Monthly Archives: January 2017

Improving Transportation in Boulder, Colorado

A Facebook Conversation between Dom Nozzi and a friend

December 18, 2016

In December of 2016, a Facebook friend of mine responded to an illustration I posted showing the ENORMOUS amount of space that cars consume.

Friend: Then what’s the answer for Boulder, Dom?. Can [the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) you sit on] or the City do much more to encourage bus and bike usage, especially in winter?

Dom Nozzi: The politics and values I have observed in Boulder spell very bad news for Boulder’s future. I’ve been surprised by how uninformed the Boulder population is on transportation (it is a national problem, but a surprise to me that this is also true in allegedly informed Boulder).

A large number in Boulder have opted for the strategically ruinous strategy of equating free flowing traffic with quality of life. Traffic congestion is viewed (like nearly everywhere else in the world) as a terrible problem that must be reduced. Given the huge amount of space that cars consume, this common desire inevitably means that Boulder is over-widening its streets and intersections, and has spent decades trying to prevent – or at least minimize — development densities (it is wrongly believed in Boulder that this would reduce the crowding of roads and parking lots).

The results include a lot of suburban sprawl (in the form of wanna-be-Boulder towns in areas surrounding Boulder), very unsafe roads and intersections (because they are over-sized), a city that is too dispersed to make walking practical, and a city that contains oversized car habitats (such as huge, numerous parking lots) that degrade quality of life.

This state of affairs has meant that Boulder has been unable to meaningfully increase the number of people who walk, bicycle or use transit for several years.

It will be a long process to change this reality, but Boulder needs to see new politically influential pro-city activist groups arise (such as Better Boulder) to reverse this downward spiral. A better future centers on reducing the three “S” factors: Reduce Space allocated to cars, reduce Speeds cars can travel, and reduce Subsidies that motorists enjoy. Doing so will consequently deliver more compact, mixed development, and better quality of life, a better economic situation, and a lot more safety and choice of both lifestyle and forms of travel.

Until Boulder moves away from its long-term strategy of pampering cars and thinking doing so can be a win-win strategy with bicycling, walking, and transit, city design will continue to be overly car-friendly. Roads and intersections too big, car speeds too high, and motorist subsidies too inequitable.

Can TAB do anything to encourage less car dependence? Sure, if we start adopting the above tactics by ending our counterproductive efforts to make cars happy. I have a very long list of needed transportation reforms for Boulder that seem highly unlikely to be adopted for a long time. I am very surprised by how behind-the-times Boulder is regarding transportation, despite the conventional wisdom. There are very few short-term tactics we can deploy.

Reforming parking would be a good start. I continue to strongly support road travel lane repurposing. For decades, the City has mostly taken the easy path of spending money to address transportation issues. But again, it is about taking away size, speed and subsidies from motorists. It is not about spending money on bike lanes, transit, and sidewalks. In the winter, transportation choice is highly unlikely without compact development. Boulder, in short, has its work cut out for it.

Facebook friend: Replace “motorists” with “citizens”. Do the citizens of Boulder support these initiatives? I sometimes get the sense that some on TAB believe they have the correct answers and don’t really care what the people of Boulder actually think, hence the right sizing controversy on Folsom. Public outreach and forming a collective vision for the future of our city is key to any kind of reform that impacts people’s preferred mode of transportation.

Dom Nozzi: Very few motorists (using “citizens” implies that we are all motorists and non-motorists do not matter) support these ideas in Boulder or elsewhere in the US. This is largely because of a century of huge motorist subsidies and the fact that over-providing for motoring is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. That is, the bigger we make roads arapahoe-ave-boulder-coand intersections and parking (to keep motorists happy), the more difficult and unsafe travel becomes for non-motorists (which continuously recruits more motorists, thereby adding to the downward spiral).

Support for these ideas tends to emerge only when motoring pays its own way and does not degrade the human habitat (ie, the gas tax is substantially increased, road tolls and parking charges are instituted, and roads are kept at modest widths to keep car speeds relatively low).

