Tag Archives: Bicycling

Is Boulder, Colorado in Danger of Becoming Too Dense?

By Dom Nozzi

March 9, 2017

I hear it all the time as a resident of Boulder, Colorado: “Boulder is too dense!”

I beg to differ.

I support Boulder’s long-standing objectives, such as reducing the city carbon footprint (to ease global warming), reducing noise pollution, improving affordability, increasing the number of trips made by foot or bike or transit, slowing tax increases, ensuring the City has the fiscal capacity to engage in needed/ongoing maintenance of our infrastructure, protecting environmentally sensitive outlying areas from suburban development, reducing traffic injuries and deaths (in part by designing streets to be slower speed and obligate motorists to be more attentive), promoting small retail shops and discouraging large retail shops, encouraging diversity and creativity, improving public health, and retaining a lovable character rather than an Anywhere USA character.

Each of these worthy objectives are furthered by more compact (dense) development.

Unfortunately, despite the conventional wisdom, Boulder is actually quite dispersed. Shockingly so.

Indeed, Boulder is so extremely low-density suburban that if we don’t become more compact and add a lot more housing, we will continue to undermine each of the objectives I list here.

Besides the low density and short-statured nature of development I have observed in Boulder, there is another element that strongly signals that Boulder is suburban in character. sprawl
Christopher Leinberger has pointed out that in compact, walkable neighborhoods, “more is better.” That is, new, more compact development tends to be welcomed because it typically improves the quality of life of those living a walkable lifestyle (more things to walk to, for example). By contrast, says Leinberger, in a drivable suburban neighborhood, “more is less.” In such a setting, new and more compact development tends to be detrimental to the drivable quality of life of residents (roads are more congested and parking is more scarce, for example).

For decades, Boulder has had a near consensus that “more is less,” which is a strong signal that Boulder is a drivable suburban community. Indeed, stopping development – or, if not possible, at least minimizing the density of new development — tends to be the be all and end all of protecting or improving quality of life in Boulder.

Our very low-density, dispersed suburban character means that Boulder’s per capita environmental impact is, ironically, very large (being “green” means far more than engaging in curbside recycling or driving a Prius). Dispersed land use patterns found in Boulder are unsustainable, very environmentally destructive, and ensure that nearly all trips in Boulder will be made by motor vehicle.

There is a growing desire for compact, walkable, town center housing — particularly with the Millennial generation — yet Boulder provides very little if any of that sort of housing. Demand for such housing is substantially higher than the supply of it. Which severely amplifies the affordable housing crisis in Boulder.

Sustainability is far out of reach for Boulder unless we provide a lot more compact, walkable housing.

In sum, I think Boulder is quite far from being “too dense.” So far that a “too dense” Boulder will not happen in our lifetimes — if ever. Indeed, it seems to me that Boulder’s biggest concern should be that we are too dispersed.

I previously wrote about why I believe so many people in Boulder (like in so many other American communities) believe their community is “too dense,” despite the obvious signs I cite above.

It is enormously ironic that a great many Boulder residents — not to mention the millions worldwide — love the great historic cities and towns of Europe so much that they happily spend huge sums of money to visit such towns on a regular basis. Nearly all of us love Copenhagen. We adore Amsterdam. We are charmed by Perugia. We are delighted by Dubrovnik. We cannot get enough of Granada.

Yet each of these celebrated cities are far more compact – far more dense – than Boulder.

Why this disconnect?

I believe there are three important reasons. First, the contemporary modernist architectural paradigm we have been saddled with for several decades has thrown the inherently lovable 315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lotand timeless traditional building design into the waste can in favor of repellent, “innovative,” look-at-me design. Citizens are thereby conditioned to equate new compact development with hideous buildings. Second, local zoning regulations in cities such as Boulder have made lovable, human-scaled design illegal by requiring excessive setbacks, excessive car parking, and excessive private open space. Third, nearly all citizens live car-dependent lifestyles. And because their cars consume such an enormous amount of space, motorists are compelled to fear and oppose town design that they otherwise love as tourists. They have, in essence, become their own enemies by striving to improve their life as motorists (equating quality of life with easy parking and free-flowing traffic), not realizing that doing so is ruinous to a healthy city and a lovable quality of life.

