Category Archives: Road Diet

A Call to Arms for Dramatically Improved Public Health and Safety

A Manifesto

By Dom Nozzi

There is an old, well-known Chinese adage that from crisis comes opportunity. The pandemic we are now in is a severe crisis, and for all of us today, a crisis that pushes us into uncharted waters.

Fortunately, we can leverage this health crisis to create significantly better public health and public safety through timeless transportation and urban design principles that were once nearly universal, yet have languished over the past century – much to the detriment of public health and safety.

A Time of Crisis

We face a number of crises that are growing in magnitude. At the top of our minds today is the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis arose lightning fast and we are all laser-focused on it as a result of the 24/7 coverage by all media outlets.

But there are three other enormous societal crises that seem less immediately important, but only because they have been slow-motion problems for several decades, rather than emerging overnight like the pandemic. These other societal problems are akin to the “frog in the slowly heating pot of water” syndrome, where most of us don’t notice the water slowly heating, so we don’t jump out of the pot in time to save ourselves. Those slow-motion emergencies include:

  1. Traffic Safety. For the past 70 years, the number of traffic fatalities in the US has ranged from 35,000 to 55,000 deaths per year. This is the equivalent to one hundred 747 jetliners crashing and killing everyone aboard every year, or two fully loaded 747s crashing and killing everyone aboard every week. This is barbaric, and a death rate no civilized society should tolerate.
  2. Physical Fitness. Our society is facing a severe public health crisis. Obesity and other significant lifestyle-related health problems have skyrocketed in recent decades. For the first time in history, the youngest generation is not expected to live as long as the generation that preceded it.
  3. Woefully Poor Financial Health. All levels of government and millions of American households are facing severe financial troubles. The United States, for example, is by far the world’s largest debtor nation.

The good news is that as the Chinese taught us, we can find ways to turn these threatening crises into exciting opportunities to create a stronger, healthier, happier future. We already know a great deal about these opportunities to move us out of these crises, and most of them are not difficult or costly to implement.

Misconceptions

For positive opportunities to emerge, we need to have the courage to boldly innovate. But to innovate, we need to be aware of misconceptions.

  1. Pandemic Infections. Conventional wisdom wrongly informs too many of us today that going forward, we will have lower infection rates and better public health if we continue moving toward more dispersed, lower-density land use patterns. But our best science informs us that this is simply not true. Data clearly shows that there is no connection between city density and infection rates or death rates. This is because a person’s likelihood of infection is largely tied to prolonged indoor exposure rather than the density of housing in a neighborhood. Prolonged indoor exposure (including being inside a car) is as likely in lower-density communities as higher-density communities – maybe more so. And recovery from infection is connected to readily available, higher-quality medical services. Such medical services tend to be more available in denser cities than in less-dense communities.
  2. Traffic Safety and Managing Congestion. Again, tens of thousands have died on American roads every year for the past century. Indeed, it is also arguable that after a century of improved safety efforts, our roads are now more dangerous than ever in many communities. This shocking, long-term traffic safety failure is largely based on a societal over-emphasis on single-mindedly promoting car travel, and our failure to learn that conventional congestion reduction tactics only make our roads more congested and less safe over time. Another factor is our century-long use of the “forgiving roadway” design strategy, which “forgives” an inattentive, speeding motorist in part by removing things such a motorist can crash into. The result is a large and growing epidemic of inattentive motorists who too often drive too fast. A third major reason for our century of failure in reducing traffic deaths is that we are suffering greatly diminishing returns in our century-long use of the ineffective “Five W’s.” To improve traffic safety, we persist in calling for more of the following: (1) Warning signs; (2) Warning lights; (3) Warning paint; (4) Warning enforcement; and (5) Warning education. These five things are not effective in promoting traffic safety, and are becoming less effective the more we continue to use them.

Opportunities

Fortunately, our society does not need to come up with major new breakthroughs for seemingly impossible-to-solve problems with no solutions in sight. For decades, individuals and groups have sought to advance tactics that are time-tested and known to be effective. We describe the effective tactics below.

