Tag Archives: leadership

Improving Transportation in Boulder, Colorado

A Facebook Conversation between Dom Nozzi and a friend

December 18, 2016

In December of 2016, a Facebook friend of mine responded to an illustration I posted showing the ENORMOUS amount of space that cars consume.

Friend: Then what’s the answer for Boulder, Dom?. Can [the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) you sit on] or the City do much more to encourage bus and bike usage, especially in winter?

Dom Nozzi: The politics and values I have observed in Boulder spell very bad news for Boulder’s future. I’ve been surprised by how uninformed the Boulder population is on transportation (it is a national problem, but a surprise to me that this is also true in allegedly informed Boulder).

A large number in Boulder have opted for the strategically ruinous strategy of equating free flowing traffic with quality of life. Traffic congestion is viewed (like nearly everywhere else in the world) as a terrible problem that must be reduced. Given the huge amount of space that cars consume, this common desire inevitably means that Boulder is over-widening its streets and intersections, and has spent decades trying to prevent – or at least minimize — development densities (it is wrongly believed in Boulder that this would reduce the crowding of roads and parking lots).

The results include a lot of suburban sprawl (in the form of wanna-be-Boulder towns in areas surrounding Boulder), very unsafe roads and intersections (because they are over-sized), a city that is too dispersed to make walking practical, and a city that contains oversized car habitats (such as huge, numerous parking lots) that degrade quality of life.

This state of affairs has meant that Boulder has been unable to meaningfully increase the number of people who walk, bicycle or use transit for several years.

It will be a long process to change this reality, but Boulder needs to see new politically influential pro-city activist groups arise (such as Better Boulder) to reverse this downward spiral. A better future centers on reducing the three “S” factors: Reduce Space allocated to cars, reduce Speeds cars can travel, and reduce Subsidies that motorists enjoy. Doing so will consequently deliver more compact, mixed development, and better quality of life, a better economic situation, and a lot more safety and choice of both lifestyle and forms of travel.

Until Boulder moves away from its long-term strategy of pampering cars and thinking doing so can be a win-win strategy with bicycling, walking, and transit, city design will continue to be overly car-friendly. Roads and intersections too big, car speeds too high, and motorist subsidies too inequitable.

Can TAB do anything to encourage less car dependence? Sure, if we start adopting the above tactics by ending our counterproductive efforts to make cars happy. I have a very long list of needed transportation reforms for Boulder that seem highly unlikely to be adopted for a long time. I am very surprised by how behind-the-times Boulder is regarding transportation, despite the conventional wisdom. There are very few short-term tactics we can deploy.

Reforming parking would be a good start. I continue to strongly support road travel lane repurposing. For decades, the City has mostly taken the easy path of spending money to address transportation issues. But again, it is about taking away size, speed and subsidies from motorists. It is not about spending money on bike lanes, transit, and sidewalks. In the winter, transportation choice is highly unlikely without compact development. Boulder, in short, has its work cut out for it.

Facebook friend: Replace “motorists” with “citizens”. Do the citizens of Boulder support these initiatives? I sometimes get the sense that some on TAB believe they have the correct answers and don’t really care what the people of Boulder actually think, hence the right sizing controversy on Folsom. Public outreach and forming a collective vision for the future of our city is key to any kind of reform that impacts people’s preferred mode of transportation.

Dom Nozzi: Very few motorists (using “citizens” implies that we are all motorists and non-motorists do not matter) support these ideas in Boulder or elsewhere in the US. This is largely because of a century of huge motorist subsidies and the fact that over-providing for motoring is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. That is, the bigger we make roads arapahoe-ave-boulder-coand intersections and parking (to keep motorists happy), the more difficult and unsafe travel becomes for non-motorists (which continuously recruits more motorists, thereby adding to the downward spiral).

Support for these ideas tends to emerge only when motoring pays its own way and does not degrade the human habitat (ie, the gas tax is substantially increased, road tolls and parking charges are instituted, and roads are kept at modest widths to keep car speeds relatively low).

A great many useful transportation tactics are highly counter-intuitive (the Folsom right-sizing road diet project is a good example). In Boulder and throughout the nation, motorists predictably fight aggressively against such leveling of the playing field and protecting quality of life because they are living a life where travel by car is obligatory (due largely to car-only, oversized road design, as well as the large distance to destinations). They see little choice other than to keep spending trillions of public dollars to widen roads and intersections and provide more “free” parking.

Because doing such things is unsustainable, destructive, and detrimental to community safety, we therefore become our own worst enemy.

My comments above illustrate an enormous dilemma that spell a grim, difficult, painful future. There are very few (if any) painless, easy, quick, popular, effective, win-win tactics to improve our transportation system, given our century-long track record. “Public outreach” is almost entirely ineffective in a world that is so heavily tilted toward enabling easy, low-cost motoring. What good would it do, for example, to “public outreach” to motorists who live several miles from their destinations to suggest they should consider riding a bike or walking on a dangerous, car-only road for 7 miles? Only when the playing field is more level and community design more conducive will such outreach be useful.

TAB members are appointed by Council at least in part to provide advice on improving transportation based on our knowledge of transportation. This knowledge comes from our academic and professional background, our experiences of spending years getting around in Boulder, reading adopted community plans, and our listening to others in the community.

Sometimes the advice from TAB (or from Planning Board or Council) is not popular. But this is the nature of dealing with a transportation world I describe above. If “most popular” was the only means of deciding what to do, we would not need Council or advisory boards. We would simply have a computer measure community opinion on various measures. Instead, we have a representative democracy because such a direct democracy approach is unworkable and undesirable (particularly for complex, counter-intuitive issues). And because of the dilemmas I cite above, strong leadership in transportation is extremely important. I have always liked the following observations on leadership:

A leader is someone who cares enough to tell the people not merely what they want to hear, but what they need to know. — Reubin Askew

Margaret Thatcher once said that consensus is the absence of leadership.

