Category Archives: Economics

Affordable Housing in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

February 20, 2017

I posted a quote on Facebook meant for the many people I know in Boulder who believe that as much as possible must be done to stop growth and development:

“The opposite to bad development is good development, not no development.” – Padriac Steinschneider

Someone replied by stating that “[n]o one said anything about no development and growth. This is discussion about affordability which is a separate issue. We can grow a lot and build mostly unaffordable housing, or we can grow less and preserve the affordable housing that we have and build mostly affordable new housing. Those are 2 very different affordability outcomes unrelated to growth.”

My response:

The underlying hope — and often the quite outspoken belief — for a great many in Boulder is no growth. I’ve lost track of how many times I see people in Boulder fight to raise development fees or call for more meetings for a proposed development plan (mostly for added opportunities to stop the development).

Or state that population growth is our number one threat.

Since fees are so very high in Boulder already ($11 million in fees paid by Solana, for example), and since added time is very expensive for developers, higher fees and more meetings is, for many who call for such things (if they are honest), an effort to prevent development.

For many in Boulder, Al Bartlett is a patron saint. Over and over again, he sounded the alarm that population growth is a huge threat (and implicitly, for many who hear his message, that population growth must be stopped in Boulder).

Since there is no humane or practical or constitutional way for Boulder to stop population growth, the next best thing has been to fight to slow it down as much as possible (while hoping that such efforts will eventually stop growth or at least push it to towns outside of Boulder).

One way to clearly see how stopping growth is the underlying objective is the extreme opposition to density increases in Boulder. Since Boulder cannot grow outwards beyond city limits (without great difficulty), or upwards due to severe height limits, fighting against density increases is another way to stop growth in the near future.

I don’t see how growing less preserves affordable housing, or how growing more removes affordable housing. Most people I know who support more compact, walkable growth and more housing are, like me, supporting the idea of making it easier to build such things as backyard cottages (or other forms of ADUs), co-ops, smaller houses/apartments, and converting some industrial and surface parking land to housing. Each of those tactics inherently provide more affordable housing.

By contrast, those pushing for slower growth or no growth often strongly oppose each of these options for more affordable housing.

It must be noted that growth in Boulder is already very slow when one considers how very desirable the quality of life is here, and the fact that we have had a very low maximum annual residential growth cap — I think that cap still exists.

Instead of supporting the affordable housing tactics I note above, many slower growth advocates call for heavy-handed local government market interventions, which I believe is unsustainable — in part because it leads to many unintended consequences. Slow growthers are forced to adopt such a “command economy” tactic because the idea of creating the new and relatively affordable housing I mention a few sentences back would mean more people, and for too many of the slower growthers, that is not in any way acceptable. Al Bartlett, after all.NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341

I would love to see the slower growthers support building new housing that is affordable, as you say above, but all I see is opposition to such new housing. I see opposition to:

1. ADUs.
2. Co-ops.
3. Loss of parking – often as a way to create more housing.
4. Providing less parking for housing or unbundling the price of parking from housing (both of these are powerful ways to create more affordable housing because parking is extremely expensive).
5. Reducing the amount of parking that a developer must provide.
6. Smaller lots or smaller houses.
7. Buildings taller than 1-2 stories.
8. Adding smaller shops or offices into residential areas or incorporated into the same building.
9. Smaller building setbacks and smaller open space or landscaping requirements for new developments.

Personally, I would love to see in Boulder a big increase in smaller homes, without parking, that are an easy walk to shops and offices. I would love to buy such housing, as I’m sure a great many in Boulder would want to as well. But the supply of such walkable housing in Boulder is vanishingly small. And the demand is huge (and growing due to the fact that many Millennials seek such housing). That bids up the price of such inherently affordable housing artificially. Given the very loud opposition I hear from so many of the slower growthers (which I increasingly call the anti-city, anti-environment folks), I’m not optimistic that the supply of such greener, more sustainable, more affordable housing will grow much at all.

One cynical form of optimism on the affordable housing front is that since cities such as Boulder now have way more drivable suburban housing than the demand for such housing, we can expect that such housing will be relatively affordable in future decades, because supply will far exceed demand.

Most of Boulder was built during an era that put low-density, single-use-zoning, drivable suburbia on a pedestal (in part by adopted zoning regulations that make compact development illegal). In the coming decades, it will be the cities that are able to incrementally make such unsustainable places more walkable (and create new neighborhoods with such housing) that will have a future. That inevitably means more compact housing, which means a more affordable and greener lifestyle (because the huge expense of paying for car travel will decline and the huge per capita environmental impact of car travel will diminish). It also means more people living in neighborhoods, which is anathema to those who seek to retain a drivable lifestyle.

Christopher B. Leinberger, on Dec. 20th, 2006, had this to say on the topic (he is the author of The Option of Urbanism):

“…walkable urbanity is entirely different than drivable suburbanism. The underlying financial and market principle of drivable development, aka sprawl, is that “more is less”; more development reduces the quality of life and financial returns, leading developers and their customers to perpetually go further and further to the fringe in a fruitless search for very things (open space, drivable convenience, perceived safety, etc.) this development promises. It is a downward spiral.