A great many useful transportation tactics are highly counter-intuitive (the Folsom right-sizing road diet project is a good example). In Boulder and throughout the nation, motorists predictably fight aggressively against such leveling of the playing field and protecting quality of life because they are living a life where travel by car is obligatory (due largely to car-only, oversized road design, as well as the large distance to destinations). They see little choice other than to keep spending trillions of public dollars to widen roads and intersections and provide more “free” parking.

Because doing such things is unsustainable, destructive, and detrimental to community safety, we therefore become our own worst enemy.

My comments above illustrate an enormous dilemma that spell a grim, difficult, painful future. There are very few (if any) painless, easy, quick, popular, effective, win-win tactics to improve our transportation system, given our century-long track record. “Public outreach” is almost entirely ineffective in a world that is so heavily tilted toward enabling easy, low-cost motoring. What good would it do, for example, to “public outreach” to motorists who live several miles from their destinations to suggest they should consider riding a bike or walking on a dangerous, car-only road for 7 miles? Only when the playing field is more level and community design more conducive will such outreach be useful.

TAB members are appointed by Council at least in part to provide advice on improving transportation based on our knowledge of transportation. This knowledge comes from our academic and professional background, our experiences of spending years getting around in Boulder, reading adopted community plans, and our listening to others in the community.

Sometimes the advice from TAB (or from Planning Board or Council) is not popular. But this is the nature of dealing with a transportation world I describe above. If “most popular” was the only means of deciding what to do, we would not need Council or advisory boards. We would simply have a computer measure community opinion on various measures. Instead, we have a representative democracy because such a direct democracy approach is unworkable and undesirable (particularly for complex, counter-intuitive issues). And because of the dilemmas I cite above, strong leadership in transportation is extremely important. I have always liked the following observations on leadership:

A leader is someone who cares enough to tell the people not merely what they want to hear, but what they need to know. — Reubin Askew

Margaret Thatcher once said that consensus is the absence of leadership.

To achieve excellence should be a struggle. – Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley

To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. — Elbert Hubbard

One of my heroes – Enrique Penalosa (former mayor of Bogota) – was despised early on in his term — largely because he enacted policies that aggressively inconvenienced cars in his efforts to make people, rather than cars, happy. Many wanted to throw him out of office. But eventually, his policies (which nearly all his citizens strongly opposed initially) resulted in visibly obvious quality of life and civic pride improvements. He went on to become much-loved and honored by most in Bogota.

Let us not forget that back in the day, the majority opinion was to oppose granting equal rights to women, blacks, non-Christians, or gay/lesbian people. Nearly all of us believed the earth was flat. That smoking and DDT were okay.

By the way, it may comfort you to know that my views — because they are so counter to the conventional wisdom in Boulder –tend to be ignored by other TAB members, city staff and by Council. On most all “tough” votes, I am almost always on the losing end of 4-1 TAB votes (would transportation be “better” in Boulder, in your view, if those TAB votes were 5-0?).

For a century and up to the present day, Boulder citizens, elected and appointed officials, and staff have been nearly unanimous in thinking that happy motoring was and is a good idea. In my view, that has been a tragic mistake. Boulder can do much better if it discarded that discredited (yet conventional) view.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

The Undesirability of Autonomous Cars

By Dom Nozzi

December 16, 2016

Autonomous cars remind me of the many techno optimists in the 60s and 70s who assured us that we would soon be driving flying cars like The Jetsons.jetsons

So much faster! End of traffic jams! No air pollution!

Assuming autonomous cars become a significant part of our lives — which is highly unlikely given enormous difficulties associated with making autonomous vehicles work in the real world — such vehicles are likely to create a great many negative unintended consequences.

First, there will be a huge increase in per capita car travel due to the relative ease of car travel by such vehicles. Many trips that were formerly made by walking/biking/transit (or not at all) will now be by car — including by kids, the handicapped, and seniors who are now unable to drive.

Second, there will be a need for wider roads to handle that per capita increase.

Third, we will see higher average car speeds.

Fourth, we will see more pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars since the software will direct the car to kill such people rather than the driver.

Fifth, there will be a big increase in obesity due to the increased amount of travel by car.

