Category Archives: Transportation

The Suburban, Car-Based, Low-Density Lifestyle Has No Future

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 18, 2019

It is tiresome and painfully predictable — as was expressed in a Facebook thread I was recently involved in — that when a city adopts a brilliant, highly successful urban design tactic and a suggestion is made that we adopt the same tactic in our community, the knee-jerk response is “Yes, but they are different than us, so it won’t work here!”

I call such people members of the “Squelcher Squad,” as they use that argument over and over again to squelch an idea before it is adopted.

When bicycling in downtown Denver a few days ago, I noticed that Denver has right-sized (road dieted) streets in downtown to create protected bike lanes (among many other benefits). It strikes me that we heard a great many anti-city/pro-car folks scream that Folsom Street cannot be road dieted because there are “too many cars on that street.”

Why, then, can Denver road diet downtown streets despite those streets carrying far more cars than Folsom? Surely, Denver has members of the Squelcher Squad who were saying that a road diet won’t work in Denver because while it might work all over the US, “it won’t work in Denver because Denver is different. Downtown streets have far too many cars!” Note, BTW, that the Boulder Squelcher Squad was conveniently silent about successful Denver road diets, despite their having far more cars than Boulder.

If the “Yes, but they are different” argument fails to squelch the idea, the Squelcher Squad frequently plays another card: The “Catch-22” card.

In the Denver example above, this squelcher tactic would say that “Denver can do road diets but Boulder cannot because Denver has far better transit than Boulder!” When it is pointed out that the reason Denver has better transit than Boulder is because Denver is far more compact (has far higher density) than Boulder, the Squelcher Squad then plays its Catch-22 card. “Boulder cannot do road diets because we don’t have good enough transit! But Boulder also cannot have transit because I will not allow Boulder to be more compact!”

What drives this Catch-22 attitude on the part of the Squelcher Squad? It is the fact that squelchers are trapped in a car-dependent, suburban lifestyle. Those trapped in this lifestyle are forced to use a car for nearly every trip they make. Using transit, a bicycle, or walking is impractical. Because a car consumes 17 to 100 times more space than a person not in a car, and because the car-based lifestyle requires easy, convenient, affordable travel by car, those in the car-based lifestyle MUST oppose compact development as a way to protect the viability of their lifestyle. They must, in other words, preserve their low-density, space-consuming neighborhood design in amber.

As it turns out, then, the car-dependent lifestyle is unsustainable, largely because it is not in any sense resilient to change. It is, instead, a fragile way to live.

Because change in a healthy, sustainable city is inevitable, members of the Squelcher Squad have a lifestyle with no future. All species and lifestyles that were not adaptable to change in world history are now extinct. This is the inevitable fate of the suburban, car-based, low-density lifestyle in a world of inevitable change.

Postscript:

Members of the Squelcher Squad often inform us that our city cannot afford to provide the quality transit service found in many larger cities. While it is correct that smaller cities such as Boulder could not quickly install a high-quality transit system found in a city such as, say, Copenhagen, I don’t see why Boulder would need to do that as a way to follow the admirable lead of a city like Copenhagen.

The important lessons many of us get from cities like Copenhagen: land uses that are much more compact/dense than Boulder deliver many enormous benefits: affordability, transportation choice, quality of life, lifestyle choice, societal health/fitness, overall happiness, lower levels of traffic deaths, lower levels of air pollution and fuel consumption, etc.

How was a city like Copenhagen able to find the money and political will to build their transit system? It was almost entirely due to not making the mistakes of Boulder and many other US cities. Mistakes such as dispersed, low-density land use patterns, and putting too much into accommodating easy and affordable car travel.

In sum, if Boulder starts incrementally allowing more compact development, and reverses its many decades of promoting easy car travel and parking, it will inevitably see the incremental ability to find the dollars and political will to establish a better transit system. A viable future for Boulder requires that these land use and transit reforms be established, so we should start sooner rather than later as a way to ease the difficulty.

 

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

The Death of the City Planning Profession

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2019

A few years ago, I let my American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) certification expire because AICP and the American Planning Association represent a profession (public sector planning) that has lost its way.

The profession has lost any sense of an admirable or societally desirable mission. It has lost the inspiring vision it once had.

