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Why, then, does Boulder continue to regularly seek to do such counterproductive, outdated things as spending large sums of dollars to install turn lanes all over town, synching traffic lights for car speeds, building over-sized intersections,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development densities and building heights to “improve” transportation, and stubbornly delaying a reform of its outdated, costly, excessive parking requirements?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

Response to an Editorial by the Editor of the Boulder CO Newspaper

By Dom Nozzi

July 2, 2017

On July 2, 2017, Dave Krieger, the editor of Boulder, Colorado’s major newspaper — the Boulder Daily Camera — published an opinion piece called “Traffic Engineering Rules Still Apply.” The piece contained several unfair misstatements.

Mr. Krieger refers to something he calls “basic traffic engineering.” One must assume by this comment that the reference is to the conventional methods traffic engineers have used for over a century: Widening roads and intersections to “reduce congestion” or “accommodate expected growth in area car trips.”

There is one small little problem with such “basic traffic engineering.”

It has utterly failed for a century.

The trillions spent on widenings not only failed to resolve congestion. By ignoring the well-documented, inevitable impacts of induced demand (caused by what Anthony Downs calls the “triple convergence”), the widenings over the past several decades have also worsened land use patterns, increased per capita car trips, decreased per capita bike/walk/transit trips, increased household transportation costs (they are now higher than all or nearly all other household costs), increased air emissions, and caused severe financial strain not only to households but to all levels of government.51df393d218c6-image

To call Boulder council members “ideologues” is inflammatory and ironic, since those calling for widenings have a much stronger ideological bent (the ideology of a car-based, high-speed, anti-city lifestyle). Similarly, to suggest that not widening is a form of “social engineering” is hypocrisy, given the fact that the most extreme form of social engineering engaged in by a society — by far — is the social engineering of compelling millions for over a century to be car dependent.

It is mis-informed to suggest that the “complete streets” road design tactics sometimes employed in Boulder and Boulder County are ineffective in modifying behavior, as a great many studies conclude that this form of “nudging” is extremely effective in guiding many motorists to drive in more socially desirable ways.

I choose the word “nudging” deliberately, as complete streets road design tactics retain the choice to travel by car. By contrast, pro-car design tactics such as widenings are much closer to forcing most of us to travel by car.

Which is, by definition, a strong form of social engineering.

Is it okay to engage in social engineering if doing so compels a lot more people to drive by car? (ie, the normalized way to travel)

It again is an inflammatory (yet common) falsehood to claim, as this opinion piece does, that not widening forces most or all motorists to abandon their car in order to walk, ride a bike, or use transit (which the author asserts is impractical for most). Such a claim is silly, unless one can make the case that a car trip that takes seconds or minutes longer will “force” people to abandon their cars.

It needs to be pointed out that many wrongly assume, as the author does, that a growing number of people inevitably requires there to be a growth in the number of travel lanes on local roads to accommodate such growth. If this were true, cities such as NYC and LA, which are home to several million people, would have needed to build roads that are hundreds of lanes in width to avoid gridlock.

Furthermore, the author forgets that transportation is a zero-sum game. That is, when conditions are modified to further increase the ease travel by a larger number of cars, traveling by walking, bicycling, or transit is made more difficult (what Todd Litman calls the “barrier effect”), The barrier effect recruits even MORE per capita car travel.

In addition, another overlooked, yet highly important impact – particularly for the residents of Boulder – is the highly negative downstream impacts of the larger volume of cars that road widening induces. By enabling and therefore inducing higher car volumes on Arapahoe, widening imposes more noise and air pollution on Boulder, puts more wear and tear on Boulder streets, consumes more parking (which obligates Boulder to build even MORE parking), makes Boulder streets more dangerous, and dramatically reduces overall quality of life in Boulder.

Finally, it is highly misleading to assert or imply, as the author does, that all trips on Arapahoe are long-distance, relatively important and time-sensitive commuter trips from small towns (ie, trips that can only be practically made by car). We know from many studies that a large number of trips on Arapahoe are relatively low-value (ie, trips to buy a cup of coffee). Such trips are induced at times that include rush hour by over-sized, non-tolled roads such as Arapahoe, and by the lack of compact, connected street, mixed use neighborhoods. These lower value trips are less affected by slower travel times due to the relative ease of shifting when such trips occur during the day.

