Category Archives: Sprawl, Suburbia

Free Flowing Traffic: Desirable or Ruinous?

By Dom Nozzi

August 25, 2017

Highway expansion ruinously continues in Boulder CO — largely through the on-going efforts to add new turn lanes at intersections in Boulder.

That exceptionally counterproductive action will only become less common when Boulder residents are able to decouple “free-flowing traffic” and abundant parking from quality of life.

There has been a decades-long assumption that one of the primary keys to quality of life in Boulder is to strive for free-flowing traffic. The main tactics have been to minimize development, minimize density and building height, resist removal of road/intersection/parking capacity, and add turn lanes.

The pursuit of free-flowing traffic inexorably leads to the “asphalt-ization” of a community because the pursuit results in oversized roads and intersections and oversized parking lots. It leads, in other words, to gigantism, where in addition to massive roads, intersections and parking lots, building setbacks are huge, the sprawling Arapahoe Ave Boulder COgeographic spread of a city becomes seemingly endless, street signs become enormous, street lights almost reach the clouds, and shops become massive. Free-flowing traffic means a very large per capita production of toxic air emissions and gasoline consumption. It means impossible-to-avoid stormwater problems. Freely-flowing traffic substantially reduces per capita bicycling, walking and transit use. It results in bankrupting cost increases for households and local governments. Free-flowing traffic creates social isolation, obesity, stress, road rage, traffic crashes that lead to massive numbers of injuries and deaths, and vast abandonment of older town centers.

I cannot think of anything that is more detrimental to quality of life than striving to maintain “free-flowing traffic” and abundant parking. Doing so is toxic for a city.

Tragically, a great many intelligent, “green” Boulder residents fight for free-flowing traffic and abundant car parking. There is a bi-partisan consensus that roads and intersections and parking lots must be wider. That driving and parking should be “free.” That motoring should always be pleasant.

It is a recipe for ruin masquerading as a quest for a better quality of life.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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

Response to an Editorial by the Editor of the Boulder CO Newspaper

By Dom Nozzi

July 2, 2017

On July 2, 2017, Dave Krieger, the editor of Boulder, Colorado’s major newspaper — the Boulder Daily Camera — published an opinion piece called “Traffic Engineering Rules Still Apply.” The piece contained several unfair misstatements.

Mr. Krieger refers to something he calls “basic traffic engineering.” One must assume by this comment that the reference is to the conventional methods traffic engineers have used for over a century: Widening roads and intersections to “reduce congestion” or “accommodate expected growth in area car trips.”

There is one small little problem with such “basic traffic engineering.”

It has utterly failed for a century.

The trillions spent on widenings not only failed to resolve congestion. By ignoring the well-documented, inevitable impacts of induced demand (caused by what Anthony Downs calls the “triple convergence”), the widenings over the past several decades have also worsened land use patterns, increased per capita car trips, decreased per capita bike/walk/transit trips, increased household transportation costs (they are now higher than all or nearly all other household costs), increased air emissions, and caused severe financial strain not only to households but to all levels of government.51df393d218c6-image

To call Boulder council members “ideologues” is inflammatory and ironic, since those calling for widenings have a much stronger ideological bent (the ideology of a car-based, high-speed, anti-city lifestyle). Similarly, to suggest that not widening is a form of “social engineering” is hypocrisy, given the fact that the most extreme form of social engineering engaged in by a society — by far — is the social engineering of compelling millions for over a century to be car dependent.

It is mis-informed to suggest that the “complete streets” road design tactics sometimes employed in Boulder and Boulder County are ineffective in modifying behavior, as a great many studies conclude that this form of “nudging” is extremely effective in guiding many motorists to drive in more socially desirable ways.

I choose the word “nudging” deliberately, as complete streets road design tactics retain the choice to travel by car. By contrast, pro-car design tactics such as widenings are much closer to forcing most of us to travel by car.

Which is, by definition, a strong form of social engineering.

Is it okay to engage in social engineering if doing so compels a lot more people to drive by car? (ie, the normalized way to travel)

It again is an inflammatory (yet common) falsehood to claim, as this opinion piece does, that not widening forces most or all motorists to abandon their car in order to walk, ride a bike, or use transit (which the author asserts is impractical for most). Such a claim is silly, unless one can make the case that a car trip that takes seconds or minutes longer will “force” people to abandon their cars.

It needs to be pointed out that many wrongly assume, as the author does, that a growing number of people inevitably requires there to be a growth in the number of travel lanes on local roads to accommodate such growth. If this were true, cities such as NYC and LA, which are home to several million people, would have needed to build roads that are hundreds of lanes in width to avoid gridlock.

