Tag Archives: fire

Right-Sizing a Road is Right for Boulder

By Dom Nozzi

Boulder proposes to right-size a portion of four streets starting in the summer of 2015: Folsom, Iris, 55th and 63rd.

Right-sizing a road involves repurposing road travel lanes from car-only travel to other uses such as bicycle lanes or on-street parking. Right-sizing happens on streets that are deemed to be inefficiently and unsafely oversized. Oversized streets tend to create many negative impacts, such as cars traveling at excessive, dangerous speeds. Right-sizing creates “Complete Streets” that can be used for all forms of travel – bicycling, walking, transit, and motor vehicle travel.Road-Diet

Many fear that right-sizing a road will result in unacceptable changes. Here are reasons why fears tend to be unfounded, as well as the many benefits of right-sizing:

  • An enormous number of right-sizing projects have been immensely successful throughout the nation – including in cities that are rapidly growing.
  • Despite the conventional wisdom, providing things like adding bike lanes, building new sidewalks, or improving bus service are not effective ways to effectively encourage more bicycling, walking, or transit use. The key is to reduce the space allocated to motorists, reduce the speed of motorists, reduce subsidies allocated to motorists, and shorten distances to destinations. Right-sizing achieves two of those, which makes the tactic a powerful tool to grow the number of active travelers.
  • Boulder has previously right-sized portions of Baseline, Table Mesa, 13th Street, and North Broadway (Pearl Street downtown was actually closed to traffic to create Pearl Street Mall). In each case, there was very vocal opposition. Nevertheless, the fears expressed did not materialize, and a large jump in bicycling and walking was the result. This tracks national experience, where hundreds of right-sizing projects have succeeded. In nearly all such cases, large majorities opposed the proposal, which was followed by large majorities supporting the right-sizing AFTER they were installed.
  • Opponents of right-sizing tend to throw around alarmist, hysterical, misleading, end-of-the-world comments about right-sizing. That the community proposes to prohibit car travel. Or force everyone to ride a bicycle. But there is an enormous difference between creating a modest delay in car travel versus prohibiting car travel. Indeed, the tactic is much more accurately described as a way to NUDGE people toward more desirable ways of traveling, rather than FORCING them to give up their car.
  • Due to excessive speeds or insufficient space for bicycling, the four candidate roads discriminate against bicycle travel, walking, and transit users. Right-sizing therefore creates more equity. More transportation choice. Roads that are car-only are toxic to communities.
  • Peter Swift conducted a study in Longmont CO that found that efforts to reduce fire truck response times by increasing roadway dimensions INCREASED the overall number of injuries and deaths in a community because the number of injuries and deaths associated with fires is tiny compared to the large increase in injuries and deaths caused by high speed car travel. By increasing car speeds through excessive road sizes, public safety declines. Fire safety is a subset of life safety. To reduce overall injuries and deaths in a community, therefore, suboptimizing on fire safety by speeding fire trucks is counterproductive. On the four candidate roads, there have been 419 car crashes over the past three years. This is far, far lower than the number of fires near these roads over that time period. Right-sizing therefore is a big win for reducing injuries and deaths. As an aside, it should be noted that the Boulder Fire Department is not concerned about the proposed right-sizing, largely because of the installation of a center turn lane.
  • Right-sizing tends to be beneficial not only to bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. It is also beneficial to small retailers, residential homes, and overall community quality of life.
  • There tends to be very little loss of road capacity when a road is right-sized. This is particularly true when a road is right-sized from four lanes to three, because the inside lanes of a four-lane street frequently are serving as left-turn lanes. When a car makes a left turn on a road without a turn-lane at an intersection, the road is essentially already functioning as a three-lane road. In addition, right-sizing reduces average car speeds. When cars are moving at slower speeds, they tend to travel closer to other cars on the street, because less stopping or slowing time is needed at lower speeds. When cars are closer together, the road lane is able to handle a larger volume of cars. Road lanes with faster car travel are able to handle smaller volumes of cars.