To achieve excellence should be a struggle. – Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley

To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. — Elbert Hubbard

One of my heroes – Enrique Penalosa (former mayor of Bogota) – was despised early on in his term — largely because he enacted policies that aggressively inconvenienced cars in his efforts to make people, rather than cars, happy. Many wanted to throw him out of office. But eventually, his policies (which nearly all his citizens strongly opposed initially) resulted in visibly obvious quality of life and civic pride improvements. He went on to become much-loved and honored by most in Bogota.

Let us not forget that back in the day, the majority opinion was to oppose granting equal rights to women, blacks, non-Christians, or gay/lesbian people. Nearly all of us believed the earth was flat. That smoking and DDT were okay.

By the way, it may comfort you to know that my views — because they are so counter to the conventional wisdom in Boulder –tend to be ignored by other TAB members, city staff and by Council. On most all “tough” votes, I am almost always on the losing end of 4-1 TAB votes (would transportation be “better” in Boulder, in your view, if those TAB votes were 5-0?).

For a century and up to the present day, Boulder citizens, elected and appointed officials, and staff have been nearly unanimous in thinking that happy motoring was and is a good idea. In my view, that has been a tragic mistake. Boulder can do much better if it discarded that discredited (yet conventional) view.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

The Tragic Lack of Leadership in City Government

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2002

Caution: Angry venting below…

Yesterday, I had the extreme misfortune of walking into the planning director’s office to observe a discussion by our city commission at their regular Monday meeting. I was, at the time, a senior planner for a city in Florida. At this meeting, the commission was discussing a (predictable) funding shortfall for the parking garage being proposed to serve the new county courthouse, and the design of this garage.

Despite my better instincts, I decided to watch, largely because a presentation was being made by the consultant designing the garage — a consultant who understands and appreciates quality design. As I watched, I vowed that I would immediately leave the room the moment a city commissioner started uttering a word.

Since 1986, I’ve seen only 4-5 city commission meetings — and those only because I was required to make a presentation to the elected city commission — because it is pure, unadulterated torture to listen to a commission meeting for more than a few seconds. This is true even though every single commission meeting since 1986 has been intimately connected to my professional work.

During the consultant presentation, the upcoming commission direction was already brutally obvious to me without their having yet said a word, despite my not having heard anything previously about commission views on this topic. As is the case with nearly all elected officials faced with funding problems or screams from constituents that a project is “too expensive,” the commission would fall all over itself to cut all of the ornamentation and details out of the garage. To create, as is almost always done, a lifeless, embarrassing, sterile, dreary box building that would create a dead zone in a downtown in desperate need of vibrancy.

I made a mistake by somehow staying in the room when one of our “leaders” began his comments.

The mad dash toward mediocrity had begun.

He starts by insisting that ALL ornamentation and detailing be stripped from the impressive architectural design. Then, the clincher: His ideological buddy on the commission chimes in by requesting that a first-floor “wrap” of offices and retail be eliminated. This “wrap” was required by a downtown ordinance I had written in the late 1990s to try to enliven these deadening auto garages.

I am sure of what my task will be today at the office: Either find a way for the commission to evade this “wrap” regulation, or prepare a staff recommendation to dump the regulation. Elected City Commissioners have an important advantage over private developers: if they don’t like a regulation, they simply get rid of it. “Do as we say, not as we do…”

As the commissioner made has case for dumping the “wrap,” I quickly exited the room. I walked out calmly, but inside I was shrieking in agony and on the verge of vomiting.

A light bulb had gone off in my head: Perhaps more so than with private developers, urban development regulations are necessary to protect against PUBLIC officials who are desperate to find any possible way to avoid making ANYONE unhappy, even if it means substantial design compromise that goes against staff recommendations. The same holds true for a great many staff supervisors. For both commissioners and supervisors, much of life consists of compromising. An important difference, therefore, between leadership and mediocrity is that the leader is uncompromising when it comes to designing for quality of life.

This entire debacle clarified, for me, how I would define leadership in the city government pursuit of an improved quality of life. There are four fundamental elements that create an urban leader. A city government leader…

…Has courage to not cave in on a proposal that is clearly in the public interest. Courage when faced with bleeding heart or “black hat” pressure to stop the proposal or emasculate MayorRileyit.

…Has wisdom about quality, timeless design in the public realm. Is not susceptible to bogus design arguments.

…Is uncompromising in her or his pursuit of an improved quality of life.

Corners are not cut on essentials. It is NOT in the public interest to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The thousands of lifeless public buildings built around the nation over the past 50 years is testament to how few leaders are found in this country. The entirely forgettable and embarrassing “modernist” public buildings we’ve built since WWII means that our sense of civic pride is nearly non-existent.

…Is decisive. The leader understands that putting off decisions, or referring decisions to “boards,” or “task forces,” or “committees” (that is, substantially increasing the number of decision makers) INEVITABLY dumbs down the proposal, delays the project drastically (to kill political momentum) waters it down to meaningless pabulum, or kills it. The decision-maker knows that momentum to get it done quickly, while the vision is sharp in the minds of the decision-makers, is crucial in avoiding Death by Lowest Common Denominator (the non-decision that offends no one because it does nothing).

I’m sorry to have to say this, but in my 15 years as a town planner in city government, I have not seen a single city commissioner possess these four elements.

Indeed, our two latest additions to the city commission embody the OPPOSITE of the second and third of these four, to the ultimate and possibly long-lasting ruin of this community.

I’ve gotten glimpses of leadership elsewhere: Nancy Graham in West Palm Beach. Joseph Riley in Charleston. John Norquist in Milwaukee.

 

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Will a New City Commissioner Bring Meaningful Change to a Florida College Town Regarding Transportation?

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 21, 2005

I was told by a local elected official and friend that a new city commissioner for a college town we both lived in would mean that things might be better for transportation policy in our town.

When I heard this, I informed him that I was certain that it would NOT lead to such changes. Much as I like most of the views of the new commissioner, the problems I face at my city planning office had little to do with who was in the majority for the commission. b90694d15e9faa313b18d70532df1227With a weak mayor form of government (both technically and with regard to who is in that seat at the moment) and a total lack of leadership from other commissioners, the commission is nearly irrelevant to what the planning staff decides to do (and, more importantly, not do).

