Tag Archives: Complete Streets

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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Congestion and Transit in Toronto

By Dom Nozzi

May 2013

In 2013, a Toronto friend told me that traffic congestion is a problem in that city and its economy.

I told him that I don’t agree that congestion significantly harms the local economy (in most cases). See, for example, this from the economist Todd Litman : http://www.vtpi.org/UMR_critique.pdf Transportation “improvements” to “reduce” congestion suffer today from the law of diminishing returns.

Each transport dollar we now spend results in fewer and fewer benefits than in the past (indeed, in my view, most all dollars WORSEN our communities and their economies).

It is not a coincidence that the most economically healthy cities tend to be severely congested. Because cars consume so much space, only a tiny number of people in cars are needed to create congestion. Given that, there is a problem if a city is NOT congested in certain locations. The problem is not congestion. Congestion is a sign of a healthy, attractive city that people want to be a part of. The problem is when there are no alternatives to avoid the congestion.

Congestion is a powerful motivator. It can be very helpful in generating the political will to create alternatives to avoid the congestion, as Toronto is finding with its interest in more transit. Other ways to avoid the largely inevitable congestion: More housing in town center locations. More street connections (by reducing dead ends and cul-de-sacs). Tolling roads. Putting roads on a diet. Making streets more “complete” so they handle more than just cars. More jobs and shopping in residential areas. Properly priced car parking (nearly all cities provide too much underpriced or free parking). Cash-out parking. Unbundled parking. Paying for car insurance at the gas pump. And so on.

As a Michael Ronkin and I often say these days, creating more walking, bicycling and transit is much more about TAKING AWAY things from motorists (subsidies, road & parking space, etc.) than it is about providing facilities for bicycling, walking and Safeway-July-2015-smtransit. So while sidewalks, bike paths and better transit are usually important, it is typically the case that such things are secondary to doing the things I list above.

Too many cities put the cart before the horse by providing transit with the necessary prerequisites of properly managed parking, proper pricing, and proper land uses, for example. Toronto has done reasonably well on this. But I also suspect there is much more they can do to create better conditions for healthy transit.

Easy and fair way to pay for more and better transit is tolling roads and properly pricing the parking, among other things. I suspect as good as the city is compared to most other cities, Toronto has a long way to go in creating fair user fees for transport. I’m sure that like in most larger cities, transit is well-used because it is costly and inconvenient (as it should be, for fairness and quality of life) to drive a car.

“Agglomeration Economies” are very important for the (economic and social) health of a city, and things that “ease congestion” tend to create urban DISPERSAL, which directly undercuts the agglomeration economies that cities need to be healthy.

Something else to consider: the “travel time budget,” which informs us that humans are apparently hard-wired for a certain amount of time allocated to daily commuting. Cross-culturally and throughout history, that budget tends to be about 1.2 hours per day (some do more, some do less, but the average is about 1.2). Given that, we can know the consequences of certain actions regarding congestion: When faced with the “time tax” of congestion, many will (in the long run) live closer to work or travel at non-rush hour times or take different routes, or travel by bike/bus/walking as a way to stay within their travel time budget.

The conventional (and mostly failed) approach is to “ease congestion” by widening roads and intersections. The triple convergence and travel time budget let us know that by doing so, we will NOT ease congestion for very long (by widening). About all we will achieve is greater geographic dispersal of where jobs, shopping and housing are found in the city (city sprawl accelerates). That, of course, quickly worsens sprawl and increases commute times.

 

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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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