Tag Archives: congestion

Is Congestion a “Disease”?

By Dom Nozzi

A friend sent me an article which made the point that lessons we learn about how infectious diseases spread in a pandemic such as the coronavirus can be applied to cities striving to reduce traffic congestion. I responded as follows.

Like most people, the creators of this analogy between infectious diseases and traffic congestion don’t understand cities or congestion. Congestion in cities is NOT a “disease” that must be “cured.” Congestion is an important SOLUTION for city health. Boulder has spent several decades, like most every other city, in failing to understand this. Reducing congestion is toxic for a city because nearly everything the city or state or federal govt does to reduce congestion (temporarily) is bad for city health. To be healthy, a city must provide ALTERNATIVES to the inevitable congestion for people who don’t want to put up with it.

What are the alternatives?

More street and population and intersection density allows more walking and bicycling and transit travel. Mixing residential with retail, office, culture, and jobs is part of that promotion of alternatives.

In a healthy city, congestion is inevitable. It is a sign of health. Only dying or dead cities do not have congestion.

We have spent over 100 years trying to reduce congestion. Until we realize congestion is our friend and work instead to provide alternatives to congestion, we will continue to fail and continue creating a grim future.

It IS possible to durably reduce congestion in a way that is not unhealthy for a city: toll roads. But doing that is nearly always politically impossible, as NYC has shown.

 

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The Colossal Blunder of 800 New Parking Spaces at Eldora Ski Resort

 

By Dom Nozzi

Eldora Ski Resort here in Boulder County, Colorado is preparing to commit a colossal yet still all-too-common blunder. After getting furious, enraged pushback last year when the Resort proposed to charge for existing parking (which, as an aside, is exactly the correct tool for managing their parking), the Resort was just given unanimous approval from the County Planning Board to install approximately 800 new “free” spaces at the Resort — which will require the clearing of about six acres of forest (assuming 325 square feet of parking lot per space).

This new parking would be in addition to the existing large parking lot, as well as at least one overflow parking lot.

This additional parking will result in more air emissions in the region (undercutting climate change reduction efforts by our community), cause a lot of forest removal (which will aggravate stormwater pollution, erosion, and flooding), increase “heat island” problems, increase the number of single-occupant vehicles driving through Nederland and to the Resort, increase congestion in Nederland and the length of the backup of cars trying to enter the Resort on popular snow days, reduce the number of carpoolers, reduce the number of transit users, and increase the need for shuttle buses at the Resort.

As an aside, I should note that for decades, whenever the Resort planned to engage in various modest expansions of recreation areas on their property (or any action that might increase the volume of cars in the nearby town of Nederland), they almost invariably got strong opposition. But in this case, the prospect of a six-acre asphalt parking lot replacing a forest is met with a consensus of happy, enthusiastic support.

I should also note that the Resort imposes an indirect tax on those who ride the bus to the Resort. In addition to the hefty charge for a bus ticket, bus riders usually have to pay for a locker to store their non-ski items while skiing — unlike motorists, who are able to use their car as a storage locker.

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Chiming In On a Neighborhood Discussion About Growth, Development, and Transportation in Boulder

 

By Dom Nozzi

I keep getting confused by comments in this email conversation.

More than one person has suggested we “improve planning” and “improve transportation.” I know of no one who would ever oppose those two things (therefore, why say those things?).

But vague suggestions like those leave me wondering what is meant? Does “improved planning” mean that we demand even more staggering fees from developers? Or stop population growth in some never-before-done manner? Does “improve transportation” mean road or intersection widening? Or perhaps even more staggering amounts of free parking?

Infilling with more housing in the city has a great many undeniable benefits, despite what some have said in this conversation, even if we don’t put much of a dent in the jobs/housing balance. Infill development starts shrinking trip distances, and promotes small-scale retail development. Infill creates more affordable housing.

When land is as expensive as it is in Boulder, I scratch my head in bewilderment when I hear people say that more compact housing — ie, housing on smaller plots of land — is not more affordable than large-lot, low-density houses.

