Tag Archives: compact urban form

The Suburban, Car-Based, Low-Density Lifestyle Has No Future

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 18, 2019

It is tiresome and painfully predictable — as was expressed in a Facebook thread I was recently involved in — that when a city adopts a brilliant, highly successful urban design tactic and a suggestion is made that we adopt the same tactic in our community, the knee-jerk response is “Yes, but they are different than us, so it won’t work here!”

I call such people members of the “Squelcher Squad,” as they use that argument over and over again to squelch an idea before it is adopted.

When bicycling in downtown Denver a few days ago, I noticed that Denver has right-sized (road dieted) streets in downtown to create protected bike lanes (among many other benefits). It strikes me that we heard a great many anti-city/pro-car folks scream that Folsom Street cannot be road dieted because there are “too many cars on that street.”

Why, then, can Denver road diet downtown streets despite those streets carrying far more cars than Folsom? Surely, Denver has members of the Squelcher Squad who were saying that a road diet won’t work in Denver because while it might work all over the US, “it won’t work in Denver because Denver is different. Downtown streets have far too many cars!” Note, BTW, that the Boulder Squelcher Squad was conveniently silent about successful Denver road diets, despite their having far more cars than Boulder.

If the “Yes, but they are different” argument fails to squelch the idea, the Squelcher Squad frequently plays another card: The “Catch-22” card.

In the Denver example above, this squelcher tactic would say that “Denver can do road diets but Boulder cannot because Denver has far better transit than Boulder!” When it is pointed out that the reason Denver has better transit than Boulder is because Denver is far more compact (has far higher density) than Boulder, the Squelcher Squad then plays its Catch-22 card. “Boulder cannot do road diets because we don’t have good enough transit! But Boulder also cannot have transit because I will not allow Boulder to be more compact!”

What drives this Catch-22 attitude on the part of the Squelcher Squad? It is the fact that squelchers are trapped in a car-dependent, suburban lifestyle. Those trapped in this lifestyle are forced to use a car for nearly every trip they make. Using transit, a bicycle, or walking is impractical. Because a car consumes 17 to 100 times more space than a person not in a car, and because the car-based lifestyle requires easy, convenient, affordable travel by car, those in the car-based lifestyle MUST oppose compact development as a way to protect the viability of their lifestyle. They must, in other words, preserve their low-density, space-consuming neighborhood design in amber.

As it turns out, then, the car-dependent lifestyle is unsustainable, largely because it is not in any sense resilient to change. It is, instead, a fragile way to live.

Because change in a healthy, sustainable city is inevitable, members of the Squelcher Squad have a lifestyle with no future. All species and lifestyles that were not adaptable to change in world history are now extinct. This is the inevitable fate of the suburban, car-based, low-density lifestyle in a world of inevitable change.

Postscript:

Members of the Squelcher Squad often inform us that our city cannot afford to provide the quality transit service found in many larger cities. While it is correct that smaller cities such as Boulder could not quickly install a high-quality transit system found in a city such as, say, Copenhagen, I don’t see why Boulder would need to do that as a way to follow the admirable lead of a city like Copenhagen.

The important lessons many of us get from cities like Copenhagen: land uses that are much more compact/dense than Boulder deliver many enormous benefits: affordability, transportation choice, quality of life, lifestyle choice, societal health/fitness, overall happiness, lower levels of traffic deaths, lower levels of air pollution and fuel consumption, etc.

How was a city like Copenhagen able to find the money and political will to build their transit system? It was almost entirely due to not making the mistakes of Boulder and many other US cities. Mistakes such as dispersed, low-density land use patterns, and putting too much into accommodating easy and affordable car travel.

In sum, if Boulder starts incrementally allowing more compact development, and reverses its many decades of promoting easy car travel and parking, it will inevitably see the incremental ability to find the dollars and political will to establish a better transit system. A viable future for Boulder requires that these land use and transit reforms be established, so we should start sooner rather than later as a way to ease the difficulty.

 

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

Essential Ingredients for a Walkable, Compact Town Center

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 20, 2013

I attended a joint citizen board meeting regarding “Sustainable Streets and Centers” in Boulder, Colorado. Here are my thoughts about necessary strategies.

