Category Archives: Walking

Excerpts from Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules (2018)

 

By Dom Nozzi

In February 2018, I read an excellent book regarding walkable design. Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules turned me on to this inspiring 15-min video. It shows how a city being run down by a high-speed, high-volume, massive, dangerous, car-only intersection full of angry motorists could be reborn into a much more courteous, safe, welcoming, healthy, shared place with right-sized roads (diets), removal of traffic signals and traffic regulation signs, expansion of pedestrian areas, and street design that obligates slow and attentive driving.

Please share this with friends and your local traffic engineers!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vzDDMzq7d0

Excerpts from the book:

“There are many things that can be measured in cities, each of which has its own impact on success. Density, diversity, walkability, property value, resource conservation, life expectancy, educational attainment, the production of patents, GDP, carbon footprint, free-flowing traffic: all of these relate to a city’s well-being, attractiveness, and future prospects. Yet only one of them, the last one, is routinely used to direct decision making around a city’s growth, and ironically, it is the one that works to the detriment of all the others. Let that sink in. The one aspect of urban life that has the most impact on city planning, traffic flow, exists in almost perfect opposition to all the other good things a city can have…The more dense, diverse, walkable, and desirable a city is, the more it is likely to be congested. The less fuel it burns and the lower the obesity rate, the worse the traffic. Ditto that on educational attainment, patents per capita, and GDP (Every 10% increase in traffic delay correlates to a 3.4% increase in per capita GDP). In the US at least, greatness brings congestion. Why, then, is design controlled by congestion, and not by greatness?”

“In every major American city, pedestrian deaths are a part of life…The news cycle is predictable: first comes the victim blaming, then the driver blaming – sober drivers are almost never punished – then perhaps a discussion about speed limits and enforcement. Through it all, the crash is called an ‘accident’ as if it was not preventable. Rarely is the design of the roadway itself considered. And never – NEVER – is there any reconsideration of the professional engineering standards that created the hazard in the first place. The Swedes, those geniuses of driving safety, know better. For some time, the leadership of the Swedish traffic safety profession has acknowledged that street design is at the heart of traffic safety, and modified its engineering standards with an eye to lowering speeds in urban areas. The results are astounding. Their traffic fatality rate as a nation is about one quarter of the US, but the biggest difference is in the cities. In 2013, Stockholm, with a similar population to Phoenix, lost six people to car crashes. Phoenix lost 167. Remarkably, Stockholm made it through 2016 without a single pedestrian or cyclist dying. Welcome to ‘Vision Zero’…In Seattle, too – where city engineer Dongho Chang tweets daily about bike lanes, curb extensions, and other safety improvements his department is installing – the impact of Vision Zero is clear…While not stated outright, both its goals and execution fly in the face of a half-century of negligent engineering practice…Advocates should rally publicly around the tragedy of road deaths to overcome hurdles to its adoption.”

“Level of service is the system that traffic planners use, often exclusively, to determine the success of a street network. Level of service (LOS) rankings run from A to F, with A representing unimpeded flow and F representing bad delays…Many engineers aim for an LOS of A or B, because…A’s and B’s are best, right? To an engineer’s mind, the less congestion the better. But this belief ignores the fact that an LOS of A or B corresponds to cars moving at higher speeds than are safe for an urban center. Moreover, experience teaches us that there hardly exists a single successful, vital, main street that would earn an A or B rating. When it comes to retail performance and street life, LOS could aptly be said to stand for Lack of Success…It is clear that the LOS system, which was created to assess highways, is the wrong measure for determining the success of a city. Or, it perhaps is useful, but only if we consistently aim for an LOS of E…Only as a LOS of D emerges into E do we see a significant drop in driving speeds. Even a high F would seem to provide a slow but steady flow of traffic, ideal for a main street…Because congestion is spuriously associated with pollution, it once seemed wise to impose upon new development a burden of maintaining a high LOS. This approach ignored the fact that the most free-flowing traffic is found in those places where people drive the most miles – that smooth traffic is indeed an inducement to driving – and thus our most congested cities make the lowest per-capita contribution to greenhouse gases. In light of this new understanding, the State of California recently eliminated LOS from its environmental review process, and replaced it with a focus on reducing VMT: Vehicle Miles Traveled. Under the old rules, ironically, environmental regulations would stop you from adding a bike lane to a street if a traffic study showed a negative impact on the flow of cars. This still happens in many places. But California has regained its sanity and is once again leading the way in limiting the environmental impacts of driving.”