And for those that do not know, there are recent studies showing that even when expensive homes are built, affordability is improved when some of the more wealthy residents shift to the new housing.

It is little more than naive virtue-signaling to call for transit improvements such as more frequent buses or passenger rail. Such things, however, are nowhere near cost-feasible as long as Boulder’s average densities remain so low — densities that are so low that this city is locked into years of very high levels of car dependency by nearly all of us. Not only are densities far too low to support high-quality transit, but this city and region provide far too much free parking to create anything more than tiny ridership levels.

What does “slower growth” mean, exactly? Boulder’s development regulations and fees have been draconian for decades, which means that growth and development approvals happen here much slower than any growing city similar to Boulder I know of. Given how much development is slowed in Boulder (it seems fast because land is very expensive and our quality of life is very high), we have plenty of time — as planners, Council, and citizens — to carefully consider and shape proposed development. I know these things because I was the growth rate control planner for Boulder in the past.

I don’t see any meaningful reasons why we are better off if we “slow down growth” by approving a proposed development in 8 months or 3 years. Although I suspect that a hidden reason that many seek to slow down growth even more is that “time is money,” and – the thinking goes — maybe if we slow down a project even more, it will no longer be financially feasible, which might kill the project.

I have what I think is a much better idea: Rather than spending almost all of our time trying (and almost always failing) to slow or stop development, how about if we put meaningful effort into crafting development regulations that will reliably deliver higher quality development? Our regulations, I’m embarrassed to say, are embarrassingly outdated — surely at least in part due to how distracted we’ve been in spending all our time trying to find ways to slow or stop growth.

I neglected to mention a few things in my comments above.

First, another benefit to infilling (creating more housing in Boulder) is the following. When we have infill, the per capita environmental impact (for example, car emissions) goes way down. Low-density suburban Boulder has a huge per capita environmental impact. Indeed, shame on the many in Boulder who don’t know that a compact/dense development pattern is the new green. Low-density suburbia (about 80 percent of Boulder) is the new smokestack industry, in large part because such dispersed land use patterns are a fertility drug for cars.

More about the common call for better transit and establishing passenger rail for Boulder: As I said above, low-density, dispersed Boulder makes it impractical or irrational for most to use transit, which means spending a lot of money on better buses or new rail will result in unaffordable bus and rail that too few are using. Here is one of the many blogs I’ve written on the irrationality of using transit: https://domz60.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/is-rail-a-practical-option-for-a-college-town/

As an aside, one important reason we don’t have rail in Boulder (besides our low densities) is that the cost of rail has gone through the roof since we passed the tax to pay for it. There are other important reasons why ridership on better buses or new rail would be too low: Congestion in Boulder is far too low to create the political will to install better transit.

Whining about “gridlock” in Boulder is laughable to people who have moved here from bigger cities. It is no coincidence that the cities with the best transit have very high levels of congestion. Another reason for low ridership is that motorists in Boulder pay almost no motorist user fees. Nearly every time we park, we park for free. We don’t pay a congestion fee or a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee.

In sum, without seeing much higher levels of congestion, without seeing a lot more housing (to create more compact development), and without instituting motorist user fees (so motorists equitably begin to pay their own way), it will remain irrational or impractical for all but the most heroic Boulderites to use even much better buses or rail. Expensive buses and rail are given a big fat black eye when they are mostly empty.

By the way, I suspect that a large number of people calling for better buses or new rail have no intention of using such transit (it is, after all, irrational or impractical for most). Instead, they call for such transit so that OTHERS will use transit, which leaves the transit advocate with less crowded roads and parking lots when they continue to drive.

Another thought about the suggestions we’ve heard here that we should “improve transportation” before allowing new development: I suspect that such an “improvement” for many who say this is that we, say, widen a major road from 3 to 5 lanes. There are a great many reasons why that won’t help. We’ve known for several decades that we cannot build/widen our way out of congestion (mostly because widening induces car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened).