In sum, the author criticizes Boulder for failing to follow “basic traffic engineering rules,” yet ironically, it is he who is unaware of a great many basic engineering rules, such as the triple convergence, the barrier effect, the travel time budget, the variable nature of trip value, downstream impacts, the zero-sum game, and the social engineering that compels car travel. Worst of all, the author ignores something that has been known for several decades and is so invariable that it can be considered not only a “basic rule” but an iron law: We cannot build our way out of congestion. Widening a road to reduce congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity. It wrongly assumes that car traffic behaves like water flowing through a pipe. In fact, for reasons I cite above, car traffic behaves like gas. That is, when the pipe is enlarged (widening) — car traffic — like a gas, inexorably expands to fill that larger pipe.

It is a great disservice to Boulder that we have an editor-in-chief of our local newspaper that is writing poorly-informed opinions that severely undermine many important community objectives, convince many citizens that Councilmembers and their adopted long-range plan are wrong-headed (to the point of being evil and undemocratic), and make it more likely that there will be increased political will to have the community adopt ruinous tactics that have almost universally failed for over a century.

Someone on Facebook responded to my comments by asking what to do about the 50,000 commuters that drive into Boulder each morning. We don’t have a clean slate, he told me. My response:

A fundamental principle is that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Stop treating Boulder like a doormat repeatedly (by continuing to widen, as Boulder has done over and over again historically), in other words.

There are several tactics that can be employed to positively address the large number of commuters. An obvious tactic is more housing — particularly more affordable housing. We can also start tolling major roads, provide more transit coupled with more park-n-ride, provide more compact and mixed use development, make major roads more like complete streets (rather than the car-only stroads they are), create more priced parking and parking cash-out (particularly at workplaces), reduce the quantity of free parking, convert minimum parking regulations into maximum parking requirements, and reduce the size of over-sized roads and intersections. NONE of those things PROHIBIT a person from continuing to in-commute by car to Boulder.

A person can continue to do that.

What each of these equity-enhancing tactics do is NUDGE travelers toward more socially, economically, and environmentally desirable travel. Some motorists will be inconvenienced in the short term, which many of us consider to be a very fair trade-off, since the inconvenience creates more equity, less air and noise emissions, lower taxes, less wear and tear, more safety, and less per capita car travel. In the long term, such tactics will improve the region, as they will induce more commuters to live closer to their destinations, enhance transit service, increase the amount of in-town housing, reduce higher speed car travel, improve conditions for smaller stores (rather than Big Box stores), and increase Boulder’s ability to shrink oversized parking lots, roads and intersections.

Note that most all of the motorists would be commuters, but it must be kept in mind that a large number of motorists on Arapahoe are NOT commuters (which means they will have more flexibility about where or when or how they travel).

Economists have calculated the approximate financial cost of travel by car, bike, walk, or transit. Those calculations show that each car trip imposes a financial COST on the community (a cost that most or all in the community must pay, regardless of whether they drive a car or not). Each bike/walk/transit trip results in a positive financial BENEFIT for the community (a benefit that most or all in the community enjoy, regardless of how they travel).

Knowing this, what should we do to be fair and to achieve community objectives? In other words, how do we make our community more financially sustainable?

Many of us believe that should one choose to travel by car, one should compensate for the cost imposed on the community. The most fair way to do this is to deploy user fees such as a gas tax, tolls, a VMT fee, etc. (rather than have everyone pay, through sales taxes, property taxes, higher grocery bills, or lower quality of life, regardless of whether they travel by car or not).

Again, user fees are nudges. They do not force people to stop driving a car. Therefore, they rightly acknowledge that many trips must be made by car. User fees simply make transportation more equitable, and nudges those with a choice to consider traveling in more socially desirable ways.

Note, too, that traffic congestion is a form of nudge. As Todd Litman would say, congestion imposes a “time tax” on the rush hour motorist, which nudges those with a choice to consider driving at non-rush hour times or live closer to their destination, or choose a different route. A time tax is obviously easier to achieve than a more effective and efficient tolling of the road, of course.

Temporarily reducing congestion by widening short-circuits that relatively affordable and achievable form of nudging.

Many cities in the past put all of their “eggs” (their trillions of public dollars) into the conventional “basic engineering” tactics that the author promotes. They did so while being in precisely the same situation that Boulder is in: What to do about congestion? What about all the in-commuters? They all greatly worsened their transportation situation and their quality of life. Examples of those cities include Phoenix, LA, Houston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.

I don’t want the Boulder region to go down the path of any of those unfortunate cities by opting for “basic engineering” tactics that the author urges, because those “common sense” tactics greatly worsened the situation.