 

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What To Do About Community Development Issues? A conversation with a friend

By Dom Nozzi

January 16, 2019

My Friend: I don’t know what to do about the fact that our city makes it so difficult for me to create an accessory dwelling unit (ADU)  or a duplex in my single-family zoned house.

Dom Responds: Things you can do: work to elect Council members who are urbanists, rather than NIMBY candidates. Talk up the many, many merits of urbanism and compact/traditional/human-scaled development with your friends (if you are not able to do that, at least send them videos of speakers who do that – I can send you such videos). You can also urge your friends to stop making Boulder’s quality of life worse. Your friends do that every time they DEMAND more parking. Every time they DEMAND more open space. Every time they DEMAND larger setbacks. Every time they DEMAND that no small retail or ADUs or duplexes or coops be allowed in their sacred single-family neighborhoods. You can also speak with your friends and Council members about the merits of traditional, lovable building design. And the unlovable, jarring horrors of modernist building design. Don’t forget to put in a plug for converting free surface parking into paid parking or conversion of parking to homes and retail. Also, the need to convert free roads into toll roads. And the joys of road diets!

BTW, what exactly do you mean by “runaway growth”? Growth that cannot be stopped? If so, we cannot stop growth and slowing it provides no benefit I am aware of. Boulder is ALREADY growing slowly, largely due to the fact that so few can afford to live here. Too many in Boulder believe growth is rapid and out of control in Boulder in recent times. That Council is caving in to developers due to corruption. I don’t see that at all. In my opinion, “runaway growth” is inflammatory and inaccurate.

My Friend: I agree with you on how “density” has gotten to be a dirty word, but it has come by that reputation quite honestly. Denver’s rapid development is very concerning as an example of everything that is bad, and is spilling over into Boulder.

Dom Responds: Why is “rapid development” bad? Would it be better if it happened over 10 years instead of 5? To me, the RATE of growth is irrelevant. I would LOVE to see the rapid construction of walkable, traditional, human scaled town centers rather than drivable suburbs. But I would settle for SLOW development of such charming places, too. To me, it is much better to be fearful of CAR HAPPY development, rather than RAPID development.

My Friend: I get the feeling that cities salivate over the expected new taxes they will collect from the new development and are willing to take short-cuts to maximize the intake.

Dom Responds: I do not believe there are shortcuts being taken by Boulder. I don’t believe Council members in Boulder are corrupt. Both opinions are highly cynical and wrong, in my opinion. Growth in this region is largely induced by the very high quality of life, and the resulting very high cost of land. Boulder elected officials therefore know they need to do nothing shady or corrupt to have a fair amount of revenue-generating development arrive here. To stop or slow growth, your only option is to destroy the quality of life here.

My Friend: Over 70,000 people moved to the Denver-Boulder area last year alone (5,000 per month) and that number or more are expected this year as well as the Denver/Boulder area being the #1 most popular place in the U.S. to move to because of our awesome outdoor environment and #1 availability for jobs.

Dom Responds: Again, lots of population growth in the region is NOT bad, per se. It is only bad if it is accommodated with car-happy development. The community conversation needs to focus on regulations obligating good design. Not obsessing on stopping or slowing or reducing density for new development.

My Friend: At this rate, we will experience grid-lock on I-25 at all hours and not only during rush hours in the near future!

Dom Responds: The good news, as my speeches and books point out, is that congestion tends to be self-regulating. When roads get more crowded, people start having to pay a “time tax.” That results in many motorists opting to change their travel: Some choose different routes. Some avoid rush hour. Some move closer to their destinations. Some use transit. Also, we already know how to avoid congestion if all else fails: tolls.

My Friend: Citizens are perplexed over what to do to stop the grid-lock.

