Category Archives: Walking

The Emperor is Wearing No Clothes: Exposing Town Planning for the Ruinous Travesty It Has Become

By Dom Nozzi

October 31, 2017

Back in 1985, I somehow managed to obtain a master’s degree in town planning. But it was not until about eight years into my professional planning career that I was to realize that for several decades, my chosen profession had become a sham.

This epiphany happened to me about 25 years ago when a friend of mine in Gainesville FL gave me a videotape of what I believe is one of the most important, influential, revolutionary speeches ever given on the topic of town planning. It was a speech delivered in 1989 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by a young Florida architect by the name of Andres Duany.

Duany’s speech gave town planning a well-deserved, much-needed kick in the pants.

I was shocked to learn from Duany that a century ago, town planners and developers were heroes. For several decades, of course, the opposite has become the case. Planners have become powerless incompetents and developers are more evil than Satan.

What caused this 180-degree shift in perspective?

What we learn in the Duany speech is that the reputation of town planners and developers was destroyed because the timeless tradition that communities followed for time immemorial was abandoned. That is, about a century ago, communities decided that instead of designing our community and our transportation system to make people happy, we would instead design to make cars happy.Road to Ruin book 2003

This powerful take on what has happened to our world explains so much.

It explains why town planners have become little more than mindless, robotic bureaucrats who have but one overriding mission: Become paper pushing clerks who issue or deny development permits based on whether the proposal will promote easy car travel or inhibit car travel.

It explains why developers are now villains. In nearly all cases, developers up to a century ago built things that improved quality of community life because the design objective was to promote human happiness. But the model for developers changed about a century ago. Now, the objective was to promote car happiness.

There are two primary reasons why this changed mission by town planners and developers is ruinous.

First, those community attributes that most people find appealing – compactness, human-scale, slower speeds, sociability, civic pride, timelessness, a subdued ambiance, and safety – are nearly the exact opposite of what is needed to make for easy car travel. Happy motoring requires dispersion, gigantic car scaling, dangerously higher speeds, glaring lights, and isolation – and each of these things undercuts civic pride, timelessness and safety.

The second reason this change is ruinous is that it is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Car travel is a zero-sum game, because nearly everything we do to promote car travel makes walking, bicycling and transit more difficult. Car ownership also creates a strong vested interest on the part of the car owner to see to it that car travel is cheap and easy. By making walking, bicycling, and transit more difficult, car ownership continuously recruits new car owners. This century-long recruitment now means that even in the most bicycle-friendly US cities (including Boulder CO), there are more cars than people.

The result is that nearly all of us make nearly all of our trips by car. We angrily demand that our elected officials ease our car travel – after all, our cars make it so difficult to get around by walking, bicycling, or transit! We have therefore become our own worst enemies because as I note above, promoting car travel is an exceptionally powerful means of destroying quality of life.

Because cars require an enormous amount of space, motorists feel crowded even with just a tiny number of fellow citizens also in cars. As Dan Burden once said, “cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.” Given this, a large percentage of Americans are NIMBYs on steroids who engage in ongoing pitched battles with developers and elected officials and town planners to demand ultra low development densities (including short buildings), huge parking lots, and massively wide roads.

Developers, citizens, town planners, and elected officials therefore tend to have one overriding mission: promote easy car travel! We must have wide roads. More (and free) parking. More car subsidies and more glaring lights. We must stop compact development.

It is a mission of community ruin.

The key for a better future, then, is to return to the timeless tradition of designing for people, not cars.

 

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Will Boulder’s Traffic Safety Program be Effective?

By Dom Nozzi

October 24, 2017

Whenever I hear about a call for “more education” to improve traffic safety, I know that the issue is not one we are serious about solving (and the call usually comes from the political right wing). It is telling that we don’t hear calls for “more education” when it comes to robbery, murder, terrorists, etc.

Given the fact that all cities have, countless times, doubled down on more education for traffic safety for the past century (and our roads are now more dangerous than ever), traffic safety education campaigns probably suffer more from diminishing returns than anything I can think of.

It is a safe bet that all Americans, when they were children, were told over and over and over to LOOK BOTH WAYS or BE CAREFUL or WATCH OUT FOR CARS whenever crossing a street. For Boulder to aggressively push a HEADS UP campaign (or LOOK BOTH WAYS) at crosswalks is condescending, patronizing, and a shameful example of victim-blaming. It is treating adults like children.lo

Most all of us in traffic safety are well aware of the fact that road engineering to slow cars and obligate motorists to be more attentive is far and away the most effective tactic for traffic safety (using traffic calming interventions and other means of reducing space allocated to cars). No other tactic comes even close to improving safety, to the point of the other tactics almost not being worth even mentioning.