Widening a road or intersection is about the worst possible thing we can do in Boulder (it is anything but an “improvement”). In a few years, after spending enormous amounts of tax money to do it, we worsen congestion, induce a lot more dispersed sprawl, bankrupt ourselves financially, create more per capita car trips, worsen air pollution and climate change, harm our physical health, degrade our neighborhoods, reduce travel choices for children and seniors, increase the number of traffic fatalities, and obliterate our beloved “small town character.”

Oops.

The good news, as an aside, is that we DON’T have to widen roads or stop Boulder population growth to have a pleasant, sustainable, diverse, inclusive, affordable future. We can instead opt for such things as better urban design and better price signals.

How about if we start working on that rather than spending all our time trying (and failing) to stop growth for the past several decades?

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

Excerpts from Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules (2018)

 

By Dom Nozzi

In February 2018, I read an excellent book regarding walkable design. Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules turned me on to this inspiring 15-min video. It shows how a city being run down by a high-speed, high-volume, massive, dangerous, car-only intersection full of angry motorists could be reborn into a much more courteous, safe, welcoming, healthy, shared place with right-sized roads (diets), removal of traffic signals and traffic regulation signs, expansion of pedestrian areas, and street design that obligates slow and attentive driving.

Please share this with friends and your local traffic engineers!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vzDDMzq7d0

Excerpts from the book:

“There are many things that can be measured in cities, each of which has its own impact on success. Density, diversity, walkability, property value, resource conservation, life expectancy, educational attainment, the production of patents, GDP, carbon footprint, free-flowing traffic: all of these relate to a city’s well-being, attractiveness, and future prospects. Yet only one of them, the last one, is routinely used to direct decision making around a city’s growth, and ironically, it is the one that works to the detriment of all the others. Let that sink in. The one aspect of urban life that has the most impact on city planning, traffic flow, exists in almost perfect opposition to all the other good things a city can have…The more dense, diverse, walkable, and desirable a city is, the more it is likely to be congested. The less fuel it burns and the lower the obesity rate, the worse the traffic. Ditto that on educational attainment, patents per capita, and GDP (Every 10% increase in traffic delay correlates to a 3.4% increase in per capita GDP). In the US at least, greatness brings congestion. Why, then, is design controlled by congestion, and not by greatness?”

“In every major American city, pedestrian deaths are a part of life…The news cycle is predictable: first comes the victim blaming, then the driver blaming – sober drivers are almost never punished – then perhaps a discussion about speed limits and enforcement. Through it all, the crash is called an ‘accident’ as if it was not preventable. Rarely is the design of the roadway itself considered. And never – NEVER – is there any reconsideration of the professional engineering standards that created the hazard in the first place. The Swedes, those geniuses of driving safety, know better. For some time, the leadership of the Swedish traffic safety profession has acknowledged that street design is at the heart of traffic safety, and modified its engineering standards with an eye to lowering speeds in urban areas. The results are astounding. Their traffic fatality rate as a nation is about one quarter of the US, but the biggest difference is in the cities. In 2013, Stockholm, with a similar population to Phoenix, lost six people to car crashes. Phoenix lost 167. Remarkably, Stockholm made it through 2016 without a single pedestrian or cyclist dying. Welcome to ‘Vision Zero’…In Seattle, too – where city engineer Dongho Chang tweets daily about bike lanes, curb extensions, and other safety improvements his department is installing – the impact of Vision Zero is clear…While not stated outright, both its goals and execution fly in the face of a half-century of negligent engineering practice…Advocates should rally publicly around the tragedy of road deaths to overcome hurdles to its adoption.”