  1. Infections. Reducing rates of infection and deaths due to infection, according to medical professionals and science-based studies, is best achieved in communities that are designed for easy, pleasant, safe, and frequent walking and bicycling (because physically active people strengthen their immune system). That is, communities that are compact, human-scaled, and mix housing with offices and shops and schools. This design induces large numbers of people to engage in health-promoting travel and reduce health-endangering driving (driving that kills many Americans each year from crashes – not to mention the toxic car emissions, noise pollution, and physical inactivity that degrades our health). By being healthier through increased physical activity that comes from regular walking and bicycling, we strengthen our immune system, improve our lungs, promote neighborly “social capital,” reduce stress, and boost the effectiveness of vaccines. By contrast, those living in low-density residential suburbs are relatively inactive because most all of their travel must be by motor vehicle. This lifestyle weakens human immune function. And therefore makes our bodies more fragile and susceptible to disease. In a world where millions of bacteria and viruses are always near us in cities and suburbs, the key for avoiding serious infection problems is based on a strong immune system, not isolation. In sum, resilience against current and future infection is best achieved with compact, sociable places where it is easy and common to walk to shops and schools and other daily needs. A part of this is the growing interest in closing or redesigning streets to reduce infection and improve our quality of life. We know that infection rates go down more substantially when people are outdoors rather than indoors, which has led restaurant owners to ask that street space be re-allocated to non-car use by extending restaurant seating into streets. Many are noticing that during the pandemic, smog is clearing and cites are quieter due to lower levels of car travel. This has led many cities to redesign streets for more slow-speed people-oriented activity, or close streets to cars. Many streets are therefore becoming more like the shared, safe Dutch “Woonerfs” or European walking streets. This tends to induce a large community increase in walking, cycling, safety, conversation, and smiles. The good news for drivers is that lower-speed design means a reduced need for stop signs or other roadway controls, which means motorists need to stop less often.
  2. Traffic Safety and Congestion. There is a growing worldwide movement toward the keys to improved traffic safety. Those keys are centered on slowing down. “Slow Cities” and “Slow Foods” are two examples of this, and the results are impressive. Designing streets to obligate slower, more attentive driving by reducing the width or size of streets or intersections is effectively reducing crashes and traffic deaths. Traffic engineers must be given the authority to be flexible in the designs they use in street design, rather than be obligated to follow “conventional” dimensions – which tend to be excessive and induce excessive car speeds. Fortunately, the design manuals engineers use provide that flexibility, in spite of conventional wisdom. By creating slow, attentive “walking (or “open”) streets,” we are opening the door to a growth in the number of compact, convivial, front-porch oriented neighborhoods. This, in turn, results in more health-promoting community walking and bicycling, which strengthens our immune system. The more slow-speed, compact community also allows another essential benefit: It allows us to AVOID congestion (congestion that is inevitable in a healthy city). In a healthy city, the large size of cars in a car-dependent society leads to unavoidable congestion – congestion that only worsens if we widen roads, for example. Why? Because road widening induces people to drive more often. It is one of the Iron Laws of Transportation that you cannot build (or widen) yourself out of congestion. But you CAN avoid getting stuck in it with the proper community design.
  3. Finances. Low-density, car-based community design has bankrupted federal, state, and local government because the cost to provide and maintain the roads and parking lots and accoutrements for that lifestyle is fantastically high. Governments cannot afford the cost largely because density of development must be kept low to make car driving and parking reasonably tolerable. That low density does not come close to providing enough tax revenue to pay for the needed car-based transportation system. Indeed, strongtowns.org calls these low-density suburbs that cannot pay their own way a “Ponzi-Scheme.” Households also suffer significantly in a car-based community. In a community where nearly all travel must be made by car, a household must own a larger number of cars, and the annual cost to own and operate each car now exceeds $10,000 per year. This obligation to own several cars in an American household helps explain why the cost of transportation for the American household has gone from about two percent of the total household budget 100 years ago to 22 percent (and rising) of the household budget today. Reducing the number of cars a house must own – through compact, walkable design — is therefore an effective way to create affordable housing.
  4. Resilience and Strength. The car-dependent, isolating (low social capital) suburb is highly vulnerable to serious decline in a future where we experience severe and inevitable declines or disruptions in such things as economics, energy, and climate change. That is, a car-dependent community, like physically inactive people, is extremely fragile. By striking contrast, a community designed to be compact, low-speed, and sociable is comparatively strong and resilient. A community offering several forms of active travel (walking, bicycling, and transit) is relatively able to adapt to inevitable future change or survive impacts such as a pandemic.

The desirability and rarity of human-scaled, compact, slower-speed design  in American cities highlights that an important strategy we need for a better future is associated with our cities having too much space. Too much space allocated to car travel and parking. Too much distance created between destinations. Not that we have too much in the way of parks or squares or plazas or other “open spaces,” but that we have buildings that are set back too far from sidewalks. Too many “sea of asphalt” parking lots. Roads that contain too many travel and turn lanes. Intersections that have grown too enormous. Too much distance between the home and both neighbors and the corner store.

Our first and most important task for creating the walkability that healthy, strong, and happy people the world over love is to create modest, human-scaled city spaces. To make spaces to drive and store a car smaller in size by reallocating that space to “people-oriented” activities such as restaurants or strolling – particularly in our town centers.

What Is To Be Done in America?

To best implement what we call for above, these should be our top priorities for America.

