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Boulder Shows It Still Doesn’t Get It on Proposed Widening of Arapahoe Road

By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2017

A news article and an accompanying op-ed by the editor in chief were published in the Daily Camera in June 2017, and it made my blood boil.

Here we are in 2017, and despite over 100 years of repeated failure, too many citizens, elected officials, and staff continue to be convinced that it is necessary to spend a huge amount of what I thought were scarce public dollars (not so scarce when it comes to road/intersection widening and buying Pentagon weapons, though…) to worsen transportation, taxes, land use patterns, and quality of life by widening roads and intersections.

My friend Michael Ronkin informed me later that day, after I read these disheartening newspaper submissions, that even Geneva, Switzerland is not truly getting this.

It galls me that those proposing these road or intersection “improvements” in the face of growth projections consider themselves to be “far-sighted” in calling for this in advance of the growth. Part of the thinking, as Charles Marohn points out, is that road and intersection widenings in the past were not widened “enough,” the road or intersection was soon overwhelmed with “excess” car trips, and it was discovered that the need for a SECOND widening was far more expensive, overall, than if the road or intersection was widened “enough” in the first place. “Enough” so that the second widening would have been unnecessary. The solution? Deliberately overbuild the size of the road or intersection so that the unexpected surge in car trips in the future could be accommodated without the need for a very costly second widening. This is considered being “farsighted.”

However, by widening roads or intersections, at great public expense, such “far-sighted” people are locking their communities into a far worse future. They don’t have a clue about things like induced car travel demand (new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened) and how bigger roads/intersections inevitably lead to more sprawl and car dependence. And a loss of a sense of place or a sense of small town charm.

They don’t realize there is an alternative to the century-long ruinous widenings. “Let It Be,” as the Beatles once said, and socially desirable results will emerge (rather than be undermined by widening). If we don’t try to “solve” anticipated congestion by widening, we will realize slower speeds, less car travel, more bicycling/walking/transit, more compact development, more of a sense of place and charm, lower taxes, less car crashes, less obesity, etc.

I am convinced that once a society commits itself to a car-happy world by building happy-car infrastructure (dispersed low density development, big parking lots, big roads, big setbacks, big intersections, single-use development, etc.), it traps itself in an irreversible downward spiral, because even in “enlightened” communities such as Boulder, the car-oriented road infrastructure and the dispersed land use patterns needed to make car travel free-flowing obligates citizens to angrily insist that car-happy design (which is extremely hostile to non-car travel) continue to be provided. After all, the community now forces citizens to travel by car. There is seemingly no alternative. We must dig the hole deeper. We must lock ourselves further into car dependence.

Given this downwardly spiraling trap, America and its cities will need to run out of money before it is forced to stop the unsustainable insanity of widening roads and intersections. After all, even a century of failed widenings has apparently taught us nothing at all.

A final note: Boulder and Boulder County pride themselves in being smart, progressive, and cutting edge — particularly when it comes to transportation. But these planned road and intersection “improvements” on Arapahoe Avenue illustrates that Boulder is far behind the times and continues to be moronic when it comes to transportation.

By the way, a number of folks in Boulder like to respond to my pointing out that Boulder doesn’t get it regarding widenings by saying that Boulder no longer widens roads. While that may be true, Boulder continues to widen INTERSECTIONS (by creating double-left Arapahoe Ave Boulder COturn lanes, for example) all the time. But bigger intersections are worse than wider roads in many ways. For example, oversized intersections forever lose the ability to create a small town sense of place. It will always be a placeless, car-based location where people will never want to hang out. Such intersections will forever fail to pay for themselves because they eliminate the sales tax and property tax potential of those locations.

One of our societal problems is that news reporters often perpetuate myths when they write on topics they are not informed about. Many readers assume that if the comments are published in a newspaper, they are probably true.

This is a particularly big problem on the topic of transportation, as citizens (including reporters) tend to think it is so obvious what needs to be done to improve transportation. It is common sense! They fail to realize that many effective transportation tools are counter-intuitive.

Unfortunately, I will be stepping down from the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board before I get a chance to speak out against this tragic mistake and cast a lone vote against the proposed Arapahoe Avenue “improvements.”

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