Monthly Archives: July 2017

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.”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Bicycling, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Boulder Junction compared to Amsterdam

By Dom Nozzi

June 5, 2017

 

A comparison of Boulder Junction in Boulder CO (image on left) and a street we stumbled upon during our recent trip to Amsterdam (right).Amsterdam, May 8, 2017 compared to Bldr Junction

Note the walkable, comfortable, human-scaled, romantic character of the Amsterdam street compared to the new street in Boulder. Boulder Junction is a new town center in Boulder intended to be compact and walkable, but the center fails to provide a comfortable, enclosed, walkable human scale.

Open space that is too vast, setbacks that are too large, and streets that are too wide.

If we can generalize the Boulder design experience with that of much of America – and I think we can fairly do so — this comparison clearly shows that Americans have failed to learn how to build walkable places in recent decades. Or find the political will to do so, since much of the unwalkable design was requested by citizens who do not know the ingredients of quality urbanism and quality streets. Citizens tend to request large building setbacks, low densities, oversized roadways, and excessive open spaces.

In part, this is done to seek to retain or restore convenient, comfortable car travel. Failing to create quality urbanism, then, is a signal that Boulder is much more of a car culture than a walking (or transit or bike) culture.

Efforts to promote happy car travel, ironically, worsens car travel as such efforts result in increased per capita car travel, which crowds roads and parking lots. And worsens the quality of life (and safety) for people — particularly people not in cars.

Leave a comment

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

Why Are Mom and Pop Stores So Scarce?

By Dom Nozzi

May 17, 2017

A friend of mine recently complained that the city we live in (Boulder CO) is “planning ANOTHER bank for the Pearl St. Mall! When is enough enough,” she asked?

She went on to claim that there are “15 empty store fronts but that is because of landlord greed.”

“When,” she wondered, “will the city decide that we need to encourage mom and pop stores over banks and large chains that have no vested interest in the city?”

The City of Boulder, I explained to her, is not planning to add another bank to the Mall. A bank president is planning to do that.

Banks, I said, are common in such low-density places (such as American pedestrian malls) that are unable to attract a large number of customers, as are jewelers. If you were a landlord along the Mall, I told my friend, I suspect that you would be aggressively seeking the rents sought by the existing landlords, as I believe you share the same values as those landlords: making money rather than losing money. And I suspect you would not consider yourself “greedy” for wanting to avoid losing money.

Throughout its history, and up to this very moment, Boulder (like a great many cities in America) has desired mom and pop stores along the Mall. But there is almost nothing a city can do to encourage such stores for two primary reasons: (1) The rent is very high along the Mall, which makes it financially impossible for a mom and pop store to afford to be there; and (2) The density of residential and commercial development in the vicinity of the Mall is far too low to attract enough customers to make it feasible for a mom and pop store to survive.

Mom and pop stores only occur when rents are relatively low, when there are a high number of customers living and working in the vicinity (such as in Brussels, Antwerp, Bern, Siena, and many other compact cities), or both.

The Law of Large Numbers, when applied to cities, shows that as a city grows its population, and does so relatively compactly, worker productivity increases, innovation increases, mom and pop stores grow in number, cultural diversity grows, and the range of restaurants and grocery store items grows. The Law partly is driven by synergy. UntitledSynergy occurs when larger numbers of people congregate and work together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Low densities, by isolating creatives, destroys diversity, innovation, smaller scales and the number of choices available.

Boulder is an interesting case because it shows both effects: a very low density, yet relatively high levels of innovation due to the large number of brilliant and creative people who have settled in Boulder — largely due to the high quality of life. If Boulder became much more compact and dense, I believe levels of innovation, diversity, productivity, mom and pop stores, and productivity would grow substantially (the city would also be far more walkable and bikeable).

Boulder’s decades of NIMBYS fighting tooth and nail to lower densities (and the very high quality of life) in the city are the primary reason why mom and pop stores are rare on the Mall and big chains/banks/jewelers are common.

When is enough NIMBYism enough?

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Politics, Urban Design

Why Are Traffic Deaths So Barbarically High?

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2017

It is inexcusable that when we look at traffic fatalities — and the all-too-common call to reduce the number of fatalities with “safer” cars — we ignore the huge number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed by motorists.

As my op-ed in the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera noted recently, despite a century of “redoubling our efforts” every few years to make our roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, our roads are the most dangerous than they have ever been. Adding more road caution signsWARNING signs, WARNING paint, WARNING education, WARNING enforcement, and WARNING lights (as Boulder is once again proposing to do this year) has done nothing meaningful to make roads safer (many persuasively argue such things make our roads LESS safe).