We can do better. Let’s not keep making the same ruinous, bankrupting mistakes.

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

Free-Flowing Traffic Tends to Increase Emissions and Fuel Consumption

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 15, 2013

Most American cities are a long way away from where they need to be on an over-arching position on transportation and land use. In particular, it is a nearly universal belief that it is essential to promote free-flowing car travel (by adding turn lanes, generally opposing road diets, establishing continuous left-turn lanes, synchronizing traffic signals for cars, etc.) in order to reduce emissions and fuel use. By striking contrast, I am of the opposite view. I am firmly convinced of two things on this issue:

  1. Car travel is a zero-sum game. Nearly always, when car travel is made more convenient or free-flowing (usually by giving cars more space), bicycling, walking and transit decline (due to “barrier effect” problems). Promoting free-flowing traffic shifts many trips from non-car travel to car travel as a result.
  1. Low-value car trips. When roads and nearly all car parking is free, we are begging people to drive a car with those big subsidies. After all, there are so many rational reasons to drive a car: cargo carrying, convenience, security, speed, status, flexibility, protection from weather, etc.). Since motoring appears to be “free” when roads and parking are free, there are little if any disincentives to driving. First-year economists know quite well what the inevitable result will be: Over-use of roads and parking due to the INDUCEMENT of new car trips (particularly “low-value” trips such as driving a car to rent a video at rush hour) that were formerly discouraged from happening at rush hour or on certain roads. In other words, if a road is carrying, say, 20,000 vehicles per day, and the City or State opts to make the road more free-flowing, that road will NOT continue to carry 20,000 ADT. It will now carry, say, 25,000. The 5,000 new (latent, induced) trips were formerly discouraged by the less free-flowing conditions in the past.

An example of latent demand: I hear friends say over and over again that they are not going to drive at such and such a time or on such and such a road because those times or roads are too crowded with cars. It does not take rocket science to know what will happen if we make those times or roads more free-flowing…

The combination of the above two factors therefore means that free-flowing cars produce MORE car emissions and gasoline consumption, not less (as the advocates of free-flowing traffic would have us believe). Yes, in free-flow conditions, an 1158INDIVIDUAL CAR produces less emissions and uses less fuel, but on a community-wide basis, the induced new trips result in more emissions and fuel use overall. In effect, engineers in this case fail to understand simple economics and changes in human behavior (economics and psychology, again) when they strive for free-flowing conditions. They fail, in other words, to realize that free-flow induces new car trips that would not have occurred had the free-flow conditions not been promoted. This inducement, again, is inevitable when we have free-to-use roads and (mostly) free parking. Largely because there is a great deal of latent demand for more car travel if conditions are made more convenient or pleasant for car travel.

By the way, the concept of induced car travel has been quite well-established for a number of decades. A great many traffic engineers know it exists. But almost no conventional traffic engineer will act on their awareness of induced demand – probably because they have not been given permission to do so.

The above also illustrates why, even in theory, it is impossible to build (widen) our way out of congestion. Induced demand for car trips is the bugaboo elephant in the bedroom that nearly all American cities ignore.

 

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Filed under Environment, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

The Gigantism Disease

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 17, 2008

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

American cities, like most others in the world, are dying. Despite an emerging downtown renaissance being led by a notable growth in downtown residential development, changing demographics, and escalating gasoline prices.

Cities are dying due to an affliction I call “Gigantism.”

Like overeating, inactivity and obesity, gigantism is not being imposed on us by an evil outside force. It is largely self-inflicted.

We have become our own worst enemy because we have spent over 80 years building a world in which it is nearly impossible to navigate without a car. The Barrier Effect, as described by Todd Litman, when applied to transportation planning, refers to the “barriers” that over-design for car travel creates for other forms of travel. To put it simply, designing an “incomplete” street (a street that is designed exclusively or predominately for cars) makes travel by walking, bicycling and transit extremely difficult, if not impossible. In effect, an incomplete street creates a self-perpetuating vicious cycle because the travel barriers created by incomplete streets tend to continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly non-motorists—non-motorists who now find that on the incomplete street, travel by walking, bicycling or transit is unacceptably unsafe, inconvenient or otherwise unattractive.

Over time, the incomplete street increases the proportion of community members who are now traveling by car. Tragically, this on-going recruitment of new motorists compels many communities to spend large sums of public dollars to widen and speed up roads to (unsuccessfully) strive to accommodate the growing number of motorists. And these newly widened, higher speed roads create an even larger barrier effect. Which recruits even more motorists (“induced demand”), which then builds pressure for even wider roads, resulting in roads that drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users find unpleasant and unsatisfactory, fueling the demand for further “improvement,” usually widening.