One thing that has really bothered me in my 4.5 years on the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board is how often staff comes to us with solemn, proud sincerity to assure us of the importance of pursuing “the 4 (now 5) E’s”: the outdated, decades long tactic of having us work on Education, Enforcement, Encouragement, Evaluation, and Engineering. Please. Doing this sets up a false equivalence which strongly implies that each is equally important. A much better way of stating this is that there is one big E (engineering), and 4 secondary E’s that are almost not worth considering.

I understand why the City of Boulder is pushing education so hard for its “Toward Vision Zero” traffic safety project (as it has done every few years for the past century). It is because politically, it is utterly impossible to push effective engineering solutions such as road diets (given the Folsom Street debacle that many people are still furious about years after it erupted).

It is so very easy, politically, to push education. Zero opposition from citizens. Who would oppose such a nice thing? When all you have is a hammer (education), all of your problems look like nails…

To its credit, the City has restarted funding for traffic calming, which can be very effective. But that was only after a huge number of citizens demanded it. Staff opposed restoring funding, and it is likely that the City will (intentionally?) continue to okay the construction of speed humps, knowing that humps are furiously opposed by some for their noise pollution and car damage and opposition by the fire department. Knowing, in other words, that humps are a poison pill that has a chance of killing traffic calming again.

It must also be said that even though traffic calming is effective, its effectiveness is substantially muted by the fact that it will not be applied to the major roads in Boulder, which are very hostile, dangerous death traps.

Frankly, given the large number of traffic deaths and serious injuries Boulder has suffered recently, I don’t know what it will take to get the City to take serious action to meaningfully improve traffic safety.

The education push in 2017 shows Boulder is not serious.

Given the above, I continue to recommend that the City suspend and discontinue its Toward Vision Zero program until the City is ready, politically, to seriously pursue it. As it stands now, the Toward Vision Zero program is giving Vision Zero a black eye by being almost entirely a lip service program.

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Green Cars are Nowhere Near the Complete Solution

By Dom Nozzi

October 17, 2017

I don’t think anyone disagrees with the point that we need to promote both “green” cars and fewer cars.

The problem in cities such as Boulder CO, though, is that it seems like most or all efforts are directed at cleaner “green” cars (which makes it seem like dirty cars are the only problem). I and many others in Boulder believe Boulder has plateau’d in shifting people from cars to bicycling, walking, and transit, and there are still far, far too many per capita trips by car.

There are many reasons for this: Densities too low; too many major roads and Double-Left Turn Intersection 2 Pearl n 28th by Dom Nozziintersections oversized and therefore nearly impossible to walk or bike; too little mixing of housing with offices or shops; too much free parking; too little traffic calming; too little road tolling; gas and gas taxes (and other motor vehicle taxes/fees) too low in price or absent; too many one-way streets; excessive parking requirements; over-concern about traffic congestion; failure to adopt an “Idaho Law;” silo-ing transportation and land use so that each is considered without the other; widespread lack of knowledge about (or outright opposition to) effective tools to shift motorists from cars to non-motorized travel; signal lights synchronized for car speeds rather than bus/bike speeds; failure to slow the growth in over-sized service vehicles; widespread belief in the myth that freer-flowing traffic reduces emissions and fuel consumption; over-emphasis on mobility rather than accessibility; no trend analysis of important measures such as quantity of parking or VMT per capita; extremely inflated estimates of bicycling levels that are not even close to reality; over-emphasis on stopping growth or minimizing density as a way to reduce car trips (such efforts actually increase per capita car trips); too much effort directed at creating more open space within the city (the city has way too much open space in part because so much of it is for cars); too much use of slip lanes and turn lanes in places they do not belong; widespread belief in the myth that car travel is win-win (it is actually zero-sum); failure to use raised medians in several locations; making bicycling impractical on hostile streets (due to extreme danger); and over-use of double-yellow center lines.

I also believe that installing bike lanes, bike paths, sidewalks, and improved transit has about reached its limit in recruiting non-car travel.

It seems to me that Boulder’s relatively high city government wealth has allowed the city to over-rely on politically easy tactics (more paths, bike lanes, sidewalks, buses) that involve throwing money at problems. To a great extent, the City rests on its laurels by pointing to the (inflated) bicycling rates, and buys into the societal narrative that dirty cars are the only problem with cars. Too little effort is therefore directed toward the tactics I list above.