This vacuum means that a bully on the commission who, as a muscular motorist, intimidates the commission majority with his populist views regarding happy cars, can continue intimidating other (cowering) commissioners and staff so that his views are considered the majority view (even though he has only one vote).

No, the problem remains what is has been for over nine years at the City: Staff that is anti-planning, staff that is anti-city, staff that is pro-car, and elected officials who have no power or courage to do anything about it.

Given the fact that nearly all citizens in America (including our town, and despite the survey my friend mentioned to me) are aggressively pro-car and pro-big roads (because material conditions force them to be that way), only strong, wise, courageous leadership at the staff level and at the commission level can make any sort of headway with regard to averting an auto slum future. In the meantime, given the overwhelming citizen support for cars, it only takes ONE bully commissioner pushing a pro-car agenda to bully a commission to agree to his ruinous views — even if there were nine progressives on a hypothetical commission of 10 commissioners.

With regard to the survey results, as I had said to my friend before, I was almost completely unimpressed. I know enough about survey methods and survey results from graduate school to know that what folks say in surveys tends to be WILDLY different than what they do when push comes to shove in the real world (this is known as the “social desirability” bias). For example, people LOVE to claim they favor, say, energy conservation in large majorities. Why not? It costs nothing to say such a thing in a survey, it helps ease a guilty conscience, and it helps the person feel like a “good citizen.” It comes as no surprise at all, however, to find that nearly all of those citizens thumb their nose on serious conservation when asked to spend a little more to do it.

Precisely the same thing would happen with the results my friend cited. I was confident that the vast majority who expressed support for those progressive ideas were thinking about OTHERS who would bike or use transit. The vast majority of these people would continue making nearly all of their trips by car even if our community had the best bike/ped/transit facilities/programs on earth.

Due to dispersed land use patterns and enormous car subsidies (free roads and free parking and underpriced gas, mostly), it is completely irrational, economically, to not drive a car everywhere. If there were safe bike paths and transit routes that led from every employee house to their office, there would still be less than 5 percent who would bike commute. Why turn your back on that $100 a month subsidy embodied in that free parking space to opt for something that takes so much energy and time, and is considered so embarrassingly unhip?

As a result, local elected commissioners can safely ignore the results of the study. Commissioners who naively strive to implement them would be quickly removed from office.

 

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

Road Diets: Why Are They Not Used in Every Community?

 

by Dom Nozzi

September 13, 2006

Road diets involve removing unneeded, unnecessary travel lanes, travel lane width and turn lanes. If such “diets” are an affordable way to create a profoundly beneficial transformation in the communities that have found the courage and wisdom to try them, why are they not transforming roads in every city and town in America?Road-Diet

In general, there are at least five types of elected officials who do not direct their communities to put their overly-wide, over-capacitied, overweight roads on a diet:

  1. The Uninformed. This is the category of officials who have not been made aware of the benefits of road diets. Over the course of the past few decades, as evidence of the merits of road diets has become so overwhelming throughout the nation, this category is now a rapidly diminishing group. Those who don’t know are not paying attention.
  1. The Trapped. A great majority of our residents have chosen to live in a location that is so utterly car-dependent that nearly every trip must be made by car. Without transportation choices, such a resident has little choice but to rationalize their travel behavior. Excessive car travel becomes a god-given right to be defended at all costs, and the person becomes impervious to evidence showing harms associated with such travel.
  1. The Old School. As Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, some people have devoted so much time and effort into the old school of thought (the old paradigm) that even an avalanche of evidence supporting the new paradigm and rejecting the old paradigm is insufficient to convince members of The Old School. To reject the old paradigm is to reject everything they have believed and worked for during their entire lives. Often, to do so is to have to reject their entire life’s work as a waste of time. For most people, this concession would be too awful to accept. Instead, they stubbornly hold on to their old views. The new paradigm is only accepted when this old school dies off and is replaced by a new generation which has not been immersed in the old paradigm.
  1. The Motorist. This category includes the elected officials who “get it” with regard to the merits of road diets. But their suburban upbringing, their suburban lifestyle, or both, has convinced them that it is naïve or undesirable to strive for a return to a more traditional, walkable, compact community design. Of course, these car-happy views are not openly, publicly expressed. They are simply manifested in the votes such an official casts. It is perfectly acceptable for such a person to opt to continue living the car-dependent, suburban lifestyle (as long as they are paying their fair share of costs). But shouldn’t other citizens have an opportunity to live in and enjoy a different, more walkable lifestyle? One that is rapidly vanishing from America?
  1. The Spineless. There is another category of officials who “get it.” These are the officials who, while they are strongly supportive of road diets, always run for cover and cast a pro-car vote whenever the opportunity arises. Such a politician is terrified of the thought of an unhappy constituent – including those unhappy about the loss of those things that are detrimental to the community. These are the politicians who never make anyone unhappy.

And therefore never get anything done.

 

 

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Sprawl, Traffic, Taxes and Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

We live in troubled times. Times that require wise, courageous leadership. Here is what I see in our communities, and what we should do about it.

Taxation

Taxes are high and are constantly rising because new growth is not paying its own way.

All levels of government are financially strapped. Households are struggling to be able to afford the skyrocketing costs of transportation and rising property taxes.

Aren’t you tired of high and rising taxes?

Transportation

Automakers keep producing gas-guzzling cars. There is no quality transit system. We have no transportation choices. Little Billy and little Suzie cannot safely go for a walk or ride a bike in their neighborhoods because traffic is too dangerous.

Our hard-earned money and national wealth is vanishing. Our money (and the lives of soldiers and civilians in wars instigated by the Pentagon) is being used to enrich Middle Eastern oil-producing nations—many of which are not our friends.

Aren’t you tired of our unhealthy transportation system?

The Quality of Our Neighborhoods and Communities

Our farms are vanishing because they are being paved over by sprawling subdivisions.

We keep getting DUMB growth instead of SMART growth. Our neighborhoods are afflicted by rising levels of noise pollution. We’ve lost the tradition of having neighborhood-based schools, which means our kids cannot get to school on their own. We have forgotten that a high quality of life is a powerful economic engine.