We are therefore compelled to insist, at every opportunity, that new development promote car travel. Yet cars and people have vastly different needs. Due to their large size, motor vehicles require vastly over-sized parking lots, large building setbacks and wide, multi-lane roads reasonably free of other motor vehicles (despite the conventional wisdom, most cities actually have too much open space — but this open space is for cars, not people). To achieve that, widely dispersed, low-density, single-use patterns of development are necessary. Street lighting must be tall and bright, and retail signage must be enormous to promote visibility and readability in high-speed motor vehicles.

Because motor vehicles enable us to travel greater distances more conveniently, growing regional “consumer-sheds” are created, which has enabled the rise of gigantic “big box” retail development which takes advantage of such retail regionalism.

We are left with an overwhelming and disheartening amount of auto-centric architecture. Architecture that no one can be proud of.

This brutalization of our everyday world, amplified by the over-sizing of roads and parking lots, leaves a public realm that Americans have understandably fled. Instead, we are compelled to increasingly turn inward into the private realm of our accessorized, huge turn radius for roadluxurious homes and cars. Without a public realm worth caring about and participating in, we seek alternative outlets for a meaningful life. And this is exemplified by the substantial growth in the average size of the now gigantic American house, which has enlarged from 1,385 square feet to 2,140 square feet (a 54-percent increase) from 1970 to 2000.

Our over-sized world stands in stark contrast to what many people tend to prefer, which is smaller building setbacks, human-scaled and low-speed streets, modest lighting, signage and parking. People feel exposed and uncomfortable in gargantuan spaces—spaces over-designed for motor vehicles.

On average, a person in a car consumes 17 times more space than a person in a chair, which means that cars devour an enormous amount of space. The average car is 14 feet long by 6.2 feet wide = 55 square feet. The average person in a chair is 2.25 feet by 2.25 feet = 5 square feet.  Thus, a car consumes 17 times more space than a person sitting in a chair (even more if person is standing). By multiplying the number of cars in Florida in 2005 by 17 square feet, we can estimate that cars consume 1,581,100 square feet or 35,677 acres or about 27,444 football fields.

Planner Victor Gruen, in 1973, estimated that every American car is provided with four parking spaces.

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup estimates about 1 billion parking spaces for cars in the U.S.  If this were all surface parking, parking lots would consume approximately 12,375 square miles (roughly the size of Maryland). As a rule of thumb, a parking lot typically requires an additional 10 to 20 percent of its land area as stormwater basin area, although this can vary rather significantly based on such factors as soil type. Therefore, we can assume that a 300 square-foot parking space (the amount of space a typical car needs for parking, as well as maneuver space in the parking lot) would require 300 x 0.15 = 45 square feet of stormwater basin. In other words, if we include both space taken up by the typical parked car, maneuver space, and stormwater basin space, each car requires 345 square feet of land area just for parking.

The above means that to promote ease of motor vehicle travel, there is no alternative but to build sprawling, dispersed, low-density cities.

Of course, the growing size of American vehicles—particularly the SUV phenomenon—has fueled a need to build bloated roads and parking areas to accommodate these over-sized vehicles. Making matters much worse, however, is the decades-long trend of the growing size of trucks—particularly fire trucks.

Unfortunately, some fire chiefs are choosing to purchase larger and often less maneuverable fire apparatus. An unintended consequence is that such choices will dictate future community decisions about street dimensions. Larger truck decisions can prevent a community from designing safer, more human-scaled streets.  Fortunately, wise fire chiefs who are aware of a need for a more charming, safe, human-scaled community are able to make fire apparatus choices that are in line with such objectives (buy purchasing smaller fire vehicles, for example, or at least buying “articulated” vehicles that allow maneuvering in tight streets). If some parts of a community must have larger, less maneuverable fire apparatus for safety reasons, it would be wise to consider having both larger and smaller vehicles. One size, after all, does not fit all when one considers both the larger dimensions found in suburbia and the more modest dimensions found in urban settings.

For engineers, therefore, the design vehicle obligates the design of colossal lane widths and turning radii, which moves cities further from a livable human scale.

Where has the charm gone?