“Level of service is the system that traffic planners use, often exclusively, to determine the success of a street network. Level of service (LOS) rankings run from A to F, with A representing unimpeded flow and F representing bad delays…Many engineers aim for an LOS of A or B, because…A’s and B’s are best, right? To an engineer’s mind, the less congestion the better. But this belief ignores the fact that an LOS of A or B corresponds to cars moving at higher speeds than are safe for an urban center. Moreover, experience teaches us that there hardly exists a single successful, vital, main street that would earn an A or B rating. When it comes to retail performance and street life, LOS could aptly be said to stand for Lack of Success…It is clear that the LOS system, which was created to assess highways, is the wrong measure for determining the success of a city. Or, it perhaps is useful, but only if we consistently aim for an LOS of E…Only as a LOS of D emerges into E do we see a significant drop in driving speeds. Even a high F would seem to provide a slow but steady flow of traffic, ideal for a main street…Because congestion is spuriously associated with pollution, it once seemed wise to impose upon new development a burden of maintaining a high LOS. This approach ignored the fact that the most free-flowing traffic is found in those places where people drive the most miles – that smooth traffic is indeed an inducement to driving – and thus our most congested cities make the lowest per-capita contribution to greenhouse gases. In light of this new understanding, the State of California recently eliminated LOS from its environmental review process, and replaced it with a focus on reducing VMT: Vehicle Miles Traveled. Under the old rules, ironically, environmental regulations would stop you from adding a bike lane to a street if a traffic study showed a negative impact on the flow of cars. This still happens in many places. But California has regained its sanity and is once again leading the way in limiting the environmental impacts of driving.”

 

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Filed under Road Diet, Transportation, Walking

Compact Development Avoids Congestion. It Does Not Reduce It

By Dom Nozzi

January 3, 2019

Compact, walkable, transit-oriented development patterns do not stop the emergence of traffic congestion – or reduce it once it occurs. Because cars consume so much space (see my photo set below), any attractive, well-designed city worth its salt will have traffic congestion (all the great cities we love have parking and traffic problems — again, because cars consume an enormous amount of space).40 people (2)

No, what compact, walkable cities do that dispersed, low-density, single-use, disconnected cities cannot do is to offer residents the ability to AVOID the inevitable congestion (or at least many of the negative effects of congestion). Residents of compact cities, for example, have much more of a choice to bike or walk or use transit (each of which are congestion-avoidance tactics). Such cities also provide more choices to live closer to their destinations (another avoidance tactic).

The “addiction” to cars (as is often noted by friends of mine) is largely due to the fact that we have, over the past century, built a car-oriented world that makes non-car travel very difficult or impractical.

We have much work to do to reform our communities so that this is not the case. Sustainability requires that we provide transportation and housing choices.

Drivable suburbia provides only one choice: live in an isolated, sterile, anti-neighborly home that requires that nearly every trip is by car. Such a lifestyle is incapable of adapting to the inevitable future changes we will face, which makes for a grim, expensive, painful, and thereby unsustainable future.

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

The Case Against the Colorado Transportation Sales Tax on the November 2018 Ballot

By Dom Nozzi

I have almost 40 years of academic and professional (and lifestyle) experience in the field of transportation, which is why I am without hesitation voting AGAINST the Proposition 110 sales tax increase for Colorado transportation funding, and urge all Colorado voters to also vote against this measure.

Some bicycling, walking, and transit advocates are joining with motorist and sprawl advocates in voting for this measure because a token amount of the revenue is slated to be directed towards those forms of non-car travel.

However, I think doing so is a terrible mistake. Why? Because ON BALANCE, we take a giant step backwards in promoting bicycling and walking and transit (not to mention a host of other social and municipal objectives) if we pass 110.

The positives of 110 are that a token amount of dollars will be allocated to improvements for cyclists, walkers, and transit. What will be the outcome of doing that? We will see a very modest increase in bicycling, walking and transit use. Worldwide studies show over and over that to be effective in seeing a meaningful shift from car travel to walking or bicycling or transit, we must take things away from motorists (speed, subsidies and space). It is not about providing more sidewalks or bike paths or buses.

By contrast, the negatives of 110 are enormous, because hundreds of millions of new tax dollars will now be made available to widen highways, roads and intersections. If anything, we need to be narrowing a huge percentage of our bloated, oversized roads,Carmageddon highway highways, and intersections. I will only list a few of the significant negatives of 110: a large increase in unaffordable and ruinous suburban sprawl, a large increase in per capita car trips and car travel distances, a large increase in air emissions (which destroys our ability to address climate change in the future), much larger levels of traffic congestion (because it artificially induces new car trips and more remote development that would not have occurred had we not widened), a large increase in traffic fatalities and serious injuries, an increase in the massive financial woes of state and local governments (who cannot afford to maintain our existing infrastructure, let alone the new infrastructure 110 will fund), a substantial worsening of public health, a much more ugly environment in Colorado, a loss of enormous ecologically sensitive areas that would now be replaced by new development, and a big decline in bicycling, walking and transit use.