Aren’t you tired of the sprawl? The ugly, dangerous, costly, “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development that keeps popping up in our communities?

My Vision

Let’s restore our communities.

  • Imagine communities rich in transportation choice. A place where we and our kids can get around safely by car, by transit, by walking and by bicycle. A place where cost of living is much more affordable for households because they are not required to spend an enormous percentage of their incomes to buy and maintain several cars. Communities, in other words, where one has the choice to be able to walk to get a loaf of bread, instead of being forced to drive four miles to get that loaf.
  • Imagine communities where our property taxes are reasonable and our government is able to afford to build quality public facilities and provide quality public services.
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our beautiful forests, natural areas and farms bulldozed, acre-by-acre, day-by-day, to build endless, sprawling subdivisions.
  • Imagine communities where streets are not choked by rapidly growing numbers of cars (containing people who are driving to get a loaf of bread).
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our roads torn up and widened every year, causing infuriating road construction delays.
  • Imagine communities with pleasant, safe, beautiful, slow-speed shopping streets instead of communities full of 10-lane strip commercial monster roads.
  • Imagine communities with healthy air and water, and neighborhoods that place public parks a short distance from our homes.
  • Imagine communities that provide choices about how to live. Communities where one can happily live an urban, suburban or rural lifestyle.
  • Imagine communities where it is actually LEGAL to build smartly. Traditionally. Sustainably. Where building smartly is the rule, rather than the exception. Local government regulations encourage smart growth, and are not an obstacle to it.  Communities that makes it fast and easy to build smartly, and makes it more difficult and costly to build unlovable crap.
  • Imagine communities full of energy-efficient homes and offices.
  • Imagine communities that are QUIET. Where one can sleep peacefully each night without being awoken by endless sirens and the roar of traffic.
  • Imagine places with a strong sense of community. Places that are A COMMUNITY, not a crowd.

villageImagine communities, in other words, that we can be PROUD of.

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

Should a City Transportation Plan Seek to Reduce Traffic Congestion?

By Dom Nozzi

I’m proud to say that I live in Boulder, Colorado – a city admired around the nation for pursuing progressive objectives.

Boulder has admirably established an aggressive, necessary objective: The community shall achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) production. Achieving this lofty goal will require adopting effective, historically significant tactics.

Is Boulder bold enough to embrace such measures?

Because of the enormous contribution that transportation emissions add to the overall ledger of community GHG emissions, one of the first places to look is the City Transportation Master Plan, which is currently being updated. Are the tactics in the updated plan audacious enough to do the job?

No. In my opinion, the current draft of the update remains too timid to have the city take the steps needed to approach the important goal of an 80 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

In my view, the first step in reaching the goal is to revisit the “congestion” objective in the plan.

The Traffic Congestion Objective

Since at least the 1990s, Boulder has had an objective in its long-range transportation plan that states:

“No more than 20 percent of roadways congested (at Level of Service [LOS] F)”

This is perhaps the most important, influential objective in the Boulder Transportation Master Plan (TMP). On the surface, it seems like a wonderful idea. But when a city strives to maintain “free-flowing” car traffic, as this objective intends to do, there are a great many hidden, unintended consequences that can undermine important Boulder objectives.

Counterintuitively, substantially reducing GHG emissions will require the city to significantly revise how it approaches traffic congestion management.

Here’s why: Achieving a free-flowing traffic objective…

…induces “low-value” car trips (i.e., using the car to buy a cup of coffee).

…results in an increase in toxic air emissions (despite the conventional wisdom that claims free-flow reduces emissions) due to the induced low-value trips.

…informs the City of Boulder and its citizens that it is useful to maintain or increase road and intersection capacity, even on roads and intersections that are too big already. This problem has been common in Boulder for a number of years now. While the City tends to steer clear of road widening, it has approved the construction of double left turn lanes at many urban intersections (see note below about double left turn lanes). Engineers are particularly eager to create such oversized intersections because enlarging intersections is much more effective in reducing congestion (at least for a brief time) than adding more travel lanes to a road.

…strongly discourages road diets (removal of one or more lanes from a road). This despite the fact that road diets are a powerful way to achieve a number of Boulder objectives, such as adding bike lanes and on-street parking, creating more sidewalk and streetscape space, slowing cars, significantly reducing pedestrian crossing distances, dramatically improving safety, significantly reducing severe car crashes, improving retail and residential health, reducing air emissions and fuel consumption, reducing low-value (and regional) car trips, reducing maintenance costs, increasing civic pride, reducing speeding, and improving overall quality of life. See map below of a possible road diet vision for Boulder.

…puts far too much emphasis on what James Howard Kunstler calls “happy motoring.” Too often, free-flowing traffic is considered a key way to achieve urban quality of life. However, free-flowing traffic undermines quality of life in a number of ways. By putting free-flowing traffic on a pedestal, so to speak, or placing such travel in an exalted, privileged position, the City is strongly promoting car travel, and such a car-centric focus is rightly the antithesis of what Boulder is about.

…promotes use of conventional methods of maintaining free-flowing traffic, such as intersection widening, which are so costly that other important transportation needs for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users are starved of funding.

…promotes car dependency, which is an engine for high-speed car travel, suburban sprawl, regional car trips, and low-density land uses. By contrast, healthy town centers are slow speed. And compact, vibrant, sustainable cities avoid sprawl. Free-flowing traffic also reduces travel choice, as walking, bicycling, and transit become less pleasant and less safe when car travel is free-flowing.

The Congestion Paradox

Most every change in behavior that a citizen engages in when responding to traffic congestion – such as avoiding rush hour driving, living closer to daily destinations, driving slower, traveling on non-major streets, trip chaining (combining, say, a trip to get groceries with a trip to the doctor), foregoing low-value car trips – is good for the community. By contrast, many (most?) actions a government agency takes when responding to traffic congestion – such as widening a road or intersection, downzoning in the town center, adding more free parking, synchronizing traffic signals for car speeds, converting a two-way street to one-way – is undesirable for the community.