I and many others in Boulder fear that the strong, highly visible push for clean cars is in certain ways distracting us from the extremely important need to make progress on the tactics I mention. Much of my tenure on the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board (TAB), for example, has featured a lot on green cars, and pretty much nothing on the tactics I mention.

I think green cars are important, but even if we substantially increased the percent of such cars on our streets, we’d still have a huge amount of work in front of us to address the enormous number of substantial problems associated with per capita car travel – car travel that is way too high.

But I and many others in Boulder fear that the strong, highly visible push for clean cars is in certain ways distracting us from the extremely important need to make progress on the tactics I mention, and makes it too easy for people to conclude that dirty cars are our only problem with transportation.

The comments I make in this blog also apply equally to the promotion of self-driving cars, which is another silver bullet that too many believe will be a sufficient means of solving most or all of our traffic woes. Not only will they not do so if they become a large percentage of cars on the road. I also believe it is highly unlikely that we will ever see a large number of such vehicles on the road. So again, another unfortunate distraction when we have so many important, effective transportation tactics that are languishing for lack of strong advocacy.

I’m afraid that the lack of political will, and the surprising number of citizens who are misinformed, means that for Boulder to start moving on non-green car tactics, severe crisis will be needed that gives the city a kick in the butt.

 

 

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My Comments Regarding Vision Zero in Boulder Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

October 8, 2017

I have served on the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board for 4.5 years. Because only a tiny number of people attend the Board meetings, the thoughts shared by us Board members are heard by almost no one. Therefore, since I consider a “Vision Zero” plan that Boulder is now pursuing so important, and that item is on our October 9th agenda, I would like to give my views more daylight by sharing them on Facebook and my blog site.Vision Zero4

Vision Zero, by the way, is a vitally important objective that many cities in the US have adopted in recent years. It seeks to create a transportation system where there are zero traffic deaths or serious injuries.

Over the past year or so, Boulder has tragically seen several deaths and serious injuries on our roads. I was therefore initially quite happy to see that the City is now proposing a Vision Zero plan.

But while I am extremely supportive of a Vision Zero objective, the strategies being proposed by staff are little more than timid tweaks to the same old, ineffective strategies that Boulder and most all other US cities have tried now for the past century: More warning paint. More (or revised) warning lighting. More warning signs. More warning education. More warning enforcement. After a century of doubling down on these strategies every few years, our roads are in many ways far more dangerous than they have ever been.

In part, this is because the strategies are suffering from a severe form of diminishing returns. After installing thousands of warning signs on our roads over the past century, for example, it becomes information overload and motorists largely tune them out.

But mostly, these conventional strategies are simply ineffective in creating a safer transportation system. For the past century, we have poured a huge amount of public dollars into single-mindedly building roads that have too many lanes (roads are too wide). For a century, we have built roads engineered to encourage or enable high-speed, inattentive driving. Warning paint or safety education can do almost nothing to make it safe to walk across or bicycle on a monster 8-lane urban highway filled with speeding, impatient, inattentive drivers.Arapahoe Ave Boulder CO

In general, the only effective strategy we have to create a safer transportation system that has any chance of achieving a Vision Zero objective (besides creating more compact land use patterns) is to design streets with dimensions and geometries that obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively.

This is not rocket science.

It saddens me to have learned in my 4.5 years as a Board member (and 8 years as a Boulder bicycle and pedestrian and transit commuter) that while Boulder transportation staff is well aware of (and often supportive of) these effective street design tactics, their hands are tied. They are not recommending these effective tactics in the Boulder Vision Zero strategy.

Why are staff’s hands tied? Why are they recommending the century-long same old song and dance for Vision Zero, instead of recommending effective street design strategies?

In part it is because Boulder cannot, by law, redesign state roads in Boulder (but this can be changed, however, as was done on Broadway).

But it is also because too many people in Boulder (and therefore its city government) are way behind the times regarding effective, beneficial transportation tactics. Or simply oppose such tactics. Here is one of several essays I wrote on this.

Staff and city government are not being given permission by citizens to be effective about traffic safety.

Even though I know I will not get a second on a motion I will make at the Monday Board meeting, I will make the motion because it is the only way to have my concerns be on the record and recorded in the meeting minutes.

I will move that the Board request staff suspend and withdraw the Vision Zero initiative because Boulder is not ready to use effective tactics to achieve Vision Zero.double left turn lane intersection boulder

To be fair, I should note that Boulder has re-started a traffic calming program (what Boulder formerly called “traffic mitigation” and now calls “speed management”). This is a very beneficial and effective traffic safety strategy for achieving Vision Zero (at least on smaller neighborhood roads).