  1. Reform Our Land Use Zoning. We need higher allowable densities. We also need zoning that allows the following by right: accessory dwelling units, mini- and micro-housing, small shops and small offices, co-housing, and duplexes. Relax or eliminate setback or landscaping requirements. This reform effectively creates more affordable housing, and has been accomplished in Minneapolis and Oregon.
  2. Slow, Attentive Streets. Particularly within town centers, make slow street design (mostly through modest, human-scaled street and intersection dimensions) the default design. Calm high-speed streets with smaller street and intersection dimensions. “Forgiving Street Design” preferences overallocation of space to cars, and substantially worsens traffic safety by promoting excess speeds and inattentive driving. Replace this philosophy with “Attentive, Slow-Speed Design,” which preferences slower, safer, more human-scaled streets and intersections. One beneficial change that would result from this revised philosophy is that our streets would more likely be gracefully enveloped by street trees (street trees abutting the street tend to be discouraged by Forgiving design). End our counterproductive, century-long habit of overallocating road space to cars by putting a moratorium on road and intersection widening. America has allocated far too much urban space to car travel and storage. This undermines an enormous number of societal health and safety objectives. The health and innovative creativity of a city depends on clustering (economists call this “agglomermation economies”), and over-allocating space to cars severely undermines clustering by dispersing the city into sprawl. We need road and parking lot diets, restaurant seating expanding into roads, landscaped bulb-outs, and smaller intersections. Widening increases per capita car-based travel, worsens traffic congestion in the long-run, imposes unaffordable maintenance costs on government, degrades public health, and increases the number of traffic fatalities. America needs far more welcoming, healthy, shared streets such as Woonerfs, living streets, open streets, walking streets, and give-way streets. Making our communities and transportation systems more compact and slower speed effectively improves our ability to reduce infection and death rates, significantly improves our physical fitness, and dramatically improves the financial condition of all levels of government as well as our households.
  3. Reform parking. We need to convert minimum required parking rules to maximum allowable parking, unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing, tax parking spaces, allow housing and shops and offices to replace parking by right, and replace off-street parking with on-street parking (this is a low-cost, quick way to calm traffic, enhance business health, and put over-sized roads on a diet).
  4. User Fees. For a much more equitable and societally beneficial future, revenue needed to provide for car travel should move substantially toward user fees (such as metered parking, road tolling, or Vehicle Miles Traveled fees) rather than unfairly relying on property tax or sales taxes.
  5. Restore Passenger Rail. Restoring America’s formerly impressive passenger rail system is a powerful tool for building great neighborhoods and great cities. If we are to soon see a massive transportation infrastructure stimulus in response to the pandemic, that stimulus needs to include a big expansion in American passenger rail. For the coming decades, the emphasis should be getting the most bang (mileage) for the buck by emphasizing slow-speed rail. High-speed rail is sexy and exciting, but it buys us very little rail mileage because the cost is enormous. Some of that slow-speed rail can later become, incrementally, high-speed.
  6. Reduce the Size of Service Vehicles. For better public safety, better public health, and a higher quality of life, street dimensions should be dictated bases on slow-speed, human-scaled, place-making design. Unfortunately, American roads tend to use a “design vehicle” to dictate road dimensions. This design vehicle tends to be enormous service vehicles such as fire trucks and buses. This is backward. And substantially undermines societal objectives. Reducing service vehicle sizes used in a community is a way to escape this unintended consequence.
  7. Reform Property Taxes. Nearly all American cities strongly discourage compact, mixed use, infill development with their tax structure. Instead of strongly discouraging infill (and encouraging surface parking for land speculation) by taxing improvements to land (renovations, infill, etc.), we should be taxing the land. This has been done in Pittsburgh. It is known as a “land value tax” (or “single tax”).
  8. Convert One-Way Streets Back to Two-Way. A great many cities are implementing this reform because one-way streets undermine several community objectives. They harm residential and retail health, increase the amount of inattentive and high-speed driving, increase motorist frustration, induce more wrong-way travel, produce confusion for out-of-town motorists, increase the distances driven by car, and reduce gaps in car platoons.
  9. Better Train Transportation Engineers to Speak Objective, Plain English. Too often, professional transportation engineers use so much jargon, biased language, and bureaucratic terminology that their presentations or written recommendations are nearly incomprehensible to a non-professional audience of citizens. This is an important problem, as it is essential for neighborhood citizens to be fully aware of what is being communicated to them as problems or options or plans from professionals. Without a full comprehension, citizens are not fully able to participate in transportation discussions that are often significantly affecting their safety or quality of life. They have less ability to express their concerns about transportation. This can give too much decision making to the professional staff – including missing important information about problems to be solved. An effective way to correct this is to better train professionals to speak plainly and speak without bias. We provide guidelines in the appendix of this document.

Many of these design practices were followed for most of human history (in America, up until approximately World War II). It is time to start returning to that tradition. There is no better way to address pandemics, loss of physical health, financial woes, traffic safety, improving our transportation system, or promoting our quality of life.

Plain English and Objective Language Guidelines

https://domz60.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/plain-english/

https://domz60.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/unbiased-terms/

 

 

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The Dilemma and Difficulty of Designing Our Streets for Safety and a Healthy City

By Dom Nozzi

In my work over the years in town and transportation planning, I have learned that for cities to be effective in delivering one of their most important, desirable outcomes — exchange of products, services, and ideas via agglomeration – they must be designed for low speeds and human scale. That means dimensions and distances need to be modest.

The dilemma – which is the most enormous dilemma I have struggled with for most all of my professional career — is that because cars consume an enormous amount of space, and because nearly all of us have grown up and spent our entire lives traveling by car in a car-based world, we are strongly conditioned to believe that larger dimensions are desirable. That smaller dimensions are not only extremely frustrating and congesting for all of our car-based trips, but that they are, as a result, a direct threat to our quality of life – and, surely, to the quality of the city.

Nearly all of us are conditioned by our world, in other words, to believe that easing car travel and minimizing congestion is essential. Unquestionably essential. Even in a town center.

The problem is that while this is almost certainly true in the drivable suburbs, it is certainly not true in a walkable town center.

Again, to be healthy, a town center needs small dimensions and low speeds. But when nearly all of us get around in huge metal boxes, that design seems impractical and exceptionally unacceptable. Nearly all citizens, elected officials, and too many transportation staffers live a car-based life, which means there is a near consensus that even town centers must allow easy, congestion-free travel.

Many of us in the field of town and transportation planning now know this is mistaken. We know that a town center context is vastly different from a suburban context, which means the design needs to be vastly different. We know that in a town center, we have achieved an appropriate design only when large metal boxes do NOT experience easy, congestion-free travel. Large metal boxes SHOULD experience congestion in what should be a human-scaled, low-speed town center. If not, it is a clear sign that we have over-allocated for cars. Either that, or our town center is dying from abandonment.

But if nearly all of our citizens, elected officials, and staff almost always travel by car, it is extremely difficult or impossible to agree that slowing cars or higher levels of car congestion are a desirable outcome. Even though it IS desirable if our objective is a healthier town center.

We must not start with the solution – particularly in a society such as ours, where today we are unsustainably distorted toward extreme car dependence. In today’s world, that ruinously leads people to immediately conclude, by default, that easing car travel is unquestionably the solution to nearly any transportation problem.

That is backward and presumptuous.

We must start with the problem, and have the engineer (working with a designer or informed by an urban design background, if our context is a town center) recommend the best ways to solve the problem.

