By Dom Nozzi
August 19, 2019
Boulder Colorado has created a advisory board to make recommendations to elected officials about how to increase the frequency of walking in the city. Unfortunately, the recommendations have been notably timid and ineffective up to this point.
If this board wishes to make recommendations that are effective, here are a few of the most important tactics Boulder will need to deploy if it desires to meaningfully increase the amount of walking in Boulder.
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 more paint or signs. All those things do is make people feel like they’ve advanced walking without really doing anything.
Tactics to meaningfully increase walking in Boulder:
* Proximity. Nothing is more important than this for walking. Proximity comes from mixing residences with retail, office, culture, and jobs. It also comes from compact land use patterns. As a CU professor recently pointed out, Boulder’s density is far too low to have any chance of supporting anything more than a tiny amount of walking. Boulder needs to be allowing much smaller sized residences, more ADUs, more co-ops, a much higher number of unrelated people living together, larger building floor area ratios, and increased 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 large-lot single-family homes. Building setbacks and green space requirements need to be smaller. Front porches for homes (including those that encroach into front yard setbacks) must be allowed by right. Codes (such as required parking rules) need to be revised to encourage a substantial infilling of buildings to replace existing surface parking lot expanses. 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 (a pedestrian amenity includes activating the street with healthy retail).
* Traffic calming to join the growing worldwide movement toward Slow Cities. Slowing down cars is critical for more walking and safer walking. Over time, this also leads to more compact land use patterns. Calming does not include simply installing speed limit signs that lower speed limits. 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 signals to motorists that they should drive fast. Tall lights also kill romantic charm. Advertising signs need to be kept small in size.
* A much higher percentage of parking spaces in Boulder need to be priced. In addition to more paid parking, 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 — like hundreds of other cities — needs to convert minimum parking requirements into maximum parking requirements. In such a change, 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 people who are walking feel unsafe. They also induce frustration, impatience and anger on the part of motorists.
* Brick crosswalks and brick or cobblestone streets. These features slow cars and boost ambience.
* Remove turn lanes. In town centers, remove slip lanes, double-left turn lanes and continuous left-turn lanes. Keep intersection turning radii very small. Overall intersection size in town centers must be very small. While roundabouts can be very useful as a replacement for signal lights, they tend to over-size intersections in town centers.
As can be seen above, there is much work that needs to be done in car-centric cities such as Boulder if it expects to see any success at all in meaningfully increasing the amount of walking that occurs in Boulder. It should surprise no one that the amount of walking in Boulder today is tiny compared to where it should be for a city that expects to be healthy.