Category Archives: Sprawl, Suburbia

Is Boulder, Colorado in Danger of Becoming Too Dense?

By Dom Nozzi

March 9, 2017

I hear it all the time as a resident of Boulder, Colorado: “Boulder is too dense!”

I beg to differ.

I support Boulder’s long-standing objectives, such as reducing the city carbon footprint (to ease global warming), reducing noise pollution, improving affordability, increasing the number of trips made by foot or bike or transit, slowing tax increases, ensuring the City has the fiscal capacity to engage in needed/ongoing maintenance of our infrastructure, protecting environmentally sensitive outlying areas from suburban development, reducing traffic injuries and deaths (in part by designing streets to be slower speed and obligate motorists to be more attentive), promoting small retail shops and discouraging large retail shops, encouraging diversity and creativity, improving public health, and retaining a lovable character rather than an Anywhere USA character.

Each of these worthy objectives are furthered by more compact (dense) development.

Unfortunately, despite the conventional wisdom, Boulder is actually quite dispersed. Shockingly so.

Indeed, Boulder is so extremely low-density suburban that if we don’t become more compact and add a lot more housing, we will continue to undermine each of the objectives I list here.

Besides the low density and short-statured nature of development I have observed in Boulder, there is another element that strongly signals that Boulder is suburban in character. sprawl
Christopher Leinberger has pointed out that in compact, walkable neighborhoods, “more is better.” That is, new, more compact development tends to be welcomed because it typically improves the quality of life of those living a walkable lifestyle (more things to walk to, for example). By contrast, says Leinberger, in a drivable suburban neighborhood, “more is less.” In such a setting, new and more compact development tends to be detrimental to the drivable quality of life of residents (roads are more congested and parking is more scarce, for example).

For decades, Boulder has had a near consensus that “more is less,” which is a strong signal that Boulder is a drivable suburban community. Indeed, stopping development – or, if not possible, at least minimizing the density of new development — tends to be the be all and end all of protecting or improving quality of life in Boulder.

Our very low-density, dispersed suburban character means that Boulder’s per capita environmental impact is, ironically, very large (being “green” means far more than engaging in curbside recycling or driving a Prius). Dispersed land use patterns found in Boulder are unsustainable, very environmentally destructive, and ensure that nearly all trips in Boulder will be made by motor vehicle.

There is a growing desire for compact, walkable, town center housing — particularly with the Millennial generation — yet Boulder provides very little if any of that sort of housing. Demand for such housing is substantially higher than the supply of it. Which severely amplifies the affordable housing crisis in Boulder.

Sustainability is far out of reach for Boulder unless we provide a lot more compact, walkable housing.

In sum, I think Boulder is quite far from being “too dense.” So far that a “too dense” Boulder will not happen in our lifetimes — if ever. Indeed, it seems to me that Boulder’s biggest concern should be that we are too dispersed.

I previously wrote about why I believe so many people in Boulder (like in so many other American communities) believe their community is “too dense,” despite the obvious signs I cite above.

It is enormously ironic that a great many Boulder residents — not to mention the millions worldwide — love the great historic cities and towns of Europe so much that they happily spend huge sums of money to visit such towns on a regular basis. Nearly all of us love Copenhagen. We adore Amsterdam. We are charmed by Perugia. We are delighted by Dubrovnik. We cannot get enough of Granada.

Yet each of these celebrated cities are far more compact – far more dense – than Boulder.

Why this disconnect?

I believe there are three important reasons. First, the contemporary modernist architectural paradigm we have been saddled with for several decades has thrown the inherently lovable 315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lotand timeless traditional building design into the waste can in favor of repellent, “innovative,” look-at-me design. Citizens are thereby conditioned to equate new compact development with hideous buildings. Second, local zoning regulations in cities such as Boulder have made lovable, human-scaled design illegal by requiring excessive setbacks, excessive car parking, and excessive private open space. Third, nearly all citizens live car-dependent lifestyles. And because their cars consume such an enormous amount of space, motorists are compelled to fear and oppose town design that they otherwise love as tourists. They have, in essence, become their own enemies by striving to improve their life as motorists (equating quality of life with easy parking and free-flowing traffic), not realizing that doing so is ruinous to a healthy city and a lovable quality of life.

For much of our history up until the 20th Century, citizens welcomed and celebrated new development in their communities because they knew that almost invariably, the new development would improve the quality of life in their community.  Steve Belmont has informed us that a densifying city is a sign of city health. But that welcoming of new development has been understandably inverted into a widespread opposition to new modern-architecture-Ronchamp-Chapeldevelopment, largely due to the modernist architectural paradigm, local car-friendly development regulations, and car-dependent citizens who have become cheerleaders for their cars rather than for themselves, their family, and their neighbors.

Boulder can comfortably house a great many more newcomers, and if our land development regulations are properly crafted to insist that new development be walkable, our community will be greatly improved in each of the ways I list above.