Walkable urbanity works under financial and market principles that “more is better”; as more dense development takes place with mixed-uses within walking distance and multiple transportation options to get there, the place gets better. Hence the environmental, fiscal (government tax base), community building AND project financial elements all become better. It is an upward spiral.”

And Vince Graham:

“If what you sell is the perception of privacy and exclusivity, then every new house is a degradation of the amenity. However, if what you sell is community, then every new house is an enhancement of the asset.”

 

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If I were King of My City

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

May 1, 2006

I often find myself highly frustrated by the actions or inactions of the city I live in. Because many of my views are so “controversial,” I have little chance of ever being elected to office in order to seek such changes from such a decision-making position. Instead, I am left to speculate what I would do if I were the “king” of my city.ki

If I were king, I would make deep and permanent cuts in police and fire budgets. Nearly all cities in America put excessive amounts of public tax money into the police and fire departments. Crime rates counter-intuitively increase when police expenditures increase (partly because doing so starves public programs that more effectively reduce crime rates, and partly because more police dollars means there are more police available to detect crime). Nearly every year, due to the politics of fear (“Babies will die in burning buildings if you don’t give the fire department another $30 million!” or “Your homes will be burglarized if you don’t give the police department another $10 million!”), communities spend excessive amounts of money on police and fire services. While these services are extremely important, they should not be funded by starving other services essential to local quality of life (parks and recreation, streetscaping, code enforcement, traffic calming, energy conservation retrofits, restoration of environmentally degraded natural areas, road diets, efforts to reduce noise pollution, open space acquisition, town and regional planning, bus service, and bike and pedestrian paths, etc.). More money for police also increases the number of times that citizens are charged with petty crimes (because the police have more resources to do so). This also promotes a “police state” atmosphere. In large part, the excessive moneys cities tend to allocate to police and fire services is based on extreme levels of societal hysteria, which candidates for office and elected officials both promote and leverage for their own ends. The excessive and continuously increasing police and fire budgets are a recipe for community ruin. A companion reason for this over-allocation is the utter lack of leadership found in America.

If I were king, I would ground law enforcement helicopters (used in many cities). A police helicopter creates substantial noise pollution (particularly in central city neighborhoods) and has little payoff in comparison to the high on-going maintenance costs. In addition, such helicopters create citizen anxiety in the sense that they create a “war zone” ambience in the community.

If I were king, I would establish and implement a citywide Road Diet and traffic calming plan. There is nothing that city government can do that would more effectively improve in-town retail, residential and office health and safety than to remove travel lanes from 4-, 5- and 6-lane roads and slow average car speeds. Such road modifications would also dramatically improve street safety and promote bicycle, transit and pedestrian travel. This would also be the most powerful way to slow and reverse suburban sprawl, discourage Big Box retail, reduce property taxes, reduce regional air pollution and fuel consumption, promote infill development, reduce sign pollution, improve property values and improve quality of life. I would couple diets/calming with a charter amendment which would set a 3-lane maximum street size in an urbanized area and 5-travel lane maximum road size in suburban areas.

If I were king, I would inventory downtown improvement needs, and then correct them. Conduct a thorough, detailed, walking tour of downtown to identify existing downtown needs—such as sidewalk gaps and other sidewalk flaws, needed road diets, needed on-street parking, needed raised medians, and surface parking that should be converted to infill buildings. Following the inventory, I would devote resources sufficient to aggressively eliminate such needs each year. Many downtowns fail to reach their full potential and are unable to invoke much civic pride due to the large number of neglected downtown infrastructure needs.

If I were king, I would shrink the size of most elected city commissions/councils. A larger number of commissioners ensures that decisions are dumbed down, and the necessary yet more controversial decisions are less likely to be approved. This defect is exemplified by the dysfunctional fiasco of “trying to do something by committee”—a universally recognized recipe for mediocrity – mediocrity that gets worse as the size of the group increases in size. Larger decision-making bodies also increase city administrative costs and lengthen city commission meetings.

If I were king, I would crack down on major noise polluters. Emergency vehicle sirens, cars, power landscape tools, burglar alarms, etc., have exponentially increased city noise pollution problems. The most effective method for controlling noise is to establish a powerful, full-time city noise pollution control office.

If I were king, I would reduce excessive car parking and road subsidies.  It is monstrously counterproductive for cities and private businesses to heavily subsidize solo auto commuting by offering free parking to their employees. Parking cash-out—where employees are given the option of either retaining their free parking or being given a salary increase—is the most effective way to reduce the excessively high and extremely costly single-occupant vehicle employee commuting patterns in cities. Such a program would also end the exceptionally unfair practice of not offering non-auto commuters an equivalent subsidy. Cash-out should be required for both local government agencies and for large private organizations in the area. Coupled with this should be a strategy to shrink the supply of free parking citywide. I would convert parking minimums to parking maximums in land development code citywide. I would eliminate required parking regulations and set parking maximums. I would establish market-rate metered on-street parking, and return the meter revenue to surrounding neighborhoods (in other words, create parking benefit districts [based on the recommendations of Donald Shoup]). Similarly, non-tolled, free-to-use roads promote excessive, long-distance, low-value, solo driving, as well as traffic congestion. User fees for both roads and parking would go a long way towards efficiently and affordably providing for car travel, and a more compact, livable community.

