

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

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