Furthermore, the author forgets that transportation is a zero-sum game. That is, when conditions are modified to further increase the ease travel by a larger number of cars, traveling by walking, bicycling, or transit is made more difficult (what Todd Litman calls the “barrier effect”), The barrier effect recruits even MORE per capita car travel.

In addition, another overlooked, yet highly important impact – particularly for the residents of Boulder – is the highly negative downstream impacts of the larger volume of cars that road widening induces. By enabling and therefore inducing higher car volumes on Arapahoe, widening imposes more noise and air pollution on Boulder, puts more wear and tear on Boulder streets, consumes more parking (which obligates Boulder to build even MORE parking), makes Boulder streets more dangerous, and dramatically reduces overall quality of life in Boulder.

Finally, it is highly misleading to assert or imply, as the author does, that all trips on Arapahoe are long-distance, relatively important and time-sensitive commuter trips from small towns (ie, trips that can only be practically made by car). We know from many studies that a large number of trips on Arapahoe are relatively low-value (ie, trips to buy a cup of coffee). Such trips are induced at times that include rush hour by over-sized, non-tolled roads such as Arapahoe, and by the lack of compact, connected street, mixed use neighborhoods. These lower value trips are less affected by slower travel times due to the relative ease of shifting when such trips occur during the day.

In sum, the author criticizes Boulder for failing to follow “basic traffic engineering rules,” yet ironically, it is he who is unaware of a great many basic engineering rules, such as the triple convergence, the barrier effect, the travel time budget, the variable nature of trip value, downstream impacts, the zero-sum game, and the social engineering that compels car travel. Worst of all, the author ignores something that has been known for several decades and is so invariable that it can be considered not only a “basic rule” but an iron law: We cannot build our way out of congestion. Widening a road to reduce congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity. It wrongly assumes that car traffic behaves like water flowing through a pipe. In fact, for reasons I cite above, car traffic behaves like gas. That is, when the pipe is enlarged (widening) — car traffic — like a gas, inexorably expands to fill that larger pipe.

It is a great disservice to Boulder that we have an editor-in-chief of our local newspaper that is writing poorly-informed opinions that severely undermine many important community objectives, convince many citizens that Councilmembers and their adopted long-range plan are wrong-headed (to the point of being evil and undemocratic), and make it more likely that there will be increased political will to have the community adopt ruinous tactics that have almost universally failed for over a century.

Someone on Facebook responded to my comments by asking what to do about the 50,000 commuters that drive into Boulder each morning. We don’t have a clean slate, he told me. My response:

A fundamental principle is that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Stop treating Boulder like a doormat repeatedly (by continuing to widen, as Boulder has done over and over again historically), in other words.

There are several tactics that can be employed to positively address the large number of commuters. An obvious tactic is more housing — particularly more affordable housing. We can also start tolling major roads, provide more transit coupled with more park-n-ride, provide more compact and mixed use development, make major roads more like complete streets (rather than the car-only stroads they are), create more priced parking and parking cash-out (particularly at workplaces), reduce the quantity of free parking, convert minimum parking regulations into maximum parking requirements, and reduce the size of over-sized roads and intersections. NONE of those things PROHIBIT a person from continuing to in-commute by car to Boulder.

A person can continue to do that.

What each of these equity-enhancing tactics do is NUDGE travelers toward more socially, economically, and environmentally desirable travel. Some motorists will be inconvenienced in the short term, which many of us consider to be a very fair trade-off, since the inconvenience creates more equity, less air and noise emissions, lower taxes, less wear and tear, more safety, and less per capita car travel. In the long term, such tactics will improve the region, as they will induce more commuters to live closer to their destinations, enhance transit service, increase the amount of in-town housing, reduce higher speed car travel, improve conditions for smaller stores (rather than Big Box stores), and increase Boulder’s ability to shrink oversized parking lots, roads and intersections.

Note that most all of the motorists would be commuters, but it must be kept in mind that a large number of motorists on Arapahoe are NOT commuters (which means they will have more flexibility about where or when or how they travel).

Economists have calculated the approximate financial cost of travel by car, bike, walk, or transit. Those calculations show that each car trip imposes a financial COST on the community (a cost that most or all in the community must pay, regardless of whether they drive a car or not). Each bike/walk/transit trip results in a positive financial BENEFIT for the community (a benefit that most or all in the community enjoy, regardless of how they travel).

Knowing this, what should we do to be fair and to achieve community objectives? In other words, how do we make our community more financially sustainable?