However, this street redesign program is not clearly integrated into the Vision Zero plan, and because it will only apply to smaller neighborhood streets rather than the large, dangerous, high-speed roads in Boulder, it will do very little to move Boulder toward an overall Vision Zero objective.

 

 

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It Must Be the Fault of the Pedestrian

By Dom Nozzi

October 7, 2017

A century ago, as Peter Norton points out in his book Fighting Traffic, nearly all of us would blame a motorist in a crash that injured or killed a pedestrian or bicyclist.

But today the situation is reversed.

The knee-jerk response in our age is to blame the pedestrian. To blame the victim. It is akin to blaming a woman for being raped because she dressed “too provocatively.” Or was walking alone at night.

In the very rare instances when a community decides to use effective tactics to reduce the number of times a motorist kills a pedestrian (by, for example, designing the street to obligate slower, attentive driving), many motorists will scream “WAR ON CARS!!” This creates an enormous political obstacle to the creation of a safer transportation system.

Such WAR ON CARS! screamers conveniently forget that tens of thousands of pedestrians are killed by motorists every year. And that not a single motorist has ever been killed after being hit by a pedestrian.pe

Sounds more like a war on pedestrians to me…

I refer to “effective” tactics to improve safety, because nearly all US cities are guilty of spending the past century using, over and over again, ineffective tactics: More safety signage. More safety lighting. More safety paint. More safety education. And more safety enforcement.

Since our roads are now more dangerous than ever following a century of repeatedly doubling down on those ineffective tactics, maybe it is finally time to realize that these conventional safety tactics are a failure.

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A Squandered Opportunity at Boulder Junction

By Dom Nozzi

November 15, 2017

I am very disappointed that Boulder is squandering a golden opportunity to create a high-quality town center that promotes significant levels of cycling, walking, and transit at Boulder Junction. The location was a blank slate that gave us the opportunity to create a vibrant, thriving, highly desirable lifestyle option that is nearly non-existent in Boulder, despite the very high and growing demand for a walkable lifestyle.Amsterdam, May 8, 2017 compared to Bldr Junction

At my November 13, 2017 Transportation Advisory Board meeting, we were presented with a dizzying amount of data regarding observed transportation at Boulder Junction. But it was data without a clear description of our objectives (or tactics to reach the objectives). It therefore amounted to little more than context-less bean counting.

As I see it, the objectives at Boulder Junction should be to create a walkable, compact, human-scaled town center where residents and employees rarely have a need for car travel. Where walking and bicycling and transit use constitute most trips (ie, such trips are normalized), and where driving a motor vehicle is unusual.

Boulder Junction, in other words, should be more like an Amsterdam or a Copenhagen (see photo comparison above of Boulder Junction and Amsterdam). It should have lovable building architecture (like the Boulderado Hotel in town center Boulder, which local polls show to be the most loved building in Boulder). It should have rowhouses and tiny residences.

Our land development regulations, though, are instead giving us a Phoenix or an Orlando. Buildings are unlovable in design, and spacing for building setbacks and streets are in most cases not human-scaled. We are, in other words, failing to use or obligate dimensions that would create a sense of place.

Future reports about Boulder Junction should answer the following questions:

  • Is it easy, safe, and enjoyable to live at Boulder Junction without a car? And is it (appropriately) difficult and expensive to own and use a car?
  • Is Boulder Junction compact enough to offer a full set of mixed-use destinations to jobs? Medical/doctor services? Culture? Groceries?
  • Would you feel comfortable letting your 5-year old walk or bicycle alone throughout Boulder Junction?
  • How scarce are the available parking spaces at Boulder Junction? Is it easy to find parking (which is toxic to walkability and discourages non-car travel), or is it appropriately difficult?
  • How many residents at Boulder Junction are opting to unbundle parking from their housing? A low rate of unbundled parking is a sign that the design of Boulder Junction – and destinations outside Boulder Junction – is not conducive to reducing car dependence.
  • How many Boulder Junction residents and employees are parking for free at their internal or outside-of-Boulder-Junction destinations?
  • Do Boulder surveys show that Boulder residents envy the lifestyle and amenities offered by Boulder Junction?
  • Are driveway and street turning radii, as well as street and clear zone dimensions, small enough to induce slower and more attentive speeds? Are there any streets in Boulder Junction that can be converted to shared, slow streets?
  • What land development regulations need to be revised to better achieve place-making? What street design standards need revision for slower, more attentive motorized travel?