If I were king, I would effectively promote walkable, timeless, traditional development. In the city planning department, hire a set of walkable urban design planners to review site plans. In city public works department, hire a traffic engineer as director who is a skilled and enthusiastic supporter of transportation choice and walkable, compact urban design. Not doing so ensures that in walkable areas, site plans for new development and street designs for modified streets will be sabotaged by staff who have a suburban value system. I would revise city land development codes to be form-based and transect-based (graphics-rich, comprehensible, vision-based, and context-sensitive). I would move development regulations away from one-size-fits-all by establishing a set of urban/walkable regulations for walkable areas, a set of suburban/car-centric regulations for suburban areas, and a set of rural/preservation regulations for peripheral areas with important natural features or agricultural land.

If I were king, I would transform shopping centers into walkable town centers. Conventional shopping centers are over-designed for “happy cars.” Their excessive use of “sea of asphalt” parking in front creates a strip commercial, “anywhere USA” atmosphere that degrades quality of life and civic pride, and takes away from a unique community character. Travel by transit, walking or bicycling is significantly less likely because nearly all trips to such centers must be by car (due to the hostility of such design for bicyclists, walkers and transit users). I would require selected conventional shopping centers to incrementally transform themselves into walkable, mixed use town centers, as has happened across the nation.

If I were king, I would require buildings to behave themselves. When parking is placed in front of buildings, and buildings are set back an enormous distance from a road, human scale is lost, quality of life is harmed, development is less attractive, and travel by transit, foot or bicycle is less possible. In walkable areas, I would prohibit car parking in front of buildings, and require modest front building setbacks.

If I were king, I would improve citizen comprehension of development actions. Nearly all communities have a nearly incomprehensible set of land development regulations and have a staff which specializes in making presentations and writing reports that are nearly impossible for citizens to understand — thereby subverting democracy and citizen involvement. I would revise city land development codes to radically shrink the size of the land development regulations. Replace jargon and “legalese” with “Plain English” and simple drawings. I would train staff to make presentations and write reports that are easily understood by citizens. I would hire a full-time city employee whose only responsibility is to ensure that city documents and presentations are clearly understandable to citizens.

If I were king, I would create effective incentives for converting downtown surface parking lots into multi-story buildings. Nothing is more deadly to a downtown than the deadening influence of surface parking. To be an attractive destination and to be competitive with the suburbs, a downtown must maximize vibrant, active, economically healthy use of its land, and surface parking works strongly against these objectives. I would allow no net increase in downtown surface parking lots, and would incrementally reduce the amount of existing surface parking. Vertical increases through parking garages would be okay, but only if first floor is retail, office, entertainment, or a combination of these.

If I were king, I would improve sidewalks. Sidewalks improve property values, improve quality of life, create a formal and walkable ambience, create a more human-scaled streetscape, promote safety for pedestrians (particularly seniors and children), and send a message that the community values walking. I would significantly increase funding for sidewalk gap removal, and significantly reduce funding for repair of trivial sidewalk damage (hairline cracks repair is wasteful and gives city a very bad black eye). I would hire a full-time urbanist pedestrian engineer to review site plans.

If I were king, I would rehabilitate creeks. Many urban creeks are placed in pipes, covered over, or otherwise harmed ecologically. I would restore (“daylight”) concrete ditches and channelized creeks to naturalized, meandering creeks. I would rehab creeks in this way as long as walkability can be retained in walkable areas.

If I were king, I would reduce fuel subsidies. Motorists are heavily subsidized not only with free parking and free roads, but also by the fact that gas taxes only pay a tiny fraction of the cost of impacts that motorists impose on society. I would significantly increase the gasoline tax, but only if there is an ironclad assurance that revenue would only be used for bicycling, walking and transit — not road capacity increases.

If I were king, I would establish geography-sensitive impact fees. Nearly all new development—particularly in the suburbs—are heavily subsidized by existing residents. New or increased impact fees can reduce this market distortion by having development pay its own way. I would exempt walkable, self-contained, mixed-use projects.

If I were king, I would strengthen codes enforcement. When people live on smaller lots in a more urbanized area, it is especially important to enforce codes such as the noise ordinance, lighting, dumping, and the like. This is because in “close quarters,” people tend to be less shielded from the actions of their neighbors. There is, therefore, an elevated need for sufficient code enforcement for most people to choose to live in more compact locations to encourage people to live in or near such locations.