Again, in our car-dependent world, it is too much of a temptation for the engineer to recommend what all “right-minded” citizens (all of whom get around by car) know are the solutions from the beginning. Every day, when we drive our huge metal box, we are frustrated by slow downs and congestion. Is it not screamingly obvious what needs to be done? Why waste our valuable time by asking to solve the problem when we can cut to the chase and deploy the common-sense solutions we are all aware of? We all know that wider lanes, turn lanes, more travel lanes, slip lanes, synchronized traffic signals, lower density zoning, larger intersection turning radii, or converting to one-way street operation will ease car travel and reduce congestion. We are, in effect, stuck in the bind of an “Overton window” (a place where there are only a very limited number of politically acceptable outcomes or solutions that are allowed to be proposed). The only question is how to find the money, Mr. or Ms. Engineer.

And in the highly unlikely event that we CAN manage to start with the problem to solve rather than starting with the solution, the temptation tends to be too irresistible to avoid recommending problem-solving tools such as road or intersection diets or more narrow lanes. Nearly always, such tools are immediately shot down because they will clearly slow down or congest our driving (they are, in other words, outside of the Overton Window). They are direct threats to our way of life. They can’t possibly be good for our city. Go back and rework your numbers! Who has the courage or thick enough skin to want to propose smaller street dimensions when the nearly inevitable result will be angry opposition by citizens, officials, and even fellow staff?

As I’ve said in the past, I see only a few ways out of this trap (what I call a point of no return): We reach a financial crisis where we can no longer find enough money to keep harming our town center and our public safety by deploying the conventional congestion reduction tools. Or we experience an extreme, highly unusual, non-financial crisis such as a severe economic collapse (or perhaps a pandemic like the one we are now experiencing in 2020?). Both of those things (running out of money or economic depression) obligate us to think outside the box. Running out of money is a severe crisis, which can create an opportunity to have citizens and officials overcome their strong lifestyle desire to ease car travel and — perhaps in desperation — opt to knowingly allow car travel to become more difficult in our town center.

One could say, I suppose, that the appalling number of traffic deaths over the decades should be sufficient motivation to be innovative, but I think that is a “frog in the slowly heating pot of water” problem. The problem has been with us for so long that we have just come to accept it as an inevitable problem we must learn to live with. Our expectations for traffic safety have been lowered.

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Reforming Our Town Center Street Design to Cope with the 2020 Pandemic

By Dom Nozzi

The 2020 Pandemic has obligated us to engage in “Social Distancing” as a way to reduce the chance of becoming infected. Our best information about the infection indicates that being indoors for a prolonged period of time is by far the most likely way to become infected. That being outdoors reduces the chance of infection significantly.

This has created severe challenges for people holding jobs that require indoor work with others, as well as for businesses that require patrons to be inside a business for retail or dining in a restaurant.

Health officials continue to strongly recommend that even outside, those on the sidewalk should maintain at least a six-foot distance from others on the sidewalk.

Many city town centers have started to respond to this – as a key way to promote public health – by beginning the process of closing streets to give businesses and pedestrians more space for distancing.

While I think this is wise and largely support these reforms, I would strongly urge caution.

Here in Boulder CO where I live, there is currently much talk about reallocating space on Pearl Street. This is wonderful in many ways.

But I am worried about a few scenarios that might emerge.

First, I think a lot of us “put people before cars” folks will see the idea of closing Pearl to cars for several blocks beyond Pearl St Mall as a great idea. I’m not sure about that at all. Urban designers know that closing more than a few blocks of traffic to cars is almost always fatal to retail and vibrancy UNLESS there is sufficiently compact, dense, mixed-use development along the street that is closed to cars. Boulder’s density along Pearl (like the density in nearly all American cities) is far less than the density needed to support several blocks of closure.

Second, I am extremely worried that a “compromise” suggestion will be to reallocate space from cars to people not by closing Pearl to cars, but by making it a one-way street. One-way conversion was hugely popular in the 60s and 70s, but there are an enormous number of reasons they are terrible for a town center and deadly for retail. As a result, a large and growing number of one-ways are being converted back to two-way around the nation and world.

It would be a huge mistake if Boulder opts for a one-way on Pearl.

It must also be acknowledged that even in a severe crisis such as a Pandemic, it is extremely difficult, politically, to close streets to cars

Fortunately, there is a Third Way. A compromise that would offer enormous benefits, be relatively feasible politically, promote retail health, retain emergency access for fire trucks, and enhance public health (from both added social distancing space and boosting the amount of public walking and bicycling).

I believe that this “Third Way” design would be to create a low-speed street design on Pearl along the lines of a Dutch Woonerf (Google “Woonerf” for details about them, or go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woonerf). A Woonerf can be installed quickly, relatively cheaply, and be done temporarily.

Some people call such design “give-way” streets, where the two-way street is so narrow that the motorist must “give-way” to an on-coming car.

Low-speed design would allow two-way car travel to continue on Pearl, but would obligate motorists to drive very slowly (say, 10-15 mph) and very attentively. So much so that even children and seniors would be perfectly safe and happy to sit in the street or walk in the street or bicycle in the street.

How is a low-speed two-way street created? On Pearl, it would mean we would remove the very bad design decision of having a continuous left-turn (suicide) lane in the middle of the street. That alone is a great space reallocation tactic.

Second, we shrink the width of the travel lanes down to, say, 9 feet each. We also need to shrink the height of signs and street lights to create a “low-speed ambiance.” Street furniture, plenty of new green tree and shrub and flower landscaping in elevated “planter” boxes, seating, public art, etc., needs to be inserted in the street (exactly the way it was done on Pearl St Mall, by the way).