The worthy objectives of minimizing the ownership and use of cars by Boulder Junction residents will be severely constrained by the fact that Boulder Junction is surrounded by areas of unwalkable suburban design where only car travel is feasible. Which means that a large number of destinations outside of Boulder Junction will need to be reached by car. This is also true for the Steelyards neighborhood.

In addition, I don’t see Boulder Junction achieving a sense of place – even at build-out. Streets are too wide (particularly the Pearl Parkway stroad that bisects Boulder Junction), and setbacks are too large.

Future reports need to avoid a “silo” problem, where transportation and urban design are considered separately from each other. Transportation and urban design staff need to jointly author future reports, because transportation tactics can strongly promote or inhibit important urban design objectives at Boulder Junction. Likewise, urban design tactics can strongly promote or inhibit important transportation objectives. Without combining transportation and urban design expertise, we risk unintentionally undermining objectives.

Let’s strive for Boulder Junction to be a Copenhagen. Not an Orlando.

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Why Can’t an Enlightened City Move Away from Happy Motoring?

By Dom Nozzi

June 18, 2014

I have been on a full-press campaign for months now to nudge my home city of Boulder CO toward building its transportation system to make people happy, not cars. Many statements at my transportation advisory board (TAB) meetings, one-on-one meetings with Boulder council members, meetings with PLAN-Boulder County board members (specifically called to discuss my transportation views), holding a “transportation salon” dinner party at my house, getting an op-ed published  in the Boulder newspaper, a published essay in the on-line Boulder political activists journal (The Blue Line), Facebook posts, comments at social events and hikes I attend, Q&A comments at community transportation meetings, postings to my on-line blogs, emails to various transportation radicals I know, a speech to PLAN-Boulder County, and meetings with Boulder transportation staff.

It has been nearly unanimous. Almost all staff, speech audiences, and elected council members heartily agree with my recommendations that we should make people happy, not cars. That we should shrink roads, intersections and parking to a human-scaled size. That we should price parking and roads. That we should reform parking requirements.

Why, then, does Boulder continue to regularly seek to do such counterproductive, outdated things as spending large sums of dollars to install turn lanes all over town, synching traffic lights for car speeds, building over-sized intersections, reducing development densities and building heights to “improve” transportation, and stubbornly delaying a reform of its outdated, costly, excessive parking requirements?

Boulder and its planning documents are famous for aggressively promoting an increase in bicycling, walking and transit use, striving to reduce car trips and GHG emissions, seeking compact development, discouraging big box retail, and promoting smaller, locally-owned shops. Yet with eyes wide open, staff and elected officials — well aware of the fact that increasing road and parking capacity for cars will substantially undermine many of these aims – continue to approve of new capacity for cars. And otherwise ease car travel.

How can this be? How can Boulder continue down the ruinous car-happy path, even though council and staff agree with me?

The paradox has given me a possible insight: While elected officials and staff “get it,” efforts to make people happy instead of cars (by, for example, removing excessive car space allocation and excessive car subsidies) meet with furious, enraged opposition from citizens – many of whom are highly intelligent and can therefore summon seemingly reasonable arguments (along with their rage) to have even the admirable elected leaders and informed staff hesitate to take even timid measures in the direction of people rather than cars.

Also, wealthy Boulder has long enjoyed having such a relatively large amount of revenue to spend for government facilities and programs that it has been too easy to opt to pay for “carrots” like bike lanes and transit, rather than opt for effective “sticks” (such as equitable user fees, road and parking diets, etc.) and thereby be subjected to the wrath of hostile, car-promoting citizens.

Why is there such a strong support for happy cars in enlightened Boulder?

  • High expenses in town make it necessary to live in cheaper outlying areas, which compels even enlightened citizens to be cheerleaders for cars.Woman gesturing out of car window
  • For a century, car travel has been heavily pampered and subsidized (cheap gas, free roads and parking, over-sized car infrastructure that is paid by everyone and not just motorists). The “barrier effect,” which results when easier car travel makes non-car travel more difficult, creates a lot of car-dependent citizens – even those who are “enlightened.”
  • A century of car happiness has inevitably and effectively created such substantial dispersal of land uses in Boulder County that car dependency is locked in – even with great sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit.

All of this means that even in Boulder, there is an artificially high number of “car cheerleaders” than there would have been had we not subsidized and pampered cars, and had such a state of affairs not locked Boulder into a downwardly spiraling vicious cycle.

All of this may be a waste of time and effort, but I am enjoying how much it motivates me to think clearly and write passionately about the topics.

 

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