Dom Responds: It is not rocket science: introduce tolls.

My Friend: Can you cite any recent developments within the past 20-30 years that are good high density developments anywhere in the world?

Dom Responds: Here is a worldwide list. Not all of them are great examples, but many or most are very good. They all have a much brighter future – even if some are limping today – than conventional suburban crap: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_examples_of_New_Urbanism

My Friend: Your examples of wonderful, beautiful, high density cities were all created in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Yes, Italy is wonderful and loveable for its character and old-world charms, but rebuilding old-world Europe in the U.S. does not seem possible.

Dom Responds: Untrue. See above link.

My Friend: Are you proposing that 5-story buildings are the max and everything will be ok if we followed that paradigm?

Dom Responds: No. That building height (which is in the Boulder Charter) is only one of many, many essential design elements we must adopt. Toss modernism in the waste can. Adopt slow speed design. Use human scale. Use traditional building design. Create tree-lined streets of a modest width. Mix housing with retail, civic and jobs. Develop compactly rather than low density. I can go on, but will stop there.

My Friend: They are saying that when we get autonomous driving cars, there will be many, many more cars on the roads. What will stop planners from creating tons more asphalt to accommodate them? Where will they park?

Dom Responds: Lack of parking is a VERY GOOD THING. As is congestion. Both induce people to do things that are beneficial for themselves and their community. The only thing that will stop our century-long road widening madness is for us to RUN OUT OF MONEY (and that day is rapidly approaching).

 

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Is “Green Space” and “Low Density” the Solution for a Better Future for Our Cities?

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 15, 2019

 

A conversation with a few of my friends here in Boulder CO…

Donna and Jill: Thank you for your thoughts. I have a great many things to say in response, but in the interest of brevity, I will limit my comments.

Let me start by saying that because the word “density” has been tragically poisoned in American society to mean evil, disgusting, scary, awful, dirty, destructive and terrible — largely because nearly all of us see things from the point of view of our car rather than from the point of view of being human beings, by the way – I will instead substitute the term “compact, traditional, human scaled design.”

I say “tragic” because despite the conventional wisdom, compact, traditional, human scaled design gives us, by far, the best way to have the smallest ecological footprint, the least harm to the environment, the best chance to reduce per capita car travel, an excellent way to promote diversity and choices, the most effective way to create affordable housing and overall affordability, the best way to promote walking/transit/bicycling, the best way to reduce car crashes, the most important way to promote convenience, and the most effective way to create a high overall quality of life. By opposing compact, traditional, human scaled design so obsessively and angrily, Americans are thereby undercutting all of those important community objectives.

We have become our own worst enemy without realizing it.

Another important reason why so many Americans hate compact development is that Americans tend to create TERRIBLE versions of compact development. Compact development in the US is almost always badly done – and thereby given a black eye — because it is nearly always suburbanized, too often employs utterly unlovable and scary modernist building design, regularly strives to pamper motorists, and tends to fail to be human-scaled. By contrast, compact development is done so well in places like Europe that nearly all Americans are willing to travel thousands of miles to enjoy it in Europe.

Compact development is not to blame for crime, or dirty subways (the metro in DC and in much of Europe is very clean and hip), or poverty, or disease. What IS to blame is the century-long fact that Republicans and Democrats yearly pour obscene amounts of public dollars into endless and criminal wars/weapons, road widenings, parking, and police and fire services. With trillions thrown away in such a manner, funding for regular cleaning, repair, and quality design of our public facilities and public realm is shamefully inadequate.

I need to note early on that there is no humane or constitutional way to stop city growth or population growth. And I see no benefit to “slowing” growth (that would just amount to a form of “Chinese Water Torture,” as we would still end up with feared “awfulness” in the long term). Fighting to minimize the density of a proposed development, which is an EXTREMELY common tactic in Boulder (largely to promote happy motoring) is highly counterproductive, as it moves Boulder, incrementally, toward becoming another Phoenix or Houston. Two cities, by the way, that I think we can all agree have “lost their soul.”