Conventional city (and county or regional) planning has become sterile and drowns in the minutia of “needed” parking and “needed” throughput of cars. Of an obsession with separating “incompatible” land uses from each other (such as homes and retail) through strict and mindless adherence to zoning regulations.

Both of these single-minded efforts are tragically quite counterproductive, as they are precisely the opposite of what a vibrant, healthy, sustainable city needs.

The profession has shedded any interest in urban design, human scale, pedestrian quality, timeless design, and quality of life. In my 20 years as a town planner, I was little more than a paper pushing clerk who signed off on developers seeking to create car-happy places.

For example, nearly all of my day-to-day work involved confirming that a proposed development had “sufficient” (ie, excessive) parking. Parking requirements that had no basis in reality or science or what a given development or neighborhood actually needed. Given how toxic car parking happens to be for a quality city, what could be more misguided? Eventually, I was marginalized and censored by administrators, supervisors, and my elected officials when I started to move toward designing for people rather than cars.

The desire to “make no one unhappy” is now a single-minded obsession for nearly all American public sector town planners. And in our car-based world where there is nothing anywhere near as important to achieve as easy motoring, this translates into an almost exclusive focus on promoting car travel.

This, of course, is a rode to ruin, as such a mission leads to a perpetuation of the downwardly spiraling car-oriented status quo.

Shame on public sector planners, the APA, and AICP for leaving such a terrible legacy for future generations.

 

 

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Was Boulder More “Enlightened” in the Past?

By Dom Nozzi

December 23, 2018

A friend of mine recently told me that she thought the city of Boulder, Colorado used to be “enlightened” in the past. That is, more wise, progressive, and problem-solving than the average city.

But I don’t know that I agree that Boulder used to be enlightened.

While Boulder has a national reputation for being on the cutting edge of city and transportation innovation – and a wellspring of progressivism, that reputation turns out to be far from accurate.

For example, since at least the 1960s, many (most?) in Boulder have held the quite misguided, ruinous view that car travel needs to be made as easy as possible, and the way to do that was to slow growth and minimize density.

Better yet would be to stop growth.

Doing this would allow the city to achieve the “nirvana” of happy cars (free-flowing traffic and abundant free parking). The reason why that ruinous belief has been a near consensus in Boulder for so long is that both politically conservative wealthy folks AND political liberals were more than happy to agree to it. In America, both conservatives and liberals put happy cars at or near the top of their quality of life priority list.

This belief has poisoned Boulder thinking since at least the 1960s. The city has fooled many in America into thinking that it was “enlightened” because of an accident of geography. Boulder is very fortunate to be in a location that is so spectacular that it attracts wealthy, intelligent people. Such wealth and intelligence gave the city the ability to admirably tax itself to buy a greenbelt, which provides enduring quality of life for the city, and creates the illusion that the city is “enlightened” generally.

However, accomplishing “enlightened” objectives requires far more than being wealthy enough to buy a greenbelt or build a multi-million dollar bike path system.

It also requires the wisdom to adopt enlightened parking, roadway, land use, and urban design guidelines, to name just a very few significant urban design tactics.

And in those areas, Boulder has been in the Dark Ages since the 1960s – largely because of the political consensus that buying a greenbelt, and stopping/slowing growth to keep cars happy was enough.

It is not.

Nor is it even possible. Or desirable.

 

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Improving Bicycling in Boulder, Colorado

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 30, 2019

Boulder is preparing to update its Transportation Master Plan, and part of that is to adopt new policies for improving Boulder’s bike network. Here is what I suggested…

The following are essential reforms for improving bicycling in Boulder:

  1. On roads that are more like highways than the slower-speed streets they should be in the Boulder town center (such as Canyon, Broadway, Arapahoe, and Folsom), lane-reducing road diets are very important. These high-speed roads should not be the car-only routes when they are in the town center, as healthy town centers need both slower speeds and rich transportation choice (cars, bikes, ped, transit).
  2. Lane reductions are needed for Boulder intersections that have double-left turn lanes (they need to become single-left turn lanes, or in the town center, zero-left turn lanes).
  3. Coupled with lane reductions, highways in the Boulder town center should also incorporate effective HORIZONTAL traffic calming (since the highways are also emergency response routes, calming that is compatible with emergency vehicles is necessary – including bulb-outs, circles/roundabouts, and on-street parking). Examples of “horizontal” calming includes intersection and mid-block bulb-outs, reduction in travel lane widths, and on-street parking. Examples of “vertical” calming includes speed bumps/humps, and speed tables. Vertical calming designs are almost never desirable or appropriate.
  4. One-way streets must be converted back to two-way operation.