In most cases, a Woonerf eliminates curbs and elevated sidewalks as a way to signal that the street is slow-speed and shared between cars, bikes, and walkers. By doing each of these things, we would create an extremely safe, happy, vibrant Pearl Street that prioritizes people (cyclists, peds, seniors, children) over cars without eliminating cars. Cars, as is the case in Dutch Woonerfs, are able to remain but they are obligated by the street design to be very slow speed and safely attentive. Retail and restaurant businesses would flourish with the big increase in space, the much slower speeds by motorists (who, because they are driving more slowly, are more likely to stop and be customers), and we would see a jump in the number of pedestrians and cyclists on Pearl who were previously too worried to walk or bike there due to the pro-car design. By allowing slow-speed cars, a Woonerf allows a city with insufficient density to deliver sufficient customers to businesses along the street.

So yes! Let’s reallocate space on Pearl so that it is pro-people rather than pro-car. But let’s do it right, and avoid the mistakes of the past.

Woonerf examples

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Top Priorities for the Boulder Colorado City Council in 2020

 

By Dom Nozzi

I submitted the following recommended priorities for the Boulder City Council for the year 2020.

Reform Parking

Boulder suffers from significant affordability woes and excessive dependence on car travel. By requiring new development to provide parking for homes, offices, and retail, the City is substantially worsening these problems. Requiring a parking space for a home, for example, adds $10,000 to $20,000 to the price of a home. And abundant, free parking is a fertility drug for cars.

As is recommended by the Boulder Master Transportation Plan for several years, required minimum parking requirements need to be converted to maximum allowable parking, as is now the case in a large and growing number of cities in the nation. The City needs to require that when feasible, the price of parking is unbundled from the price of housing. Both of these parking reform measures are part of the “SUMP” principles that staff has been working on and proposing for a number of years now. (“Shared Unbundled, Managed, and Paid”).

Policy 6.11 of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan states that “…[t]he city will accommodate parking demands in the most efficient way possible with the minimal necessary number of new spaces and promote parking reductions through a variety of tools, including parking maximums, shared parking, unbundled parking…based on SUMP principles to support transportation and GHG reduction goals as well as broader sustainability goals, including economic vitality and neighborhood livability.”

Action 5.E of the Boulder Master Transportation Plan calls for the City to “[m]odify the city parking code to support policies in the BVCP that promote mixed-use development and higher densities where appropriate. Transition parking to other uses as needs change.”

Reform Single-Family Zoning

Boulder suffers from an extreme affordable housing crisis that is now worsening each year. In addition, about 80 percent of Boulder is zoned single-family residential. Both of these factors lead to very low levels of racial and income diversity and results in nearly all lower- and middle-income households from being able to move to or remain in Boulder. It must be pointed out that the origins of single-family zoning a century ago had as its primary (but unspoken) objective, the promotion of racial and income discrimination.

Like a growing number of cities nationwide, Boulder needs to reform single-family zoning regulations so that smaller homes, smaller lots, duplexes, and neighborhood-scaled office and retail are allowed in that zoning district, as well as accessory dwelling units, co-housing and co-ops. In addition, the maximum number of unrelated people living in a household must be increased – at least to a level similar to that of most other cities in the nation. Allowing these new housing types in Boulder’s single-family zoning district must be coupled with:

  1. A visual preference survey that ensures that allowable building design is compatible and desirable to most residents of Boulder’s neighborhoods;
  2. Stepped up code enforcement; and
  3. Expansion of Managed Parking.

Policy 2.11 in the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan states that “…granny flats, alley houses, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and owner’s accessory units (OAUs)) will be encouraged by the city to increase workforce and long-term rental housing options in single-family residential neighborhoods.”

Policy 2.16 states that “[t]he city will encourage well-designed mixed-use and higher-density development that incorporates a substantial amount of affordable housing in appropriate locations, including in some commercial centers and industrial areas and in proximity to multimodal corridors and transit centers. The city will provide incentives and remove regulatory barriers to encourage mixed-use development where and when appropriate. This could include public-private partnerships for planning, design or development, new zoning districts, and the review and revision of floor area ratio, open space and parking requirements.”

Policy 2.14 states that “[i]n existing neighborhoods, a mix of land use types, housing sizes and lot sizes may be possible if properly mitigated and respectful of neighborhood character.”

Policy 7.06 states that “[t]he city…will encourage the private sector to provide and maintain a mixture of housing types with varied prices, sizes and densities to meet the housing needs of the low-, moderate- and middle-income households of the Boulder Valley population. The city will encourage property owners to provide a mix of housing types, as appropriate. This may include support for ADUs/OAUs, alley houses, cottage courts and building multiple small units rather than one large house on a lot.”

Policy 7.10 states that “…[t]he city will explore policies and programs to increase housing for Boulder workers and their families by fostering mixed-use and multi-family development in proximity to transit, employment or services…”

Be Effective with Vision Zero for Traffic Safety

Boulder’s Vision Zero program (intended to reduce traffic deaths and serious traffic injuries to zero) is far too timid to achieve meaningful traffic safety improvements. It continues to focus on the failed methods Boulder has used for over a century: An emphasis on Warning Signs, Warning Lights, Warning Paint, Warning Education, and Warning Enforcement. And for most of that century to this day, City roadway design has had the unintended consequence of inducing excessive speeds and inattentive driving. After a century of these methods, Boulder’s roads are now more dangerous than they have ever been.

To effectively reducing the appalling number of serious traffic injuries and deaths that continue to occur on Boulder roads, the City must emphasize the redesign of city roads. For example, there must be a much more thorough use of effective traffic calming methods that induce slower and more attentive driving: Narrowing streets with bulb-outs, lane width reductions, installation of more on-street (and priced) parking, and removal (or re-purposing) of unnecessary lanes. This effort should not include “vertical” interventions such as speed humps, as this creates problems for emergency vehicles as well as creating noise pollution and vehicle damage.

Action 1.D of the Boulder Transportation Master Plan states that the City should “[d]evelop and implement a Speed Management Plan to decrease travel speeds on city streets; and explore reducing the speed limit on residential (local) streets from 25 mph to 20 mph, and 15 mph in school zones.”

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The Many Benefits of Higher Density Development Patterns

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 6, 2019

 

Those who work in the fields of town planning and transportation are well aware of the overwhelming evidence that there are a great many significant benefits of higher density development patterns. Tragically, nearly all Americans believe higher densities destroy neighborhoods and overall quality of life.

Why this disconnect?

Because nearly all Americans are utterly dependent on car travel, and higher densities make car travel much more costly and much more inconvenient.

Given this, it is clear that car-dependent Americans have a vested interest in fighting against efforts to improve community quality of life. This helps explain why so many community problems persist throughout the nation.

In my 40 years of academic work in town and transportation planning, I have found that research studies show repeatedly and clearly that higher-density community and neighborhood development patterns provide the following benefits:

More affordable housing. This is due to smaller house size and smaller amounts of land owned.

Less per capita car travelThis reduces per capita air emissions and the overall per capita carbon footprint.

More physically fit community. With higher per capita levels of walking, bicycling, and transit use, residents of higher-density communities tend to be much more physically fit and less obese. Higher-density places promote social capital, and higher social capital is shown by studies to promote happiness, health, and longevity.

More financially sound households. A century ago, transportation was about 1 to 2 percent of household costs. Today it is about 23 percent and rising. The average annual cost of each car owned by a household is approximately $10,000. Higher-density neighborhoods substantially reduce the need for car ownership, car use, and overall household transportation costs. In addition, higher-density communities provide households with more job opportunities.

Lower startup costs. As Jane Jacobs noted several decades ago, higher-density town centers provide significantly lower capital startup costs for a small business. For example, it is much more financially viable for an individual to sell cooked food from a cart on a dense street corner than for an an individual to buy or lease a restaurant building to sell cooked food.

More neighborhood-based (and smaller) retail. Only higher densities make smaller, neighborhood-based, locally-owned shops financially feasible. Lower-density communities tend to only be able to financially support franchise stores or large-format retail stores that draw customers from a regional consumer-shed.

More neighborly. Higher-density neighborhoods promote sociability. Lower-density neighborhoods promote isolation and suspicion.

Slower speed. Healthy cities are slower in speed, as slower speeds promote retail and residential health. And significantly reduces traffic injuries and deaths. These benefits explain why there is a global movement o create “slow cities.”

More abundant and diverse choices. Higher-density neighborhoods inevitably create much more in the way of choices for restaurants, other types of retail and specialty goods, and culture.

More innovation and creativity. Many studies show that higher-density cities are significantly more innovative and creative than lower-density cities. Higher-density cities attract more talented, skilled people.

More exchange. The main reason cities exist is to promote the exchange of goods, services, ideas, and sociability. Higher densities substantially increase the efficiency and amount of exchange.

More productive workforce. Higher-density cities not only attract more talented workers – which in itself promotes productivity – but also enhances productivity by reducing transportation costs in creating products or providing services.

More walking, bicycling, and transit use. Higher densities induce mixed-use development patterns, which substantially reduces trip distances. Relatively short travel distances to destinations is by far the most powerful way to increase walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Higher quality transit. Higher-density leads to higher transit ridership, which leads to better, more widespread, and more frequent transit service.

More housing choices. Lower-densities tend to deliver very limited housing choice. Nearly all of the housing consists of large single-family homes on large lots of land. Higher-density neighborhoods can provide townhouses, apartments, accessory units, co-ops, and live-work spaces.

More fiscal health for local government. Lower-density development, as shown by strongtowns.org, is a fiscal parasite because it fails to generate anywhere near the tax revenue needed to pay for its significant impacts (mostly road work) on the community. And minimizes per capita expenditures for infrastructure.

More security from crime. Higher densities promote citizen surveillance (often called “eyes on the street”). Higher densities lead to more regular use of sidewalks and observing the outside through house windows greatly contributes to our looking out for our collective security. Since criminals tend to rely on not being seen, this citizen surveillance greatly reduces crime. Many compact neighborhoods are now called “911” neighborhoods, as compactness increases the chance someone will spot an emergency and call 911.

More travel independence for those unable to drive a car. In a lower-density neighborhood, distances to destinations are far away and require the use of dangerous and high-speed roads. This makes car travel essential for nearly all trips, and those unable to drive (such as seniors, children, and the disabled) therefore lose travel independence. They must rely on others to get around.

More environmentally friendly. If we take, say, 100,000 people, that number of people will consume less environmentally sensitive land, produce far less air and water pollution, consume far less energy, and require less asphalt and concrete when living more compactly (ie, at higher densities). If we take that same 100,000 people and disperse them in lower-density patterns, the result is far higher levels of air and water pollution, far larger amounts of environmentally sensitive land consumed, far higher amounts of energy consumed, and far more asphalt and concrete needed.

Final Thoughts

A big part of the problem is that those who dislike density are thinking about the issue as a motorist and not as a human being. Since cars take up so much space, density is something that often makes the motorist furiously mad (so mad that the emotion tends to turn off a person’s brain). The idea of added density is seen as a direct threat to their ability to travel unhindered (or unfrustrated) by car. Car travel in a dense city is an effective recipe for infuriating a motorist. And again, because of the large space consumption of the car, nearly every trip the motorist takes puts them in a bad mood, as it is highly likely that driving a big metal box will be frustrating – even when densities are low.