Because cars consume so much space (a person in a car consumes 17 to 100 times as much space as a person not in a car), only a relatively small number of motorists are needed to congest a road. That means that any reasonably attractive city has a traffic congestion “problem,” and any city without a congestion “problem” may have something wrong with it, as it may be a sign that the city is too feeble or sickly to have even a handful of citizens traveling on a road at the same time.

By far, the most effective way to manage congestion is not to try to somehow reduce it or stop it from increasing (which is an enormously costly tactic that quickly leads to worse congestion), but to develop ways to avoid it. A sustainable, smart city addresses congestion, for example, by providing travel choices (bike paths, sidewalks, transit), providing housing near destinations such as jobs, and providing a connected street system so congested streets can be avoided (and car trips more dispersed on multiple streets, rather than burdening one or a few major streets).

Boulder staff has made the point that the congestion objective has long been in the TMP and therefore provides a long, valuable, historic record of changes in congestion over time. I agree that congestion trends are valuable, and should be maintained over time. But this can be done even if Boulder revisits the congestion objective.

In sum, I am convinced that Boulder should revise its congestion objective in the TMP. To its credit, the State of California now recognizes the counterproductive nature of fighting to reduce congestion, and is looking at adopting alternatives that Boulder should also consider: controlling such things as total vehicle miles traveled (VMT), total fuel consumption, or car trip generation. California is also looking at assessing and promoting multi-modal level-of-service, and adopting the position that infill development improves overall accessibility.  As an aside, Boulder staff has recently added “neighborhood access” and “vehicle miles traveled per capita” to the list of TMP objectives, and is starting to look at a multi-model level-of-service.

Double left turn lanes

Traffic engineers commonly claim that such intersection “improvements” as adding a second left-turn lane will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing congestion, and believe a double left turn does not conflict with the transportation plan objective of promoting pedestrian and bicycle trips. In contrast, I believe that double-left turn lanes will increase emissions and willreduce pedestrian and bicycle trips. Double left turn lanes have been shown to be much less effective than commonly thought even if we are just looking at car capacity at an intersection. This is because adding a second left turn lane suffers significantly from diminishing returns. A double left turn does not double the left turn capacity – largely because by significantly increasing the crosswalk distance, the walk cycle must be so long that intersection capacity/efficiency (for cars) is dramatically reduced.

One of the absurdities of this state of affairs is that many cities today regularly cite severe funding shortfalls for transportation, yet these same cities seem eager to build expensive and counterproductive double left turn lanes. This is probably because transportation capital improvement dollars are in a separate silo than maintenance dollars, and that the former dollars are mostly paid by federal/state grants (which cities naturally consider to be “free” money).  Michael Ronkin, former bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for the State of Oregon, states that double left turn lanes are “an abomination.” He adds that “they are a sign of failure: failure to provide enough street connectivity. With low connectivity, according to Ronkin, “when drivers do come to an intersection, the intersection needs to be gigantic, so it can accommodate all the left turns that had not been allowed prior to that point. Ronkin points out that “many trips on extra wide arterials are very short, and involve three left turns: one left turn onto the arterial and one left turn off the arterial: there trips could and should be made on connected local streets.”

Double-left turn lanes…

…destroy human scale and a sense of place.

…increase per capita car travel & and reduce bike/ped/transit trips.

…increase GHG emissions & fuel consumption.

…induce new car trips that were formerly discouraged.

…promote sprawling, dispersed development.

…discourage residential & smaller, locally-owned retail.

Boulder needs to draw a line in the sand: Impose a moratorium on intersection double-left turn lanes and eventually remove such configurations – particularly in the more urbanized portions of the region. Double-lefts are too big for the human habitat. They create a car-only atmosphere.

Proposal for a Road Diet Vision for Boulder

Healthy town centers need to be slow speed, compact, walkable, and human-scaled. In part, that means that roadways in the town center should not exceed three lanes. In Seattle WA, road diets resulted in such obviously beneficial outcomes for businesses and residences along the dieted streets that those on two other arterial streets asked for the road diet treatment on their street. Overall, Seattle has completed over 30 road diets, according to Peter Lagerwey. The following street sections in the Boulder town center exceed that size and would benefit from a road diet.admin-ajax (6)

Celebrating Community Gatherings

We all know that an attractive city – particularly its town center – will attract people. In healthier, more pleasant cities, the number of people drawn to a city – particularly its town center – will lead to an ambiance that is more festive, convivial, and enjoyable. Humans tend to be sociable by nature, which means that many seek out places that entice a gathering of people. A place to “see and be seen.” A place where we can expect to serendipitously bump into friends as we walk on a sidewalk or square. A place where we can share the news of the day and linger with our fellow citizens. Or share a laugh or an idea. A place that at times creates a “collective effervescence” of people enjoying experiences with others. A place, in other words, that is likely to be rewarding.

Indeed, the prime reason for the creation of cities throughout history is to promote such exchange. Exchanging goods, services, synergistic ideas, and neighborliness is the lifeblood of a thriving city.brugge walkable st

For these reasons, an important sign of a healthy city is that it is a celebrated, beloved place that regularly draws and gathers many citizens of the community. Unhealthy cities, by contrast, are featured, in part, by citizens who are more isolated and more alone. Sociologists such as Robert Putnam would say that these loner cities have “low social capital.”

While larger amounts of people in a gathering can — for some — feel “crowded,” when large numbers arrive in space-hogging cars, conditions are particularly likely to seem undesirably “congested” – even with a relatively small number of people gathering.

Given all of this, a “crowded” or “congested” town center is likely and normal. It is a clear sign that a city is attractive and in good health.

As Yogi Berra once said, “the place became so crowded that no one wanted to go there anymore.” Precisely.

Striving to reduce congestion in the Boulder Town Center, as the Boulder TMP does, is therefore to work at cross purposes to what we seek and should expect and exalt as part of a strong, vigorous city. Widening roads and intersections to “smooth traffic flow” and reduce congestion is akin to the many engineers in the past who fervently believed that it was necessary to convert streams into concrete channels in order to smooth water flow and reduce flooding. Today, we recognize that doing so destroyed the stream ecosystem and made flooding worse downstream. It is time for us to realize that at least in town centers, widening roads and intersections will destroy the human ecosystem and make congestion worse.