When we look for charming locations in our communities, we find that this charm is invariably found in our historic districts—places built, in general, over 100 years ago. We Catania Italy walkablelove to visit places like Paris and Geneva, with their ancient, intimate architecture, their layout of streets and neighborhoods, and their romantic ambience. And newer places are most valued when they mimic that style. We find that the more contemporary development—the more contemporary streets and roads—are invariably not charming. We have apparently lost the ability to build lovable places.

Why?

Is it because of the need to promote public safety? Is cost an issue?

Hardly.

It is because charm is impossible when we must design for the colossal spaces required to accommodate the car. Buildings must be set back enormous distances from the street to accommodate vast fields of parking (even the turning movements of the motor vehicle require that a building be pulled back from the street intersection to create the “vision triangle” and turning radius necessitated by a large, high-speed vehicle).

One unintended consequence of this dispersal and pulling back of buildings is that buildings lose the ability to “hold” an intersection. Or frame an “outdoor room” ambience on a street. Place-making is not possible when these human-scaled spaces are lost. There is no “there there” anymore.

Nothing to induce civic pride.

The gigantism disease is also aggravated by our decades-long road design efforts to maximize vehicle speeds, and to implement the related “forgiving streets” design paradigm. High-speed road geometries create enormous dimensions for intersection turning radii, lane width, shoulder recover zones, and size of roadside signage.

Forgiving street design delivers tree-less streets, over-sized vision triangles, and a removal of on-street parking, among other things. The motorist is “forgiven” for not paying attention while driving. Forgiven for driving at excessive speeds. Forgiven for careening off the road.

An unintended consequence of such design is that a large and ever-growing number of motorists are found to be driving too fast, too inattentively and too recklessly. Ironically, the intended safety improvements from the forgiving street actually result in less road safety.

High-speed design and forgiving streets, then, result in a loss of human-scaled streets, and the promotion of speeding, inattentive, road-raged motorists completely incompatible with quality urban areas.

Buildings must also be dispersed from each other to accommodate car travel, as the placement and agglomeration of buildings in a walkable, human-scaled pattern quickly creates intolerable vehicle congestion that gridlocks an area.

Induced demand, where a road widening breeds new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened, locks us into a never-ending cycle of congestion, widening, more congestion, and more widening. Endlessly.

Or until we run out of public dollars.

This vicious cycle brings us 4-lane roads. Then 5. Then 6. Then 8. Ultimately, we are left with dangerous, high-speed, overly wide, increasingly unaffordable roads that we dread and are repelled from. Roads that, again, are car-scaled and not human-scaled. Ironically, the roads we hate most are those we’ve spent the most of our tax dollars to build. What does that say about what we are doing to ourselves?

Agglomeration Economies

Cities, to be healthy, must leverage “agglomeration economies.” That is, thriving, vigorous cities are characterized by densification, concentration, compactness and clustering of people, buildings, and activities. As Steve Belmont points out in Cities in Full (2002), an intensification of property is a sign of city fitness and dynamism. As city property is converted to a less intense activity such as parking, widened roads or over-sized building setbacks, the energy of the city is dissipated, and is a sign of a city in decline. Therefore, the gigantism borne from the gap-tooth dead zones created when property is cleared for vehicular parking or roads is toxic to a city.

The vehicle “habitat” in cities (parking and highways) drains the lifeblood from the metropolis.

It is not only the directly deadening effect of replacing buildings and activities with roads and parking that kills a city. Highways and parking also indirectly eviscerate a city by powerfully fueling the residential and commercial dispersal of communities through sprawl.

Finding Our Way Back to the Future

It is said that both the dinosaurs and the Roman Empire collapsed due to gigantism. For our society to avoid that fate—to restore safety and quality of life to our cities in the future—will require us to return to the timeless tradition we have abandoned for several decades. For cities to become sustainable, safe, enjoyable places to live, we must return to the tradition of designing for people first, not cars. In cities, that means that we return to low-speed street geometries and compact building placements.

We already have models. The historic districts of our cities. The charming, lovable places that tourists flock to the world over. As James Howard Kunstler noted in 1996, “[From]  1950 to 1990…we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings, particularly civic buildings. Look at any richly embellished 1904 firehouse or post office and look at its dreary concrete box counterpart today.” “The everyday environments of our time, the places where we live and work, are composed of dead patterns…They violate human scale. They are devoid of charm. Our streets used to be charming and beautiful…[in] Saratoga Springs, New York, there once existed a magnificent building called the Grand Union Hotel…”

One element of this return is that the “forgiving street” design paradigm be replaced by the “attentive street” paradigm in cities. That is, streets must be designed not to “forgive” reckless driving, but to instead obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively, which, as European demonstration projects have found, improves traffic safety. Doing so will also restore human scale.