Bicycling in Boulder will become much more common if the following non-bike network reforms are achieved:

  1. Parking is reformed (eliminate required [minimum] parking, establish more parking cash-out, unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing, price free parking spaces, and reduce the quantity of free parking spaces).
  2. Reduce travel distances for bicyclists by substantially incentivizing a much larger quantity of compact, mixed-use development in the city.

I would point out that each of the above tactics are effective ways for Boulder to achieve its climate change goals.

Shame on Boulder for being so far behind the times on the above six items – particularly given the crisis in recent years of the unacceptably high level of traffic injuries and deaths in Boulder, not to mention the affordable housing crisis.

 

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Is Bicycling Without Separated Bicycle Paths “Suicidal”?

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 18, 2018

Someone responded recently to an essay I wrote. My essay mentioned the fact that the US has the lowest levels of bicycling in the world. He claimed that this low level was due to the fact that it is “suicidal” to bike when there are no separated bicycle paths.

As an asice, bicycle paths that are physically separated from the street, in contrast to bicycle lanes, which are in-street bicycle routes separated by car travel lanes by a painted white stripe.

My response…

I’m not sure why a person would consider bicycling on streets rather than on separated bike paths is “suicidal”?

I have been a bicycle commuter for about 50 years (about 2-6 bike rides every day during that time, and almost never on a separated path. I have never had a close call with a motor vehicle in all that time. In addition, I have been working academically and professionally in bicycle transportation for about 35 years, and know from that work the following: bicycling is far safer than most people realize (which confirms my own personal experience). I have long known a great many friends who are both motorists and who have ridden a bike without separated paths.

Of the friends who were killed in road crashes, nearly all of them have been killed while driving a car than riding a bike (admittedly, this is anecdotal). However, the data supports that anecdotal observation. For example, your life expectancy is longer if you are a bike commuter rather than a car commuter, and not only because you are more healthy.

My 35 years of academic and professional work also shows that separated bike paths are not an important limiting factor in the number of people who choose to become bike commuters. Even if it were, almost no city can afford to install a comprehensive system of off-street paths, and without such a system, paths are of little use to the bike commuter.

Much more important limiting factors in how many people choose to travel by bicycle are density of housing, retail and offices (a measure of how compact the community happens to be), distance to destinations, and available free parking for motorists. Each of those factors are enormous barriers to widespread bicycling in the US, due to the very low levels of compact density, the relatively large distances to destinations, and the enormous amount of free car parking provided in US cities.

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Is Walkable Design Possible in Our Age?

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 5, 2018

The question of walkability in our time is an enormous dilemma. On the one hand, designing for easier and cheaper car travel (which is politically essential in pretty much all US cities) is a zero-sum game. When we do that, we inevitably make places that are too dangerous, car-scaled, unpleasant, inequitable and dispersed for walkability (not to mention for bicycling and transit).

Providing bike lanes, sidewalks, or quality transit does very little to counteract those things. But adding such facilities is common, not because it is effective, but because it is politically easy.

On the other hand, to create the relatively high residential densities needed for viable, walkable retail (ie, retail with a neighborhood consumer-shed, rather than a regional consumer-shed) is nearly impossible in pretty much all US cities.

In too many cases, new urban neighborhoods are created in a vacuum. Too often, that is, they are not built at an important travel crossroads where retail and compact residential has historically been viable due to the high traffic levels such places naturally draw. By not locating in a place that contains a crossroads, a new urban neighborhood must somehow establish powerful “destination” retail — retail that is such a draw that community members are willing to go out of their way to regularly visit such a place.

And this is very difficult to achieve and sustain.

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The Hidden Costs of Suburban Housing

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 25, 2018

People understandably assign value to being proximate to things they desire or need. Walkscore.com shows this quite well, as does the real estate values seen in central cities such as Manhattan. Not only do the per square foot costs of real estate tend to be higher due to proximity, but centrally-located real estate also tends to be more resilient in economic downturns. We saw that clearly in the 2007-8 housing crash, where land in the burbs crashed significantly and many in-town properties were hardly affected at all.