Providing Lifestyle and Transportation Choices

Many urbanists, in recent years, have adopted the equitable tactic of using a “rural-to-urban transect” for urban design. Using this method, the full range of lifestyle and travel choices is provided for. A community should provide for those who seek a walkable, compact lifestyle. It should also provide for the more dispersed, drivable lifestyle.

If Boulder opts to better use this method (it already does to a limited extent), it may be beneficial to take a “middle ground” approach to managing traffic congestion. Rather than applying citywide my proposal of ending efforts to reduce congestion, Boulder can consider an approach used in my years as a senior town planner in Florida.

In 1985, Florida adopted a growth management “concurrency” (or “adequate facilities”) law that prohibited development if the proposed development reduced “level of service” standards adopted by the community for such things as parks, potable water, schools, and road capacity. The law seemed highly beneficial when enacted, for obvious reasons. It was also an important tenant of the law that to fight sprawl and promote community objectives, in-town development should be encouraged and remote, sprawling development should be discouraged. But many soon realized that there was a significant unintended consequence with the growth management law. The “concurrency” law, when applied to roads, was strongly discouraging in-town development and strongly encouraging sprawl development.

Why? Because available road capacity tends to be extremely scarce in town centers, and much more available in sprawling, peripheral locations. Concurrency therefore made sprawl development much less costly and infill development much more costly. The opposite of what the growth management law was seeking.

The solution was to allow communities to adopt what are called “exception” areas in the city. That is, cities were authorized to designate various in-town locations (where the city sought to encourage new development) as “transportation exception areas” that would not need to abide by concurrency rules for road (or intersection) capacity when a new, in-town development was proposed.

To provide for a fuller range of lifestyle and travel choices, then, Boulder could consider an intermediate approach to a citywide congestion reduction objective. Using this approach, the congestion objective could perhaps be revised as follows:

“No more than 20 percent of roadways congested (at Level of Service [LOS] F), with the exception of the Boulder Town Center [defined as _____].”

One of the reasons this “exception” approach makes sense is that reducing traffic congestion supports both the needs of those seeking the more dispersed, suburban, drivable lifestyle, as well as the needs of those seeking a more compact, walkable lifestyle. Without the “exception,” the traffic congestion objective obligates providing more space for car travel and car parking in the more compact, walkable town center (to reduce congestion). Doing so has a deadening influence, and therefore undermines an essential ingredient of the walkable lifestyle: the collective gaiety and convenient walking distances that such a lifestyle thrives on and exemplifies.

Dave Mohney once said that the most important task of the urbanist is to control size. This point is crucial. Healthy town centers must retain a compact, human scale. Which is exactly why trying to reduce congestion in a town center is one of the most toxic things that can be done to a town center, as the main objective of congestion reduction is to substantially increase spaces from a human scale to a car scale with huge roads, huge intersections, and huge parking lots. The enormity of these huge, deadening car spaces sucks the lifeblood out of a town center. As was said in Vietnam, excessive road sizes, intersections and parking lots kill a town center in the name of “saving” it.

Obligating Enhanced Design

When the State of Florida decided to allow “transportation exception areas,” it specified that such exception areas would only be allowed if certain design, facility and service conditions were in place. To adopt transportation exception areas, the community had to show that it was also providing a full range of travel choices – choices that were available for those who wished to find alternatives to driving in more congested conditions.

Boulder could consider adopting a similar approach. For example, the congestion exception I’m suggesting above for the Boulder Town Center could be coupled with a rule that requires that the exception is only granted to proposed development if the development provides design enhancements beyond those already required by Boulder. Such enhancements might include one or more of the following requirements: That the new development provide more bicycle parking. Or provide eco-passes for employees or residents. Or place the front building façade up against the streetside sidewalk. Or provide a mix of uses. Or provide cross-access routes to ease pedestrian travel — among a great many other possible design enhancements.

Variation in the Value of Trips

Last but not least, I want to point out the essential need for us to recognize that some trips are relatively high-value, and some trips are relatively low-value. A motorist driving a car on a major street at rush hour to buy a sandwich is making a trip that is much lower value than a motorist who is racing to the hospital for a medical emergency. When roads are free to use (i.e., there is no toll that drivers must pay to use it), roads tend to be flooded with relatively low-value trips. The mistake made too often is that when a community opts to widen a road or intersection if it becomes congested, all of the trips on the road are assumed to be equally high-value.

This is simply not true.

A large number of trips on free-to-use roads are trips for relatively minor tasks such as buying a cup of coffee. Or trips that could have occurred on different routes. Or at different times of day. Or by bicycle, walking or transit, rather than by car.

By assuming, as is almost always the case, that all trips are essential, the community is opting to spend enormous amounts of public dollars to widen a road or intersection to enable or otherwise accommodate such low-value car trips. This sort of worst-case-scenario design  is utterly unaffordable and unsustainable from a financial point of view. And helps explain why there is a huge, nearly universal shortfall of transportation revenue throughout the nation (and including Boulder).

Given this, sustainability and financial health requires that Boulder avoid assuming that all trips are equally high in value when it comes to managing congestion. There are much cheaper and more fair ways to managing congestion than by spending many millions of public dollars to widen a road or intersection as a way to accommodate car trips to the coffee shop at rush hour.

“Social Engineering”?

A common critique offered in this conversation about transportation is that suggesting road diets, road tolls, or pricing parking in order to modify behavior or change travel behavior is “totalitarian.” Or represents “social engineering.” Nonsense. It is the free parking, free roads, and oversized roads and parking lots that are unnatural. Or being forced on us. Indeed, many have accurately pointed out that the American tradition of providing free roads and free parking is the biggest form of social engineering in world history. After all, look at how much suburban behavior this form of car pampering created among humans that lived for ages in compact places. By pricing roads and parking, and restoring human-scaled roadways, we are returning to normal, natural conditions. We are restoring fairness and removing what economists call “market distortions.”