If I were king, I would build an off-street greenway system. An off-street greenway path system for bicyclists and pedestrians is a powerful means of improving community quality of life, promoting sociability, and enhancing civic pride. Such paths are also an effective way to provide a “training ground” for novice bicyclists who, through using the paths, can gain the confidence and skill needed to “graduate” to in-street bicycling. I would hire a “Get Things Done” Greenway Czar for effectively moving the city public works department in this direction.

If I were king, I would establish an urban growth or urban service boundary. Because nearly all communities have ruinously allowed departments of transportation to build enormous roads within the city and county, there now exists enormous market pressure to develop residential and retail projects in the remote sprawl areas of the county. The only way to correct that market distortion in the short term (so that the pressure to sprawl is emasculated) is to enact an urban growth boundary around the city. Because of big roads, plans and regulations are completely insufficient, even if every commissioner was anti-growth and pro-compact development.

If I were king, I would make downtown infill development less costly. Reuse and redevelopment in the town center is often highly desirable, and there is often market interest, yet such downtown improvements are not achieved because the developer learns that it is simply too costly to follow various building codes downtown (widening building hallways, for example, is commonly required by contemporary codes, yet such a building modification is nearly always prohibitively expensive). I would create more incentives for more residences and other forms of infill buildings downtown — in part, by lowering the bar for building codes that create obstacles for building retrofits or new buildings. States such as New Jersey and Maryland have effectively achieved this by adopting what they call a “Smart Building Code.”

If I were king, I would adopt a land value tax, which is a levy on the unimproved value of land. It is an ad valorem tax on land that disregards the value of buildings, personal property and other improvements. A land value tax (LVT) is different from other property taxes, because these are taxes on the whole value of real estate: the combination of land, buildings, and improvements to the site. A land value tax, as exemplified by Pittsburgh PA, is a powerful way to promote town center development, as conventional property taxes discourage town center development by punishing the property owner with higher taxes when building improvements are added to the land. The result of the conventional property tax is that it leads many property owners to speculatively hold their property in a low-value use such as a parking lot.

If I were king, I would increase residential densities in appropriate locations. In walkable areas, establish higher residential and commercial densities and mixed use to make walking, transit, and bicycling more feasible, smaller and locally owned (and neighborhood-based) retail more possible, and to make the public realm more vibrant.

If I were king, I would ensure that the primary community farmers market is located within the town center. Too many communities blunder badly by deciding to locate their main farmers market in a peripheral location that can only be reached by car. The result is that it is more costly to shop at the market (in terms of time and transportation cost), and because there are no nearby retail, office or cultural facilities nearby, there are no “spillover” benefits. A number of downtowns throughout the nation enjoy such spin-off benefits, and promote transportation choice, by choosing a downtown market location.

If I were king, I would end the draining of downtown energy. To be healthy and vital, a downtown needs to exhibit “agglomeration economies.” That is, there must be a compact concentration of offices, retail, housing and civic buildings within a walkable, downtown location. Unfortunately, due to our car-crazed society, a number of such destinations have left for peripheral locations to find more free parking, bigger roads, less costly regulations, and less NIMBY opposition. I would prohibit the further dispersal of such “social condensers” from the downtown, such as the conference center, the farmers market, large movie houses, the main post office, government buildings, medieval faire, etc. Importantly, this is achieved by keeping town center roadways small in size and low in speed, as well as minimizing town center surface parking lots.

If I were king, I would adequately fund recreation. One of the great embarrassments of communities throughout the nation is the woeful state of undeveloped, unfunded parks and recreation system. Indeed, most communities spend only pocket change on recreation. I would re-allocate city annual funding (primarily by drawing dollars from the long over-funded police and fire budgets, which I would reduce substantially) to provide substantially more funding for parks and recreation development and programming. And do so without increasing taxes.

Concluding Thoughts

The above agenda is not one that will win any elections in this day and age. But they are all essential, long-neglected tasks that communities must achieve to avoid the downward spiral. It is telling that so much of the above agenda is politically toxic. A better future, however, can only be achieved if a community finds the political leadership to move in these directions.

 

 

 

 

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

Why Can’t an Enlightened City Move Away from Happy Motoring?

By Dom Nozzi

June 18, 2014

I have been on a full-press campaign for months now to nudge my home city of Boulder CO toward building its transportation system to make people happy, not cars. Many statements at my transportation advisory board (TAB) meetings, one-on-one meetings with Boulder council members, meetings with PLAN-Boulder County board members (specifically called to discuss my transportation views), holding a “transportation salon” dinner party at my house, getting an op-ed published  in the Boulder newspaper, a published essay in the on-line Boulder political activists journal (The Blue Line), Facebook posts, comments at social events and hikes I attend, Q&A comments at community transportation meetings, postings to my on-line blogs, emails to various transportation radicals I know, a speech to PLAN-Boulder County, and meetings with Boulder transportation staff.

It has been nearly unanimous. Almost all staff, speech audiences, and elected council members heartily agree with my recommendations that we should make people happy, not cars. That we should shrink roads, intersections and parking to a human-scaled size. That we should price parking and roads. That we should reform parking requirements.