Assumptions

  • Boulder has adopted a clear vision for one or more newly emerging walkable, compact centers in locations such as East Arapahoe Road, Colorado Street, and East Boulder, and intends to use effective tactics to induce the creation and sustainability of such centers.
  • People that desire to live in walkable, compact living arrangements seek a setting that is conducive to such a lifestyle. That setting features low-speed, narrow and human-scaled streets and intersections, very short walking distances to most destinations, buildings pulled up to the sidewalk to create enclosure, and a vibrant experience (in contrast to deadening expanses of parking and large building setbacks). The market for higher density housing will be very weak and unsustainable if such a walkable setting is not provided.
  • 15-minute neighborhoods are an important Boulder objective, which will require the creation of a relatively large number of centers.
  • The objective for centers is a drive to rather than drive through experience, a park-once setting, and a design that makes the pedestrian the design imperative.

General comments

First, strive to use words that resonate and are understandable to non-professional Boulder citizens. Terms such as “multi-way” or “activity center” or “alternate modes” or “corridor” are confusing, uninspiring, and negative. Second, when visioning or seeking comments from citizens, it is important that citizen comments be guided and informed by skilled design professionals (such as Dover-Kohl) who are skilled in presenting information in an understandable, inspiring way (particularly through use of quality graphics). Third, existing housing, employment, or land use patterns should not necessarily dictate visions if such patterns conflict with Boulder objectives. Fourth, the needs or convenience of regional commuters should not trump the low-speed, vibrancy, pedestrian scaled needs of Boulder’s centers.

Toolbox of Strategies that are Essential in Creating a Walkable, Compact Center

(somewhat different toolboxes are needed for other lifestyle zones – “transect zones” – in Boulder)

Land Development Regulations:

  • Motor vehicle parking is behind buildings.
  • Shorter blocks via cross-access pedestrian ways between buildings.
  • Mixed-use zoning to reduce walking/biking distance, and increase 24-hour vibrancy and safety.
  • Relatively high residential densities and commercial intensities.IMG_3045
  • Remove any regulatory barriers to infilling existing parking with buildings.
  • Do not allow gas stations at intersections.
  • Convert parking minimums to parking maximums. Require that the price of parking be unbundled. Increase allowable shared use and leased parking opportunities.
  • Relatively modest building setbacks. At intersections, a sense of place is achieved by requiring buildings to abut the back of sidewalks.
  • Exemption from landscaping requirements.
  • Relatively small minimum lot sizes.
  • Relatively small signs required by the sign ordinance (to help signal a low-speed, pedestrian scaled setting).
  • Proactively overlay a street grid with small block sizes before development is proposed.
  • Do not allow fences to cut off non-street access to adjacent parcels. Fences used should not exceed three or four feet in height along a sidewalk.
  • Emphasize multi-family housing rather than single-family housing in centers and along major streets.
  • Consider requiring at buildings at least two-stories in height for more of a sense of place, a sense of enclosure, mixed use opportunities, and better adaptability to change over time.

Infrastructure

  • Shorter street blocks (200 to 500 feet max).
  • When streets passing through the proposed center are 4 lanes or more in size, they need to be necked down (road dieted) to no more than 3 lanes.
  • Intersections must be kept relatively small in size so that they are pedestrian-scaled. No more than one turn lane in a given direction, relatively narrow travel lanes, and small turning radii.
  • Continuous left turn lanes are to be discouraged. Raised medians with turn pockets are to be encouraged.
  • Raised crosswalks when feasible and appropriate.
  • Street (including lane width) and turning radii dimensions are small and slow-speed.
  • Street lights should be pedestrian-scaled so that light bulbs are no more than 14 feet in height. Taller lights create a highway ambiance and induce higher car speeds.
  • Bus bays are inappropriate in a compact, walkable center due to loss of pedestrian scale and increased pedestrian crossing distance.
  • Sidewalks have straight, rectilinear trajectories rather than curvilinear, suburban trajectories. Curvilinear trajectories, by adding unnecessary distances to walking, are annoying and patronizing to pedestrians. They are mainly benefiting motorists, who obtain a more pleasing view as they drive along a street with curving sidewalks. They also increase the likelihood of dirt cowpaths being formed by pedestrians seeking the shortest route.
  • On-street parking is allowed and priced.
  • Consider visually prominent gateway features at the entrances to centers to clearly signal to motorists that they are entering a low-speed, walkable setting that requires attentiveness.

 

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