When we compare the positives and negatives, the net result for bicycling, walking and transit — not to mention the very many social and municipal objectives — shows 110 to be far and away more of a bad deal than a good deal (unless you are with the auto or sprawl lobbies).

I don’t want one penny of my sales tax dollars to go toward ruining the Colorado I love. We’ve poured huge public dollars into making cars happy for the past century, and the outcome has been terrible. I will do everything in my power to fight against this measure. Enough is enough.

Some have responded to my opposition by stating that we should not let “perfection be the enemy of the good.” But in what sense is this measure “good,” on balance? By giving pocket change to building a few sidewalks? It is the equivalent of saying we should support giving the Pentagon another $50 billion to kill thousands more civilians with thousands of new and more powerful bombs because, after all, it is “good” in the sense that we are at the same time giving $10,000 to the UN Peacekeeping office.

Please.

In both the transportation tax and the Pentagon spending, the net result is a vastly worse world, even if we give a few pennies to bike lanes and diplomacy.

This is, quite simply, a Faustian bargain.

As an aside, some 110 supporters argue that the sales tax revenue obtained by Boulder will only be allocated for “progressive” transportation projects – or at least more progressive than how it will be used elsewhere in the state. But this “Boulder Bubble” way of thinking turns a blind eye to the great harm this money will  bring to the “less enlightened” parts of Colorado – harm that will negatively impact Boulder. It is also inaccurate to assume Boulder will not use the money in detrimental ways, as I’ve come to learn during my five years serving on the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board that Boulder is shockingly stuck in the Dark Ages with regard to transportation. To take one example, while it is true that Boulder no longer seems interested in road widenings, this community remains more than happy to widen intersections, which is a highly detrimental transportation (and land use) tactic.

Another aside is that it is far more fair and progressive to obtain new transportation funding with user fees such as road tolls or a VMT tax.  Sales taxes, by contrast, are not only regressive to lower income folks, they also have each of us pay the same amount of tax regardless if we drive an SUV 10,000 miles from a sprawl home each year or ride a bicycle from a town center condo. This is the definition of unfairness.

But even if we opted for the more equitable user fees rather than sales tax, I would still oppose even that reform, as it still means there will be a big increase in dollars available for vastly detrimental road, highway and intersection widenings. Only when our society is forced to learn that we should never again widen, and instead set about shrinking our roads and intersections to a safer, more sustainable human scale should we be finding new transportation dollars.

As of today, however, we continue to fail to learn this existential lesson even though road and intersection widening has done nothing but ruin us for the past century. We remain very far from learning such a fundamental lesson.

 

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Environment, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Motorists Should Feel Inconvenienced

By Dom Nozzi

July 17, 2018

A common complaint that one hears – particularly in American cities – is that “parking spaces are too small” or “the roads are too congested” or “this driveway is too narrow.” General complaints about how inconvenient it is to drive a car. Is it not obvious that something must be done to make it more convenient for me to drive my car??

But in a well-designed town center, the space-consumptive motorist SHOULD feel inconvenienced. Why? Because motor vehicles consume an enormous amount of space, and herculean efforts to provide such space inevitably destroys the essential need for human scale.

For about a century, conventional traffic engineers have been too focused on the opposite: conveniencing car travel. The loss of human-scaled, slow speed, vibrant spaces is the result in nearly all American cities. Engineers tend to be single-mindedly striving to attain the objective of car movement and fail to know of the ingredients of a healthy city.

Because they have such a profound influence over the design and health of a city, I believe traffic engineers should be required to have studied walkable urban design. Or that urban designers should simply replace traffic engineers in city transportation design.

Not doing so will lead to the continuation of a century-long ruination of healthy, lovable, safe communities. The loss of communities designed for people, not cars.