Many of us believe that should one choose to travel by car, one should compensate for the cost imposed on the community. The most fair way to do this is to deploy user fees such as a gas tax, tolls, a VMT fee, etc. (rather than have everyone pay, through sales taxes, property taxes, higher grocery bills, or lower quality of life, regardless of whether they travel by car or not).

Again, user fees are nudges. They do not force people to stop driving a car. Therefore, they rightly acknowledge that many trips must be made by car. User fees simply make transportation more equitable, and nudges those with a choice to consider traveling in more socially desirable ways.

Note, too, that traffic congestion is a form of nudge. As Todd Litman would say, congestion imposes a “time tax” on the rush hour motorist, which nudges those with a choice to consider driving at non-rush hour times or live closer to their destination, or choose a different route. A time tax is obviously easier to achieve than a more effective and efficient tolling of the road, of course.

Temporarily reducing congestion by widening short-circuits that relatively affordable and achievable form of nudging.

Many cities in the past put all of their “eggs” (their trillions of public dollars) into the conventional “basic engineering” tactics that the author promotes. They did so while being in precisely the same situation that Boulder is in: What to do about congestion? What about all the in-commuters? They all greatly worsened their transportation situation and their quality of life. Examples of those cities include Phoenix, LA, Houston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.

I don’t want the Boulder region to go down the path of any of those unfortunate cities by opting for “basic engineering” tactics that the author urges, because those “common sense” tactics greatly worsened the situation.

We can do better. Let’s not keep making the same ruinous, bankrupting mistakes.

Leave a comment

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

Behind the Times: Making It Difficult to Walk or Bicycle in Boulder CO

By Dom Nozzi

July 24, 2017

Despite the conventional wisdom – that Boulder CO has long been a mecca of cutting edge, progressive transportation — Boulder has spent several decades making it very difficult to be a bike commuter (or a pedestrian). This happens in part because the citizens of Boulder are behind the times regarding transportation, but also because many actions taken by the City of Boulder are not easily seen as being detrimental to cyclists (or pedestrians).

Some examples.

Many signal lights at intersections are timed for car speeds rather than cyclist speeds.

Slip lanes and continuous left turn lanes are used in the Boulder town center. Such design is extremely hostile to pedestrian safety and significantly undermines the need to create low-speed, human-scaled design in the town center.

The construction of oversized roads and intersections that are too often deadly or intimidating for those not in a car (streets such as Colorado, Broadway, Arapahoe, Canyon, and the many double-left turn intersections are examples).Arapahoe Ave Boulder CO

Terrible design of bike parking racks (or insufficient amounts of racks) all over town. Like a great many American cities, bicycling is trivialized by assuming that “innovative” bike parking rack design is desirable, instead of functional, easy-to-use design. This assumption trivializes bicycling because we all know that there is only one acceptable way to design a car parking space. Why do we allow an “anything goes” approach when it comes to bike parking?

Traffic rules that are designed for heavy, high-speed cars rather than cyclists. An example is something that only a tiny number of places in America have avoided: the requirement that bicyclists must stop at stop signs. Another example: traffic signals that are needed for cars but not bicyclists.

High-speed road geometries. Examples include overly wide car travel lanes, overly wide intersection turning radii, banked curves in a road (so cars can travel on the curve at higher speeds). Street lights and street signs that are too tall – thereby creating a highway ambience that induces higher car speeds.

Too often allowing a business to place car parking in front of a building. Among the great many problems associated with this all-too-common urban design mistake is the fact that parking lots in front of buildings substantially increase walking and bicycling distances, and destroy the human-scaled ambience that most people enjoy.

Not requiring developers to unbundle the price of parking from the price of the home or business. This action means that bicyclists or pedestrians who don’t need the car parking pay higher prices for goods and services to pay for expensive parking they do not need.

Lack of on-street bike lanes on many hostile, high-speed roads. Roads such as Broadway, Canyon, and East Arapahoe are nearly impossible for all but a tiny handful of bicyclists to feel comfortable bicycling. Boulder’s major streets are so hostile because Boulder has strongly bought into the failed, outdated concept of the “street hierarchy” system of roadways. In this system, roads are designated as arterials, collectors, and local roads. Local, low-speed, low-volume neighborhood roads (relatively safe places for bicycling a walking) feed traffic into collector roads (which are more unsafe due to higher speeds and larger widths), which feed into arterial roads (which are the most dangerous, high-speed, very wide roads). Because of the hierarchy of smaller roads feeding larger and larger roads (in the same manner as a watershed, where smaller streams feed larger and larger creeks and rivers), the larger (arterial) roads often become congested because they must handle car trips from throughout the community. Similarly, larger rivers often flood because they must handle water flowing from throughout the watershed. In addition to increasing the likelihood of congestion, the road hierarchy system also and inevitably creates roadways that are not complete streets. They are too high-speed, too wide, and too hostile for safe, comfortable walking or bicycling.

