By Dom Nozzi
October 17, 2017
I don’t think anyone disagrees with the point that we need to promote both “green” cars and fewer cars.
The problem in cities such as Boulder CO, though, is that it seems like most or all efforts are directed at cleaner “green” cars (which makes it seem like dirty cars are the only problem). I and many others in Boulder believe Boulder has plateau’d in shifting people from cars to bicycling, walking, and transit, and there are still far, far too many per capita trips by car.
There are many reasons for this: Densities too low; too many major roads and intersections oversized and therefore nearly impossible to walk or bike; too little mixing of housing with offices or shops; too much free parking; too little traffic calming; too little road tolling; gas and gas taxes (and other motor vehicle taxes/fees) too low in price or absent; too many one-way streets; excessive parking requirements; over-concern about traffic congestion; failure to adopt an “Idaho Law;” silo-ing transportation and land use so that each is considered without the other; widespread lack of knowledge about (or outright opposition to) effective tools to shift motorists from cars to non-motorized travel; signal lights synchronized for car speeds rather than bus/bike speeds; failure to slow the growth in over-sized service vehicles; widespread belief in the myth that freer-flowing traffic reduces emissions and fuel consumption; over-emphasis on mobility rather than accessibility; no trend analysis of important measures such as quantity of parking or VMT per capita; extremely inflated estimates of bicycling levels that are not even close to reality; over-emphasis on stopping growth or minimizing density as a way to reduce car trips (such efforts actually increase per capita car trips); too much effort directed at creating more open space within the city (the city has way too much open space in part because so much of it is for cars); too much use of slip lanes and turn lanes in places they do not belong; widespread belief in the myth that car travel is win-win (it is actually zero-sum); failure to use raised medians in several locations; making bicycling impractical on hostile streets (due to extreme danger); and over-use of double-yellow center lines.
I also believe that installing bike lanes, bike paths, sidewalks, and improved transit has about reached its limit in recruiting non-car travel.
It seems to me that Boulder’s relatively high city government wealth has allowed the city to over-rely on politically easy tactics (more paths, bike lanes, sidewalks, buses) that involve throwing money at problems. To a great extent, the City rests on its laurels by pointing to the (inflated) bicycling rates, and buys into the societal narrative that dirty cars are the only problem with cars. Too little effort is therefore directed toward the tactics I list above.
I and many others in Boulder fear that the strong, highly visible push for clean cars is in certain ways distracting us from the extremely important need to make progress on the tactics I mention. Much of my tenure on the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board (TAB), for example, has featured a lot on green cars, and pretty much nothing on the tactics I mention.
I think green cars are important, but even if we substantially increased the percent of such cars on our streets, we’d still have a huge amount of work in front of us to address the enormous number of substantial problems associated with per capita car travel – car travel that is way too high.
But I and many others in Boulder fear that the strong, highly visible push for clean cars is in certain ways distracting us from the extremely important need to make progress on the tactics I mention, and makes it too easy for people to conclude that dirty cars are our only problem with transportation.
The comments I make in this blog also apply equally to the promotion of self-driving cars, which is another silver bullet that too many believe will be a sufficient means of solving most or all of our traffic woes. Not only will they not do so if they become a large percentage of cars on the road. I also believe it is highly unlikely that we will ever see a large number of such vehicles on the road. So again, another unfortunate distraction when we have so many important, effective transportation tactics that are languishing for lack of strong advocacy.
I’m afraid that the lack of political will, and the surprising number of citizens who are misinformed, means that for Boulder to start moving on non-green car tactics, severe crisis will be needed that gives the city a kick in the butt.