Jill, you rightly mention that

“[w]e are replacing natural beauty with ugly houses and not planning a decent public transportation system.  Most streets are filled cars and franchises.  It all looks the same… the stores, the buildings, the parking lots.  We are in Anywhere, USA.”

But those things happen not because of compact development. They are happening because Boulder and nearly every other city is single-mindedly focused on creating a more convenient way to travel by car. Nearly all citizens, as well as their local government, fight tooth and nail to promote lower densities to achieve a happy car world. Doing that kills the chance to create “decent public transportation.” It ensures that we will be stuck in traffic (because development is too low density to travel without a car), and it ensures the city will be filled with franchises (because low density makes it impossible for locally owned, smaller retailers to financially survive).

As for “ugly houses” and “Anywhere USA,” that problem, again, has nothing to do with compact development. It is caused largely by the fact that the architectural profession has become a failed profession. It has adopted the utterly unlovable modernist design paradigm and thrown out the inherently lovable traditional design paradigm. It is also caused by Boulder being so ruinously and obsessively focused on stopping development or slowing it or reducing its density that it has been too distracted and put too little time into adopting building design rules that ensure lovability and local character. Other cities have adopted such rules, by the way.

The popular claim that compact, traditional, human scaled design causes “health and emotional problems” is nonsense. That claim has been completely debunked for decades. It is much more plausible that low-density suburban design causes such problems (there is growing scientific data to objectively confirm this).

To see a superb rebuttal to the claims that compact, traditional design is bad for health and the environment, see “Green Metropolis” by David Owen, “Cities and Automobile Dependence” by Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman, “Cities in Full,” by Steve Belmont, and “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam. Also take note of the fact that the happiest, healthiest people live in compact, traditionally designed, human-scaled places. And the unhappiest, most unhealthy people live in low-density suburbs filled with green.

The most loved cities in the world (which is also the opinion of nearly everyone I know in Boulder) include such places as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, Malmo, Delft, Utrecht and Copenhagen. In Boulder, similarly, the most loved places are the Mapleton Hill neighborhood and Pearl Street Mall.

By striking contrast, the most disliked cities in America include such places as Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Buffalo, and Cleveland.

The “most loved” cities listed above are far MORE compact and have far LESS green space than the “most disliked” cities listed above. It is therefore quite clear that “more green space” (what urban designers call the “nature bandaid”) or “less density” are unhelpful or not necessary ingredients for improving the quality of life of a city. Almost no one travels thousands of miles to visit Dubrovnik or Amsterdam or Siena or Montepulciano to enjoy green spaces or the low-density suburbs of those cities. They nearly all go to enjoy the compact, traditional, human-scaled parts of those cities.

As is the case, not coincidentally, with the Mapleton Hill neighborhood and Pearl Street Mall, which are the most compact, traditional, human-scaled places in Boulder.

Almost no one wants to live in Mapleton Hill because it is low density or has a lot of green space (within its boundaries). Nor does anyone I know visit Peal Street Mall because it is low density or has a lot of green space. In both cases, nearly everyone is attracted to those places because they are compact, traditional, and human-scaled. Similarly, almost no one visits Boulder to enjoy its low-density suburbs (where the most green space is found). Be honest, Donna and Jill: Do you prefer the Mapleton Hill neighborhood, which is much more compact and has less green space than most any other neighborhood in Boulder, or do you prefer, say, Martin Acres, which is much more low-density and has a lot more green space?

I am told by comments sent by Donna that “growth” or “development” or compactness are “destroying” Boulder or the Front Range. Does that mean that, say, Donna should not have been allowed to move to Boulder when she did because when she moved here, she was “growth.” Why is “growth” okay when Donna moves here but not okay when others move here? Similarly, doesn’t this “destruction” mean that Donna should not be allowed to establish a duplex or an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or a Granny Flat or a Carriage House at her home? (something she has complained to me about not being allowed to do hundreds of times over the past several years)

After all, doing those things means MORE COMPACT DEVELOPMENT.