Therefore, the burbs offer a “false economy” in many cases. Lower per square foot costs means you can typically buy a lot more house in the burbs than in a town center. But there are many (mostly hidden) trade-off costs. You tend to pay less in the burbs for your home, but in exchange you must pay the costs of less convenience, less free time (due to longer times needed to get to places), less “social capital” (in other words, less interaction with others), poorer health (due to your not biking or walking as much in the burbs), much higher travel costs due to the need for a household to own more cars and use cars more often, and much more aggravation due to the inability to escape traffic congestion. In my mind, all of these mostly hidden costs in the burbs far outweigh per square foot savings for suburban homes.

In a well-functioning economy, buyers of suburban homes would clearly see the above-listed costs, which would reduce the (artificially high) demand for suburban housing. Likewise, there would be higher demand for town center homes if the mostly hidden benefits of such housing were easier to see.

Fortunately for our society, the younger generations are placing more value on town center living and less value on suburban living. Unfortunately, America has spent several decades mostly building suburban housing (partly due to artificially high demand), which means that pretty much all US cities now have far too much drivable suburban housing and far too little town center housing. This inflates the per square foot cost for town center housing. Therefore, American cities need to devote a lot of effort toward better balancing the supply and demand of walkable town center housing by building a lot more of it — partly by incrementally making a lot of suburban housing more compact and walkable. Increasing the supply of town center housing will eventually reduce the per square foot cost of it. This will be a major task in the coming decades. Plenty of demolition and renovation jobs are on the horizon.

I am not saying suburban housing will disappear or that no one will want it or that it should be prohibited. There are likely to always be people in our society who greatly value a lifestyle featuring a lot of driving, a lot of social isolation, large private greenspaces, large homes, etc. (they place so much value on such things that they compensate for the downside costs). For the sake of equity, however, such a lifestyle must be better coupled with suburban homeowners paying higher fees to compensate for the higher detrimental societal impacts their lifestyle imposes on the community.

It needs to be noted, too, that suburban development tends to be a Ponzi Scheme for cities. That is, their initial costs look attractive to elected officials, but cities tend to experience unaffordable, rising costs that suburban housing delivers over the long term — costs that are much higher than the relatively meager tax revenues that such lower-density housing produces. This helps explain why so many cities are severely suffering financially with things like road and bridge maintenance.

https://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/

Communities need to grow the number of “YIMBYs” they have (YES in my backyard). That generally means the community needs a higher percentage of people who love cities (rather than drivable suburbs). This will be a slow process and take a lot of time, as cities have spent several decades cultivating and encouraging the values of suburbia. Therefore, even many who live in town centers are, oddly, holding suburban values.

Over time these suburban values will decline as such values have very little sustainable staying power (such a lifestyle is growing increasingly expensive, for example, for households and cities), and younger people with walkable values will constitute a growing percentage of the population.

Officials and staff can nudge communities to more quickly move toward having a higher percentage of citizens with walkable values by electing leaders who are willing and able to see to it that “on the ground” models of high quality walkable developments are created in the community. That allows people to “see with their own eyes and ears” how pleasant walkable design can be.

That can persuade a larger number of community residents to be amendable to walkable design, which then encourages developers to take advantage of that growing market by building more walkable developments. And gives elected officials more political courage to adopt walkable development regulations.

Elected folks can also show leadership by tweaking “price signals.” For example, leaders can adopt or increase parking fees, increase the gas tax, add a toll to roads, increase suburban impact fees, or adopt a land value tax. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax

Currently, almost all of our price signals are nudging people toward suburban lifestyles and value systems — mostly by pampering motorists and not having motorists pay their own way.

 

 

 

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Self-Perpetuating Doom

By Dom Nozzi

A superb, must-read article describing the grim, isolating future that a great many older Americans face appeared in the fall of 2018. The article noted that the suburban lifestyle will greatly diminish the ability for most seniors in the US to be able to make trips from their homes. They will, in effect, be trapped in their homes as they will be unable to visit friends, shop for food or other household needs, visit a doctor, or visit parks and cultural events.

Self-driving cars won’t be a remedy for a long time, if ever.

I have made many of the points in this article repeatedly over the years.

