Tag Archives: compact development

A Quality Future for Boulder CO Means Something Vastly Different from What No-Growthers Seek

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 8, 2017

The great irony of those in Boulder, Colorado who seek to protect the low-density character of neighborhoods (and to allegedly protect the “small town charm” of Boulder) is that by following the tactics recommended by too many “no-growthers,” Boulder will continue to take the Anywhere USA path that so many other American cities have taken (and continue to take).

Fighting against compact development is a recipe for keeping this city from becoming more walkable, charming, and human scaled. Such a fight will make it more likely that our future will be more car-dependent, more isolated, less walkable, more filled with surface parking lots, and less affordable (due to a growing lack of travel choices). Much of Boulder was built in an era of failed community design ideas that are unsustainable. Many of those who seek to “protect” neighborhoods are those who like the privatopia of suburbs and don’t like cities, and therefore don’t understand or appreciate those elements that make for healthy cities: slow speeds, human scale, compact development, agglomeration economies, diversity, conviviality, and choices.

Such advocates, instead, ruinously seem to believe that free-flowing and high speed traffic and easy car parking are the keys to quality of life. Actually, such objectives are toxic to a 51df393d218c6-imagehealthy city because they undermine the elements I list above.

The lifestyle of those who live in low-density Boulder neighborhoods compels them to fight for a halt to population growth, fight to minimize density and building heights, fight to oppose traffic calming and modest street and parking allocations, and fight to oppose mixed use.

Why?

Because fighting for those things helps protect their ability to travel easily by car. Because their neighborhood design obligates them to make most or all trips by car, they must fight for these things to protect their suburban lifestyle. Car travel becomes highly inconvenient when a community is more compact and slow speed. Densities over 2 or 3 units per acre make car travel much more inconvenient.

Conversely, densities below 3 or 4 units per acre make walking, bicycling, and transit nearly impossible.

It is therefore easy to understand why so many in suburban Boulder have concluded that easy driving and parking are equivalent to quality of life. Tragically, easy driving and parking are enemies of a quality city.

It is important to note, despite the unfair, inflammatory falsehoods we often have thrown at us urbanists, that this is NOT a call to make all neighborhoods in Boulder more compact. It IS a plea to recognize that for too much of Boulder’s history, the only acceptable form of development is high speed, car-happy suburban.

And that it is NEVER acceptable for there to be slow speed, compact walkable development.

Anywhere.

The result is a vast oversupply of drivable suburban development — which has no future, by the way — and a substantial undersupply of compact walkable development. Indeed, I would be hard-pressed to point to ANY compact development in Boulder. Because there is a big and growing demand for a walkable lifestyle — particularly among the younger generations — the price of such housing is skyrocketing (there are other reasons, but this one is substantial).

Boulder must do what it can to provide a larger supply of walkable housing — in appropriate locations.

Not doing so will lead to a grim, more costly future for Boulder.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Transportation, Urban Design

What Do I Think of the Diverging Diamond Interchange?

 

By Dom Nozzi

Febuary 2, 2017

Superior, Colorado built a “diverging diamond” interchange that opened in October 2015. It was only the second such interchange to ever be built in Colorado. Traffic engineers are imagessinging its praises throughout the nation. A newspaper article appearing in the February 2, 2017 edition of the Boulder Daily Camera fawned over the fantastic new addition to the region’s transportation system.

I am not joining the engineers or the newspaper in their love affair with the design.

Instead, I find such designs a colossal waste of money – money that could have been used for, say, transit. They are also a colossal waste of land. An entire city could fit inside one of these intersections.

The diverging diamond is a boondoggle for those reasons. But it is also a blunder because they promote increased per capita car travel. Why? In part because they are nearly 51df393d218c6-imageimpossible to cross by foot or bicycle. And in part because in the long run they will further disperse land development in a more sprawling way. Those increased distances will make it increasingly impractical to walk, bicycle or use transit.

Ironically, the major justification for the car-only design is that it briefly reduce intersection congestion, which will initially save a few seconds of motorist time (think of the fiscal irresponsibility of spending millions of public dollars spent to save a few seconds temporarily). Ironic because by artificially inducing more car trips than would have occurred had the diverging diamond not been built, the design will lead to MORE traffic congestion and MORE time delay for motorists in the long term (both at their location and areas in the region).

To hide the embarrassing fact that the millions spent ($14 million in this case) to briefly save a few seconds of time, the publicly proclaimed explanation is that it will improve safety. For the conventional traffic engineer, “improved safety” actually means that motorists can now drive faster and more inattentively with less fear of crashing. No mention is made of the fact that the intersection is much less safe for pedestrians or bicyclists, or that faster, less attentive driving is very dangerous for everyone.