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

Thoughts about the 2005 Florida Growth Management Legislation

by Dom Nozzi

May 18, 2005

The 2005 Florida State Legislative session was billed as the most substantial growth management legislative modifications since the Growth Management Act was adopted in 1985. This legislation has been hailed by a large number of groups—from builders, to public interest groups and environmental groups—as something that “will finally allow Florida to make growth management much more effective.”

Not by legislating a sustainable, walkable, timeless vision for how communities should be designed. Not by providing quality of life tools such as required growth boundaries, reformed land development regulations, parking reforms, acknowledging that road concurrency is fueling sprawl and harming communities (recognizing, in other words, that in urban areas, congestion is our friend), property tax reform (to stop promoting sprawl and downtown ruin), or calling for road diets.

None of these actions were urged by legislators.

No, what our legislators decided to do to “improve” growth management and the future quality of life of Floridians was precisely what should NOT have been done to achieve these objectives.

The major action by the legislature? “Starting to properly funding growth management after 20 years of insufficient funding.”

Our state “leaders” voted to proclaim that the solution to protect our future quality of life is to pour billions of public dollars into building bigger roads so that we can “prevent growth from congesting our roads.”Untitled

So there you have it. Bigger roads means happier Floridians.

Oh, sure. The legislature took some baby steps with regard to water supply and schools. A tightening of the concurrency rule that requires development to “pay its own way.” But each of these were comparatively trivial actions.

By far, the big message from our legislators in 2005 was that we have “growth management” if we widen roads to “prevent further congestion.” The be all and end all of quality of life in Florida is “free-flowing traffic.” Happy cars is our sole focus to create happy communities.

At least that is what one is led to believe, when it is recognized that about 75 percent of the funding the legislators found to “fund growth management” is being directed toward roads.

Oops.

We forgot (again) that we cannot build our way out of congestion. We forgot that widening soon makes congestion worse. We forgot that wider roads is like throwing gasoline on the fire of sprawl, auto dependence and community decline. We forgot that happy cars and happy people mix like oil and water. We forgot that widening roads is the most effective way to destroy community quality of life. We forgot that the impossible task of widening our way out of congestion will further bankrupt state and local government—thereby starving other essential public programs.

We forgot that what is good (in the short term) for our SUVs is NOT good for our communities.

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

Free Flowing Traffic: Desirable or Ruinous?

By Dom Nozzi

August 25, 2017

Highway expansion ruinously continues in Boulder CO — largely through the on-going efforts to add new turn lanes at intersections in Boulder.

That exceptionally counterproductive action will only become less common when Boulder residents are able to decouple “free-flowing traffic” and abundant parking from quality of life.

There has been a decades-long assumption that one of the primary keys to quality of life in Boulder is to strive for free-flowing traffic. The main tactics have been to minimize development, minimize density and building height, resist removal of road/intersection/parking capacity, and add turn lanes.

The pursuit of free-flowing traffic inexorably leads to the “asphalt-ization” of a community because the pursuit results in oversized roads and intersections and oversized parking lots. It leads, in other words, to gigantism, where in addition to massive roads, intersections and parking lots, building setbacks are huge, the sprawling Arapahoe Ave Boulder COgeographic spread of a city becomes seemingly endless, street signs become enormous, street lights almost reach the clouds, and shops become massive. Free-flowing traffic means a very large per capita production of toxic air emissions and gasoline consumption. It means impossible-to-avoid stormwater problems. Freely-flowing traffic substantially reduces per capita bicycling, walking and transit use. It results in bankrupting cost increases for households and local governments. Free-flowing traffic creates social isolation, obesity, stress, road rage, traffic crashes that lead to massive numbers of injuries and deaths, and vast abandonment of older town centers.

I cannot think of anything that is more detrimental to quality of life than striving to maintain “free-flowing traffic” and abundant parking. Doing so is toxic for a city.

Tragically, a great many intelligent, “green” Boulder residents fight for free-flowing traffic and abundant car parking. There is a bi-partisan consensus that roads and intersections and parking lots must be wider. That driving and parking should be “free.” That motoring should always be pleasant.

It is a recipe for ruin masquerading as a quest for a better quality of life.

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

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