  • Models used by traffic engineers tend to be unable to take into account “induced” car trips and “discouraged” car trips. Induced car trips are those trips that would not have occurred had the community not previously over-sized a road (or because the motorist is not obligated to pay a fee to use the road). Discouraged car trips are those trips that are relatively flexible. When a road becomes slower, some trips shift to non-rush hour times, or happen on alternative routes. Because traffic models – which engineers use to predict traffic volumes and congestion due to various road configurations – don’t do well in incorporating induced or discouraged trips, such models tend to exaggerate problems such as congestion. In the real world, then, problems associated with right-sizing are much less significant than predicted by engineering models.
  • Commonly, when a right-sizing project is proposed, there are fears of “spillover” traffic on parallel routes. This fear tends to be vastly overblown due to the issues described above. A great many trips on streets are discretionary in the sense that they can happen at non-rush hour times, on alternate routes, or not at all. In other words, not all car trips are emergency trips or otherwise essential trips that must be made on that route at that time. This is a very common misconception, and creates “worst case scenario” thinking that is unsustainable .
  • Right-sizing results in a significant increase in road safety. This is due to lower average car speeds, more attentive driving, and the inability of motorists to weave from lane to lane as they attempt to pass other cars. When there are multiple travel lanes in the same direction, the fastest car sets the pace. Safer roads invite and dramatically increase the use of the road by bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users.
  • Commonly, there is a fear that a right-sized road will make it more difficult to enter the road from a side street (due to cars being closer together). In fact, right-sized roads often make entering easier. This is because the entering motorist needs to cross less travel lanes when making a left turn onto the right-sized road (and wait in the left-turn lane if there is not an opening). In addition, slower car speeds on a right-sized road makes it easier to enter the right-sized road, because smaller gaps are needed to safely enter.
  • Motorists are understandably often inconvenienced or annoyed by “flashing light” mid-block crossings for pedestrians. Because right-sizing reduces crossing distances and car speeds, such annoying crossing treatments are less necessary and therefore less used.
  • It is common for opponents of right-sizing to claim that increased congestion from right-sizing will increase air emissions and fuel consumption. In fact, the reverse tends to be the case, because right-sizing commonly discourages trips – particularly “low value” trips such as a trip to get a cup of coffee at rush hour. To the claim that this is an unacceptable form of “social engineering,” it should be pointed out that the massive subsidies provided for the car-dependent suburban lifestyle is the most substantial form of “social engineering” in world history. Right-sizing nudges society towards a more efficient, natural state of affairs.
  • Overall quality of life increases for neighborhoods near right-sized roads, such as reduced air emissions, reduced noise pollution, less regional car trips impacting the neighborhood, and more safety.
  • For the first time in history, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is leveling off and starting to decline. This trend, which many believe is long-term, means that fears of excessive congestion due to right-sizing should be lower.
  • Right-sizing increases travel by bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. It reduces noise pollution, air emissions, speeding, and fuel consumption. It improves conditions for homes and retailers near the right-sized road. Right-sizing reduces the number or injuries and deaths on the road. It provides more space for landscaping, on-street parking, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and stormwater management. Right-sizing reduces maintenance costs. All of these benefits improve the quality of life for those near the corridor and community-wide.