Ideally, given the enormous space consumed by motor vehicles and the much smaller spaces that most people (as pedestrians) prefer, the motor vehicle must feel squeezed and inconvenienced when it finds itself within the city.

Only then will quality of life for people, not cars, flourish.

References

Belmont, Steve. (2002). Cities In Full. APA Planners Press.

Downs, A. (1992). Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak Hour Traffic Congestion.  Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Kunstler, J. (1996). Home from Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 88, 90.

Litman, Todd. (2002). “Evaluating Nonmotorized Transport.” TDM Encyclopedia. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm63.htm

McNichol, Tom (2004). “Roads Gone Wild.” Wired Magazine. December.

 

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

Is Tolling a Good Idea for US 36 between Denver and Boulder?

By Dom Nozzi

For any major travel route within or between reasonably healthy cities, it is nearly inevitable that such a route will become congested – particularly during rush hours. This is because cars consume so much space that only a few motorists are needed to congest a road.

How much space do cars consume? On average, a person sitting in a car takes up about 17 times as much space as a person sitting in a chair, and up to 100 times as much space when the car is moving. That is an enormous amount of space, and explains why so many cities are suffering tremendously from the disease I call GIGANTISM. Gigantic streets, gigantic intersections, gigantic parking, and gigantic sprawl are the inevitable result of a form of travel that eats up a huge amount of space. Too many communities have made the mistake of thinking they can provide enough space for these space-hogging cars by building over-sized facilities that destroy a sense of place, among other terrible outcomes.

Over the past century, analysts have learned there is an Iron Law of Traffic Congestion. This inescapable law informs us that you cannot build your way out of congestion. You cannot widen a highway enough to eliminate congested conditions in the long term. Indeed, many studies have confirmed that a wider highway becomes congested about five years after the widening. As the adage says, widening a road to eliminate congestion is like loosening your belt to eliminate obesity.

Widening a highway quickly leads to congestion because in a relatively healthy region or community, there is a great deal of latent demand for travel on that route. When congestion is eased (temporarily, I might add), many who formerly avoided driving the route at rush hour now flock back to driving the route at rush hour. Formerly, these newly-created (induced) motorists were discouraged from driving on the congested road at rush hour due to the inconvenience of congestion. Such people opted to use a different route, travel at times other than rush hour, or opted not to make the car trip. Now, with the newly widened highway, such discouraged motorists are “induced” to return to the highway to enjoy the less congested conditions. Congestion therefore re-appears very quickly.

Studies also show that providing even high quality transit will not ease congestion, as the motorists who leave their cars and use transit instead are merely opening up new highway capacity that induces other motorists to start using the highway. The new space is created by the motorists who are now using transit.

An additional problem that highways face is that when they are free to use, they inevitably attract what are known as “low-value” car trips. That is, a person often rationally decides that it would be acceptable to drive to a shopping center on a major road at rush hour to buy a cup of coffee. Since roads are so terribly expensive to build, maintain, and widen, such trips are not affordable for a community to support with its tax revenues.

Finally, a great many car trips are occurring because motorists are so heavily subsidized. The few user fees we have, such as the gas tax, pay only a small fraction of the total cost to build and maintain our road system. And since nearly all car trips end at a “free” parking spot, motorists are also heavily subsidized when they park. Most of the money for car travel comes instead from such things as sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes that we ALL pay – even those of us who don’t use a car (or use a car very rarely). For parking, the cost of “free” parking is hidden. How many of us realize that we are paying for the “free” parking by paying a higher cost for groceries, services, and other products purchased in retail centers? Since bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users, and rare car travelers are also paying these higher costs, those making frequent car trips are, in particular, being subsidized.

Ruinously, like so many other subsidies, subsidizing motorists mean that there are more car trips occurring than would occur normally had the subsidies not been in place. Subsidies encourage many people to make more car trips than they would have otherwise.

Given the above, are there any effective ways to durably reduce congestion over the long term?

The most effective, fair way to reduce congestion over the long term is a toll, whereby the motorist pays each time he or she drives on the road, and pays an amount that is calibrated to keep congestion at bay. As Donald Shoup says about parking, this toll amount is best based on the “Goldilocks” principle. That is, the toll should not be too high, as too few would use a road that the community spent a lot of money to build. The toll should not be too low, otherwise it will be over-used to the point of congestion because it will attract too many “low-value” car trips. Instead, the amount of the toll should be “just right.” An amount that creates a level of traffic that is considered tolerable by the community.