Lack of compact development, which disperses destinations so they are too far to bike or walk to.

Traffic signals that don’t detect cyclists or pedestrians, which means that cyclists and pedestrians must often suffer the indignity and inconvenience of having to wait for a motorist to arrive before the traffic signal will change to a green light.

There are many, many more examples.

Many of the above impediments to cycling or walking are due to the ruinous transportation imperative that all American cities (including, shamefully, Boulder) have pursued for more than a century: high-speed, unimpeded, free-flowing car traffic. This objective has — as an unspoken objective – been designed to keep cyclists and pedestrians out of the way so motorists can avoid being slowed down in their oversized, high-speed cars.

Stepping up enforcement of the pedestrian crossing rule, for example, masquerades as a way to improve pedestrian safety, but the primary reason is to allow motorists to drive at high, inattentive speeds without needing to slow down and pay attention. Such a rule is a form of victim-blaming.

Boulder and nearly all American cities have a lot of work to do if it expects to remove the many obstacles to safe and easy bicycling and walking in town.

Leave a comment

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

Convenience

By Dom Nozzi

July 23, 2017

I was talking with my girlfriend this morning about the high levels of litter we see in our society. One of my thoughts was that litter exemplifies how Americans (or all humans?) have – as an important life pursuit – regularly sought ways to make life more convenient. Litter means a person can enjoy the convenience of not needing to find a trash receptacle. Much of the convenience we have found over the past century or so has beenhk-litter brought to us by using “energy slaves” – using cheap energy to do work for us, such as using a leaf blower rather than a broom (or using motorized travel versus walking or bicycling).

I recall my friend and colleague Michael Ronkin once mentioning how lazy he found Americans (and humans in general) to be.

Convenience is such an important human objective that we have equated anything that makes our lives more convenient to be, invariably, a sign of progress. Surely, many of us look upon going from walking and bicycling to motorized travel as progress.

As a sign that our lives have improved.

I’ve always felt that the societal imperative for more convenience (exerting ourselves less) will only abate when energy costs rise substantially, so that energy slaves are less affordable.

One way I feel encouraged these days is to see what I believe is a growing desire to enjoy the convenience of living in a town center (where people can enjoy the convenience of a quick walk or bike ride to destinations). Convenience in this context, though, is a funny thing: On the one hand, a motorized lifestyle is seen as more convenient because we are able to exert ourselves less to travel. But on the other hand, we lose convenience with motorized travel because distance to destinations has grown so large that it requires more time to get to places — not to mention the hassle of having to climb into a car and back it out of a garage, needing to contend with other cars on the road, and eventually find a parking spot.

It is not clear to me, though, why we are seeing the growing desire for town center convenience (compared to the past century, where most sought to live in outlying suburban areas).

Have the costs of living a suburban, motorized lifestyle grown so much that those costs are reaching a tipping point?

Leave a comment

Filed under Energy, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Walking

Boulder Junction compared to Amsterdam

By Dom Nozzi

June 5, 2017

 

A comparison of Boulder Junction in Boulder CO (image on left) and a street we stumbled upon during our recent trip to Amsterdam (right).Amsterdam, May 8, 2017 compared to Bldr Junction

Note the walkable, comfortable, human-scaled, romantic character of the Amsterdam street compared to the new street in Boulder. Boulder Junction is a new town center in Boulder intended to be compact and walkable, but the center fails to provide a comfortable, enclosed, walkable human scale.

Open space that is too vast, setbacks that are too large, and streets that are too wide.

If we can generalize the Boulder design experience with that of much of America – and I think we can fairly do so — this comparison clearly shows that Americans have failed to learn how to build walkable places in recent decades. Or find the political will to do so, since much of the unwalkable design was requested by citizens who do not know the ingredients of quality urbanism and quality streets. Citizens tend to request large building setbacks, low densities, oversized roadways, and excessive open spaces.

In part, this is done to seek to retain or restore convenient, comfortable car travel. Failing to create quality urbanism, then, is a signal that Boulder is much more of a car culture than a walking (or transit or bike) culture.

Efforts to promote happy car travel, ironically, worsens car travel as such efforts result in increased per capita car travel, which crowds roads and parking lots. And worsens the quality of life (and safety) for people — particularly people not in cars.