For the record, I generally dislike buildings taller than 5 stories (the limit set by city charter), but know that the city can be much better and provide a lot more housing by allowing buildings to be 3-5 stories in appropriate locations.

Note, too, that I do not believe that EVERYONE should be obligated to live in more compact, walkable housing. A community should always provide sufficient housing for the full range of lifestyle choices: walkable town center, drivable suburban, and rural.

Unfortunately, drivable suburban is about the only lifestyle option offered in Boulder. Because we have made the cities we love impossible to build.

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

The Problem of Gigantism

By Dom Nozzi

January 13, 2017

Gigantism, in my opinion, is a HUUUUUGE problem in America.

Enormous roads, enormous setbacks, enormous (and improperly located) parking lots, enormous (and improperly located) stormwater basins, enormous distances between destinations, enormous road intersections, enormous subdivisions, enormously tall street lights, enormous signs, enormous retail areas.Monster road intersection

The enormity of the American land use pattern is obvious when one walks the historic center of so many European cities and towns. My recent visit to Tuscany with my significant other was, once again, so saddening and maddening because the streets we walked were so stunningly lovable, charming, and romantic. Americans have thrown all of that charm away in our car-happy world.

Not only is it impossible to love most all of urban America. It is also, as Charles Marohn points out so well, impossible to afford to maintain. A double whammy of unsustainability. And extreme frustration in my career as a town planner who toiling for decades to try to nudge our society toward slowing down our ruinous love affair with making the world wonderful for car travel. And finding that even most smart people in America strongly oppose going back to the timeless way of building for people instead of cars.

It is said that dinosaurs went extinct due in large part to gigantism. I believe the same fate is likely for America, unless our society wakes up and realizes we are way better off in so many ways if we get back to building our world at the (walkable) human scale.

A friend asked me recently what I would do if I were in charge, had a blank slate, and could design a community any way I desired.

If I had such an opportunity, my community would be much more compact and human-scaled. One can walk historic town centers in Europe for models of what I speak of here.

WAY less “open space” for cars is essential.

I would ratchet down our extreme (and artificial) auto-centric value system by making roads and parking and gasoline purchases and car buying directly paid for much more based on USER FEES rather than having all of society pay for happy cars via such things as sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes.

In other words, making our world much more fair and equitable.

We have over-used and over-provided for car travel and car housing in large part because the cost to do so is mostly externalized to society rather than directly paid for via user fees. Eventually — maybe not in our lifetimes? — car travel will be mostly paid for via user fees and externalized costs will be more internalized. Car travel will therefore become much more expensive, signaling us to cut down on our over-reliance on it.

When that happens, we will inevitably see the re-emergence of the lovable, human-scaled world we once had. Fortunately, we are starting to see car travel becoming much more expensive and unaffordable — even though it continues to fail to be user-fee based.

And we are seeing the Millennial generation showing much more interest in compact town center living and much less interest in being car happy.

It is way past time for our society to a people-happy rather than car-happy world.

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Filed under Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

What Do I Think of the Diverging Diamond Interchange?

 

By Dom Nozzi

Febuary 2, 2017

Superior, Colorado built a “diverging diamond” interchange that opened in October 2015. It was only the second such interchange to ever be built in Colorado. Traffic engineers are imagessinging its praises throughout the nation. A newspaper article appearing in the February 2, 2017 edition of the Boulder Daily Camera fawned over the fantastic new addition to the region’s transportation system.

I am not joining the engineers or the newspaper in their love affair with the design.

Instead, I find such designs a colossal waste of money – money that could have been used for, say, transit. They are also a colossal waste of land. An entire city could fit inside one of these intersections.

The diverging diamond is a boondoggle for those reasons. But it is also a blunder because they promote increased per capita car travel. Why? In part because they are nearly 51df393d218c6-imageimpossible to cross by foot or bicycle. And in part because in the long run they will further disperse land development in a more sprawling way. Those increased distances will make it increasingly impractical to walk, bicycle or use transit.

Ironically, the major justification for the car-only design is that it briefly reduce intersection congestion, which will initially save a few seconds of motorist time (think of the fiscal irresponsibility of spending millions of public dollars spent to save a few seconds temporarily). Ironic because by artificially inducing more car trips than would have occurred had the diverging diamond not been built, the design will lead to MORE traffic congestion and MORE time delay for motorists in the long term (both at their location and areas in the region).

To hide the embarrassing fact that the millions spent ($14 million in this case) to briefly save a few seconds of time, the publicly proclaimed explanation is that it will improve safety. For the conventional traffic engineer, “improved safety” actually means that motorists can now drive faster and more inattentively with less fear of crashing. No mention is made of the fact that the intersection is much less safe for pedestrians or bicyclists, or that faster, less attentive driving is very dangerous for everyone.

The diverging diamond, therefore, is an excellent example of the century-long failure by conventional traffic engineers to understand induced car trips that are created by (briefly) reducing traffic congestion with these designs. There is a reason, after all, that many researchers repeatedly urge us to understand that it is impossible to build our way out of congestion. It is like loosening your belt to solve obesity.