Why should Donna be allowed to have more compact development on her property but no one else is allowed to do the same anywhere in the region? Note: Boulder and all other Front Range cities are more than happy to allow people to create lower-density design on their property. They are totally free to remove buildings (unless they are historic) and install more green space. But it is completely illegal (at least for most of Boulder’s history) to make your property more compact by creating an ADU. Should Donna have been prohibited from building an ADU because it removed green space and increased compactness?

Should Boulder and other Front Range cities continue to PROHIBIT development that would make them more like Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, Copenhagen, Mapleton Hill, or Pearl Street Mall? After all, those cities and the most beloved places in Boulder are more compact and have less green space. Should Boulder and other Front Range cities continue to strongly encourage development that would make them more like Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Buffalo, and Cleveland? After all, those cities are much lower density and have much more green space.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “Denver ranks nearly last among major U.S. cities, including New York, in park space as a percentage of total area. It also ranks nearly last in park acres per resident.” Again, the most loved cities, such as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, and Copenhagen, are not loved because of abundant park space. They are loved because they are compact, traditional, and human-scaled. They are places focused on making humans happy rather than cars happy. Some of the most awful cities in the world, such as Anchorage AK, have an enormous amount of green space,

By the way. I am NOT saying that green space or open space is not desirable. But in American, cities too often have way too much of it in inappropriate places (such as town centers). Vast amounts of green space or open space has a place, but that place is in the suburbs, not in-town locations.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “City leaders are overriding residents’ desire for increased green space as they sign off on more high-density development.” First of all, City Council and Planning Board are obligated by law to follow the land development regulations that were in place when a development was proposed. I know of no instance over the entire history of Boulder (or any other city in the US) where Council or the Planning Board have violated the existing development regulations to allow the developer to have “high-density development” or require less green space be provided than is required by existing regulations. This comment is therefore an inflammatory falsehood.

In addition, as I have noted over and over above, requiring more “green space” (city regulations already require way too much “green space” be provided by new development – at least in the town center portion of the transect) or denying a developers desire for more compact development is a recipe for making the proposed project less like Montepulciano and more like Buffalo. It is the “nature bandaid” again.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “[t] he dwindling of nature in Denver could lead to potentially overwhelming increases in stormwater runoff.” European cities I mentioned above have far less “nature” in them than Denver, yet none of them have significant stormwater runoff problems that I know of. Speaking as a town planner and environmental scientist, I can assure you that low density suburbs (that are chock full of “nature”) and asphalt car parking lots are far and away the leading cause of stormwater flooding and stormwater pollution. But I never, ever hear people allegedly concerned about stormwater runoff calling for less car parking or less low density suburbs. I suspect that is because requesting those truly effective stormwater management tactics would make it less convenient for such people to drive a car.

Donna quotes the following: “There’s a ton at stake. This is something to be concerned about — not just for some big net loss of biodiversity, but for what it means for people to interact with nature on a regular basis,” said Liba Goldstein, a Colorado State University conservation biologist who has helped guide efforts to nurture nature north of Denver in Fort Collins.

First of all, since conservation biologists know a great deal about how to create quality habitat for, say, mountain lions, but next to nothing about urban design (ie, the town center HUMAN habitat), such specialists are notorious for recommending designs that significantly degrade the human habitat. The (unintended) result is that the degraded human habitat ratchets up the desire of people to not live in the degraded town center, but to instead live in an outlying suburb that has steamrolled highly sensitive and valuable ecological habitats over and over again all over the nation for the past few centuries. Had the town center human habitat been wonderful (ie, designed by traditional urban designers rather than mountain lion specialists and motorists), the net result would be a region with a much more healthy ecosystem for mountain lions and other wildlife, because there would be less pressure to flee the town center for the suburbs.

Second of all, I agree that regular human access to nature is very important. The good news is that such access can successfully be provided WITHOUT degrading the town center human habitat. The greenway trails, small neighborhood “pocket parks,” and greenbelt in and around Boulder are an excellent example of that, and provide the “spiritual retreat” that Jill rightly desires.

Abundant green space and relatively large building setbacks and very low densities and very short buildings are the features provided by nearly all development in America over the past century. They are called “suburbs,” and are in no sense whatsoever an endangered way to live (we have way more than we need). The lifestyle (or housing, or neighborhood) that IS endangered is the compact, traditional, human-scaled lifestyle.