And finally, we will suffer from a perpetuation of unsustainable transport energy consumption, toxic air emissions, and dispersed land use patterns.

uber-carOverall, like standard cars, autonomous cars are extremely toxic to cities. To be healthy, cities require slow speeds (which promote the agglomeration economies that cities require). Higher speeds induce more low-density dispersal, which destroys city health and the essential need for social capital. Cars isolate us, yet our genes and our cities need interaction.

In general, autonomous cars are a solution looking for a problem.

Given the consequences I mention above, we need to hope that autonomous cars are as “successful” as George Jetson’s flying cars. I’m not worried because I am confident autonomous cars will soon be forgotten.

What bothers me most is that such pie-in-the-sky vehicles distract us from pressing city and human needs we have neglected and failed to address for several decades.

How much progress have we made on passenger rail design and implementation, for example?

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Is Traffic Calming Unsafe?

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 1, 2016

On October 5th, David Wagner alleged in the Boulder CO Daily Camera that traffic calming (which uses street design to slow cars to safe speeds) does not improve safety, yet significantly degrades fire safety (due to slower response times).

This is a red herring.

A study by Peter Swift conducted in Longmont CO found that when cities use excessive dimensions for roads to reduce fire truck response times, there is a net LOSS in overall safety.

Why?

Because those road dimensions lead to a large increase in car crashes, and the number of injuries and deaths caused by that increase in car crashes far exceeds any decrease in fire injuries/deaths due to allegedly slower fire truck response times. Dan Burden – a national traffic calming expert and son of a fire chief – disputes the claim that fire truck response 8330087time is significantly slowed. Boulder would benefit from having Burden conduct a traffic calming audit with the Boulder fire department, and demonstrate designs that slow cars without slowing fire trucks.

Swift’s study shows that safety is far better served when a community focuses on the much broader question of LIFE SAFETY rather than the subset of FIRE SAFETY.

Something not easy to measure in studies: When car speeds are not slowed by traffic calming measures, a large number of potential bicyclists and pedestrians are deterred from biking or walking (particularly children and seniors) due to perceived danger of high car speeds. Conversely, slow car speeds effectively recruit large numbers of cyclists and peds. Studies show that a society where there is less walking and cycling — and the more driving — public health declines and deaths increase.

The Transportation Advisory Board has been inundated with dozens of emails from citizens throughout the city pleading for the Board to calm their neighborhood streets due to dangerous speeding and cut-through traffic.

They would beg to differ with Mr. Wagner’s remarks.

 

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Promoting Traffic Safety

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 20, 2016

After three years of trying, I have finally been given the opportunity to give a presentation to the Boulder transportation advisory board – of which I have been a member. The topic will be on traffic safety, and I will be making the presentation in either early September or early October.

I decided one point I’d like to make is that if anything, streets have become much less safe than they were in the past – despite decades of often aggressive, extensive, expensive boulder-traffic-safetysafety efforts. This morning, I looked for a chart showing the trend in the number of annual deaths on US roadways. I have included a few charts from Wikipedia in this blog. “Annual Traffic Deaths” shows the crazy high number of annual deaths.

But the “Annual Deaths Per Mile Driven” chart shows that we are making a lot of progress on safety! I was surprised and realized I’d have to revise my presentation.

Then I came across a “Traffic Deaths” essay.

I learned from the essay that several decades ago, the auto folks needed to find a way to address the great alarm on the part of many Americans when they saw the huge number of traffic deaths. The solution to this PR problem – to head off serious efforts to reduce car dependence in our society – was to convey deaths based on MILES DRIVEN. It turns out that applying “miles driven” as a way to measure deaths is quite misleading. After all, if we used miles traveled, the space shuttle would be the “safest” way to travel…

Using that metric, the auto folks were able to reduce alarm (and meaningful efforts to reduce car dependence), because the metric shows improving traffic safety. Now we can sidestep the thought that 30,000 to 40,000 traffic deaths per year is barbaric (and demands our society reduce car use) and instead focus safety on individual motorist mistakes or mechanical solutions (which does almost nothing to correct this shocking, unacceptable road carnage problem).