It is important to catch the point in the article that town planners do NOT have the ability to rectify this important crisis, as US planners have almost no power to implement effective tools. This is largely because most Americans are NIMBYs who fight aggressively to allow no change to their suburban lifestyle. In other words, planners are met with violent, raging opposition from citizens when tactics to escape this grim future are proposed. There is, for example, extreme opposition to more compact, dense development. More narrow, slower-speed street design. Retrofitting bicycling and walking paths. And mixing homes with offices and retail.

This is ultimately quite tragic, as many will regret their diminished lack of future travel independence.

As I have noted a number of times, I’m convinced that only a severe economic, environmental, climate or resource downturn will give us the kick in the ass we need to change. Unfortunately, it has also been said by someone else that throughout history, whenever a society had to choose between extinction (maintaining its lifestyle) or sustainability (thru making substantial changes in lifestyle), the society in question has ALWAYS chosen extinction.

What makes the extinction of the American way of life so likely is that unlike past societies, ours is uniquely locked into a self-perpetuating car-centric suburban land use pattern at the local level and the military-industrial complex at the federal level.

A recipe for essential reforms at the local level, once a severe kick in the pants emerges, includes…

Removal of required car parking requirements.

Elimination of conventional zoning-based codes with transect-based and form-based codes.

The use of more human-scaled dimensions for streets, intersections and building setbacks.

Putting many roads and intersections on diets (ie, removing excessive road lanes).

Replacing surface parking with buildings.

Replacing free parking and free roads with priced parking and priced roads

Unbundling the price of parking from the price of housing.

Requiring that employers offer employees parking cash-out.

Shifting to a land value tax (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax).

Adopting low design speed street geometries and ending the forgiving street design paradigm.

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

The Poison Pill of Requiring New and Relatively Affordable Housing to Provide Off-Street Parking

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 3, 2018

Eliminating parking requirements – and not just for smaller and more affordable housing – is being done by a large and growing number of cities, as doing so is a powerful way to achieve quite a few very important community objectives: walkable and compact urban form, much higher levels of transit/walking/cycling, achieving climate change goals, stormwater management, ecosystem protection, community equity, affordability, and safety…

It is incredibly unfair that the less wealthy subsidize the more wealthy – not to mention subsidizing motorists.

Shame on Boulder for dragging its feet on converting minimum parking requirements to maximum parking requirements. This parking reform should have been done at least 15-20 years ago. Even Gainesville FL – MUCH more conservative than Boulder – did so 20 years ago.

I am so disappointed and surprised by how much Boulder remains in the Dark Ages regarding transportation.

Much lip service is paid in Boulder about retaining small businesses or providing affordable housing. But the fact that Boulder has dragged its feet for so many years without taking such a no-brainer action makes it self-evident that Boulder is not serious about meaningfully striving to retain small businesses or correcting the extreme affordable housing crisis. Many in Boulder talk about these things but are not willing to take effective action to address.

Because required parking is often extremely costly to provide – particularly for smaller, more affordable properties, and particularly in Boulder, where land is crazy expensive, requiring parking as a condition for development approval is, in effect, a “poison pill” that makes the provision of affordable housing technically “legal” but in the real world financially impractical.

This state of affairs exemplifies a lack of leadership and a lack of being serious about promoting travel choice, affordable housing, and small businesses.

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Moses and Modernism and Motor Vehicles

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 14, 2018

After re-watching the Jane Jacobs documentary last night (Citizen Jane) about the epic battle by Jacobs to save New York City from Robert Moses and his ruinous, anti-city plans, this is part of what occurs to me, tragically:

A hundred years after the catastrophe of Le Corbusier (and the deadening, sterilizing disease of unlovable modernist architecture and “towers in a park” he brought to cities toall over the world), and 60 years after Robert Moses destroyed much of New York City with his “slum” clearance and Superhighways for Happy Cars, the large majority of architects, citizens, and Boulder City Council members are STILL strong proponents of “innovative” or “compelling” modernism – a modernism that prides itself in not fitting in with the neighborhood, designing “towers in the park,” and being cheerleaders for oversized happy-car roads.

Recent examples in Boulder: Boulder Junction, the senior housing project at 311 Mapleton, and what we here in Boulder are likely to get for the hospital redevelopment at Alpine/Broadway/Balsam.

I, on the other hand, side with Jane Jacobs. I am deeply depressed by how little people in Boulder (and elsewhere) know about or support the essential ingredients for a healthy, lovable, sustainable city: Slow speeds. Compact development. Timeless/classical architectural design. And human scale.

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