Leave a comment

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

Transportation Comments in Advance of My Leaving for a Trip to Europe

By Dom Nozzi

May 2, 2017

My girlfriend and I would be enjoying a few weeks in the bicycling and walking paradise of Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Belgium. That meant that I would need to miss my monthly Transportation Advisory Board meeting here in Boulder CO.

As is done each month, Boulder staff had provided a staff summary of each of our agenda items. Not one to lose an opportunity to offer my critique on items before the Board, I opted to email them to fellow members before departing.

East Arapahoe Avenue Transportation Plan

Traffic growth projections (0% to 20% growth by 2040) will be strongly influenced by the design of East Arapahoe Avenue. If Boulder chooses to (1) not reduce car-carrying capacity (or increases it by, for example, expanding the size of intersections); (2) not establish more compact, mixed-use land use patterns along the corridor; and/or (3) not substantially reform car parking by reducing the high levels of required parking, parking cash-out along the corridor, and requiring a substantial increase in priced parking, the growth of car travel will be much higher than it would be otherwise.

I therefore believe it is very important that Boulder reduce car-carrying capacity, promote compact development patterns, and better manage parking to reduce excess parking problems along East Arapahoe Avenue. Note that walkable, compact land use patterns will only be induced along the corridor if car-carrying capacity is reduced.

Improving bus service along the corridor, as proposed by the draft plan, will only be cost-effective (i.e., able to induce sufficiently high transit ridership) if these three items (capacity, land use patterns, and managed parking) are implemented.

Enhanced bicycle and pedestrian safety along the corridor can only be achieved if car-carrying capacity is reduced.

The term “…LOS will be degraded…” is biased terminology. It is more objective to state that “…LOS will be such that fewer car trips can be accommodated…” Using the conventional A through F level-of-service metric is biased toward car travel, as such a metric only measures motorist delay and ignores the quality of service for other forms of travel.

It should be noted that lower LOS for car travel will induce more desirable, compact land use patterns along the corridor. Maintaining or increasing LOS for car travel will lead to less desirable, more dispersed land use patterns, more car trips, and less safety. Failing to reduce car LOS will therefore undercut several important objectives of the East Arapahoe Avenue plan.

One of the options provided by staff is for Center-running Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). This option will be more difficult for transit users to walk to and from transit stops to the BRT (because of the need to cross several high-speed travel lanes). Given this problem, center-running BRT will create substantial problems for transit users, although removing car travel lanes in both directions can reduce that problem somewhat.

There is strong evidence from the transportation research literature that enhanced bus service leading to increased bus ridership will NOT reduce car trips. Much of the literature finds that increased transit ridership induces new car trips (latent demand) due to the new road capacity created by those shifting from car to transit. Reduced car trips, according to much of the literature, will only occur if car capacity is reduced, land use is more compact, and parking is reformed.

Future presentations of the East Arapahoe design options and plan need to show how the various design options will influence land use and travel. For example, No Build and other options that either retain or increase car-carrying capacity need to show how these options will result in more dispersed land use patterns, higher levels of car travel, and a reduced ability of the City meeting its objectives for this corridor.

Conversely, less car-carrying capacity will advance City efforts to achieve such objectives.

I strongly support the design option which repurposes/removes car travel lanes to a BRT-dedicated lane (I believe that would be “Alternative 3”). That option should also be shown to include land use and parking reforms.

Note that while this option is my preference of the options given, my preferred option would be to remove a travel lane in each direction and have the new curb lane be a mix of BRT and cars so that the new cross section is four and five lanes. The current cross section of six or more lanes is far too many lanes for a corridor that we seek to make more compact with future land use.

Capital Improvement Program (CIP) projects

I do not believe that the large sum of money (over $1 million?) to be spent by the City of Boulder on the 30th Street and Colorado Avenue underpass provides enough bang for the buck to be an appropriate project. I believe those dollars can be much more cost-effectively spent on other projects to promote non-car travel and promote pedestrian and bicycling safety.

The need for underpasses and overpasses are a signal that a road or intersection has grown too large for an urban location. In addition, an underpass puts off the inevitable day when the City must get around to shrinking this intersection from a suburban size to an urban size.

 

Leave a comment

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

Fighting Against What Is Wanted

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 26, 2017

Many in Boulder CO hold contradictory views.

On the one hand, one hears a lot of folks saying they hate sprawl and cars (at least those driven by others) and the high cost of housing in Boulder.NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341

On the other hand, many of these same people hate the things that would most cost-effectively reduce those problems: compact development, accessory dwellings, increasing the number of adults who can live in a home, buildings over one or two stories, smaller setbacks, less private open space, traffic calming, restricted/priced/managed parking, and shrinking oversized roads.

Oops.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation