Category Archives: Sprawl, Suburbia

The Many Benefits of Higher Density Development Patterns

 

By Dom Nozzi

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.

suburbia vs walkable3

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, the smaller amounts of land owned, and the ability of the household to survive with a smaller number of (extremely expensive) household cars. This is because more compact development patterns allow people to engage in many daily tasks without needing to travel by car.

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 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 with the disconnect between the many benefits of compact development and the high level of citizen opposition to such development 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 and understandably 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.

It threatens the very core of their drivable lifestyle.

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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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Will the True Progressives and Promoters of a Quality, Sustainable Future Please Stand Up?

By Dom Nozzi

A “PINO” is a Progressive in Name Only. A person who holds deceptive political beliefs. A person who is engaged in virtue signaling, wherein the person seeks to give others the impression that they are ethical or part of the tribe.

Judith Renfroe questioned how progressives can support more housing, infill, smaller houses, expanded transportation choices, smaller and local retail, and a lower carbon footprint.

My questions to her: In what universe do progressives support preservation of low-density, low-slung and large-lot suburban housing? Or take a stance that is detrimental to affordable and healthy travel options (transit, walking, bicycling)? Or be anti-walkable city and pro-drivable suburb? Or support such restrictive single-family zoning that house prices continue to skyrocket and middle-income families are increasingly excluded from living in a city where their job is located?

Does it make sense for progressives to promote policies that maintain and heighten the “financial wall” surrounding Boulder to keep out the undesirables?

I have several additional thoughts about the absurd ideas that the anti-city and pro-car folks such as this author hold on to:

We are told that it is wrong for some Boulder progressives (the pro-city and pro-housing folks) to “be in bed with evil, greedy developers who can’t ever be trusted to build desirable developments.” That it is instead progressive and promoting quality of life if we instead “protect neighborhoods from development.” Or “protect our views of the flatirons.”

Really?

Let’s see if I understand correctly. I’m living in Boulder in, say, 1890. According to the above logic, I must urge my neighbors and my elected officials to “protect our neighborhood” by not allowing an “evil, greedy developer” to building my home. Or any other home for that matter. After all, how can we trust a greedy developer? My two-story home will block my views of the flatirons! And cause traffic gridlock!

In response, you tell me that when you arrived in Boulder in the 1950s and your home and your neighborhood were built, things were wonderful in Boulder and that desirable “small town character” should be protected. The developer of your neighborhood was not evil when you came to Boulder.

Why, I ask, were developers heroic when you arrived in Boulder, but now that you are here, developers have become greedy and evil?

Putting aside the double standard – or the idea that I’ve got mine, so we can pull up the ladder now – let us consider this proposition that your home and neighborhood were wonderful when you arrived.

In the view of a great many in the field of town planning, science, medicine, engineering, and sociology, the past several decades has seen the development of neighborhoods that are…

…the most unaffordability expensive in American history, in terms of housing, land consumption, and transportation.

…the most anti-social, suspicious-of-neighbors, and isolating in American history (Robert Putnam’s research has shown that America is now a nation of loners).

…the most energy-intensive, air-polluting, and consumptive in American history.

…the most unhealthy in American history (studies show neighborhood design triggers obesity, heart disease, and diabetes).

…the most architecturally ugly buildings in American history.

…the most restrictive in travel options in American history – only motorized travel is possible.

…the most low-quality in American history – in terms of the durability of building materials used.

…the most isolating in American history – for seniors and children who cannot get around without a car.

Is THIS the sort of neighborhood design we should be protecting in the interests of quality of life and sustainability? In this age of crisis regarding affordability, climate change, health woes, loss of lifestyle and travel choices, and loss of beauty, shouldn’t we instead be incrementally tweaking the design of the neighborhoods built over those decades so that they instead deliver a better quality of life and more resilient sustainability?

