Category Archives: Urban Design

Redesigning North Broadway in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

July 17, 2017

My city of Boulder CO has plans to redesign a portion of a major north-south street in Boulder – Broadway Avenue. As a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board, we periodically receive notes from Boulder citizens about such things as proposed street projects. In the summer of 2017, I responded to a member of Community Cycles – a community-operated bicycle shop who had sent my Board a note. The following is my response…

Dear “Tom” (not his real name),

Thank you for sending this to my Board. As you probably know, I am very supportive of much of what is called for by Community Cycles. In particular, I often call for low-speed street geometries in appropriate (compact, walkable, urban) settings. Smaller turning radii and more narrow street lanes are substantially more effective in inducing low-speed, attentive (ie, safe) car speeds than Warning paint, Warning signs, Warning education, Warning signal lights, and Warning enforcement. These five categories of warnings are the conventional tactics that all US cities – including Boulder – have used for the past century.

And continue to use.

Obviously, this section of Broadway is appropriate for low-speed geometries – and will be even more appropriate when we see more buildings pulled up to the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway.

I agree that the street design is too strongly tilted toward delivery (and other) trucks.

With regard to that issue, I believe that when more buildings are pulled up to the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway, there will be a substantial increase inmedian-octavia pedestrians crossing (or wanting to cross) mid-block, rather than at intersections. To design for that inevitability – and to support the low-speed design we need for this section of north Broadway – the design needs to include raised medians along the street. Raised medians reduce average car speeds, increase motorist attentiveness, substantially shorten pedestrian crossing distances, and promote street beautification. I therefore believe raised medians should be included in the Community Cycles recommendation.

When I proposed that raised medians be installed on North Broadway at the last Board meeting, staff responded by noting that it would be difficult or impossible to install raised medians because this stretch of north Broadway has a lot of delivery vehicles using the continuous left turn lane to make deliveries to businesses. However, I believe it is quite feasible to accommodate both pedestrian safety needs and delivery vehicle needs with raised medians.

For example, raised medians do not need to be continuous throughout the entire stretch of north Broadway. By having, for example, turn pockets interspersed with raised medians, delivery areas are largely maintained. Yes, this will sometimes require a delivery person to have to walk 20 or 30 feet further to make a delivery, but this tradeoff is a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the dramatic pedestrian safety (and other) benefits provided by the raised medians.

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Boulder Shows It Still Doesn’t Get It on Proposed Widening of Arapahoe Road

By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2017

A news article and an accompanying op-ed by the editor in chief were published in the Daily Camera in June 2017, and it made my blood boil.

Here we are in 2017, and despite over 100 years of repeated failure, too many citizens, elected officials, and staff continue to be convinced that it is necessary to spend a huge amount of what I thought were scarce public dollars (not so scarce when it comes to road/intersection widening and buying Pentagon weapons, though…) to worsen transportation, taxes, land use patterns, and quality of life by widening roads and intersections.

My friend Michael Ronkin informed me later that day, after I read these disheartening newspaper submissions, that even Geneva, Switzerland is not truly getting this.

It galls me that those proposing these road or intersection “improvements” in the face of growth projections consider themselves to be “far-sighted” in calling for this in advance of the growth. Part of the thinking, as Charles Marohn points out, is that road and intersection widenings in the past were not widened “enough,” the road or intersection was soon overwhelmed with “excess” car trips, and it was discovered that the need for a SECOND widening was far more expensive, overall, than if the road or intersection was widened “enough” in the first place. “Enough” so that the second widening would have been unnecessary. The solution? Deliberately overbuild the size of the road or intersection so that the unexpected surge in car trips in the future could be accommodated without the need for a very costly second widening. This is considered being “farsighted.”

However, by widening roads or intersections, at great public expense, such “far-sighted” people are locking their communities into a far worse future. They don’t have a clue about things like induced car travel demand (new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened) and how bigger roads/intersections inevitably lead to more sprawl and car dependence. And a loss of a sense of place or a sense of small town charm.

They don’t realize there is an alternative to the century-long ruinous widenings. “Let It Be,” as the Beatles once said, and socially desirable results will emerge (rather than be undermined by widening). If we don’t try to “solve” anticipated congestion by widening, we will realize slower speeds, less car travel, more bicycling/walking/transit, more compact development, more of a sense of place and charm, lower taxes, less car crashes, less obesity, etc.

I am convinced that once a society commits itself to a car-happy world by building happy-car infrastructure (dispersed low density development, big parking lots, big roads, big setbacks, big intersections, single-use development, etc.), it traps itself in an irreversible downward spiral, because even in “enlightened” communities such as Boulder, the car-oriented road infrastructure and the dispersed land use patterns needed to make car travel free-flowing obligates citizens to angrily insist that car-happy design (which is extremely hostile to non-car travel) continue to be provided. After all, the community now forces citizens to travel by car. There is seemingly no alternative. We must dig the hole deeper. We must lock ourselves further into car dependence.

Given this downwardly spiraling trap, America and its cities will need to run out of money before it is forced to stop the unsustainable insanity of widening roads and intersections. After all, even a century of failed widenings has apparently taught us nothing at all.

A final note: Boulder and Boulder County pride themselves in being smart, progressive, and cutting edge — particularly when it comes to transportation. But these planned road and intersection “improvements” on Arapahoe Avenue illustrates that Boulder is far behind the times and continues to be moronic when it comes to transportation.