For much of our history up until the 20th Century, citizens welcomed and celebrated new development in their communities because they knew that almost invariably, the new development would improve the quality of life in their community.  Steve Belmont has informed us that a densifying city is a sign of city health. But that welcoming of new development has been understandably inverted into a widespread opposition to new modern-architecture-Ronchamp-Chapeldevelopment, largely due to the modernist architectural paradigm, local car-friendly development regulations, and car-dependent citizens who have become cheerleaders for their cars rather than for themselves, their family, and their neighbors.

Boulder can comfortably house a great many more newcomers, and if our land development regulations are properly crafted to insist that new development be walkable, our community will be greatly improved in each of the ways I list above.

For the record, I generally dislike buildings taller than 5 stories (the limit set by city charter), but know that the city can be much better and provide a lot more housing by allowing buildings to be 3-5 stories in appropriate locations.

Note, too, that I do not believe that EVERYONE should be obligated to live in more compact, walkable housing. A community should always provide sufficient housing for the full range of lifestyle choices: walkable town center, drivable suburban, and rural.

Unfortunately, drivable suburban is about the only lifestyle option offered in Boulder. Because we have made the cities we love impossible to build.

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

Bicycling in the Boulder Colorado Town Center

By Dom Nozzi

October 7, 2014

I wrote an essay describing the unfortunate, surprising condition in town center Boulder, Colorado – a city rightly known for being exceptionally bike friendly, yet a city which offers a quite hostile environment for bicycling in the town center.

A friend responded by saying he did not understand. “I never bicycle on Broadway [the main north-south state road] (except the north end) since there are side streets nearby that are much better for cycling. You can get anywhere in town via bike paths and bike lanes. I don’t see any need to make Broadway any more accommodating.” He concluded by noting that the City has built a creek path running parallel to the main east-west state road for its entire length. “When I see someone riding either Broadway or Canyon [the main east-west state road] I assume they don’t know their way around town.”

I thanked him for his comments.

I told him that as was found in Copenhagen (and in my own experience), it is noticeably inconvenient for a bicyclist to have to go a block or three out of their way to get to a destination (to avoid Broadway, Canyon, or a one-way street). The vast majority of travelers are motorists, and of course they do not care about a one to three block diversion since gas-powered cars make the extra distance almost unnoticeable.

There is an important reason why a huge percentage of motorists use Broadway: It is usually the shortest distance between two points. Bicyclists ALREADY face a huge number of inconveniences. Why are we adding distance to that list when we don’t have to? Are we serious about getting more people to be bicycle commuters, or is it just lip service?

Bicycle commuters predictably have the same desire to minimize their travel distance, as was found in Copenhagen. It is inexcusable (and ruinous and unnecessary) to make Broadway and Canyon car-sewers that only accommodate cars — particularly in a town center (which, to be healthy, must have low speeds and high levels of travel choice on ALL corridors).

To argue that it is okay to inconvenience bicyclists by continuing to make Canyon and Broadway car-only highways reminds me of the civil rights battles in the 50s and 60s where it was argued that segregation was okay because bicyclists are “separate but equal.”

A great many cities in the US have converted their car-only major corridors in their town center so that instead of being car-only highways, they are now safely accommodating other travelers (and reducing crashes and improving retail and improving quality of life and improving town center health…). Shame on Boulder for not having the political will to want to do likewise.

Again, there is no excuse for keeping Canyon and Broadway as hostile, high-speed, car-only highways IN THE TOWN CENTER. Remember: Copenhagen’s bike planners originally thought there was no need to design their major streets to safely accommodate bicyclists because they felt that bicyclists would, as this friend indicated, find the side streets “much better for bicycling.”