The diverging diamond, therefore, is an excellent example of the century-long failure by conventional traffic engineers to understand induced car trips that are created by (briefly) reducing traffic congestion with these designs. There is a reason, after all, that many researchers repeatedly urge us to understand that it is impossible to build our way out of congestion. It is like loosening your belt to solve obesity.

But wait. There’s more.

Not only is the diverging diamond a boondoggle in the above mentioned ways. It also damages our world by adding more auto emissions into our air (by increasing per capita car trips) and reducing potential tax revenues in the region (by encouraging dispersed rather than compact land use patterns).

Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief over why our generation built these monstrosities.

There is one tiny upside to this overwhelmingly negative idea: it produces future jobs for people hired to remove these mistakes after we regain our senses.

Leave a comment

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

Oversizing Our Community

By Dom Nozzi

January 29, 2016

The first task of the urbanist is to control (horizontal) size. American cities have utterly failed to do that.

Either America has too few urbanists who understand that, or too rarely listen to the urbanists who do understand this.

Despite the conventional wisdom, most all of Boulder’s areas intended to be urban have WAY too much “open space.” By space, I refer to the crazy wide stroads (motor vehicle traffic routes that try and fail to be both a street and a road), the over-sized building arapahoe-ave-boulder-cosetbacks, the over-sized parking areas, and the place-killing plazas that are not human-scaled (and therefore become dead zones). Why is Boulder so allergic to creating human-scaled, lovable, charming spaces? Why are we so in love with horizontal gigantism?

Perhaps the biggest offender when it comes to oversizing our communities is parking for motor vehicles.july-2015

Parking is a fertility drug for cars. Yet Boulder – despite decades of lip service paid to reducing car use – continues to be quite far behind the times when it comes to parking. Boulder continues to use outdated, conventional, excessive parking requirements for new development.

What are the effective tools that will result in some people owning and using a car less? (and therefore reducing the ruinous demand for more parking space)

First, compact, mixed-use development to reduce travel distances and increase the financial desirability to create neighborhood-based retail.

Second, less car subsidies and other financial inducements. Tools to do this include priced parking, unbundling the price of parking from housing, tolling roads, and higher gas taxes.

Third, less space for cars. We need to shrink size of roads, parking lots, and building setbacks so motorists are obligated to drive/park more slowly and attentively.

Fourth, we need a lot more traffic calming to reduce motorist speeds.

Designing for People or for Cars?

It is highly appropriate and extremely important that space-hogging motor vehicle drivers not feel happy, that parking (and pricing) is a “bitch,” and that driving a vehicle be a huge, inconvenient pain in the ass. That is exactly the recipe for creating places people love (rather than places that only a car could love).

Nearly all environmentalists in Boulder furiously fight against even modest density increases. For the stunningly powerful PLAN Boulder County advocacy group I served on for a few years, it is nearly the be-all and end-all of “protecting” Boulder.

It would appear that the only thing Boulder environmental activists care about is fighting to stop density increases (even modest ones). Such activists are convinced that more density means more emissions, more loss of wildlife, more cars, and more loss of open space. The opposition to density is much more pronounced in Boulder than in Alachua County, where I lived and worked as a town planner for 20 years. Understandable, since many came to places such as Boulder seeking wide open spaces they assumed the West would deliver.

As my “The Frustration Syndrome” essay points out, because most environmentalists must drive a car everywhere, it is understandable that so many environmentalists are ENRAGED by more density because it seems obvious that more density means more cars, which means more driving frustration (ie, loss of quality of life, as they understand it). Many environmentalists express concern that more density will be environmentally harmful, but I have come to learn that for most environmentalists, the unspoken agenda is the fight to retain easy motoring.

Yes, there is a diverse range of environmentalists (and Feminists and LBGT advocates and Republicans and parents…), but in extremely car-dependent America, the one thing that unites nearly all advocacy groups is the nearly universal desire to find easy driving and easy parking. After all, as my essay notes, nearly all of us drive a car multiple times every day of our lives, and it is therefore very frustrating multiple times a day for both Republicans and Conservationists to FIND A DAMN PARKING SPACE or AVOID THOSE SLOW DRIVERS. The inevitable consequence for nearly all Americans (regardless of their ideology) is to confuse easy driving with quality of life. Since increased density seems like such an obvious culprit for our daily driving frustrations, nearly all of us (regardless of whether we love money or Bambi) hate more density. I’d say 95 percent of the environmentalists I know in Boulder hate more density (and they disingenuously claim it is due to environmental harm, rather than unhappy motoring).