By the way, a number of folks in Boulder like to respond to my pointing out that Boulder doesn’t get it regarding widenings by saying that Boulder no longer widens roads. While that may be true, Boulder continues to widen INTERSECTIONS (by creating double-left Arapahoe Ave Boulder COturn lanes, for example) all the time. But bigger intersections are worse than wider roads in many ways. For example, oversized intersections forever lose the ability to create a small town sense of place. It will always be a placeless, car-based location where people will never want to hang out. Such intersections will forever fail to pay for themselves because they eliminate the sales tax and property tax potential of those locations.

One of our societal problems is that news reporters often perpetuate myths when they write on topics they are not informed about. Many readers assume that if the comments are published in a newspaper, they are probably true.

This is a particularly big problem on the topic of transportation, as citizens (including reporters) tend to think it is so obvious what needs to be done to improve transportation. It is common sense! They fail to realize that many effective transportation tools are counter-intuitive.

Unfortunately, I will be stepping down from the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board before I get a chance to speak out against this tragic mistake and cast a lone vote against the proposed Arapahoe Avenue “improvements.”

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Filed under Bicycling, Transportation, Urban Design, 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.

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

Why Are Mom and Pop Stores So Scarce?

By Dom Nozzi

May 17, 2017

A friend of mine recently complained that the city we live in (Boulder CO) is “planning ANOTHER bank for the Pearl St. Mall! When is enough enough,” she asked?

She went on to claim that there are “15 empty store fronts but that is because of landlord greed.”

“When,” she wondered, “will the city decide that we need to encourage mom and pop stores over banks and large chains that have no vested interest in the city?”

The City of Boulder, I explained to her, is not planning to add another bank to the Mall. A bank president is planning to do that.

Banks, I said, are common in such low-density places (such as American pedestrian malls) that are unable to attract a large number of customers, as are jewelers. If you were a landlord along the Mall, I told my friend, I suspect that you would be aggressively seeking the rents sought by the existing landlords, as I believe you share the same values as those landlords: making money rather than losing money. And I suspect you would not consider yourself “greedy” for wanting to avoid losing money.

Throughout its history, and up to this very moment, Boulder (like a great many cities in America) has desired mom and pop stores along the Mall. But there is almost nothing a city can do to encourage such stores for two primary reasons: (1) The rent is very high along the Mall, which makes it financially impossible for a mom and pop store to afford to be there; and (2) The density of residential and commercial development in the vicinity of the Mall is far too low to attract enough customers to make it feasible for a mom and pop store to survive.

Mom and pop stores only occur when rents are relatively low, when there are a high number of customers living and working in the vicinity (such as in Brussels, Antwerp, Bern, Siena, and many other compact cities), or both.

The Law of Large Numbers, when applied to cities, shows that as a city grows its population, and does so relatively compactly, worker productivity increases, innovation increases, mom and pop stores grow in number, cultural diversity grows, and the range of restaurants and grocery store items grows. The Law partly is driven by synergy. UntitledSynergy occurs when larger numbers of people congregate and work together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Low densities, by isolating creatives, destroys diversity, innovation, smaller scales and the number of choices available.

Boulder is an interesting case because it shows both effects: a very low density, yet relatively high levels of innovation due to the large number of brilliant and creative people who have settled in Boulder — largely due to the high quality of life. If Boulder became much more compact and dense, I believe levels of innovation, diversity, productivity, mom and pop stores, and productivity would grow substantially (the city would also be far more walkable and bikeable).

Boulder’s decades of NIMBYS fighting tooth and nail to lower densities (and the very high quality of life) in the city are the primary reason why mom and pop stores are rare on the Mall and big chains/banks/jewelers are common.

When is enough NIMBYism enough?

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Filed under Economics, Politics, Urban Design

Will Open Space Make a Town Center Better?

By Dom Nozzi

May 25, 2017

Despite the conventional wisdom, town squares are not improved via big setbacks and vegetated open space. Squares such as in this photo below feel wonderful, safe, convivial, and happy because of such things as human scale — the compact mixing of offices, retail, homes, services, bars, restaurants, and govt. Adding big setbacks, green open spaces, short buildings, big parking lots, and oversized roads suburbanizes a place and undercuts its ability to be a wonderful public gathering place.Untitled

It is tragic that we so badly failed to create human-scaled spaces at Boulder Junction in Boulder, Colorado, but instead have opted for over-sized, unlovable, uncomfortable spaces (see the second photo below).

We are unlikely to create human-scaled charm and vibrancy in the redevelopment of the Boulder Community Hospital site between Balsam and Alpine.

Or at any other place in American cities such as Boulder as long as we make the mistake of believing that big setbacks, big open spaces, vegetation, shorter buildings, and bigger roads and parking lots are important ingredients for new development.

Boulder Junction

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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.

 

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

Inverse Relationship Between Buildings and the Splendor of the Local Environment?

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 18, 2017

I have heard it said that there is — in America at least — an inverse relationship between the beauty of architecture and overall community design in a community, and the beauty of the surrounding natural landscape. The more spectacular the surroundings, the more mediocre the architecture and community design.

If true, I would speculate that this can be said because a community fortunate enough to be within a gorgeous natural setting having a tendency to single-mindedly focus on protection of the spectacular natural landscape as the be all and end all of community beauty.

But community beauty is far more than protecting the natural beauty (as important as that is). The community must ALSO not lose sight of the extreme importance of adopting regulations that obligate the construction of beautiful buildings and neighborhoods and streets.

I believe that Boulder has failed to sufficiently focus on these aspects of community beauty.boulder flatirons

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Filed under Environment, Urban Design