Chiming In On a Neighborhood Discussion About Growth, Development, and Transportation in Boulder

 

By Dom Nozzi

I keep getting confused by comments in this email conversation.

More than one person has suggested we “improve planning” and “improve transportation.” I know of no one who would ever oppose those two things (therefore, why say those things?).

But vague suggestions like those leave me wondering what is meant? Does “improved planning” mean that we demand even more staggering fees from developers? Or stop population growth in some never-before-done manner? Does “improve transportation” mean road or intersection widening? Or perhaps even more staggering amounts of free parking?

Infilling with more housing in the city has a great many undeniable benefits, despite what some have said in this conversation, even if we don’t put much of a dent in the jobs/housing balance. Infill development starts shrinking trip distances, and promotes small-scale retail development. Infill creates more affordable housing.

When land is as expensive as it is in Boulder, I scratch my head in bewilderment when I hear people say that more compact housing — ie, housing on smaller plots of land — is not more affordable than large-lot, low-density houses.

And for those that do not know, there are recent studies showing that even when expensive homes are built, affordability is improved when some of the more wealthy residents shift to the new housing.

It is little more than naive virtue-signaling to call for transit improvements such as more frequent buses or passenger rail. Such things, however, are nowhere near cost-feasible as long as Boulder’s average densities remain so low — densities that are so low that this city is locked into years of very high levels of car dependency by nearly all of us. Not only are densities far too low to support high-quality transit, but this city and region provide far too much free parking to create anything more than tiny ridership levels.

What does “slower growth” mean, exactly? Boulder’s development regulations and fees have been draconian for decades, which means that growth and development approvals happen here much slower than any growing city similar to Boulder I know of. Given how much development is slowed in Boulder (it seems fast because land is very expensive and our quality of life is very high), we have plenty of time — as planners, Council, and citizens — to carefully consider and shape proposed development. I know these things because I was the growth rate control planner for Boulder in the past.

I don’t see any meaningful reasons why we are better off if we “slow down growth” by approving a proposed development in 8 months or 3 years. Although I suspect that a hidden reason that many seek to slow down growth even more is that “time is money,” and – the thinking goes — maybe if we slow down a project even more, it will no longer be financially feasible, which might kill the project.

I have what I think is a much better idea: Rather than spending almost all of our time trying (and almost always failing) to slow or stop development, how about if we put meaningful effort into crafting development regulations that will reliably deliver higher quality development? Our regulations, I’m embarrassed to say, are embarrassingly outdated — surely at least in part due to how distracted we’ve been in spending all our time trying to find ways to slow or stop growth.

I neglected to mention a few things in my comments above.

First, another benefit to infilling (creating more housing in Boulder) is the following. When we have infill, the per capita environmental impact (for example, car emissions) goes way down. Low-density suburban Boulder has a huge per capita environmental impact. Indeed, shame on the many in Boulder who don’t know that a compact/dense development pattern is the new green. Low-density suburbia (about 80 percent of Boulder) is the new smokestack industry, in large part because such dispersed land use patterns are a fertility drug for cars.

More about the common call for better transit and establishing passenger rail for Boulder: As I said above, low-density, dispersed Boulder makes it impractical or irrational for most to use transit, which means spending a lot of money on better buses or new rail will result in unaffordable bus and rail that too few are using. Here is one of the many blogs I’ve written on the irrationality of using transit: https://domz60.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/is-rail-a-practical-option-for-a-college-town/

As an aside, one important reason we don’t have rail in Boulder (besides our low densities) is that the cost of rail has gone through the roof since we passed the tax to pay for it. There are other important reasons why ridership on better buses or new rail would be too low: Congestion in Boulder is far too low to create the political will to install better transit.

Whining about “gridlock” in Boulder is laughable to people who have moved here from bigger cities. It is no coincidence that the cities with the best transit have very high levels of congestion. Another reason for low ridership is that motorists in Boulder pay almost no motorist user fees. Nearly every time we park, we park for free. We don’t pay a congestion fee or a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee.

In sum, without seeing much higher levels of congestion, without seeing a lot more housing (to create more compact development), and without instituting motorist user fees (so motorists equitably begin to pay their own way), it will remain irrational or impractical for all but the most heroic Boulderites to use even much better buses or rail. Expensive buses and rail are given a big fat black eye when they are mostly empty.

By the way, I suspect that a large number of people calling for better buses or new rail have no intention of using such transit (it is, after all, irrational or impractical for most). Instead, they call for such transit so that OTHERS will use transit, which leaves the transit advocate with less crowded roads and parking lots when they continue to drive.

Another thought about the suggestions we’ve heard here that we should “improve transportation” before allowing new development: I suspect that such an “improvement” for many who say this is that we, say, widen a major road from 3 to 5 lanes. There are a great many reasons why that won’t help. We’ve known for several decades that we cannot build/widen our way out of congestion (mostly because widening induces car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened).

Widening a road or intersection is about the worst possible thing we can do in Boulder (it is anything but an “improvement”). In a few years, after spending enormous amounts of tax money to do it, we worsen congestion, induce a lot more dispersed sprawl, bankrupt ourselves financially, create more per capita car trips, worsen air pollution and climate change, harm our physical health, degrade our neighborhoods, reduce travel choices for children and seniors, increase the number of traffic fatalities, and obliterate our beloved “small town character.”

Oops.

The good news, as an aside, is that we DON’T have to widen roads or stop Boulder population growth to have a pleasant, sustainable, diverse, inclusive, affordable future. We can instead opt for such things as better urban design and better price signals.

How about if we start working on that rather than spending all our time trying (and failing) to stop growth for the past several decades?

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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