I don’t believe that this can be explained away by referring to where a person lives in a community. I’d say nearly all residents of my very compact, walkable, mixed use Boulder neighborhood are VIOLENTLY opposed to more density. And in Boulder, since we are ringed by a 55,000-acre greenbelt, nearly all proposed increases in density are for in-town development. Yet opposition to more density is huge here. Regardless of location.

I fully agree, as an aside, that compact development is inappropriate in sensitive outlying areas.

Too many residences in the US now front hostile, high-speed, dangerous, noisy 4- to 8-lane highways (streets that were improved to “meet contemporary needs.”) Healthy cities require lower speeds and agglomeration economies and adaptability. Too often, “contemporary needs” in road design undercut those essential ingredients. In my view, in-town streets should not generally exceed three lanes. Anything more will undercut the healthy cities factors I mention above. We need to draw the line somewhere. I choose to draw it in such a way as to not go beyond street designs which induce excessive motorized speeding, excessive sprawl, and loss of transportation choice.

Very, very few traffic engineers understand the needs of a healthy city and end up being single-mindedly focused on the sole objective of moving as many cars as they can as quickly as possible through a road. By confusing that objective with quality of life or an “improvement,” they (or their elected officials) end up pushing for a design that is toxic for a city.

For the record, no one I know is seeking to “intentionally inflict pain and inconvenience” on motorists. However, many of us do seek to design cities so that we have fairness, transportation choices, a thriving city, and lifestyle choices. Designing cities in such a way has the unavoidable consequence of increasing the inconvenience of motorists (because the size required by cars is excessive).

It comes down to a few simple questions: Do we design for a financially and socially healthy town with a high quality of life for people? Or do we design our town in such a way as to enable ease of car travel? (which delivers us places like Detroit or Houston) This is not a win-win game. It is a zero-sum game. I would add that this is NOT a call for the elimination of travel by car. It IS a call for a return to designing for fairness, choices, and resilience. The century-long effort to pamper cars has reduced fairness, reduced choices, and reduced resilience. We need to restore a balance. A big way to do that is to move much more toward user fees for travel. But that is another topic…

Imagine if we had a quiet two-lane neighborhood street, and a traffic engineer wants to design it to allow convenient 18-wheel tractor trailer use of that street (they have faced this issue countless times). In my view, it is important that for a quiet neighborhood street to remain pleasant for its fronting homes, the street SHOULD feel inconvenient for an 18-wheeler. If it was convenient for such a large vehicle, wouldn’t that street therefore be unsafe and unpleasant for homes?

None of the four tools I mention above will mean that ALL people will opt to not own or use a car. It will mean that SOME people will own less cars, use their car less often, or both.

By contrast, stopping development, reducing development densities, or fighting against population growth are not effective in reducing car trips or car ownership — because it is pretty much impossible to stop development or population growth locally and especially regionally. On the contrary, Boulderites who try to stop development or population growth and force development to be less compact (lower density) actually INCREASE the per capita car ownership and use in the area — both in the short term and long term.

For too many in Boulder, compact development means more cars. More cars means less free flowing traffic and less parking spaces. The only tool such folks see to address this is to battle for lower density and slowing the rate of development. And battle they must, as they wrongly mistake free flowing cars and easy parking as equivalent to quality of life. They thereby fail to understand the transportation feedback loops that result in more cars as a result of their only tool.

Such people cynically believe that the reduction in per capita car ownership and car trips elsewhere in the nation (following the establishment of compact development patterns) will not be seen here in Boulder if we provide compact development. Of course, ALL communities have that same cynical view of their own town.

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

An important problem is that in the US, we have way too often designed streets (“improved them”) so that it feels convenient for a car that consumes way too much space. I have been to Europe many times, and the streets that tourists flock to from all over the world are extremely inconvenient for cars. Would those streets be “better” if they were convenient for cars? It seems clear to me that the massive size of cars is a big problem. We face a choice between conveniencing big metal boxes or designing streets for happy, safe people (which, almost inevitably, feels inconvenient when you are in a huge metal box).

Personally, I would opt for designing for happiness and safety for people. Every time.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design

Flawed Design Gives Compact Development a Black Eye

By Dom Nozzi

March 25, 2002

What stuns and scares me about so much of the recommended policies we hear from citizens these days is that so much of it is precisely OPPOSITE of what we should be doing to avoid a sprawling, auto-dependent, low-quality -of-life hell.