Restoring the Timeless Tradition

The most admirable, beneficial principle in the update of Boulder’s Transportation Master Plan is that the pedestrian comes first in community design – before cars, before transit, and even before bicycling. By making the pedestrian the design imperative, Boulder properly asserts that the pedestrian is the key to quality of life. If our community – particularly our town center – gets it right for those on foot, a great many community objectives inevitably fall into place.

America lost its way when the car emerged a century ago. The timeless tradition of designing for human comfort and pleasure gave way to a new and ruinous paradigm: designing to make cars happy. Tragically for American communities, which celebrated the car more vigorously than anywhere else in the world, designing for the car sets in motion a catastrophic, nearly irreversible vicious cycle where more and more public money and political will is funneled into “happy motoring.”

The vicious cycle is largely fueled by the inevitability of what economists call the “barrier effect.” The barrier effect occurs because designing to ease car travel ensures that it will be more unpleasant, inconvenient and unsafe to travel by walking, by bicycling and by transit.

Because car-happy design increases the difficulty of travel by walking, bicycling and transit, residents of a community are increasingly forced to travel only by car, which compels a growing number of residents to demand that the community be designed to ease car travel and car parking. After all, what choice do we have? It is increasingly impractical to travel by bicycle, by foot or by transit.

The congestion objective in the Master Plan elevates the comfort and convenience of the car to be the top concern in the community, and doing so — again — works at cross-purposes to a great many critical community objectives. The community devolves into a downwardly spiraling road to ruin.

While Boulder, in recent decades, has avoided the terrible mistake of widening roads, the city continues to suffer from the car-happy “gigantism” disease by, for example, building massive, double-left turn lane intersections. Again, the congestion objective in its transportation plan perpetuates such quality-of-life destroying efforts to make cars happy, undermining Boulder’s future.

It is time to return to the tradition of the ages: Building our community to make people happy, not cars.

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

Transportation is Destiny: Design for Happy People, Not Happy Cars

by Dom Nozzi

The following is a summary of a talk I was invited to give at a PLAN-Boulder County forum on Friday, January 24. As a town and transportation planner, I cautioned Boulder not to put too much emphasis on easing car traffic flows—particularly by such conventional methods as adding a second turn lane at intersections or requiring a developer to provide too much car parking. I described the ingredients of a healthy, vibrant city, summarized how a seemingly beneficial city objective of reducing traffic congestion can often undermine important Boulder objectives, and offered a number of strategies that would help Boulder both properly manage transportation and promote its long-range goals.

A great city is compact, human scaled, has a slow speed center, and promotes gatherings of citizens that catalyze “synergistic interaction” (brilliant ideas and innovations, as the sum becomes greater than its parts). Most importantly, a quality city does exceptionally well in promoting “exchanges” of goods, services, and ideas, which is the most important role of a city, and is best promoted by the interaction that occurs through compact community design.

About 100 years ago, automakers, home builders, and oil companies (“the Sprawl Lobby”) started realizing that they could make lots of money by creating what has since become a self-perpetuating vicious cycle in communities. If communities could be convinced to ease the flow of car traffic by building enormous highways and parking lots (and subsidizing car travel by having everyone—not just motorists—pay for such roads, parking, and gasoline), huge amounts of money could be made selling cars, homes and gasoline. The process eventually was feeding on itself in a growing, self-perpetuating way, because the highways, parking and subsidies were forcing and otherwise encouraging a growing number of Americans to buy more and more cars, use more and more gasoline, and buy sprawling homes that were further and further from the town center. Why? Because the subsidized highways and gasoline were powerfully promoting community dispersal, high speeds, isolation, and an insatiable demand for larger highways and parking lots. Each of these factors were toxic to a city, led to government and household financial difficulties, destroyed in-town quality of life (which added to the desire to live in sprawl locations), and made travel by transit, bicycle or walking increasingly difficult and unlikely (an added inducement to buy more cars).

The inevitable result of the Sprawl Lobby efforts has been that cities throughout America are dying from the “Gigantism” disease.

The “Gigantism” Disease

One of the most important problems we face is that cars consume enormous amounts of space. On average, a person in a parked car takes up about 17 times more space than a person in a chair. And when moving, a motorist can take up to 100 times as much space as a person in a chair. Cities are Untitledseverely diminished by this level of wasteful use of land by cars—particularly in town centers (where space is so dear), and especially in communities such as Boulder, where land is so expensive.

Overemphasis on car travel breeds and spreads the gigantism “infection,” and promotes ruinously higher travel speeds. What happens when we combine the gigantism and high speeds with the “travel time budget” (humans tend to have a budget of about 1.1 hours of round-trip commuting travel each day)?

People demand larger highways and parking lots. Gigantic highways, overpasses, and asphalt seas of parking are necessary to accommodate the space-hogging, high-speed needs of the growing number of cars. This process dramatically increases the “habitat” for cars, and because such places are so utterly inhospitable to people, substantially shrinks the habitat for people.

Because it is so dangerous, unpleasant, and infeasible to travel on these monster highways by bicycle, walking, or transit (what economists call “The Barrier Effect”), an endlessly growing army of motorists and sprawl residents is thereby created, which, of course, is a financial bonanza for the Sprawl Lobby.

It is surprising and disappointing that Boulder has, on numerous occasions, shown symptoms of the gigantism disease (surprising because citizens and city staff are relatively well-informed on transportation issues). A leading concern in Boulder is the many intersections that have been expanded by installing double left turn lanes. Installing a single left turn lane historically resulted in a fair improvement in traffic flow, but when a second left turn lane is installed, intersections typically suffer from severely diminished returns. There is only a tiny increase in traffic accommodated (and often, this increase is short-lived) and this small benefit is offset by a huge required increase in walk time for crosswalks that are now very lengthy to cross on foot (which necessitates a very long “walk” phase for the crosswalk). Indeed, some traffic engineers or elected officials are so intolerant of the time-consuming long walk phase that many double-left turn intersections actually PROHIBIT pedestrian crossings by law.

