By Dom Nozzi
April 1, 2018
As I stepped down after my five-year term on the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) in March 2018, I left with the following thoughts about the most pressing transportation reforms needed by Boulder – a city that is surprisingly behind the times regarding transportation despite its progressive reputation.
First, I was often attacked for being “anti-car” and convincing the city to take harmful transportation actions. This is laughable. The role of TAB is completely reactive. TAB serves only as a rubber stamp for proposals by the city, and never has the opportunity to proactively suggest transportation reforms to the city.
The following are transportation reforms I would have suggested for Boulder had I ever been asked (I was never asked, which is telling). This is based on my living in Boulder for several years and my 35 years working academically and professionally in transportation.
The Five Warnings Don’t Improve Safety. Over and over again, for a century, Boulder has applied more Warning paint, added more Warning signs, used more Warning lights, pushed more Warning education, and adopted more Warning enforcement. It hasn’t worked. Streets are more dangerous than ever. Warnings don’t work partly due to diminishing returns caused by excessive, redundant warnings that now clutter our streets.
Redesign Streets. Design streets to induce slower, more attentive driving. Phase out “forgiving” design. Restore and make permanent the funding for traffic calming design (a citywide effort to create narrower/greener streets, traffic circles, roundabouts, smaller intersections, curb bulb-outs, slow streets, chicanes, etc.). Put a moratorium on road and intersection capacity increases.
Ratchet Down Use of Underpasses and Overpasses. With the possible exception of the Boulder Creek Path, underpasses or overpasses provide very little bang for a very expensive buck. Money saved by building less underpasses or overpasses can fund a great deal of traffic calming for many years, provide a lot more safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, and substantially improve neighborhood quality of life. Deciding underpasses or overpasses are needed should be a message that streets and intersections are too large. They also show that the City has given up on EVER humanizing and greening that street.
Provide Parking Efficiently. Underpriced/free parking is a fertility drug for increasing the number of car trips. Parking also makes an area less compact, less walkable, less safe, and more of a dead zone. In the Boulder town center, new parking should only occur within parking garages, and only to replace existing surface parking spaces (ie, no net increase). Excessive parking is a problem citywide, and must be controlled by converting minimum parking requirements to maximums. The City must annually survey the total number of parking spaces in the town center to ensure that the total number is not increasing over time (it should be decreasing). Free or underpriced parking artificially encourages car use and promotes excessive provision of parking. Improve fairness in funding via increased use of user fees such as parking, a VMT fee, and pay-at-the-pump car insurance. Require that the cost of parking be unbundled from the price of new housing.
Install Beautifying Raised Medians. Too many Boulder streets have dangerous, ugly continuous left-turn lanes. North Broadway, east Pearl, and Arapahoe are examples where “turn pockets” can replace continuous left-turn lanes.
Restore Two-Way Streets. Many cities throughout the nation have converted one-way streets back to two-way operation because it is now widely known that one-ways are extremely dangerous, inconvenient, deadly for retail and homes, and induce excessive driving. The one-way loop in town center Boulder should be restored to two-way operation.
Create an effective way to monitor the condition of bicycling and walking facilities. The City should either hire one or more people to monitor such conditions on a regular basis, provide an easy and high-visibility way for bicyclists and pedestrians to report on problems they encounter, or both.
Control Size. The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. In other words, because most all Americans
travel by car, one of the most common desires expressed by citizens is larger parking lots, wider roads, and bigger intersections. Yet this constant refrain has left Boulder with oversized spaces that are dangerous and utterly lack any sense of charm – what I call the “gigantism” disease. The u
rbanist (and the transportation engineer) must therefore regularly urge their community to resist this temptation, as smaller, human-scaled spacing is a fundamental key to lovability, public health & safety, and happiness. Given this, Boulder must hire one or more enthusiastic new urbanist transportation engineers who have a track record in reducing transportation infrastructure sizes.