Why, then, does Boulder continue to regularly seek to do such counterproductive, outdated things as spending large sums of dollars to install turn lanes all over town, synching traffic lights for car speeds, building over-sized intersections, reducing development densities and building heights to “improve” transportation, and stubbornly delaying a reform of its outdated, costly, excessive parking requirements?

Boulder and its planning documents are famous for aggressively promoting an increase in bicycling, walking and transit use, striving to reduce car trips and GHG emissions, seeking compact development, discouraging big box retail, and promoting smaller, locally-owned shops. Yet with eyes wide open, staff and elected officials — well aware of the fact that increasing road and parking capacity for cars will substantially undermine many of these aims – continue to approve of new capacity for cars. And otherwise ease car travel.

How can this be? How can Boulder continue down the ruinous car-happy path, even though council and staff agree with me?

The paradox has given me a possible insight: While elected officials and staff “get it,” efforts to make people happy instead of cars (by, for example, removing excessive car space allocation and excessive car subsidies) meet with furious, enraged opposition from citizens – many of whom are highly intelligent and can therefore summon seemingly reasonable arguments (along with their rage) to have even the admirable elected leaders and informed staff hesitate to take even timid measures in the direction of people rather than cars.

Also, wealthy Boulder has long enjoyed having such a relatively large amount of revenue to spend for government facilities and programs that it has been too easy to opt to pay for “carrots” like bike lanes and transit, rather than opt for effective “sticks” (such as equitable user fees, road and parking diets, etc.) and thereby be subjected to the wrath of hostile, car-promoting citizens.

Why is there such a strong support for happy cars in enlightened Boulder?

  • High expenses in town make it necessary to live in cheaper outlying areas, which compels even enlightened citizens to be cheerleaders for cars.Woman gesturing out of car window
  • For a century, car travel has been heavily pampered and subsidized (cheap gas, free roads and parking, over-sized car infrastructure that is paid by everyone and not just motorists). The “barrier effect,” which results when easier car travel makes non-car travel more difficult, creates a lot of car-dependent citizens – even those who are “enlightened.”
  • A century of car happiness has inevitably and effectively created such substantial dispersal of land uses in Boulder County that car dependency is locked in – even with great sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit.

All of this means that even in Boulder, there is an artificially high number of “car cheerleaders” than there would have been had we not subsidized and pampered cars, and had such a state of affairs not locked Boulder into a downwardly spiraling vicious cycle.

All of this may be a waste of time and effort, but I am enjoying how much it motivates me to think clearly and write passionately about the topics.

 

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Why Are Mom and Pop Stores So Scarce?

By Dom Nozzi

May 17, 2017

A friend of mine recently complained that the city we live in (Boulder CO) is “planning ANOTHER bank for the Pearl St. Mall! When is enough enough,” she asked?

She went on to claim that there are “15 empty store fronts but that is because of landlord greed.”

“When,” she wondered, “will the city decide that we need to encourage mom and pop stores over banks and large chains that have no vested interest in the city?”

The City of Boulder, I explained to her, is not planning to add another bank to the Mall. A bank president is planning to do that.

Banks, I said, are common in such low-density places (such as American pedestrian malls) that are unable to attract a large number of customers, as are jewelers. If you were a landlord along the Mall, I told my friend, I suspect that you would be aggressively seeking the rents sought by the existing landlords, as I believe you share the same values as those landlords: making money rather than losing money. And I suspect you would not consider yourself “greedy” for wanting to avoid losing money.

Throughout its history, and up to this very moment, Boulder (like a great many cities in America) has desired mom and pop stores along the Mall. But there is almost nothing a city can do to encourage such stores for two primary reasons: (1) The rent is very high along the Mall, which makes it financially impossible for a mom and pop store to afford to be there; and (2) The density of residential and commercial development in the vicinity of the Mall is far too low to attract enough customers to make it feasible for a mom and pop store to survive.

Mom and pop stores only occur when rents are relatively low, when there are a high number of customers living and working in the vicinity (such as in Brussels, Antwerp, Bern, Siena, and many other compact cities), or both.

The Law of Large Numbers, when applied to cities, shows that as a city grows its population, and does so relatively compactly, worker productivity increases, innovation increases, mom and pop stores grow in number, cultural diversity grows, and the range of restaurants and grocery store items grows. The Law partly is driven by synergy. UntitledSynergy occurs when larger numbers of people congregate and work together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Low densities, by isolating creatives, destroys diversity, innovation, smaller scales and the number of choices available.

Boulder is an interesting case because it shows both effects: a very low density, yet relatively high levels of innovation due to the large number of brilliant and creative people who have settled in Boulder — largely due to the high quality of life. If Boulder became much more compact and dense, I believe levels of innovation, diversity, productivity, mom and pop stores, and productivity would grow substantially (the city would also be far more walkable and bikeable).

Boulder’s decades of NIMBYS fighting tooth and nail to lower densities (and the very high quality of life) in the city are the primary reason why mom and pop stores are rare on the Mall and big chains/banks/jewelers are common.

When is enough NIMBYism enough?

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Nudging Not Commanding

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 14, 2017

I recently participated in a Facebook discussion regarding the huge environmental impact of air travel.

Many people rightly have serious concerns about the enormous environmental impacts of flying. Many are so concerned that they advocate a strict prohibition on such travel.

Since reading the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler (2009), however, I have become a much stronger advocate of “nudging” people towards socially desirable objectives. Nudging retains choice for those who must have that choice, but makes it more difficult or costly to opt for socially undesirable options (such as less obligatory behavior including recreational travel).

Thaler cites the example of elevator and stairs location: the elevator should be lesopen-silver-elevators visible and hidden away when you walk into a front door. The stairs, which are more socially desirable than an elevator, should be right at the front door.

Command economies (think prohibition laws in the Soviet Union) ignore the fact that it is necessary to give some people the choice to do certain things, and the Soviet example shows that commanding instead of nudging is not particularly sustainable or compatible with human nature and human needs.

I say these things as someone with an environmental science degree, and as someone who has lived life with a very, very small ecological footprint (never owned a car, no kids, low-meat diet, etc.).

It HAS been very tempting to me to outlaw things that are environmentally harmful. But I have come to learn that as painful as it might be, we must allow for choices.

We just need to make less desirable choices less easy.

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Managing Parking at the Trailhead Development in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 1, 2014

There is a new neighborhood being built at the western side of Boulder (just east of the Sanitas Trail System) called “Trailhead.”

For Trailhead to be a great neighborhood, it needs to incorporate some or all of the following parking-related ideas. As far as I know, sadly, these design features are not being incorporated.

Parking meters should be installed on Trailhead streets to reduce spillover parking to nearby neighborhoods, ensure that sufficient parking is available in Trailhead, and provide revenue for enhancements and upkeep of street and sidewalk infrastructure in Trailhead. I think that spillover parking from Trailhead will be almost unnoticeable in this neighborhood. If there IS significant spillover, parking permits or parking meters (that homeowners can be exempt from paying) would solve the issue.

I don’t like the idea that the Trailhead developer has to pay – up front – to provide “free” parking to residents of the development. Such parking requirements convert a cost drivers should pay at the end of their trips (the cost of parking) into one developers must pay at the start of their projects (and then pass on to homebuyers). Having developers pay up front is also problematic because it is unfair to those in the development who have relatively few or no cars. The price of parking should be unbundled from the price of housing at Trailhead so that a buyer has the option of paying less for a home by not opting to have parking provided.

I don’t at all like the idea of having the developer of Trailhead have to install a LOT more asphalt on the development site to provide “affordable housing for cars.” I much prefer the provision of less parking at Trailhead so that there is less asphalt for storing cars at Trailhead.

Studies throughout the nation over the past several decades show that the more parking provided at a development like Trailhead, the more cars will be owned per household, asphaltwhich increases the miles driven per household. I prefer less cars owned per household, and less per household miles driven.

I prefer more demand for transit by Boulder residents. Providing more parking at Trailhead reduces transit demand by those living at Trailhead.

I support community-wide eco-passes (a pass that allows the pass-holder to ride the bus system in the region for free), but only when Boulder properly manages parking in the city. Providing more parking at Trailhead makes community-wide eco-passes less likely, because there will be less demand for such passes.

I prefer compact, walkable, charming design at Trailhead. The more parking that Trailhead provides, the less walkable, compact and charming it will be.

Providing more parking at Trailhead makes that development more suburban. Making it more suburban means it will fit in less with the walkable character of the adjacent, historic Mapleton Hill neighborhood.

 

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Transportation Drives Land Use Despite What Transportation Planners Tell Us

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 5, 2000

Nearly all transportation planners say they are widening the roads just to follow the land-use decisions that already have been made by the community.

Nonsense.

While almost all transportation planners make this claim, it is an old, discredited, conventional wisdom that is so conventional that even most non-transportation people believe it. Of course, it is quite handy for the transportation people because they can escape guilt when the strip commercial and sprawl happen. “Not my fault. It was those planners and elected officials who changed the land use.”

Seems sensible until you look closer and find out how the market brings unbelievable and relentless pressure to change the designations when we widen the roads and the intersections, and expand the parking.

If we are incredibly courageous and true to our principles, we might be able to delay the re-zoning caused by those enlargements for a few years. But that just means that because the road carries so much high speed, high volume traffic, it is no longer feasible to keep in street without on street parkingresidential because the quality of life is so miserable (as a result, the residential building eventually is abandoned, or is downgraded from owner-occupied to rental), or it is no longer rational to keep it as a farm because you can make millions by selling it for a shopping center.

Also, all the conditions that people dislike about the city — whether real or perceived — such as noise, crime, etc., can be more easily fled if the newly widened roads allow you to get to work each day in a reasonable period of time, even if you live in an outlying area. The ultimate result is that as we add capacity to streets, we set in motion a pattern of sprawl and strip, we wipe out farms, and we accelerate the decline of in-town areas.

And I’m convinced that the driving force is our roads, NOT our inability to hold the line on our land use and zoning maps.

Hard to believe, but before WWII, planners were god-like. Here is an apropos comment I found on the new urbanist listserve a few days ago:

“…[A] colleague suggested in passing that planners and architects abandoned urban design as such in the late 1940s and retreated to their respected spheres of influence – policy and buildings, respectively, leaving the ground to the public works engineers.  Note, the Amer. Soc. of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a division devoted to “urban design” (urban highways, streets, water and sewer and drainage systems).  The American Institute of Architects does not.”

So yes, let’s return to the golden age of cities and planning before we ruin ourselves in our insane efforts to make cars happy…

 

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

Is It a Good Idea to Build Walkable Developments in Greenfields?

And Will a Strong Plan and Strong Elected Officials Be Sufficient?

By Dom Nozzi

August 2, 2000

I think as a culture, we need to make sprawling, poorly-located projects and happy cars the Great Satan, the Number One Moral Evil.

And we need to figure out what conditions will result in such a change.

Frankly, I think one of them is building traditional, walkable neighborhood developments (TNDs) in greenfields. Admittedly a compromise, but it is one of the few market-based leverage points we have. I think that once most of us become convinced that our future development can ONLY be TND, contiguous, properly located development rules will inherently follow. As it stands now, only a few pointy-headed intellectuals understand seasideaerialthat important need, because we’ve poured trillions into building big highways and thereby locking ourselves in to having a huge majority that wants to flee the city for the cabin in the woods.

It seems to me that broadly speaking, we have two realistic tools for reversing unsustainable sprawl:

 

  1. Use TNDs as a leverage and educational tool in greenfields; or
  2. Stop widening roads and starting road dieting a great many roadways.

In the near term, I think #1 is much more likely. The outrage is that #1 means the loss of important natural areas (not to mention fragmentation), but it is almost certainly the price we must pay in the near term for committing the sin of pouring trillions into highways. I do not think it is feasible for us to find the political will and cultural values shift in the near term to fight for:

  1. TNDs, and only contiguous to an existing town.

Yes, polls encouragingly show that the majority across the US oppose sprawl. But we know that there have been huge majorities that support environmental conservation for DECADES. Of course, this has merely been lip service. It is so easy to tell a pollster what you think is best, based on what our culture says is moral, but then not walk the walk in our own lives.

It is a concept known as “Social Desirability Bias,” where people dishonestly tell pollsters how they think or behave not because they actually think or behave in such a way, but because they do not want to admit to the pollster that their thoughts or behaviors are unethical.

We need to be careful and not kid ourselves about how successful we can be in the near term to discourage development in undesirably remote places. Boulder CO, for example, typically elects Council members who are strongly in favor of tightly controlled growth and development. And history shows that south Florida somewhat similarly fought hard for environmental conservation and against sprawl.

The results are not pretty.

Reaction to such elected officials in Boulder sometimes results in the election of folks relatively supportive of unrestrained development, and even with a majority of Council members supporting strong growth management, such an aggressive stance tends to result in poorly designed sprawl occurring in towns around Boulder that are not affected by Boulder’s regulations. Most of that sprawl houses people who commute into Boulder. And we know what has been done in south Florida.

I wish we could successfully manage new development with nothing more than political will and well-crafted plans. But if the market, HEAVILY DISTORTED BY GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES, calls for the opposite, we will get what the market wants, regardless of having even the most impressive elected officials and plans.

I often get into a shouting match with my Gainesville, Florida planning department supervisors, who still fail to realize that the long-range comprehensive plan merely records what has already been decided or what is already on the ground. This is the case despite Gainesville currently having a majority of “liberal” (albeit spineless) commissioners for a number of years. I’m hoping to have a minor effect with the transportation plan, but my early call to have “no net increase in road capacity” has already been chopped out by my supervisors.

The comprehensive plan is nearly irrelevant with regard to development that occurs, even if it calls strongly for no sprawl and is backed by five no-growthers on the city commission. What matters is the market. We must change that, with the few tools we have, if we want to have an impact. End public subsidies that fuel sprawl, stop widening roads, stop requiring a huge amount of parking, stop making mixed use and slow and narrow streets and granny flats illegal, encourage admirable model TNDs, etc.

More Thoughts on the Above Topics

We are nowhere near putting a halt to sprawling, remote, car dependent development. Given that political reality, I’m much happier with a TND in remote locations than a conventional sprawl project in such a location.

We certainly need to determine what it will take to muster the political will to effectively stop sprawl. Mostly, we need to stop widening roads, start putting a huge number of roads on a diet, start requiring pedestrian-friendly and auto-inconvenient mixed use projects via development regulations, and modify market preferences for cabins in the woods. How can we do that? I’m hoping that part of the solution will be to get some of the sprawl subdivisions (which is 99.9% of what is built) to be TNDs instead, so they can stand as visible INDICTMENTS of auto-dependent shlock. We need more envy on the part of the upper classes (who tend to be opinion-leaders and power-brokers) for new urbanism, and an excellent way to do that is with greenfield TNDs.

We need greens to stop fighting like mad — and burning themselves out in the process — to stop an infill project in order to save a few trees. They will win a few battles, but lose the war as they turn a blind eye – comparatively speaking — to the eco-rape happening at a much larger, more environmentally costly scale, in our greenfields. Too often, it seems like greens fight hard against TNDs, yet barely raise a peep when it is an auto-friendly project in a remote location.

It is fortunate that Sierra Club is finally starting to realize that a key lynchpin on saving our remaining, important natural areas is to address transportation. Transportation drives what happens with our land use (and, indirectly, our conservation). If we fail to stop our single-minded efforts to make cars happy, our natural areas are doomed to the sprawl steamroller even if every single elected official in the US supports strong growth management.

I agree that time is of the essence. We must therefore work quickly to reverse our car dependency trends, since, more than anything else, such trends are wiping out our greenfields with a HUGE number of new  subdivisions every week. I don’t think it is healthy or sustainable for us to keep fighting against greenfield developments. There are too many battles, and not enough of us. And the market forces — mainly due to the huge roads we’ve built — are too overwhelming.

As for concerns about such things as habitat fragmentation, it is a clear threat. And the number one cause? Not greenfield TNDs. The big culprit is roads and auto dependence.

I agree that requiring only contiguous development will buy us time. But our car culture makes that rather unlikely, since the market pressure to leapfrog is huge.

I like the jujitsu concept here. I’m often trying to figure out a way to use the power of the enemy against it. We need to get the market to help us. Remove subsidies. Build admirable models. Tax what we dislike…

I guess our ultimate dilemma is that stopping the road-builders remains a MONSTROUS undertaking. Perhaps as difficult as finding the will to simply stop sprawl development through, say, an urban growth boundary. I’m convinced one of our best hopes is that it soon becomes unaffordable for us to continue widening.

Then we need traffic congestion to do its many positive things.

 

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

Fixing Transportation Problems With Pricing in Boulder Colorado

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2010

How can we improve transportation in Boulder, Colorado? Here are some of my ideas.

I prefer the efficiency of pricing as a lever to achieve GHG emission objectives, rather than land use policies.

I am convinced that we need to address the enormous problem of travel externalities.

Most all of the roads and parking in the Boulder area are either un-priced or underpriced. That means we have an enormous number of low-value car trips in the metro area. Since the costs of motorized travel is largely (exclusively?) externalized, we are experiencing an excessive number of motorized trips.

We need to institute and then calibrate road and parking pricing more comprehensively. We still have excessive GHG emissions, so those prices need to be ratcheted up until motorized SOV travel is reduced sufficiently. Revenue from the pricing needs to be why-tolls-are-neededexclusively dedicated to non-SOV travel (transit, bicycle, pedestrian), and perhaps toward assisting local governments to pay for the work needed to prepare new policies and regulations.

I recognize that pricing can have negative social impacts on other worthy community objectives, such as the need to allow lower-income groups to affordably live in the area, or commute to lower-pay jobs from remote locations (where false economies are assumed – but which often do not pan out when added travel costs are factored in). I therefore support travel pricing rebates or travel subsidies when lower-income people can provide sufficient evidence that they are low-income. Part of this affordable housing issue is the need to have the City provide adequate quantities of housing that is situated in mixed-use, relatively compact neighborhoods, so that the household can own less motor vehicles and devote more of the household income to housing instead of a second, third or fourth car.

By the way, while living in Richmond VA, I noticed that while the city has way too much free parking in the metro area, there are quite admirable road pricing strategies (via toll booths found on a number of metro roads and highways). I say this not because Richmond is an example of a city that has used pricing tactics to avoid sprawl (indeed, it has sprawled more than most any city in the US over the past few decades), but because the city shows that such road pricing is politically and financially feasible.

 

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Filed under Economics, Transportation

Road Diet Opposition

Right Sizing Road Diet Opposition

By Dom Nozzi

August 22, 2015

“Road diets,” where travel lanes on a street are removed so that there are, say, three lanes rather than four, are profoundly beneficial when applied to nearly countless streets throughout the nation. See here and here and here for blogs I have written that describe some of these benefits.

An important obstacle to such a beneficial reform of a street, however, is that for over a century, Americans have been single-mindedly obsessed with pampering and subsidizing motorists.

When we combine that with the fact that on a daily basis nearly all of us travel inside an enormous metal box, we inevitably experience the frustration of slow downs from OTHER enormous metal boxes driven at the same time by our fellow citizens on a rather skimpy 40 people without blk textnumber of streets. Due to the huge size of our cars, even when there are only a handful of other drivers, we will find others “in our way.”

Due to pampering and our relative lack of being slowed down when we are walking, motorists seem to feel a larger sense of entitlement than any other group I know of.

And a frustration I’ve had to deal with in my 34 years in transportation planning is that unlike almost any other profession, nearly all people feel they are experts in “solving” transport problems, even if they have zero academic or professional credentials.

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Filed under Economics, Road Diet, Transportation