But I’ll ignore cyclist and pedestrian deaths for the time being.

It is quite common for someone to point to an increase (or decrease) in traffic fatalities suffered by motorists and their passengers over the past year as indicative of a long-term trend – and what has allegedly caused the “trend.” But statistical principles and the complexity of transportation inform us that taking a one-year data point – and then applying a single variable to explain it – is highly unlikely to be accurate. Not nearly enough time has elapsed. And there are way too many variables when it comes to transportation.

An extremely important question I want to ask, rather than trying to explain a one-year change in fatalities, is why motorist deaths have been barbarically high for so long. The US has suffered over 30,000 traffic deaths per year since the 1930s.

And no one seems to care, when we compare concern about traffic deaths to the hysteria about drugs and terrorists and communists…

How have we gotten to this state of affairs?

First, the vast majority of motorists/Americans/elected officials have one objective that is light years more important than safety or quality of community: SPEED. Anything that slows motorists down — such as traffic congestion, road diets, traffic calming, etc. — must be furiously fought against with any and all means necessary.maxresdefault

Even in allegedly enlightened and progressive Boulder, free-flowing, high-speed car travel is head and shoulders above almost anything else as a measure of quality of life.

This single-minded focus explains why cities such as Boulder have a huge number of roads that have way too many travel lanes. Anything more than 3 is incompatible with a quality city, yet Boulder has many roadways (stroads, as Chuck Marohn would call them) that are in the 6- to 12- lane range. Anything more than 3 or 4 lanes is inevitably a recipe for a huge number of car crashes and fatalities.

More of the same thing all American communities have been doing for a century — more WARNING signs, more WARNING paint, more WARNING education, more WARNING enforcement, and more WARNING lights — will do nothing to make such monster roads anything other than on-going death traps.

Yet this same old song and dance is precisely what Boulder proposes to do as it rolls out its exciting “new” objective called “Toward Vision Zero.”

Excuse me for not being optimistic about Boulder not achieving this objective.

A related problem for almost every city — including Boulder — is the century-long use of the “forgiving road” design paradigm, which “forgives” the motorist for driving too fast or not paying attention. Using the “forgiving street” strategy, we remove street trees, make intersections and turn radii crazy big in size, create “super-elevations” at road turns, remove on-street parking, eliminate mid-block pedestrian crossings, move cyclists onto off-street paths, pull buildings away from the street and street corners, etc.

The result?

For several decades, we’ve had an epidemic of excessive speeds and inattentive driving. A great way to ramp up the death toll.

Most cities – to enable easy, high-speed car travel — have followed the path Boulder has taken over the past century regarding land use patterns by keeping densities at ridiculously low levels and strictly separated houses from shops and jobs and offices.

The result?

Distances to daily destinations are extremely lengthy, which makes it impossible for all but a tiny number of people to make ALL trips by car. That guarantees a large number of annual motorist deaths, as driving a car is inherently very dangerous — due to the fact that cars are heavy, large, able to achieve high speeds, and substantially reduce the sense of hearing and sight that a motorist has outside of a car.

One example of a destination that is now nowhere near any homes is an iconic social gathering place: the pub. Unlike in past times, it is now almost impossible to walk or bike home after having a few beers. Inevitably, that means a lot of people are driving in an inebriated state.

The “forgiving street” design paradigm has so substantially increased inattentiveness that a huge number of motorists now drive inattentively at high speeds. Again, a great way to ensure a huge number of motorists crashing and dying.

Americans are extremely busy – probably a lot more so than in the past – and the motor vehicle provides a way to save time: drive very fast. Oops. Another way to kill people in car crashes.

Solutions? The effective tactics are nearly impossible to achieve in almost any city – including Boulder — where 98 percent of the population will fight to the death to stop these safety measures from being enacted:

  1. More compact, mixed-use land use patterns so that travel distances are short enough to make walking and bicycling feasible for most people and most trips.
  2. Toss out the forgiving street paradigm in favor of designing streets that obligate slower, attentive driving.
  3. Substantially shrink the size of nearly every road and intersection.road diet before and after

But each of these essential tasks (if we are serious about achieving Vision Zero) is utterly off the table – not even something that one is allowed to mention in “polite society.”

Much of what I advocate in transportation is an “off the table” topic. My friend Jim Kunstler just pointed out that this “elephant in the bedroom” syndrome has a name. It is called the Overton Bubble.

http://thefutureprimaeval.net/the-overton-bubble/

In sum, because we are probably decades away from having the political will to opt for effective street safety methods, we will continue to see over 30,000 American motorists die every year for the remainder of our lives.

After all, speed — not safety — is what we sincerely seek.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Road Diet, Transportation