Such policies allegedly seek to avoid such a fate, yet call for strategies such as lowest possible densities (especially if it involves students), almost no infill, HUGE setbacks, HUGE parking lots, wide roads, aggressive regulatory protection of the most trivial, degraded wooded areas, NO mixed use. And on and on.

Excuse me, but such strategies will ENSURE that our quality of life in our neighborhoods will be ruined, our per capita car use will be extremely high, our taxes will be sky-high, our families will be financially struggling, and our cops will be overburdened.  These are EXACTLY the sorts of “solutions” that Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Houston, LA, Phoenix, and Detroit tried. Is there some reason why it destroyed those cities but will help ours? Am I missing something here? Oh, I forgot. “We’re different than them.”

Yes, let’s be irrational about this…

Tragically, it is common that a many proposed, higher density residential projects with conventional, car-dependent design are looked upon by many of NIMBY groups as a “model” of infill, walkable density, connectivity, mixed use, and new urbanism when, in Phoenix-Gated-Communityfact, such projects are nothing of the kind. The NIMBYs point to such projects and say, “See, those ideas don’t work!”

Flawed higher density projects that strive to make cars happy too often end up giving compact development a black eye because they build an in-town project in a very suburban, auto-oriented way, and use NONE of the quality urban design ideas, except being in-town instead of in sprawlsville.

We desperately need high-quality, on-the-ground models so that people can see, with their own eyes, that quality urban design delivers a pleasant outcome.

What really annoys me these days is the disingenuous, absurd argument that the walkable urbanist design tools I recommend will “chase people from the city and therefore promote sprawl.” If that is true, why do millions happily vacation in Charleston, Savannah, European cities, and other walkable towns, and growing millions across the nation seek to flee suburbia — a suburbia which contains the elements our NIMBYs seek: Big roads, big parking lots, big setbacks, low densities, no mixed use, no transit, no neighborhood sociability, no nightlife, no sidewalks, no bike paths?

Is Atlanta the model our NIMBYs aspire to, or is it Charleston? How many of our NIMBYs vacation in Atlanta to enjoy the walkable urbanism of that city?

Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Effectively Stopping Development from Occurring in Remote Locations

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 8, 2002

It is extremely common for a local government and its planners to strive to discourage new development in outlying areas (in other words, to discourage suburban sprawl).

But how is that done effectively?

Unfortunately, the strategy nearly always used is utterly ineffective. Long range plans that prohibit sprawl. Zoning regulations that state such a prohibition. Electing anti-sprawl candidates to local office.

None of these approaches have been shown to meaningfully reduce sprawl.

Why?

If the road infrastructure in the region creates a scenario in which large volumes of cars can travel at relatively high speeds from remote areas to job centers (as has been done in nearly all communities – and doing so with public dollars, I should add), there is no force on earth that can stop the tidal wave of market pressure to build in remote areas.

As my published writings and speeches point out, the human species is hard-wired to have an average tolerance level of about 1.1 hours of commute time per day (roundtrip). If the community has built big roads, the equilibrium for that 1.1-hour threshold will create an enormous commute-shed in the community – a commute-shed that extends far into the hinterlands.

Within that commute-shed, we are inevitably going to see suburbanization over time.

Oh, sure. We can maybe buy that outlying land, but there is so much of it, and it is so costly, that it is unrealistic to expect a community to be able to buy it.

Or we can enact development regulations to prohibit development of it, but the huge market forces will trump it either in the near term, or when the current collection of elected officials is replaced by the many pro-sprawl, pro-car citizens of the world.

The only realistic (albeit long-term) remedy I see for a “big roads” community that seeks to avoid unbearable sprawl is to incrementally put roads and parking on a diet. That is the only way to cut the legs out from under theroad diet before and after “market pressure” monster created by the big roads.

In the interim, a “big roads” community has what is perhaps an unpleasant “lesser of two evils” choice: Either give the green light to conventional, auto-oriented residential subdivisions (as nearly all communities have been happy to do for several decades and including today). Or we can approve the development IF it abides by rigorous, walkable, mixed use, “small town” development regulations.

In most cases, I’m willing to “hold my nose” and support the latter option. In part because we DESPERATELY need compact, walkable (often called “new urbanist”) projects to stand as shining examples of the way ALL new urban area development should be done (the envy factor).

Today, we have too few models to do that. And we have too many communities blithely approving conventional developments in remote areas without a peep of opposition.