Eighty percent of the land in Boulder is zoned single-family and has these features, compared to about 0.1 percent allocated to a walkable, sustainable lifestyle. Is it possible that the neighborhoods with the features I list above are outdated and unsustainable in a world of climate change and affordability woes? A world where the demand for walkable neighborhoods is enormous (and growing) compared to a tiny supply of such neighborhoods?

Shouldn’t we perhaps reconsider the angrily held view that your neighborhood is wonderful in design and should not be “harmed” by more housing or compact development? That perhaps maybe a few mistakes were made back when Boulder had a “wonderful small-town character” at the time you arrived here?

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

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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Gaining Support for Walkable Urbanism and the Threat to Cities

 

By Dom Nozzi

I’m convinced that one very important way to build more citizen support for compact, walkable, loved urbanism is to insist that building architecture move back to timeless, traditional design. I believe modernism is a failed architectural paradigm that is giving urbanism and compact development a black eye due to the large number of us who find it to be jarring, non-contextual, and ugly. Here is a recent essay I wrote on this.

A friend then asked, “Why not move to a big city?” To which I replied…

There are a great many things I dislike about bigger cities. I’ll mention a few: They almost always tend to go WAY overboard on providing gigantic, car-based infrastructure such as high-speed and oversized highways and highway overpasses.

Human scale is obliterated.

I also find it much more difficult, as a result of this gigantism, to find a sense of community. Additionally, bigger cities tend to have big noise pollution problems due to either a lack of political will or lack of noise pollution knowledge.

I have always, by contrast, enjoyed living in smaller “college town” cities for a great many reasons. My biggest fear is that such cities — such as Boulder — will wrongly conclude that the way to protect “small town character” is to stop development (stop population growth), stop compact and mixed-use development, and demand huge suburban building setbacks. Doing this threatens cities such as Boulder with the Threat of Car-Based Suburbia.

Too many in Boulder equate happy car driving and parking with quality of life. This leads to the political demand that densities be kept at levels that are far too low to support anything but car travel. It makes housing unaffordable since too much (expensive) land is allocated to each home. Suburban objectives – which center around easy, unobstructed car travel and car parking – inevitably leads to oversizing roads and intersections and parking lots (all of which kill “small town character” far more than anything else).

Europe shows us many cities that are the size of Boulder yet have fantastic, lovable, walkable urbanism. Boulder, in other words, can be far more compact and accommodate far more people, while still retaining lovable, prideful small-town charm, if we design for people rather than cars. Here is one of my essays on this topic.

In other words, a city needs to resist the strong temptation to over-build for happy cars. Striving for “happy cars” is one of the most dangerous temptations — one of the most dangerous threats to our quality of life. It is so dangerous because it can garner a juggernaut of nearly universal, bi-partisan, unstoppable political support from a community that does not realize doing so is a powerful yet initially unrecognized way to foul your own nest.

Cities can grow and develop and infill and become more compact without over-designing for easy car travel/parking.

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On Being a YIMBY

 

By Dom Nozzi

In a discussion on a neighborhood email list, a person advocated more density in the neighborhood. Someone responded with a snarky comment about how this does not live near the place where the higher density is recommended.

I responded as follows.

I’m a YIMBY (yes in my backyard). I want higher density as close to where I live as possible (preferably across the street from me and in my backyard. More density means I have additional desirable things that enhance the walkable lifestyle I seek: More neighbors and potential friends, more people walking and cycling and using transit, and a higher likelihood that new, small scale retail and grocery and restaurants will be built near me.

This quote from Chris Leinberger (author of The Option of Urbanism) strongly resonates with me: “…walkable urbanity is entirely different than drivable suburbanism. The underlying financial and market principle of drivable development, aka sprawl, is that ‘more is less;’ more development reduces the quality of life and financial returns, leading developers and their customers to perpetually go further and further to the fringe in a fruitless search for very things (open space, drivable convenience, perceived safety, etc.) this development promises. It is a downward spiral. Walkable urbanity works under financial and market principles that “more is better”; as more dense development takes place with mixed-uses within walking distance and multiple transportation options to get there, the place gets better. Hence the environmental, fiscal (government tax base), community building AND project financial elements all become better. It is an upward spiral.”