Keep Service Vehicles Small in Size. Overly large fire trucks, buses, and other service vehicles obligate traffic engineers to use excessive (and therefore dangerous) street and intersection dimensions to accommodate oversized vehicles. This can be avoided by ensuring that fire trucks, buses, and other service vehicles are relatively small in size.
Require City Staff to Use Plain English and Avoid Biased Terms. Boulder transportation documents and presentations should not use language that is biased toward car travel. Use “plain English” as much as possible. Adopt a plain English and Unbiased Communication Stylebook.
Create a larger supply of compact, walkable housing. Boulder has a vast oversupply of drivable suburban development and a substantial undersupply of compact walkable development. Boulder must do what it can to provide a larger supply of walkable housing — in appropriate locations.
Adopt the “Idaho Law.” Cities in Colorado such as Aspen have adopted the “Idaho Law” which allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and stoplights as stop signs. This simply makes legal what the vast majority of cyclists already do, and encourages more cycling by making cycling much more advantageous.
Remove Barriers to Conversion of Surface Parking Lots. The conversion of parking lots to buildings should be extremely easy. In the town center, remove any regulatory barriers to that conversion by eliminating parking requirements, softening stormwater requirements in the town center, etc.
Fee-in-lieu of Parking. To reduce the enormous and wasteful amount of space consumed by surface parking lots, allow developers to pay a fee-in-lieu of parking and use that revenue to create public parking (preferably in space-efficient stacked parking garages).
Human-scaled streets and intersections. Many roadways and intersections have grown enormous in size in Boulder. Roads such as East Arapahoe, Canyon, Colorado, 28th Street, and Baseline now have such a large number of travel lanes and turn lanes that pedestrians and bicyclists must now cross an enormous distance made more daunting by the high speed car traffic on these roads. Anything more than 3 or 4 lanes is extremely dangerous to cross, and these roadways now contain up to 7 or 8 lanes. This oversizing has been driven by an effort to promote “free-flowing” traffic – even at rush hour. Given the enormous size of cars (a person consumes 17 to 100 times more space in a car than in a chair), and the large number of regional commuters coming to Boulder each day, retaining “free-flowing” traffic — even at rush hour — is a recipe for finding yourself oversizing streets and intersections. Boulder has certainly done that. By doing so, Boulder now has a number of oversized roads that are too big for a city, too big for safe bicycling or walking, and too big to have any reasonable chance to achieve “vision zero” for crashes (reducing the number of traffic deaths and serious injuries to zero). To put the oversizing problem in perspective, if we want to carry 50,000 people per hour in each direction of a road, we’d need one lane worth of road if they are carried by train, two lanes if carried by bus, and 18 lanes if carried by car. Put a moratorium on road and intersection capacity increases, and transform or repurpose oversized roads and intersections (no more than one turn lane at intersections, no more than two travel lanes in the town center, and no more than four travel lanes outside town center). Neck down streets and intersections with bulb-outs, circles, roundabouts, and raised medians. Canyon and Broadway in the town center should be transformed into two travel lanes, bus pull-outs, and left turn pockets.
Adopt effective traffic safety tactics to Replace Forgiving Design. At the dawn of the auto age a century ago, nearly all American cities – including Boulder — adopted forgiving roadway design. Forgiving design “forgives” a motorist for driving too fast or not paying attention by increasing the width of travel lanes, adding travel lanes, and removing “obstacles” from the areas flanking roads (trees, buildings, etc.). The naïve thought was that this would reduce the number of things motorists would crash into. The unintended consequence, however, was that this design significantly increased motorist speeding and inattentiveness, as a motorist tends to drive as fast and as inattentively as the roadway design allows. The result of forgiving design is that there is an epidemic in motorist speeding and inattentiveness – aggravated by the concurrent epidemic in sleep deprivation that causes most all of us to occasionally fall asleep at the wheel. For improved safety, use design that obligates motorists to be more responsible for (and attentive to) driving safety by, for example, reducing the emphasis on victim-blaming warning signs, flashing lights, street paint, education, and traffic signals, and putting much more emphasis on street design that obligates slower speeds and attentive driving. Such traffic calming tactics involve creating more modest street dimensions (via such things as on-street parking, bulb-outs, traffic circles, etc.). Phase out “forgiving” street design.
