Monthly Archives: December 2019

How to Make Boulder a Walking City

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?

 

 

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Boulder is at the Point of No Return on Car Travel

By Dom Nozzi

The drivable suburban experiment we have engaged in for the past century is one of the most wasteful, unsustainable paths ever taken by humanity. It is also one of the biggest traps.

Low-density suburbia (80 percent of Boulder) comes far short of paying its own way. The meager tax revenues it produces come nowhere near paying for its enormous impacts. Suburbia is a Ponzi Scheme. And a self-perpetuating downward spiral. It is financially unsustainable because it requires enormous subsidies. Yet because a driving lifestyle is highly inconvenient and costly when housing densities are higher, lower densities have been demanded for over a century, because nearly all of us insist our elected officials only allow that type of car-enabling development.

When car travel emerged a century ago, we began building our communities to facilitate such travel. We eventually overbuilt for cars and reached a tipping point. A point where driving was the only realistic way for the vast majority of us to travel. That threshold created a world where there is no turning back. We here in Boulder have reached a point of no return. Even Amsterdam is seeing a steady rise in car ownership.

Even if we realize that the costs of over-reliance on driving are unbearable – too many traffic deaths, too much climate change from car emissions, too much financial burden, too many health problems from our sedentary lifestyles — it is too late for us to reverse course and back away from excessive car dependence. Why? Because when nearly all of us can only travel by car, it is nearly impossible, politically, to enact measures that make non-car travel feasible. The vast majority of us – as motorists – are obligated to fight vigorously to retain our only means of travel. We are compelled to attack any and all effective methods to make walking, bicycling, and transit feasible. We angrily oppose efforts to allow affordable granny flats. To modestly narrow roads and intersections. To allow more compact development. To adopt equitable motorist user fees so motorists pay their own way. We scream against safety-promoting traffic calming plans. We yell about proposals to mix offices or retail within our residential neighborhoods. We demand that massive parking be provided for proposed development. We insist that the highway be widened.

A century ago, many of us were seduced by the “miraculous” nature of the car. “Look what cars can do! Easy to carry passengers and all the stuff we buy at the store! Protection from weather! High-speed travel! We can live in a Cabin in the Woods and escape the crime and noise and congestion and pollution of the city!”

The reality is that providing for high-speed, dangerous, space-hogging cars is a zero-sum game. Every time we make car travel easier – and nearly all of us demand our leaders do that — we make travel by walking, bicycling or transit more difficult.

That dynamic means nearly all of us are trapped. Car travel is now about the only way to get around.

Because our only way of travel takes up so much space, we must fight to ensure that there are severe limitations on how many others can move to our city. Because if more than a handful move to Boulder, our roads and parking lots are quickly congested.

Nearly all, therefore, want to “pull up the ladder” so no one else can move to our city because those people will ALSO be motorists congesting our roads and parking lots! Like anti-social hermits, we must conclude that new residents are not new neighbors and friends. They instead are threats to our car-based quality of life. Never mind that the car-based lifestyle is unsustainable and ruins the quality of the city. Oops.

When even timid efforts to create street design for bicycling are attempted, “enlightened” Boulder citizens unleash a torrent of rage – a growing national phenomenon known as “bikelash.” Hostile, impatient, aggressive motorists honk and throw trash at people on two wheels, and brush past cyclists at high speeds. Columnists and radio commentators rail against the “anti-car bicycling lobby,” and politicians remove bike infrastructure — thinking (wrongly) that car travel is otherwise impossible.

The self-reinforcing nature of the transportation trap explains why trapped cities such as Boulder (ironically) have made the auto and oil industries so obscenely profitable.

Our only way to escape the trap of car dependency is for our society to no longer be able to afford it. But that will not occur in our lifetimes.

We have ourselves an existential threat.

 

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Environment, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Effective Conservation of Water

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 1, 2019

At the margin (that is, the point at which we are dying of thirst), water is more valuable than diamonds, my professor once said.

But we don’t price it that way.

By underpricing water, we inevitably use too much in arid western states. When water is underpriced, too much is used for low-value uses such as golf course irrigation. In parched Arizona, I recall from college that the majority of water in that state is used for golf courses, and irrigating soft wheat (an ingredient used to make donuts).

I have never forgotten that lesson. Proper price signals — instead of “education campaigns,” which do almost nothing to change behavior – are the only effective way to reduce waste.

How do we send proper price signals? Some utilities, such as in Boulder, discourage excessive water use by increasing the per-gallon cost of water once a household or industry goes above a threshold. For households, that might be something like 1,000 gallons per month, after which the price per gallon goes up substantially. This much more powerfully “educates” people about water waste. Price signals effectively teach people the value of conserving water (or, in the case of the recently adopted sugar tax, to not consume too much sugar).

High water prices for all levels of water use are a meat ax price signal. They do not recognize essential household and industrial water needs. We should, however, be dynamically pricing water to discourage wastefulness, such as extravagant lawn watering.

High prices slow growth, by the way, but water scarcity will not stop growth, despite the dreams of NIMBYs throughout the nation.

We need to nudge people toward water conservation, not prohibit wastefulness (or try to stop growth). Price signals retain the ability to opt for desired water use. That is how it should be.

The failure of Soviet-style economics was based on excessive government market intervention via prohibitions.

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Filed under Environment