Unlike the suburban lifestyle, where the SUPPLY of such housing is far higher than the DEMAND for such housing, the compact, traditional, human-scaled lifestyle features a DEMAND that is far higher than the SUPPLY – which makes it artificially expensive and endangered. This is largely because such a design is illegal almost everywhere in the US, and also because the large majority Americans (who are largely quite dependent on car travel) fight very aggressively to stop or suburbanize such a design — mostly because it is seen as a design that threatens easy car travel.

Donna says to me that “[y]ou should try to live on the Lower East Side of NYC or other similar neighborhoods void of green space and trees to be faced with nothing but towering concrete and asphalt…Only the very wealthy can afford to live near any green. It seems the epitome of your design sense is the greater the density the better.”

With all due respect, Donna, these are unfair exaggerations and red herrings. I have never said anything that remotely suggests my desire for unlimited density (or building height). I have always maintained that, say, Hong Kong densities are awful “anthills” not fit for man nor beast, and I have always maintained that in general, anything taller than 5 stories for a building is too tall for human scale – particularly for non-civic buildings.

What I DO firmly believe is that places like Boulder and the Front Range have, on 99% of their land area, unsustainably low “cow town” densities that are far, far too low to support walking, bicycling, transit, local and small retailers, or affordable housing.

It is also absurd to suggest there is a binary choice: Either a grimy skyscraper city or a grass- and tree-filled suburb of low density one-story single-family homes on 5-acre lots. There are hundreds (thousands?) of cities that nearly all of us find overwhelmingly lovable (such as Lucca or Utrecht or the Mapleton Hill neighborhood) that fall well within those two extremes. Such cities are NOT lovable because they stopped growth or required that development be very low density or required “green space” or lots of trees. Far from it. Such cities were developed at a compactness level that far exceeds ANYTHING we will see in the Boulder/Denver/Front Range region. They are places that have far LESS green space or trees than the awful American suburbs that make up nearly all of the available housing in the US. For me and most everyone else, give me the compact, traditional, human-scaled, relative green- and tree-free traditional centers of Barcelona and Malmo over the low-density, green- and tree-filled suburbs of Toledo and Dallas any day. No comparison whatsoever.

In sum, the problem is NOT “growth” or “development” or “compactness.” It is contemporary, car-oriented, modernist, car-scaled design. Because growth cannot be stopped and because lowering the density of a project gives us a Phoenix-oriented future, we must stop wasting valuable time, money and energy in a futile effort to do stop development or suburbanize it (ie, by lowering densities). Instead, we need to acknowledge that growth is inevitable (future Donnas will and should continue to move here), and focus our energy on ensuring that our development regulations obligate that new, inevitable development to happen in a way that enhances our quality of life (NOT that of our Ford or Chevy).

To do that, our regulations must insist that new development be compact, traditional, human-scaled, and fits into the context of our neighborhoods. THAT is the recipe for a better future. A future where we keep our soul. Where we keep our authenticity and small town character. Where we keep our community environmentally sound. Where we keep our civic pride.

Fighting to stop growth or reduce density or require more “green space” (and thereby ignoring the reform of our development design regulations) is a recipe for becoming another soul-less Houston.

And nearly no one wants that. Do you?

If you DO want that, what cities do you love that followed that path?

Do we prefer run down auto dealerships and dying shopping centers and massive parking lots across the Front Range? Or do we prefer seeing the emergence of Luccas and Malmos and Montepulcianos in the Front Range? To me, the choice is clear…

“Nature,” says Jill “– even as in tree lined streets — can provide a relief from the ills of city living.  I would have no problem with higher rise buildings that [had] trees next to them and along streets.  Just the simple act of planting more trees would help. The non-descript, Soviet era type housing is demoralizing to me…One thing I loved about NY was the transportation system — even the subways I just disparaged.  All one had to do was to step outside and choose whether to get on a bus, subway or taxi.”