Humanize streets. Use traffic calming tactics to create several new neighborhood-based “slow” or “shared” or “Give-Way” streets. Install beautifying elements on streets such as more street trees and attractively designed/landscaped (and sufficiently large!) traffic circles and roundabouts. Restore annual City funding for the neighborhood traffic mitigation (traffic calming) program.
Provide parking more efficiently. Require businesses above a certain size to only offer priced or cash-out parking, substantially increase the percentage of parking that is priced citywide, convert minimum parking requirements to maximum parking, allow most or all business parking to be shared, create a fee-in-lieu of parking in the town center, remove barriers to replacing excess surface parking with buildings, allow no net increase in town center parking.
Improve pedestrian safety and street aesthetics where there are now continuous left turn lanes. Install raised medians at East Pearl Street, Broadway (Meadow to US 36), and Arapahoe Ave (turn pockets/raised medians). Raised medians should be designed to be “mountable” by large service vehicles and emergency vehicles.
Convert one-way to two-way. To substantially improve retail and residential health, improve comfort and safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, reduce wrong-way travel, reduce out-of-towners getting lost, reduce motorist aggravation, and reduce motorist travel distances, the one-way loop in the town center should be restored to two-way operation.
Improve funding, fairness in funding, and reduce motorist subsidy. Institute user fees via tools such as (but not limited to) priced parking, tolled roads (congestion fee), pay-at-the-pump car insurance, VMT fee, weight-based fee, mileage-based registration fee, and a mileage-based emission fee.
Don’t let service vehicles drive street design. As Peter Swift showed in his Longmont CO study, over-sized streets and intersections leads to an increase in vehicle speeds and motorist inattentiveness, which leads to an increase in injuries and deaths caused by the increased number of car crashes. This increase in injuries and deaths far exceeds the number of injuries and deaths avoided by larger fire trucks and faster fire truck speeds.
Openly acknowledge that car travel is a zero-sum game. Transportation decisions should be guided by the premise that improvements for car travel & parking, and the absence of motorist user fees, induce new car trips and nearly always reduce travel by walking, bicycling and transit. Conversely, shrinking the size of roads and intersections, and adopting motorist user fees, reduce car trips – particularly low-value car trips.
Revisit the TMP objective limiting congestion to no more than 20 percent of road mileage. This objective undermines several important Boulder objectives (quality of life, compactness, affordability, transport choice, etc.). Better measures include bike/ped/transit level of service, VMT, or trips generated.
Create a larger supply of compact, walkable housing. For too much of Boulder’s history, the only acceptable form of development is high speed, car-happy suburban. And that it is never acceptable for there to be slow speed, compact, walkable development. Anywhere. The result is a vast oversupply of drivable suburban development — which has no future, by the way — and a substantial undersupply of compact walkable development. Indeed, I would be hard-pressed to point to ANY compact development in Boulder. Because there is a big and growing demand for a walkable lifestyle — particularly among the younger generations — the price of such housing is skyrocketing (there are other reasons, but this one is substantial). One of the most effective ways to substantially increase the amount of walking, bicycling and transit use in Boulder, and one of the best ways to have those forms of travel be safer, is to create such walkable, compact, slow-speed neighborhoods where it is easy to walk or bicycle or use transit for most all daily or household needs.
Create an effective way to monitor the condition of bicycling and walking facilities. It is very difficult for even the most concerned transportation staff to monitor bicycle and walking conditions so they may be corrected in a timely way. [Note: A few years ago, I took it upon myself to inventory dangerous driveway and sidewalk “lips” that can easily upend a cyclist who is not paying attention. Attached is that inventory. I submitted it to staff and they gave me a response about which ones they could and could not address. In any event, this is an example of the monitoring that Boulder needs.]