What are the benefits of tolling a highway such as US 36?

First, tolling allows the community to start to create fairness in how much we pay for car travel. By tolling, a higher percentage of the money needed to build and maintain the road is paid by the users – motorists. Without a toll, as I noted above, those not using US 36 at all (or only rarely, or only at non-rush hour times) are paying almost as much as those who regularly drive on US 36. This is patently unfair. Tolling therefore increases fairness by having motorists pay more of their fair share.

Second, tolling is one of the few things – besides a “time tax” such as congestion – that can discourage “low-value” car trips. Again, building a highway that has enough capacity to accommodate low-value car trips is unaffordable.admin-ajax (8)

Third, tolling creates a “willingness to pay” dynamic that an untolled road fails to do. Since some trips are more valuable than other trips, it is important that we create a road system that allows a person to pay if they are willing to do so to avoid congestion. A person that is running late to reach a job interview should have the option of paying a toll to avoid congestion. An untolled road does not provide that desperate person with such an option, and instead offers the same level of access to the road as the person who is making a low-value car trip to buy a cup of coffee. It is clearly unacceptable for a person making a higher value trip to be delayed by a person seeking a cup of coffee. Tolling therefore acknowledges that there are certain trips that are more valuable than others.

Fourth, tolling creates a significant amount of new revenue that can be used to build higher quality bus or rail service (which especially benefits lower-income individuals). The Denver-Boulder region, as well as the State of Colorado, have long had an enormous shortfall in needed transportation revenue due to such factors as a gas tax that is too low (it has not been raised for several decades, despite inflation), and the fact that most revenue comes from sources that ignores how much (or when) a person drives a car. Mostly, these sources are sales tax and property tax. By contrast, user fees are able to account for higher levels of car travel. The new toll revenue can be used to provide more transportation options for lower-income (and other) groups, by dramatically improving transit quality. Without the toll revenue, state and local governments will not have anywhere close to the amount of money needed to provide quality transit in our lifetimes.

Fifth, because free roads and heavily subsidized motorists are artificially induced to travel much more than they would in a more fair system (ie, one that was based on user fees), residents in the Denver-Boulder region are being induced to drive a car excessively. Doing so dramatically increases greenhouse gas (global warming) emissions, fuel consumption, suburban sprawl, strip commercial, and extreme levels of car dependence that significantly degrades the quality of life of the region.

Sixth, untolled roads significantly promote the profits of huge corporations such as oil companies, road builders, automakers, and builders of sprawl housing. Why? Because such free-to-use roads create such high levels of car use that citizens are inevitably compelled to pay a lot of money to such corporations as a necessary part of their subsidized, car dependent lifestyles.

Seventh, by artificially inducing citizens to drive more often due to subsidies, our region is artificially reducing the number of trips that would otherwise be made by walking, bicycling or transit. Why? Because over-providing for car travel creates what economists call a “barrier effect.” The barrier effect is one where non-car travel occurs less often because excessive car dependence makes walking, bicycling and transit use too dangerous or inconvenient.

Eighth, tolling allows the Denver-Boulder region to avoid the failed, ruinous, financially bankrupting path that other parts of the nation have followed. That path is road widening (loosening their belts to eliminate obesity). It is the path that the Colorado Department of Transportation first proposed for US 36: To create a monster highway 10 lanes in size.

Fortunately, wise and tireless efforts by leaders in the region over the past 10 years succeeded in allowing the Denver-Boulder area to avoid that grim, mistaken path. Instead, a much more affordable and effective plan has been adopted: Retain the two free, untolled lanes in each direction, and create a new, tolled (“managed”) lane in each direction that is priced to maintain free-flowing bus rapid transit travel, as well as carpool travel. Free-flowing single-occupant vehicle travel is also provided for, because those willing to pay money to avoid the congestion are able to do so (again, that option does not exist on an untolled road).

Happily, toll revenue from single-occupant vehicle travel will substantially supplement the extremely depleted coffers of our transportation departments, which gives us a near-term ability to provide the quality bus and rail transit we strongly desire.

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Filed under Economics, Politics

Complete Streets Deliver Complete Communities

 
 

 

By Dom Nozzi

 

Economists use a term—The Barrier Effect—that has become crucial for smart growth transportation and community planners to understand in the context of community and transportation design.