This idea turned out to be wrong, as they learned that bicyclists have the same desire lines as motorists.3065696-poster-p-1-copenhagen-now-has-more-bikes-than-cars

Copenhagen has been serious about promoting bicycling, rather than just paying lip service.

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design

Some Problems Associated with Low-Density Residential Living

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

A large percentage of Americans LOVE low-density residential living, and regularly fight against any proposal that would bring more compact development anywhere near them.

But low-density development has many problems – problems that a growing number of Americans are beginning to recognize.sprawl-development

For example, low-density development locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible. A sense of community is often non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there tends to be no “there there.” Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around. Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car. Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because ALL trips are forced onto one or two major roads (and because cars consume such a vast amount of space). Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded.” The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Increasingly, what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting AGAINST smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.

Tragically, the low-density lifestyle compels people living in such a setting to fight hard against the compact development that would actually reduce the problems cited above. They do so because the low-density pattern quickly results in enraging traffic congestion and loss of car parking. This vested interest in low density locks such residents in a long-term downward spiral, as positive change tends to be fiercely resisted.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia

Recreational Bicyclists and On-Street Parking

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2002

Ever since I started work as a town planner in 1986, Gainesville FL has had very loud bicycling advocacy.

As a lifelong bike commuter, I am obviously supportive of some of what is being advocated. Yet despite this city paying a lot of lip service to fighting sprawl or increasing the number of bike commuters or reviving our town center, much bike advocacy has been detrimental to such objectives.

The problem, as I see it, is that bike advocates tend to be mostly recreational bicyclists, have little understanding of the needs of a bike commuter, and have even less of an awareness of quality urban design. The result is that they tend to sub-optimize on the needs of recreational bicycling. That is, they overemphasize such needs to the detriment of other crucial community needs.

Bicycling advocates in Gainesville and other communities in America will often fight against on-street parking. In my opinion, such a fight is terribly counterproductive to not only quality of life, but the interests of bicyclists.

In my years as a city planner, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the pedestrian is the design imperative for cities. Not bicyclists. Not transit users. Not motorists. Not Bambi. Not even seniors or the disabled.

Getting it right for the pedestrian is the most effective, efficient way to create and promote a city quality of life.

And one of the most important way to design for the pedestrian is to have on-street parking.garrett-street-glenwood-park-atlanta

A healthy town center (not to mention healthy transit, healthy Bambi, and a healthy place for seniors/kids/disabled) depends on a healthy pedestrian environment, as even AASHTO recognizes. And a healthy town center is an important way to protect or promote a compact city.

An unhealthy town center, by contrast, accelerates the abandonment of the town center and dispersal of important community destinations to destinations that are too remote to get to by bike, by bus, or by wheelchair.

This is an important reason why bicycling advocates should be advocates for pedestrian design — particularly for features such as on-street parking. A quality pedestrian design promotes the continuation of a compact city. A compact city reduces travel distances. Modest travel distances are, of course, crucial in making bike commuting viable, not to mention improving conditions for Bambi, the disabled, children, and transit users.

 

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

A Danger of Promoting Physically Separated Bicycling Paths

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 24, 2003

It is common for bicycling advocates to call for a citywide bicycle path system that is physically separated from the roadway system.

One small problem with this idea, though.

A separate bicycle path system in American cities is an academic debate, since it is completely impossible for existing cities in America to retrofit a comprehensive network of separated paths for bicycles within the city. Oh, sure, we can build a decent SPINE of off-road paths, as is found in Boulder, Colorado. But as any bicycle commuter knows, a spine STILL requires the bicyclist to be off the bicycle path spine to get to or from the spine to various destinations — very few of which are directly linked to the spine.

Building a COMPREHENSIVE network of off-road paths in a city is, of course, completely unaffordable It also means that we have given up on making the street more livable and Boulder Greenway Canopyrich in transportation choice — we have given in to the status quo in which our streets will always remain car sewers. Because the idea is totally unaffordable, it is an academic argument only.