 

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What kind of housing provides true quality of life?

By Dom Nozzi

A “PINO” is a Progressive in Name Only. A person who holds deceptive political beliefs. A person who is engaged in virtue signaling, wherein the person seeks to give others the impression that they are ethical. Or part of the tribe.

Camera guest opinion writer Judith Renfroe questioned how progressives can support more housing, infill, smaller houses, expanded transportation choices, smaller and local retail, and a lower carbon footprint.

My questions to her: In what universe do progressives support preservation of low-density, low-slung, and large-lot suburban housing? Or take a stance that is detrimental to affordable and healthy travel options (transit, walking, bicycling)? Or be anti-walkable city and pro-drivable suburb? Or support such restrictive single-family zoning that house prices continue to skyrocket and middle-income families are increasingly excluded from living in a city where their job is located?

The ideas that the anti-city and pro-car folks such as this author hold on to are absurd.

We are told that it is wrong for some Boulder progressives (the pro-city and pro-housing folks) to be in bed with “evil, greedy developers” who can’t ever be trusted to build desirable developments. That it is progressive and promoting quality of life if we instead “protect neighborhoods from development.” Or “protect our views of the Flatirons.”

Really?

Let’s see if I understand correctly. I’m living in Boulder in, say, 1890. According to the above logic, I must urge my neighbors and my elected officials to “protect our neighborhood” by not allowing an “evil, greedy developer” to build my home. Or any other home for that matter. After all, how can we trust a greedy developer? My two-story home will block my views of the Flatirons. And cause traffic gridlock.

Why, I ask, were developers heroic when you arrived in Boulder but, now that you are here, developers have become greedy and evil? Putting aside the double standard — or the idea that I’ve got mine, so we can pull up the ladder now — let us consider this proposition that your home and neighborhood were wonderful when you arrived.

In the view of a great many in the field of town planning, science, medicine, engineering and sociology, the past several decades have seen the development of single-family neighborhoods that are:

• The most unaffordably expensive in American history, in terms of housing, land consumption, and transportation.

• The most anti-social and suspicious-of-neighbors in American history (Robert Putnam’s research has shown that America is now a nation of loners).

• The most energy-intensive, air-polluting, and consumptive in American history.

• The most unhealthy in American history (studies show low-density neighborhood design triggers obesity, heart disease and diabetes).

• The most architecturally ugly buildings in American history.

• The most restrictive in travel options in American history — only motorized travel is possible.

• The most low-quality in American history — in terms of the durability of building materials used.

• The most isolating in American history — for seniors and children who cannot get around without a car.

Is this the sort of neighborhood design we should be protecting in the interests of quality of life and sustainability? In this age of crisis regarding affordability, climate change, health woes, loss of lifestyle and travel choices, and loss of beauty, shouldn’t we instead be incrementally tweaking the design of the neighborhoods built over those decades so that they instead deliver a better quality of life and more resilient sustainability?

Eighty percent of the land in Boulder is zoned single-family and has many of these features, compared to about 0.1% allocated to a walkable, sustainable lifestyle. Is it possible that the neighborhoods with the features I list above are outdated and unsustainable in a world of climate change and affordability woes? A world where the demand for walkable neighborhoods is enormous (and growing) compared to a tiny supply of such neighborhoods?

Shouldn’t we perhaps reconsider the angrily held view that your neighborhood is wonderful in design and should not be harmed by more housing or compact development? That perhaps maybe a few mistakes were made back when Boulder had a “wonderful small-town character” at the time you arrived here?

Dom Nozzi lives in Boulder.

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

 

By Dom Nozzi

I keep getting confused by comments in this email conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops.

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

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

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

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

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

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