Getting around by bicycle (or when I walk or use the bus), I pretty much never notice traffic congestion. In fact, almost every bike ride I take puts me in a better mood.

 

Some references:

http://www.lgc.org/wordpress/docs/freepub/community_design/reports/density_manual.pdf

https://theconversation.com/higher-density-living-can-make-us-healthier-but-not-on-its-own-34920

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/11/cities-denser-cores-do-better/3911/

https://www.brookings.edu/articles/demand-for-density-the-functions-of-the-city-in-the-21st-century/

https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/towns-and-cities/summary-value-urban-design-economic-environmental-and-social-benefi-10

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/04/why-bigger-cities-are-greener/863/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/urban-sprawl/Costs-of-urban-sprawl

 

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Dinosaur Politics in Boulder

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 9, 2019

PLAN-Boulder County, the leading advocacy group in Boulder County for what they curiously call “good planning,” has become a dinosaur that leads the charge, ironically, for increasing per capita car use and car dependency, less affordable housing, more remote suburban commuters, more elitism (“pull up the ladder in Boulder because I’ve made it here!”), less traffic safety, and larger out of town retail establishments.

As an aside, one thing that exemplifies the counterproductive nature of groups such as PLAN and Together4Boulder (another local NIMBY group fighting against green/compact cities and for pro-car elitism) is that their messages heavily rely on fear-mongering. Fear is an inherently reactionary emotion in politics — in part because it turns off the rational part of human brains.

Painting all developers and developments as evil – as PLAN, T4B, and others are prone to do — is increasingly naive, mean-spirited, and counterproductive. What such unhelpful criticism leads to is setting up even more obstacles (there is already a great many) to well-managed development – development that can effectively promote a number of important Boulder objectives. Particularly when the development is compact, walkable infill in locations that are places where people find it relatively easy to use transit, walk, or bicycle to get to important, regular destinations.

Enlightened actions – in contrast to reactionary advocacy by PLAN, T4B, and others – promote quality of life in cities such as Boulder by tending to be pro-city rather than pro-suburb. That means supporting (in the many appropriate locations found in Boulder) compact and mixed development, more housing, buildings between 2-5 stories, slower speed street design, less surface parking, more agglomeration, and human-scaled infrastructure and geometries. These are among the essential attributes that make cities more healthy and city living more enjoyable. Groups such as PLAN and Together4Boulder advocate the opposite, which amounts to an advocacy of drivable, sprawling, unaffordable, unsafe suburbanism.

That, my friends, is a recipe for a lack of sustainability. And a grim future for Boulder.

 

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Boulder’s Low Rates of Bicycling

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 3, 2019

Tragically, and despite conventional wisdom, Boulder transportation is in the Dark Ages.

The city is far behind on many transport issues and stubbornly remains stuck in the outdated thinking of the 1960s and 1970s.

Check out, for example, the “What’s Your Take?” comments by Doug Hamilton and Jeff Shultz from the Boulder Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board in today’s paper, where they promote the tired, frequent Boulder narrative of promoting easy, unimpeded car travel. If you want to know why the number of bike trips remains stuck at about 2%-5% of all Boulder trips (compared to the huge percentages in places like Amsterdam or Utrecht or Delft), one must notice that for several decades and up to this day, Boulder has ruinously enabled high-speed, high-volume car traffic.

And assumed it could do this while at the same time promoting bicycling.

Sorry, but the fact of the matter is that car travel is zero-sum, not win-win. By pampering and catering to motorists for decades, Boulder has degraded and discouraged and endangered bicycle travel. Boulder cannot have both happy motoring and widespread (and happy) bicycling. Unless Boulder begins to take away Space, Speed, and Subsidies from motorists, bicycling rates will remain embarrassingly low and cycling will remain quite dangerous.

Again, there is no win-win on this. And that means that leadership is needed.

 

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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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Thinking Like a Motorist is Ruinous

By Dom Nozzi

 

We have a love/hate relationship with walkable design.

Consider these comparison photos…

Orlando Phoenix Boulder Junction Copenhagen Amsterdam

Big city vs small town ambiance

Most all of us love the idea of walking in places such as the images on the left in the first photo above, and the images on the right in the second photo. But in the back of our minds, when we think about how frustrating it would be to DRIVE in those places, we end up furiously opposing building new versions of those places – including the places that we all know are the most loved places in Boulder: the Mapleton Hill neighborhood, the Boulderado Hotel, and Pearl Street Mall.

As I often point out, cars and people have opposite needs. Cars need very low densities to avoid crowded roads and parking. They need bright lights. They need oversized, car-scaled roads and intersections to travel at high speeds. They need large signs and billboards. They need loud sounds to hear each other. They need buildings fronted by huge surface parking lots for ease of parking

By striking contrast, people not in cars mostly enjoy the walkable and charming convenience of compact development. They dislike glaring light pollution. They prefer slower, human-scaled streets and intersections for charming place-making. They like smaller signs and no billboards. They enjoy peace and quiet. And they like buildings close to the sidewalk for ease of walking, the sense of place created by the enclosure that sidewalk buildings create (as in Pearl Street Mall), and are repelled by the prospect of needing to walk across a large asphalt parking lot.

Therefore, when we think like a motorist – which we are compelled to do because our community is designed not for a pedestrian but for car travel, which obligates us to make pretty much all of our trips by car – we are compelled to OPPOSE the creation of a higher density, compact neighborhood with relatively small yards, such as Mapleton Hill. We fight like the dickens against buildings as tall as the Boulderado. And we furiously oppose the creation of a new Pearl Street Mall (via such things as right-sizing). When we are obligated to angrily oppose the most loved elements of our community, then, we find that thinking like a motorist makes us our own worst enemy.