One of my points about traffic safety is that our forgiving roadway design induces dangerous and growing levels of inattentive driving and excessive speeding. I believe inattentive driving and speeding are epidemic mostly because of our decades of employing forgiving roadway design. But if this is true, why does the chart show a decline in deaths since 1970?

My explanation is that while roads ARE more dangerous today than in the past, much of the reduction in deaths is associated with making cars (and, therefore, the motorists bike-car-crash1inside them) safer with such things as seat belts, air bags, and aggressive efforts against drunk driving – not to mention our removing a lot of trees and other “hazards” from near the side of roads.

I found another chart that shows a big increase in bicyclist deaths since the 1970s. That can partly be explained, I guess, by the growth in cycling since then, but I think it is also compatible with my belief that roads are more dangerous today. Motorists are safer in certain ways, but the growth in inattentiveness and speeding are leading to motorists killing more people bicycling.

In sum, it is clear to me that our roads need to be substantially redesigned to obligate slower, more attentive driving by motorists through various traffic calming, as well as reductions in the size of roadways and intersections. More warning signs, warning lights, warning paint, warning education, and warning enforcement has utterly failed to make our streets safe.

It is way past time to get serious and redesign our appallingly dangerous roadway system.

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Reforming Parking

By Dom Nozzi

January 18, 2016

Based on what I have learned in my 20-year career as a town planner, there is little that is more important than substantially reforming parking regulations. Nearly all community parking regulations – including those in Boulder, Colorado – are horribly outdated.images

The first task is to jettison required parking rules. That is, eliminate laws that require new development to provide parking. As Donald Shoup points out so clearly, nearly all community parking requirements are almost completely arbitrary and nearly always excessive. Excessive parking artificially induces car trips that would not have occurred had such parking not been provided. Fear that the elimination of such a rule will lead to the provision of insufficient parking is unwarranted, as property owners are well aware that they are slitting their own throats if they provide insufficient parking, because insufficient parking will threaten the financial viability of their development.

A town center should also emphasize priced, on-street parking and discourage free, off-street parking.

The price of parking needs to be unbundled from the price of housing, so that a person can opt to pay less for their housing if the decide they don’t need a parking space. This is a great way to get more affordable housing.

Codes need to be revised, if necessary, to allow existing businesses to easily infill into existing parking areas. Because nearly every community has required the installation of excess parking, a great many parking areas are opportunities for town center financial benefits and enhanced vitality. Most land development codes put significant barriers in the way of doing this – for example, by not allowing there to be a reduction in the amount of parking at the location in question. Developers should not be required to devote time and money to the revision of codes in order to convert parking to a better use of land.

Surface parking should be kept away from streets. When surface parking lots abut streets, they create “gaptooth dead zones” that kill the vibrancy of the street and undermine agglomeration economies. Existing surface parking lots abutting streets must be retrofitted with liner buildings along street frontages at a minimum.

The Codes need to allow a substantial amount of joint parking so that parking can be shared. Allowing the sharing of parking obviously reduces the amount needed, and it is very common for this to be possible, since businesses often have provided far more parking than they need (usually as a result of the excess parking required by local government). Another reason why shared parking is often possible is that many businesses have hours of operation that do not overlap the hours of nearby businesses. Rather than have such parking sit unused, that parking can be used by a nearby business.

A downtown association should have city-owned parking garages that can be leased to businesses and residences (so they don’t have to provide as much of their own). This is a form of “cash-in-lieu” of parking.

Businesses should be required to provide a “parking cash-out” option whereby employees are given a choice: either retain a free parking spot (the status quo) or be given a higher salary, a bus pass, or money to purchase a bicycle (among other possible rewards).

Property taxation needs to be inverted so that a “Land Value Tax” is used https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax. The fact that nearly all cities assess much higher taxes on a property owner that develops/improves/upgrades their property strongly encourages downtown land speculation (which helps explains why there is WAY too much surface parking in American downtowns). In this counterproductive situation, property owners tend to hold their property unused or undeveloped (to avoid a taxation penalty for developing it) until they find the property can be sold for an attractive price.