But wait. There’s more.

Not only is the diverging diamond a boondoggle in the above mentioned ways. It also damages our world by adding more auto emissions into our air (by increasing per capita car trips) and reducing potential tax revenues in the region (by encouraging dispersed rather than compact land use patterns).

Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief over why our generation built these monstrosities.

There is one tiny upside to this overwhelmingly negative idea: it produces future jobs for people hired to remove these mistakes after we regain our senses.

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

The Growth Ponzi Scheme

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2016

In Charles Marohn’s 2012 book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, we find a five-part essay about how suburban growth is an unsustainable Ponzi Scheme.

New suburban development initially costs little for local government, infrastructure like roads is built by the developer then handed over to local government for free, and tax revenue starts flowing in quickly. Looks like a great deal.

Initially.

But what is not well understood is that the long term maintenance and repair cost is huge. And the tax revenue from the low-density development comes nowhere near paying for the ongoing costs for those roads and sewers. The “solution” has been to try to endlessly promote even MORE suburban growth. The revenue from the new growth is used to pay for the old growth. But endless new suburban growth is impossible. Particularly in Boulder and Boulder County.

The result of having new growth pay for old growth is a classic Ponzi Scheme.

Could the road funding controversy in Boulder County be at least partly explained by Marohn’s Growth Ponzi Scheme?

Compact, slower speed, human-scaled urban development creates wealth. Lower density, higher speed, car-scaled suburban development destroys wealth.

How can suburban development pay for itself? We can start, implies Marohn, by nearly doubling property (and other) taxes in new suburban neighborhoods.

Since this is not politically feasible, the future will be, shall we say, challenging.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

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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Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Is “Restricting” Traffic Unfairly Forcing People to Live in a Town Center?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 4, 2012

By re-introducing equity into our transportation system, we should provide a balance in the public tax revenue and public space so that the War on Bicyclists, Pedestrians, and Transit Users comes to an end.

For nearly 100 years the US government has powerfully encouraged an artificially high percentage of Americans to live in suburbia and be car-dependent. This artificially high demand for car-dependent suburban living would be much lower if we did not allocate 95 Carmageddon highwaypercent of our public transportation dollars to cars. In the name of restoring fairness and discouraging artificially excessive car-dependent sprawl, the US would need to allocate a lot more public dollars to bicycling, walking, and transit and a lot less to motorists. That would mean, in part, that cars would be allocated less road and parking lot space.

Would that mean “restricting traffic flow”? (a common criticism of some of the transportation reforms I call for)

Yes, if by “restricting flow” one means slowing down car travel and making car parking more scarce and more expensive.

In other words, having motorists fairly pay their own way, rather than to continue to enjoy government welfare handouts.

Would that mean we would “force people to live in cities and take the bus”? No, unless we take hysteria-mongering liberties with the definition of “force.” A much more accurate and fair word than “force” in this case is that some people — in the more fair, sustainable and balanced transportation system I recommend – would start to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of their choice of housing and travel (in both the short term and long term).

Rather than being artificially influenced to live in suburbia and be car-dependent, some will opt to live closer to town, and consider travel options such as car-pooling, car-sharing, transit, bicycling and walking. Others will opt to pay the higher (yet fair and balanced) costs of suburban, car-dependent living.

In sum, this scenario in no way “forces” anyone to live in cities or take the bus. I call for no laws that would obligate people to live in cities or take the bus.

Consider a hypothetical example of a community where a high percentage of residents opt to send their children to a private school, in part because large government vouchers are provided to parents who decide to send their kids to the private school. If the government voucher for private schools is ended, some parents will opt to send their children to public instead of private schools due to the more fair, balanced system where there are no government vouchers offered for private schools. Other parents will continue to send their kids to private school despite the loss of vouchers.

This is in no sense a way to “force” people to send their kids to public school. It IS a way to end a government practice that artificially encourages more parents to send their kids to private school than would be the case had the voucher subsidy not existed. And it IS a way to end the unfair practice of having parents who send their kids to public school to pay higher taxes in order to subsidize other parents who send their kids to private school.

Similarly, if the government ends its century-long practice of allocating “free” multi-million dollar multi-lane (and free-to-use) roads, artificially low-cost gasoline and gas taxes, and “free” seas of asphalt parking (each of which are transportation versions of school vouchers), some would opt to live in less remote, far-flung housing, and would opt to bicycle, walk or use transit more. And again, others would opt to continue to live in sprawl and be car-dependent.

Choice therefore remains in place. Fairness in government allocation of public dollars and resources is increased when we put less than 95 percent of the public dollars and resources into car travel (i.e., when we don’t only offer government “vouchers” to those who opt to drive).

I stand for fairness in government allocations for travel choices. To call my approach an example of “force” is absurd.

Not to mention unsustainable and ruinous.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Walking

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