Jill, I fully agree that trees are an important ingredient for urbanism. I have always been an open advocate of tree-lined streets, for example. However, for those of us who desire a walkable, urban lifestyle (and there is a very large and growing number of us, combined with a very inadequate supply of such housing), we must be very careful about incorporating trees or other forms of “green.” Why? Because in a town center, the pedestrian is the design imperative. And the most important ingredient for providing a high quality pedestrian environment is proximity and human-scale. Far too often, incorporating trees or other “greenery” undermines proximity and human scale, because plants need a lot of space in most cases. This problem is particularly severe because American society is almost entirely clueless about the important need for proximity and human scale (because our high car dependency makes such design irrelevant).

At the same time, there is a near consensus that trees or other “greenery” is ALWAYS a good thing. “The more the better!!!” is what nearly everyone believes. But this is untrue when it comes to pedestrians, as it is very common to have too much of a good thing. Again, while it is certainly possible to provide discreet amounts of greenery that retain human scale and walkability, the folks who make decisions about incorporating greenery nearly always tend to have zero knowledge about urban design, because they are arborists or ecologists or accountants or elected officials or traffic engineers. The result is that nearly always, incorporating “greenery” leads to enormous setbacks, unwalkable (and deadening) green open spaces, and loss of human scale.

Pearl Street Mall provides very good examples of the desirable use of greenspace. On the one hand, trees are incorporated discreetly so that the space between facing retail buildings retains human scale. It FEELS comfortable to pedestrians for that reason, and promotes friendly, convivial sociability. But unfortunately, an urban design blunder is demonstrated by the County building on Pearl Street Mall, which has a very large, grassy, deadening, suburban space in front of the building. That portion of the Mall is less vibrant than other parts of the Mall due to the deadening effect of that green space.

There IS a place for such large green areas and setbacks. That place is our suburbs, where driving is expected and walking is not.

We need to elect urbanists to serve on City Council, and hire urbanist staff for the city planning and transportation departments. That almost never happens because nearly all voters are suburban motorists who think as motorists and not as humans. Suburban Council members and suburban city managers don’t see any value in having urbanists on staff. Their agenda is happy cars (which, not coincidentally, reduces fury amongst the citizenry). Such an agenda brings us, incrementally and unintentionally, a Los Angeles and Houston future. No one sees that future coming until they wake up one day and say “HOW DID WE GET HERE??????”

By the way, the citizens of places like Phoenix or Houston never intended for those places to become what they are today. Cities such as those had activists fighting violently against growth and density. They fought brutally hard to have MORE GREEN SPACE and MORE OPEN SPACE incorporated in proposed projects. They DEMANDED larger setbacks and lower densities and shorter buildings.

Just like nearly everyone in Boulder.

Guess what? They ended up as the awful places they are today despite fighting those battles furiously. Their mistake, as is happening in Boulder, is that they wrongly thought that greenery and open space and easy car travel and large setbacks and low density would save them. What they ended up with is roads where the motorist has a more pleasant view during their eight car trips each day. No one walks or bicycles or uses transit despite all that greenery because their world has been designed for mandatory motoring.

No, the key for a better, more lovable future is to focus on the needs of the pedestrian: modest, slow-speed human-scaled dimensions for streets and buildings. Traditional, context-sensitive, lovable design of buildings. Compact, mixed use land use patterns.

The very tragic bad news is that despite its reputation for being “progressive” on transportation and land use, Boulder remains firmly in the Dark Ages on those critical quality of life measures.

 

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

Compact Development Avoids Congestion. It Does Not Reduce It

By Dom Nozzi

January 3, 2019

Compact, walkable, transit-oriented development patterns do not stop the emergence of traffic congestion – or reduce it once it occurs. Because cars consume so much space (see my photo set below), any attractive, well-designed city worth its salt will have traffic congestion (all the great cities we love have parking and traffic problems — again, because cars consume an enormous amount of space).40 people (2)

No, what compact, walkable cities do that dispersed, low-density, single-use, disconnected cities cannot do is to offer residents the ability to AVOID the inevitable congestion (or at least many of the negative effects of congestion). Residents of compact cities, for example, have much more of a choice to bike or walk or use transit (each of which are congestion-avoidance tactics). Such cities also provide more choices to live closer to their destinations (another avoidance tactic).