 

The Barrier Effect (Litman, 2002), when applied to transportation planning, refers to the “barriers” that over-design for car travel creates for other forms of travel. To put it simply, designing an “incomplete” stripcommercialstreet (a street that is designed exclusively or predominately for cars) makes travel by walking, bicycling and transit more difficult. In effect, an incomplete street creates a self-perpetuating vicious cycle because the travel barriers they create tend to continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly non-motorists—non-motorists who now find that on the incomplete street, travel by walking, bicycling or transit is unacceptably unsafe, inconvenient or otherwise unattractive.

 

Over time, the incomplete street increases the proportion of community members who are now traveling by car. Tragically, this on-going recruitment of new motorists compels many communities to spend large traffic-congestionsums of public dollars to widen and speed up roads to (unsuccessfully) strive to accommodate the growing number of motorists. And these newly widened, higher speed roads create an even larger barrier effect. Which recruits even more motorists, which then builds pressure for even wider roads.

 

Disastrously, conditions that create a high quality of life for people are strongly at odds with the conditions needed to enable convenient, high-speed, free-flowing car travel. Most of us enjoy compact, walkable, lower-speed, human-scaled neighborhood design. Cars, by stark contrast, are happiest with gargantuan, high-speed roads and parking lots, bright lights, and unwalkable dispersion of land uses. Because of the barrier effect found on incomplete streets, citizens are compelled to urge that conditions be improved for car travel. The unintended consequence is a citizenry that presses for conditions that actually reduce their quality of life. On incomplete streets, then, citizens become their own worst enemy.

 

The barrier effect therefore becomes an endless, ruinous, bankrupting process.

 

Fortunately, a growing number of communities throughout the nation have recognized the toxicity of incomplete streets, and are smartly starting to reverse this downwardly spiraling process by calling for complete streets (Wikipedia, 2007). Streets that are designed, to the extent possible and appropriate, to accommodate all forms of travel. A street that is rich in transportation choice.

 

Complete streets have a number of beneficial influences over how a community develops over time.

 

Formerly incomplete streets that have been transformed into complete streets can expect to see adjacent land uses evolve into more complete communities. Car-only incomplete streets tend to result in the replacement of residences and locally-owned shops with strip commercial development and national Big Box chain stores. When converted to complete streets, adjacent land uses also become more “complete.” Instead of “Anywhere USA” franchise architecture that nearly inevitably feeds on car-only regional traffic volumes, complete streets are comparatively more livable—and lovable. By being more hospitable, complete streets induce the return of residential land uses. Instead of a monolith of commercial, warehouse and industrial uses (the only uses that can tolerate inhospitably incomplete streets), complete streets tend to attract a complete set of community types: shops, offices, civic, and residential.

 

With a more diverse, complete land use pattern, trip distances become kids-on-walkable-stshorter, which creates a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle, because shorter trip distances make walking, bicycling and transit use more practical, safe and pleasant.

 

Not only does the complete street create more complete land uses, but it also draws and retains a more diverse population. This is due to the fact that by creating more transportation choices, the complete street makes the adjacent residential housing more affordable. More affordable because households are able to own fewer household cars, which is a dramatic, effective way of creating affordability (because significantly less household dollars are thereby devoted to car ownership).

 

Complete streets tend to support adjacent populations that are also more diverse and equitable. A large number of citizens do not drive, such as children, a portion of the disabled population, and seniors. (About a third of the national population does not drive a car. See Wikipedia, 2007). In America, losing the ability to drive a car typically means facing the inconvenient indignity of losing travel independence. Loss of travel independence is particularly acute with incomplete streets. When the street is complete, those citizens who do not drive a pedstcar are now more able to live near the street, because the complete street better supports pedestrians, bicyclists, the disabled, and transit users.

 

The higher quality of life provided to adjacent land uses by the complete street increases property values and draws a broader mix of income groups.

 

Investment in property adjacent to a complete street becomes more likely because development near a complete street tends to be more stable, predictable and context-sensitive. The unpredictable nature of development along incomplete streets makes investment more risky and therefore less likely.

 

urban-bikingIn sum, the complete street results in an adjacent land use pattern that is more diverse, sustainable, equitable, higher value for residential, safer and more local.

 

The higher quality of life and place-making delivered by complete streets and complete communities induces higher levels of civic pride, and provide a powerful, sustainable economic engine for the community.romanian-ped-st

 

 

 

References

 

Litman, Todd. (2002). “Evaluating Nonmotorized Transport.” TDM Encyclopedia. Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm63.htm

 

Wikipedia. (2007). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_streets

 

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Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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