The question of trade-offs must be asked: Is the loss* of, say, 30 seconds of your travel time more valuable than reduced injuries and deaths, the reduced air emissions, the increase in bicycle, pedestrian and transit travel, the reduced noise pollution, the improved visual quality, the improved conditions for homes and retailers, the reduced speeding, and the lower cost for local government?

For nearly all of us, I don’t think so.

I think the case is clear that the many large benefits of right-sizing far outweigh the relatively minor increase in travel time. The success and popularity of right-sizing throughout the nation demonstrates this quite well.

* Note that right-sizing does not necessarily result in a loss of any travel time at all. For example, some motorists respond to right-sizing by avoiding rush-hour travel or opt for alternative routes.

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Public Safety and the Law of Unintended Consequences

By Dom Nozzi

[Updated Jan 2009]


Is public safety an enemy of our quality of life?


One of the most curious things about communities these days is that, paradoxically, the desire for a maximum amount of “public safety” has become profoundly responsible for making us less safe and more ill at ease, while rapidly eroding our quality of life.  The problem is particularly disturbing because even when it is noticed as a problem, there is almost nothing that can be done about it, because it is extremely difficult, politically, to do something that seems counter to public safety.  For example, if it is argued, in the name of slowing down cars for traffic safety, that we should not build streets extremely wide for huge fire trucks, the people urging more narrow streets are seen by many to be in favor of more babies dying in burning buildings—because more narrow streets might slow down the fire trucks.


Quite simply, we suffer from the “law of unintended consequences” when it comes to public safety.


Public Safety Effort

Wide street travel lanes, left-turn lanes, big “vision triangles,” and large turning radii (at intersections) are all justified in the name of safety for cars and speed for fire trucks.


Unintended Consequences

When we enlarge street dimensions in such ways, it becomes less safe and less pleasant to bicycle around town, or walk on a sidewalk or cross a street because of the big width of the street and the high car speeds created by the large street dimensions.  And increasing car speeds is one of the most important reasons for the decline in the livability of our neighborhoods.


Public Safety Effort

Fire Codes and Building/Electrical Codes are justified to protect against the danger of fire or structurally unsound buildings, among other things.


Unintended Consequences

Such codes are often extremely costly when they need to be retrofitted into older, “in-town” buildings, which severely inhibits adaptive reuse or redevelopment in the city (mostly downtown) and leads many to develop in outlying areas.  These consequences promote a stagnation of our downtown, reduce downtown safety due to empty buildings and reduced numbers of people, and reduce transportation choice (since nearly all outlying locations can only be reached by car).  This problem is so substantial that the state of New Jersey has recently adopted a parallel Code that makes it easier for older, existing buildings to comply with contemporary safety rules.  The result has been a significant increase in the rate of in-town redevelopment.


Public Safety Effort

Increasingly loud and frequent emergency vehicle sirens, which are justified to ensure that motorists are able to hear emergency vehicles and get out of the way. On a related note, these loud emergency vehicles are brought to an increasing number of incidents—any incident that might possibly need emergency assistance.


Unintended Consequences

As emergency vehicle sirens become louder and more frequent, the nerves of in-town residents get frayed, and the tranquility and restfulness of in-town locations is lost. In-town locations are inherently subject to more sirens because most calls originate in central areas of a community.  Some cities have noticeably less siren noise pollution than others—not because they are less dangerous or experiencing less emergencies, but because the community leaders recognize that a balance must be struck between public safety and quality of life. 


Without striking this balance, and letting public safety concerns overwhelm quality of life concerns, many communities increasingly seem like a war zone, and its citizens are regularly awakened in the middle of the night by sirens. Commonly, people move to the outlying suburbs (which promotes costly sprawl and harms our in-town areas) to escape the in-town noise, and find peace and quiet.


Public Safety Effort

“High-tech”, catastrophic medical care, which is justified to heroically save or extend lives.


Unintended Consequences

Such care is extremely costly, which makes the overall health care system rather unaffordable in the U.S., and de-emphasizes important efforts such as preventive care.


Public Safety Effort

Liability management applied to public facilities (ensuring that your organization is not doing things that increase the chances of lawsuits), which is justified to guard against costly lawsuits.


Unintended Consequences

Often, we decide not to build public facilities, such as skateboard parks or imaginative youth play equipment, because of the threat of someone getting hurt and suing the responsible agency.


Public Safety Effort

Towering concrete street lights, and other forms of excessive lighting, which is justified to promote safety for motor vehicles and people at night.


Unintended Consequences

Tall, concrete street lights are extremely ugly, and ruin any chance of creating a romantic, human-scaled ambiance in our city. The “highway” character that tall street lights create probably encourage higher vehicle speeds. Excessive lighting hides the night-time stars from our view (an awe-inspiring view when we are away from cities). It adds dangerous glare to streets that is distracting or blinding to motorists. It makes our community less of a pleasant place because so many retailers use the lights to create the “building as sign” effect. It wastes a tremendous amount of electricity. And it makes it easier for lawbreakers to hide, since excessive lighting darkens shadows that they hide in.


Public Safety Effort

Surface parking lots in front of buildings, which is justified because some people feel unsafe at night if the parking lot is behind the building.