The “addiction” to cars (as is often noted by friends of mine) is largely due to the fact that we have, over the past century, built a car-oriented world that makes non-car travel very difficult or impractical.

We have much work to do to reform our communities so that this is not the case. Sustainability requires that we provide transportation and housing choices.

Drivable suburbia provides only one choice: live in an isolated, sterile, anti-neighborly home that requires that nearly every trip is by car. Such a lifestyle is incapable of adapting to the inevitable future changes we will face, which makes for a grim, expensive, painful, and thereby unsustainable future.

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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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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 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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The Indirect Opposition to Affordable Housing in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

July 24, 2018

People in Boulder often pay lip service to wanting more affordable housing in Boulder. But those same people are too often the ones who most strongly oppose the effective tactics to make housing more affordable in Boulder.

For example, such people tend to strongly oppose smaller residential lot sizes (ie, more density than is currently allowed, taller buildings than are currently allowed, ADUs and co-ops are legal), even though smaller lot sizes are an extremely effective way to make housing more affordable in a city where property values are sky high. A side note here is that City Council made a terrible mistake by reducing the maximum building height in several urban locations to 35 feet. This very low height maximum is only suitable for single-family residential areas.

Such people tend to oppose eliminating the requirement that new development must provide parking, even though required parking requires the property owner to devote a large amount of very expensive land be devoted to car storage.

A great many in Boulder tend to be vigorously opposed to allowing retail and offices in residential neighborhoods, even though doing this would significantly enhance the ability of a household to own less cars (each car costs an American household about $10,000 per year).

A large number in Boulder tend to angrily oppose road diets, even though doing this would significantly enhance the ability of a household to own less cars.

A great many people in Boulder tend to oppose more housing along transit corridors near their neighborhood, even though doing this would significantly enhance the ability of a household to own less cars.

Large numbers of Boulder citizens tend to oppose making it easier than it currently is to replace surface parking with homes and retail in Boulder, even though such housing can be substantially less expensive than conventional housing, and even though doing this would significantly enhance the ability of a household to own less cars.

Many Boulder citizens tend to oppose allowing a larger number of unrelated people to live together, even though this would obviously reduce the expenses of each person living in a house.

Most Boulder citizens tend to strongly oppose eliminating required building setbacks, even though doing so would obviously reduce housing costs, since less very expensive land would be required to be bought by the homebuyer.

Large numbers of Boulder citizens tend to oppose allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family neighborhoods, even though this is obviously a way to make housing more affordable (less land would be needed per house). As a side note, such opposition would be reduced if duplexes and triplexes were built using timeless traditional design rather than unlovable, jarring, context-oblivious modernist design.

Many in Boulder (particularly bicyclists) tend to oppose allowing the City to install more on-street parking, even though this would allow for a significant reduction in housing/retail/office cost, since many households and businesses could avoid needing to devote expensive land to off-street parking.

Most Boulder residents tend to oppose requiring free parking at office and retail establishments to be metered/priced parking instead of being free parking, even though this would greatly reduce the cost of doing business in Boulder.

Most Boulder residents tend to be against requiring all housing sold in Boulder to unbundle the price of parking from the price of the housing, even though this eliminates the ability of households to opt to avoid paying the very high cost of required parking they may not need.

Many Boulder residents tend to oppose traffic calming all major streets in Boulder, even though this would allow households to own a lower number of expensive cars.

A large number of Boulder residents tend to oppose requiring owners of parking spaces (residential, office, retail, etc.) to pay a tax for each space owned, even though this requirement would result in a large decrease in the provision of very expensive parking.

Most Boulder residents tend to oppose offering density bonuses for building timeless, traditional, lovable buildings rather than modernist buildings, even though this would clearly result in reduced housing costs.

Many Boulder residents tend to oppose replacing zoning-based land development code with a form-based code, and applying special area plans throughout the city, even though this would, again, allow households to own a smaller number of very expensive cars.

 

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