Push-back you can expect: POOR PEOPLE CANNOT AFFORD TO PAY PARKING METERS! IT WILL HURT DOWNTOWN! NOT EVERYONE CAN RIDE A BIKE!

Each of those red herring arguments will need to be squashed by leadership. There are quite a few well-known responses to these concerns that can convincingly show why the concerns are not valid.

Reforming parking is one of the most important, effective ways to improve the health and vitality of a town center and many other locations in a community.

 

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How Do We Preserve Small Town Ambiance?

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2015

The most sought after, popular form of community for Americans today is the small town.

When we ask many community activists to describe what they seek for their community, they state that they are trying to preserve or restore a “small town feel.”

How do we do that?

For most NIMBYs and assorted anti-development champions of happy cars, it is to fight against density, tall buildings, and congestion.

But I believe this is counterproductive in creating a small town ambience.

I agree we shouldn’t allow skyscrapers. My limit is five stories.

beacon hill bostonBut the most effective way to preserve or restore the small town feel is to keep roads and intersections modest in size, and avoid sprawling low density.

Pushing for lower densities and fighting to reduce densities, by contrast, almost always compels a community to build monster roads and intersections.huge turn radius for road

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The Modernist Cult of Innovation Is Destroying our Cities

By Dom Nozzi

April 27, 2015

Nothing is more dated than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.  – Unknown

One of the great ironies in the field of architecture is that the most effective way to create buildings that look dated very soon after construction is to design them to be futuristic or modernist in design.

A recently proposed “modernist” building in my city has appropriately been disparaged as a “popcorn ball” apartment building.

To me, such a building is unlovable. It is chaotic. Innovative for the sake of being innovative. No connection to time-tested design or to the city context or history.

It reminds me of the important need for a form-based code for this part of my city (which is soon to see substantial infilling of new buildings). A form-based code puts priority on the design of a building and its location on the property, rather than the conventional use-based code, which concerns itself almost exclusively with the uses that are allowed within the building (residence, shop, office, etc.).

Rules are needed to reign in the “Anything Goes” Cult of Innovation that Modernist architects have followed. A Cult that has obliterated charm and lovability in our communities. It is a Cult that moronically and catastrophically rejects timeless design.wrightguggenheimriba3072-361269px

Too many architects see “innovation” as an imperative, and end up creating buildings that don’t behave themselves. Too many “look-at-me” buildings. Too many buildings as art objects. Art belongs inside buildings, not as shocking, jarring “artistic” buildings imposed on the public realm.

Unless a building is a civic or government building, it generally should not stand out as a look-at-me object standing out like a sore thumb. If too many buildings try to stand out, the ambience is disorienting and anxiety-producing. Residential and commercial buildings, in a compact town center, should be background buildings. Their front facade should be abutting (or very close to) sidewalks, and have glazing and interesting first floor uses (preferably day and night uses). Buildings are set close to the sidewalk to form an outdoor room. Each of these elements are basic, fundamental ingredients for activating the public realm and making for a comfortable experience for the pedestrian. Too many architects have forgotten about these basic elements. A form-based code therefore is more important today than in the past.

Quality development is not about creating high-quality INDIVIDUAL buildings.

It is largely about the ENSEMBLE of a collection of buildings. How they relate to nearby buildings to form comfortable spaces. How they are set on their parcel of land. How rewarding they are to the pedestrian. How lovable they are because they use time-tested designs. How they fit into the vision established in their neighborhood.

The modernist paradigm has become a regrettable problem because it so commonly violates these principles. Much of it is based on the idea that timeless rules should be abandoned in favor of innovation. That anything goes. That the imperative is the startling nature of the individual building. The community vision, spaces created between buildings, local materials, and how the building relates to other buildings typically are irrelevant.

Many of us love Prague, Siena, Budapest, or Montepulciano not because of innovative individual buildings, but largely because of how the assemblage of the buildings create a

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place that feels wonderful. Many of us, in other words, love historic, pedestrian-scaled areas not because an individual building is “inspiring” or “green.”

We love it largely because of how the collection of buildings are set along the street to create a lively, human-scaled ambiance that feels good.

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