Unintended Consequences

When buildings are moved away from the streetside sidewalk, walking on the sidewalk becomes much less safe, less pleasant, and less convenient – therefore, more trips are made by car instead of by foot. In addition, we lose the cozy feeling created when buildings close to the street form wonderful “outdoor rooms.”


Public Safety Effort

Trees severely pruned or chopped down, or kept outside of the “clear zone” of streets, which is justified to protect overhead power lines, and guard against drivers crashing into trees if they veer off the street.


Unintended Consequences

Trees cut back or moved away from streets make our community and neighborhoods substantially less attractive and less shaded.  Pulling trees back from the street also makes the street more “forgiving” and creates more of a “racetrack” feeling, which results in more reckless, high-speed, dangerous travel by cars.


I’m sure you can add your own favorites to this disturbing list…


Public safety is certainly not something we should trivialize or not strive to improve. But we need to guard against “suboptimizing.” That is, we need to remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, if for no other reason than that we can undercut other essential public objectives, such as quality of life, if we put all of our eggs into the public safety basket.


And as I note above, sometimes we get consequences we did not intend or foresee.



Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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Public Safety versus Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

[Updated Jan 2009]


“Quality of Life” has become a common “buzz phrase” at neighborhood gatherings, legislative deliberations, corporate boardrooms, and government offices. Everyone strives for it, but very few are able to define it precisely. We grope for descriptions, and end up with vague generalities such as “freedom from pain,” “maximized individual choice or freedom,” “the greatest good for the greatest number,” “congestion-free roads,” or “winning the Florida lottery.” Because our definitions are so vague, however, we find it difficult to decide whether our community boasts a high quality of life, or, in terms of changes to our community, whether a development proposal in our community will help us improve our quality of life.


Fortunately, our understanding of the concept is sufficient to enable us to make at least mildly accurate decisions about which actions improve our quality of life, and which will harm it.

Without such an understanding, our city and county commissioners would have no issues to debate. Citizens attending commission meetings would have no developments to fight for (or against).


Some of us are so bold and presumptuous as to state publicly what we feel would improve the quality of life for the entire community. In our efforts to argue for actions which would

improve the quality of life for the community, though, we are often hindered by something more than the inability to adequately define quality of life. This hindrance, which seems to grow

stronger every day, is, ironically enough, our promotion of public safety.


At first glance, there would seem to be perfect harmony between quality of life and public safety. After all, without promoting public safety, the quality of our lives would more likely be harmed by injuries, death of loved ones, or crime. And because our society has a history of dangerous streets, buildings, and factories, we have filled our law books with regulations and codes which minimize threats to public safety.


But it seems we have gone too far. In our rush to protect ourselves from all the risks of life, we have become timid, uncreative, joyless, and fearful. Due to the Law of Diminishing Returns, we have reached the point where our huge expenditures of time, effort, and money for the attainment of even greater levels of public safety are actually harming our quality of life. For example:


·        Our courts allow us to win huge liability lawsuits when negligence is demonstrated. Yet this liability has become so fearfully expensive that companies are afraid to test and market new products (such as birth control devices). Similarly, governments are unable to satisfy a large and growing demand for inexpensive skateboard facilities and other imaginative youth play equipment.


·        Our jails and prisons are bursting at the seams due to the huge increase in persons apprehended for crimes and incarcerated. Yet the huge cost of processing and warehousing such massive numbers of citizens has greatly diminished our ability to build parks or educate our children.California Prisons


·        Our building codes enable us to reduce the probability of fires and accidents in our offices, homes, and schools. Yet the cost of retrofitting older buildings in our downtowns is so high that aspiring, creative entrepreneurs, artists, and restaurants are often chased to locations remote from downtown,  thereby increasing the sprawl so detrimental to our quality of life.


·        Traffic safety standards frequently necessitate the removal of often huge and ancient oak trees considered too close to the roadway. Rather than slowing traffic to preserve these magnificent trees, we opt for the chainsaw.


It is time for a change in how we approach public safety. Largely, this must be done by insuring, first, that public safety does not suboptimize over other essential community objectives such as quality of life. And that will take wisdom and leadership.



My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here.

You can schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.



Or email me at:


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