Overall, as I’ve said before, we have the extremely unpleasant task of somehow contending with the “road-building sins of the past” (and often, the present). Nearly everywhere, we must decide how to deal with the Market Monster, which is devouring the countryside with the Big Roads fuel it has been fed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Form-Based vs Use-Based Land Development Codes

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 26, 2003

Since the dawn of American planning over 100 years ago, the approach to regulation of land has been to use zoning to control the USE of a property (uses such as housing, a store, an office, etc.). The imperative of “use-based codes” in America has been, to the extent possible, to separate and segregate “different” uses from each other (i.e., keep houses far away from industries, shops, offices, and only allow “like” uses to be near each other — houses only near other houses, shops only near other shops, offices only near other offices).

This was perfectly understandable and necessary 100 years ago. After all, industries/jobs tended to be emitting lots of noise and pollution, and no one wanted to live near such uses.

But today, uses such as many industries tend to be much cleaner and quieter. Now, the compelling need to separate uses is much less. Unfortunately, we retain the tradition of separating uses with our use-based zoning codes. And what that has done has been to obligate us to make EVERY TRIP by car. We are extremely dependent on cars for ALL of our travel, in large part because uses are too far from each other to travel any other way. And extreme auto dependence is very, very costly for households, governments, and the environment. It is a powerful engine promoting costly sprawl. It destroys a sense of community. We lose any sense of human scale. The quality of life for CARS has become our imperative. The result is a downward spiral in the quality of life for PEOPLE.

“Form-based codes” would return us to the tradition of designing communities that promote quality of life for people. Such codes take the approach that the design and location of buildings, parking lots, and streets are profoundly more important to quality of life than the uses that occur within buildings. Indeed, if the buildings, parking, and streets are designed well, it is nearly IRRELEVANT what uses occur inside the building.

transect_0

Part of the advantage of form-based codes is that they are very amenable to change. Most or all future uses can go inside well-designed buildings. No need to predict what future uses might go there. By stark contrast, use-based codes don’t care much about how the building is designed. They mostly care about what goes inside the building. That leads to a lot of inflexibility in terms of what uses can go inside a building in the future.

A crucial advantage of form-based coding is that the distance between houses, shops, offices, etc. can be shrunk dramatically. In other words, the community moves toward being more compact, modest and human-scaled, and less car-scaled. Only by moving away from the use-based codes can we return to the walkable neighborhood containing corner grocery stores, home offices, etc. By doing so, we can

dramatically reduce auto dependence, not to mention a reduction in the pressure for urban sprawl, and the improvement in urban/neighborhood vibrancy. Our quality of life improves as well, as a result of a human-scaled approach.

Form-based codes focus on things like the height of the building, location and amount of parking, setbacks, width of streets, building articulation/ornamentation, front porches, and building orientation. When such things are done right, they are much more likely to create a high quality of life for the community than the conventional use-based codes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Traffic Congestion

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 10, 2004

We all despise traffic congestion. Yet traffic congestion is an inevitable sign of a healthy, thriving, alive city or community. It shows that the community is attractive enough that people want to be there. It also shows, in some instances, that the community has not degraded itself by excessively catering to the needs of the car.

Putting too much into car needs inevitably leads to a degradation of conditions that make PEOPLE happy, since people and cars have disparate needs. Cars like huge asphalt parking lots, high-speed roads, lots of lighting, and no other cars around (cars are anti-social). huge turn radius for roadPeople outside of cars feel unsafe, inconvenienced, unpleasant and exposed in large parking lots or near high-speed roads. As sociable animals, people also tend to enjoy having other people around.

Often, people confuse traffic congestion with a sign that the community is unhealthy. As Yogi Berra once said, “The place got so crowded that no one went there anymore.”

Traffic congestion is nearly always our friend, and should not be fought against by improving car travel conditions.

Congestion, for example, does the following beneficial things:

  1. Encourages infill development.
  2. Encourages higher residential and commercial densities.
  3. Encourages compact, mixed-use development.
  4. Slows down cars.
  5. Slows down suburban sprawl.
  6. Slows the decline of downtowns and in-town, locally-owned retail.
  7. Reduces regional air pollution and gasoline consumption.
  8. Discourages low-value car trips.
  9. Encourages residential development near or in downtown and employment concentrations.
  10. Reduces car dependency.
  11. Improves the quality of public transit.
  12. Improves conditions for walking and bicycling.

In sum, congestion is caused by a community being attractive and vibrant. It is a community that is wealthy enough for its residents to be able to afford to own cars. A community without congestion is an unhealthy, unattractive community. Or its residents are unable to afford to own cars.

The beneficial way to address car congestion is not to try, hopelessly, to reduce it. The best way to deal with congestion is to establish ways to avoid it.

Create multiple routes to destinations. Make it easier to walk, bicycle or use transit. Build compactly so distances are shortened. And so on.

Leave a comment

Filed under Transportation, Urban Design