By Dom Nozzi
April 24, 2018
Boulder needs to better address the issue of the large number of regional car commuters coming into Boulder.
That large influx into Boulder from outlying areas – estimates range from 50,000 to 60,000 in-commuters each day – puts a heavy strain on Boulder. That strain includes:
- higher levels of car emissions and noise pollution;
- higher numbers of traffic crashes; and
- a larger amount of political pressure to continue to ruinously widen roads, expand the size of intersections, and provide more parking in a city already providing excessive amounts of road capacity, intersection size, and the quantity of parking spaces.
Why is there a large number of in-commuters to Boulder?
Clearly, there is a jobs-housing imbalance in Boulder. For decades there has been a very rapid growth in jobs in the city, but due to the high cost of housing and relatively restrictive land use regulations in the city, there are far more jobs than houses in Boulder.
Unaffordable housing in Boulder
While many prefer to work in Boulder but live elsewhere, a very large and growing number of people in the Boulder region desire to live in Boulder but are unable to afford to pay the very high housing costs in Boulder. Many end up accepting a job in Boulder and finding more affordable housing in outlying areas.
However, this is a false economy.
Economist Todd Litman (http://www.vtpi.org/) has shown that “lower-cost” housing in outlying areas is a false economy. The several thousand dollars a household saves when a house is bought (or an apartment rented) in an outlying area is a savings that is outweighed by the costs associated with the household being obligated to make more trips by car (because destinations are relatively remote).
A household in an outlying area is thereby obligated to own, say, three cars instead of two, or two cars instead of one in order for household members to make a relatively large number of car trips each day. The cost of each car owned and operated by a household is now over $10,000 per year. By living closer to destinations, the household can reduce the number of cars it owns. Each car shed represents another $10,000 that can instead be directed to paying rent or mortgage in a mixed use, compact location.
Affordable housing is much more effectively provided by increasing the supply of compact, walkable, mixed-use and higher density housing. More affordability is also achieved by unbundling the price of parking from the price of housing. And by eliminating minimum parking requirements for new development.
How can Boulder reduce the number of in-commuters?
Incentivize more car-pooling
One of the most effective ways to increase the number of carpoolers is to use price signals. For carpooling, the most common signals are to increase the percentage of car spaces that are priced, to toll road lanes, and to create high-occupancy vehicle lanes (both priced parking and tolling are now used on US 36 between Denver and Boulder, but far more roads need such treatment).
Land use patterns also influence the level of car-pooling. Car-pooling is more likely in more compact, mixed-use, higher density land use patterns.
Another needed example of price signals is the use of motorist user fees.
Create More Cost Equity with User Fees
Only a small fraction of the costs imposed by motorists (roadway and parking infrastructure, as well as crash and environmental costs) are paid for by motorists. Gas taxes, for example, pay only a small fraction of those costs. The remainder of the costs motorists impose are paid by everyone, regardless of whether they own or operate a car. They are paid by such things as sales taxes and property taxes.
For more fairness, we can establish additional user fees for motorists. User fees can include (1) a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee; (2) a more comprehensive market-based priced parking program; (3) priced roads [https://domz60.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/is-tolling-a-good-idea-for-us-36-between-denver-and-boulder/]; (4) pay-at-the-pump car insurance; (5) weight-based vehicle fees; (6) higher gas taxes; (7) mileage-based registration fee; and (8) a mileage-based emission fee.
In order to make new user fees more politically viable, make such new taxes/fees revenue neutral by reducing or eliminating other fees/taxes when the new user fee is instituted.
Because transportation impacts are lower in central locations, town center properties should have lower transportation fees (such as impact fees) assessed by the City of Boulder.
Create conditions conducive to higher transit use
To be viable and more heavily used, affordable and high-frequency train or bus service must be coupled with compact, mixed-use, higher density land use patterns – particularly near transit routes and in town centers. Currently, the Boulder region has very low density, single-use land use patterns that are largely unsuitable for frequent, quality, affordable transit service.
How Can Boulder Create a Better Jobs to Housing Balance?
Boulder needs a lot more in the way of compact, mixed-use, higher density housing – not just for greater affordability but also for a better jobs to housing balance. The demand for such housing is far higher than the supply of such housing in Boulder, which substantially contributes to the affordable housing crisis.
I do not believe that capping or reducing the number of jobs in Boulder is a desirable way to better achieve a jobs-to-housing balance.
Road and Intersection Design
A great many roads and intersections in Boulder are over-sized, largely due to the jobs to housing imbalance, but also due to the large subsidies that motorists have long enjoyed. Such large subsidies artificially induce a large number of car trips that would not have occurred had the subsidies not been in place.
Because it is extremely difficult to institute motorist user fees to more fairly pay for motorist costs and reduce the large number of artificially induced car trips, a more feasible and subtle method is to restrict the size of roads and intersections to a more human-scaled size. Restricting the size of roads and intersections also provides the enormous benefit of effectively promoting public safety (there are a horrifying number of traffic crashes in Boulder that cause serious injuries and deaths). To do this, Boulder needs to shrink (or at least not increase) the size of roads and intersections. Also necessary is a much more thorough application of slow-speed (traffic calming) design in Boulder streets.
Better Manage Parking
Like nearly all cities, Boulder’s land development regulations over the past several decades have required a large number of car parking spaces as a condition for development approval. This has created a massive over-supply of car parking in Boulder, which induces a large number of local and regional car trips (parking guru Donald Shoup calls the abundant free parking provided by such regulations a “fertility drug” for cars).
Boulder needs to reform its parking by converting minimum parking requirements to maximum requirements, price a larger percentage of parking that is free or underpriced today, replace existing surface parking with homes, retail, jobs, civic, and unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing (a powerful affordable housing tool)
Create More Park-n-Ride Facilities in the Region
When the Boulder region more fully implements the above recommendations, there will be a larger need (a larger demand) for more park-n-ride facilities in both outlying towns in the region and in the peripheral locations of Boulder. Parking reform, in particular, is a key way to make this happen.
The Need for Regional Cooperation
Clearly, in-commuting to Boulder is a regional problem that Boulder cannot solve on its own. Boulder needs to partner with outlying cities and counties (including unincorporated Boulder County) so that such entities outside of Boulder’s jurisdiction are also reforming their transportation and land use, as described above for Boulder, or at least supporting Boulder’s efforts to use such tools outside of Boulder (ie, actions by the state or unincorporated Boulder County).
There are no quick, easy fixes for this problem. Conventional quick fixes, such as increasing the capacity of intersections or widening roads, only worsen the problem. Mostly, the problem is best addressed more incrementally with price signals and convenience signals that arise from the land use and transportation tools described above.