By Dom Nozzi
August 19, 2019
The number of citizens who walk in a community accurately gauges city financial, social and physical health. Understandably, given the abysmally low level of walking in Boulder, Council has asked a citizen group to create a “pedestrian system plan.”
What are the effective tools to turn this around? How can we avoid the same old song and dance? How can we make Boulder a walking city rather than a driving suburb?
Note first that installing sidewalks (or widening existing sidewalks) does almost nothing to increase walking in a city, other than to pay politically easy lip service to walking. Nor does warning paint or signs or lights. All those things do is make people feel like they’ve advanced walking without really doing anything.
Here’s what works:
* Nothing is more important for walking than proximity. Proximity comes from mixing residences with shops, offices, and jobs. It also comes from compact land use patterns. A CU transportation professor proclaimed Boulder’s density is far too low to support meaningful walking. Boulder needs to be allowing much smaller-sized residences, more ADUs, more co-ops, a much higher number of unrelated people living together, and higher central area/corridor height limits (from 35 feet to 55 feet). It also needs to reform snobbish, low-density single-family zoning to allow much more than just exclusionary large-lot single-family homes. Building setbacks need to be smaller and front porches allowed by right. Codes (such as required parking rules) need to be revised to encourage a substantial infilling of buildings to replace unused surface parking. Like Cambridge MA, Boulder should tax parking spaces to promote space removal and replacement by buildings.
* Much more on-street parking needs to be installed. This is a quick, low-cost way to reduce crossing distances and obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively. It also promotes more healthy retail (activating the street with healthy retail promotes walking).
* Boulder needs to join the growing worldwide movement toward Slow Cities by being much less timid about installing traffic calming. Slowing down cars is critical for more walking and safer walking. Over time, this also leads to more compact land use patterns. Calming is not limited to simply installing lower speed limit signs. Slowing car speeds is only effective when we revise street design to induces slower, more attentive driving, and such low-speed design must be installed on arterials and collectors. Designs include on-street parking, landscaped intersection bulb-outs, road diets, more narrow travel lanes (9 to 10 ft), woonerfs, walking streets, connected streets, mid-block street crossings, cross-access, shorter block lengths, and give-way streets. Canopy street trees can also be an effective way to slow cars and create a pleasant, picturesque sense of enclosure. Traffic calming tools should not include speed humps, which create noise pollution, vehicle damage, and emergency vehicle problems.
* Low-speed, human-scaled design. Canopy street trees need to butt up against curbs. Buildings need to butt up against streetside sidewalks (to reduce walking distances and create human scale). Street lights need to be no taller than 10-15 feet to create a low-speed ambience. Signal lights in town centers should be post-mounted at the corners of intersections rather than hanging or mounted above streets. Tall street and signal lights create a high-speed highway ambience that encourages motorists to drive fast. Tall lights also kill romantic charm.
* A much higher percentage of parking spaces in Boulder need to be priced. In addition, Boulder needs to start electronic tolling of major streets (or adopt mileage-based user fees). Both of these tactics will reduce low-value car trips, congestion, and solo driving. Over time, they will lead to more compact housing patterns.
* Eliminate required minimum parking regulations. This means that Boulder should many other cities by converting minimum parking requirements into maximum parking requirements. Note that developers will not cut their own throat by providing insufficient parking.
* Return all one-way streets back to their original two-way design. One-ways kill retail and residential health, speed up cars, create dangerous wrong-way travel for motorists and cyclists, are confusing and annoying for out-of-towners, and make pedestrians feel unsafe. They also induce frustration, impatience and anger on the part of motorists.
* In town centers, remove slip lanes, double-left turn lanes and continuous left-turn lanes. Keep intersection turning radii small. Overall intersection size in town centers must be small. While roundabouts can be very useful as a replacement for signal lights, they tend to over-size intersections in town centers.
Will Boulder show leadership in creating a walking city?