We start hearing the slogans that Boulder is notorious for:

“Does Dense Make Sense???” (NO! As motorists, we hate density)

“Don’t Be Dense, Boulder!!”

“Greedy Developers Want to Develop Every Square Inch of Their Property!” (An odd expression, since the most loved neighborhood – Mapleton Hill – has more “inches” developed than any other Boulder neighborhood)

“Get rid of parking minimums? It’s delusional to think nobody will need a place to park in this neighborhood!” (this despite the fact that eliminating required parking is a powerful way to create affordable housing)

“More development here would create intolerable gridlock. People aren’t just going to stop driving cars!”

“We’re not just going to turn Boulder into Amsterdam!” (this despite the fact that Amsterdam was very car-oriented in the 1960s, and Americans tend to love visiting Amsterdam)

 

Because we have created car-oriented communities that require us to make all of our trips by car, we are trapped in car dependency for many decades into the future, and are therefore trapped into being our own worst enemies.

Indeed, who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

 

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Excerpts from Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules (2018)

 

By Dom Nozzi

In February 2018, I read an excellent book regarding walkable design. Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules turned me on to this inspiring 15-min video. It shows how a city being run down by a high-speed, high-volume, massive, dangerous, car-only intersection full of angry motorists could be reborn into a much more courteous, safe, welcoming, healthy, shared place with right-sized roads (diets), removal of traffic signals and traffic regulation signs, expansion of pedestrian areas, and street design that obligates slow and attentive driving.

Please share this with friends and your local traffic engineers!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vzDDMzq7d0

Excerpts from the book:

“There are many things that can be measured in cities, each of which has its own impact on success. Density, diversity, walkability, property value, resource conservation, life expectancy, educational attainment, the production of patents, GDP, carbon footprint, free-flowing traffic: all of these relate to a city’s well-being, attractiveness, and future prospects. Yet only one of them, the last one, is routinely used to direct decision making around a city’s growth, and ironically, it is the one that works to the detriment of all the others. Let that sink in. The one aspect of urban life that has the most impact on city planning, traffic flow, exists in almost perfect opposition to all the other good things a city can have…The more dense, diverse, walkable, and desirable a city is, the more it is likely to be congested. The less fuel it burns and the lower the obesity rate, the worse the traffic. Ditto that on educational attainment, patents per capita, and GDP (Every 10% increase in traffic delay correlates to a 3.4% increase in per capita GDP). In the US at least, greatness brings congestion. Why, then, is design controlled by congestion, and not by greatness?”

“In every major American city, pedestrian deaths are a part of life…The news cycle is predictable: first comes the victim blaming, then the driver blaming – sober drivers are almost never punished – then perhaps a discussion about speed limits and enforcement. Through it all, the crash is called an ‘accident’ as if it was not preventable. Rarely is the design of the roadway itself considered. And never – NEVER – is there any reconsideration of the professional engineering standards that created the hazard in the first place. The Swedes, those geniuses of driving safety, know better. For some time, the leadership of the Swedish traffic safety profession has acknowledged that street design is at the heart of traffic safety, and modified its engineering standards with an eye to lowering speeds in urban areas. The results are astounding. Their traffic fatality rate as a nation is about one quarter of the US, but the biggest difference is in the cities. In 2013, Stockholm, with a similar population to Phoenix, lost six people to car crashes. Phoenix lost 167. Remarkably, Stockholm made it through 2016 without a single pedestrian or cyclist dying. Welcome to ‘Vision Zero’…In Seattle, too – where city engineer Dongho Chang tweets daily about bike lanes, curb extensions, and other safety improvements his department is installing – the impact of Vision Zero is clear…While not stated outright, both its goals and execution fly in the face of a half-century of negligent engineering practice…Advocates should rally publicly around the tragedy of road deaths to overcome hurdles to its adoption.”

“Level of service is the system that traffic planners use, often exclusively, to determine the success of a street network. Level of service (LOS) rankings run from A to F, with A representing unimpeded flow and F representing bad delays…Many engineers aim for an LOS of A or B, because…A’s and B’s are best, right? To an engineer’s mind, the less congestion the better. But this belief ignores the fact that an LOS of A or B corresponds to cars moving at higher speeds than are safe for an urban center. Moreover, experience teaches us that there hardly exists a single successful, vital, main street that would earn an A or B rating. When it comes to retail performance and street life, LOS could aptly be said to stand for Lack of Success…It is clear that the LOS system, which was created to assess highways, is the wrong measure for determining the success of a city. Or, it perhaps is useful, but only if we consistently aim for an LOS of E…Only as a LOS of D emerges into E do we see a significant drop in driving speeds. Even a high F would seem to provide a slow but steady flow of traffic, ideal for a main street…Because congestion is spuriously associated with pollution, it once seemed wise to impose upon new development a burden of maintaining a high LOS. This approach ignored the fact that the most free-flowing traffic is found in those places where people drive the most miles – that smooth traffic is indeed an inducement to driving – and thus our most congested cities make the lowest per-capita contribution to greenhouse gases. In light of this new understanding, the State of California recently eliminated LOS from its environmental review process, and replaced it with a focus on reducing VMT: Vehicle Miles Traveled. Under the old rules, ironically, environmental regulations would stop you from adding a bike lane to a street if a traffic study showed a negative impact on the flow of cars. This still happens in many places. But California has regained its sanity and is once again leading the way in limiting the environmental impacts of driving.”

 

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