While the issue is academic, perhaps the most serious flaw of this “common sense” idea is that a large number of intelligent, motivated officials and designers can squander a LOT of their precious efforts to improve quality of life by fighting a hopeless, losing battle — thereby burning out in the process and being

lost for other fights that might make a difference.

We don’t have enough troops to lose some of them this way.

 

 

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Suboptimizing Bicycling Part 2

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 28, 2003

I love bicycling. I have been a lifelong bicycle commuter, wrote my Master’s thesis on bicycle transportation, have been a member of several bicycle advocacy groups, worked professionally to promote bicycling as a town planner, and have had many books and articles published that promote bicycling.

But there is a problem I see here in my city all the time.

We are either removing on-street parking to install a bike lane, OR we are resisting on-street parking due to an existing bike lane. As an urbanist who strongly believes that in cities, the pedestrian is the design imperative, these street design decisions ENRAGE me.

Largely, what has happened in too many communities is that there emerges a strong, pro-bicycle lobby that suboptimizes on their needs to the detriment of other objectives. VERY FEW communities have a pro-pedestrian lobby to counter or at least balance the pro-bike lobby, and even fewer communities have engineers/designers who are well-schooled in pedestrian design.on-street-parking

In the low-speed town center environment, bike lanes tend to be inappropriate (what New Urbanists call a “transect violation”). They are inappropriate for such streets, in part because bicyclists can safely share the lane with motor vehicles. Bike lanes are suburban, large-street facilities.

Bike lanes in that environment are also a problem because they will increase the average motor vehicle speed and will create a street surface that is too wide for a human-scaled, walkable environment.

Ideally for pedestrians, the street cross-section is as narrow as possible. Bike lanes therefore degrade that ideal.

What I try to convince the bicycle advocates of is that an environment that is pleasant for pedestrians is an environment that benefits bicyclists as well. First, a pleasant pedestrian environment is one where car speeds are modest (which bicyclists prefer). Second, a pleasant pedestrian environment will improve the retail/office/housing markets so that those markets are less likely to abandon in-town locations for the remote locations in sprawlsville (which create excessive distances that bicyclists dislike).

It is only in the past 10 years that I have seen the light and realized that my design focus should be on pedestrians, not bicycles.

In the name of better cities (for both pedestrians AND cyclists), I hope a growing number of cities can win the battle to retain the on-street parking in the face of the over-zealous pro-bike lobby.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Transportation, Urban Design

Abuse from Motorists and Off-Street Bicycle Paths

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 29, 2003

I’ve been a regular bicycle commuter for about 25 years in a number of cities in the US. One of the many things I have learned as a bicycle commuter is that motorists enraged by things that slow them down (slow drivers, bicyclists, etc.) regularly honk their horn at me and other cyclists, throw things at me, or scream at me that I should get off the road and on to the sidewalk where you belong while I’m bicycling on the street.angry-motorist-yelling

And I say this as a bicyclist who essentially never “takes the travel lane,” but who instead hugs the curb.

It is common to hear calls for creating a separated bicycle path parallel to a roadway.

But I believe that there is a quite legitimate fear that should a path parallel and separated from the street were built, two things would happen:

  1. Nearly all motorists would angrily scream at me to get on the path; and
  2. Large numbers of politically-active motorists would begin attending city commission meetings demanding that bicyclists be prohibited from such streets and required to be on the path.

My experience is that even the most mild-mannered individuals are commonly transformed into red-faced ogres who are unable to tolerate anything that might slow them down once they get behind the wheel of a car. I cannot list them by name, but I have heard of a number of places which prohibit bicyclists on certain segments of street (usually bridges).

None of what I say above should be taken to mean that I oppose off-street paths. As Michael Ronkin points out, pro-bicycle communities need a blend of various bicycle facilities. I am a strong proponent of off-street paths when they do not parallel streets (usually, such paths follow rail ROW). Off-street paths are wonderful recreational paths, and “training ground” for novice bicyclists who might one day develop the confidence to become commuter/utilitarian bicyclists as a result. And to do that in America, one must ride in the street.

 

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Transportation