These monster double left turn intersections destroy human scale and sense of place. They create a place-less, car-only intersection where walking and bicycling (and, indirectly, transit) trips are so difficult and unpleasant that more trips in the community are now by car, and less by walking, bicycling and transit. And those newly-induced car trips, despite the conventional wisdom, actually INCREASE greenhouse gas emissions (due to the induced increase in car trips).

Double left turn lanes (like big parking lots and five- or seven-lane highways) disperse housing, jobs, and shops in the community, as the intersection—at least briefly—is able to accommodate more regional car trips. Because the intersection has become so inhospitable, placeless and lacking in human scale, the double left turn repels any residences, shops, or offices from being located anywhere near the intersection, and thereby effectively prevents the intersection from ever evolving into a more walkable, compact, village-like setting.

The following chart shows that, because of the enormous space consumption caused by higher-speed car travel, land consumption rate increases are far out-pacing growth in community populations. For example, from 1950 to 1990, the St. Louis population grew by 35 percent. chartYet land consumption in St. Louis grew by 354 percent during that same period.

Given all of this, a centerpiece objective of the Boulder Transportation Master Plan (no more than 20 percent of road mileage is allowed to be congested) may not only be counterproductive in achieving many Boulder objectives, but may actually result in Boulder joining hands with the Sprawl Lobby.

The congestion reduction objective has a number of unintended, undesirable consequences. The objective tells Boulder that the highly desirable tactic of “road diets” (where travel lanes are removed to create a safer, more human-scaled street that can now install bike lanes, on-street parking, and wider sidewalks) are actually undesirable because they can increase congestion. The objective provides justification for looking upon a wider road, a bigger intersection, or a bigger parking lot as desirable, despite the well-documented fact that such gigantic facilities promote sprawl, car emissions, financial difficulties, higher taxes, and lower quality of life, among other detriments.

The objective also tells us that smaller, more affordable infill housing is undesirable—again because such housing can increase congestion.

The Shocking Revolution

The growing awareness of the problems associated with easing car travel (via such things as a congestion reduction objective) is leading to a shocking revolution across the nation. Florida, for example, now realizes that if new development is only allowed if “adequate” road capacity is available for the new development (which is based on “concurrency” rules in Florida’s Growth Management law), the state is powerfully promoting sprawl. Why? Because the available road capacity tends to only be found in sprawl locations. In-town locations, where new development tends to be much more desirable, is strongly discouraged by this Florida concurrency rule because in-town locations tend to have no available road capacity (due to existing, more dense development in town).

As an aside, “concurrency” is a rule that says new development is not allowed if it will lower service level standards adopted by the community. For example, standards might state that there must be at least 10 acres of parkland provided for every 1,000 residents. While concurrency is clearly a good idea for such things as parks and water supply and schools, it is counterproductive for roads.

The shocking revolution in Florida, then, is that the state is now allowing local governments to create “exception areas” for road congestion. If the community can show that it is providing adequate bicycle, pedestrian and transit facilities, the state will grant the local government the ability to create road exceptions so that the road congestion avoidance strategy brought by Florida’s road concurrency rule does not significantly encourage new sprawl and discourage in-town, infill development.

Similarly, California is now acknowledging the unintended, undesirable effects of past efforts to ensure that roads are “free-flowing” for car traffic. “Free flowing” car traffic tends to be measured with “level of service” (LOS) measures. Road LOS is a measure of traffic delay. An intersection (or road) where a car must wait for, say, three cycles of a traffic signal to be able to proceed through the intersection might be given an LOS rating of “F.” An intersection where a car can proceed through an intersection without such delay is given an LOS rating of “A.”

California now realizes that too often, building wider highways or stopping new development as a way to maintain free-flowing car traffic (LOS “A”) is substantially counterproductive. The state now realizes that maintaining or requiring easy, free-flowing car traffic increases greenhouse gas emissions (shocking, since the opposite was formerly believed), increases the number of car trips, and decreases the number of walking, bicycling and transit trips. Free-flowing road “LOS” measures are therefore now being phased out in California.

The “congestion reduction” objective in Boulder’s transportation plan is, in effect, a “happy cars” objective that equates easy car travel with quality of life and sustainability. One important reason why this “happy cars” objective is counterproductive is that cars and people have dramatically different needs and desires—needs and desires that are significantly and frequently in conflict. For example, designing shopping for happy people means the creation of smaller, human-scaled settings where buildings rather than parking lots are placed next to the streetside sidewalk. Where streets are only two or three lanes wide and designed for slow-speed car travel. Where street trees hug the street.

Designing shopping for happy cars, by strong contrast, requires huge car-scaled dimensions. Giant asphalt parking lots are placed between the now giant retail store and the street, which invites easy car parking (but loss of human scale, sense of place, and ease of walking). Streets become what Chuck Marohn calls “stroads”:  5- or 7-lane monster roads intended for dangerous, inhospitable high-speeds. They are roads where streets belong, but their big size and high speeds make them more like roads. Street trees are frequently incompatible with happy cars, as engineers fear cars might crash into them.

Again, this comparison shows that by promoting “happy cars,” Boulder’s congestion reduction objective is undermining its important quality of life and city-building objectives.

Indeed, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, once stated that “a city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both.” Boulder’s congestion reduction objective is in conflict with this essential truth.

Fortunately, congestion regulates itself if we let it. Congestion will persuade some to drive at non-rush hour times, or take less congested routes, or travel by walking, bicycling, or transit. Congestion therefore does not inexorably lead to gridlock if we don’t widen a road or intersection, because some car trips (the “lower-value” trips) do not occur. Many of those discouraged trips are foregone because of the “time tax” imposed by the congestion.

But widening a road (or, in Boulder’s case, adding a second left-turn lane) short-circuits this self-regulation. A widened road or a double-left turn lane intersection induces new car trips because the road/intersection is now (briefly) less congested. The lower congestion encourages formerly discouraged car trips to now use the route during rush hour. Car trips that used different routes to avoid the congestion now converge back on the less congested route. And some get back in their cars after a period of walking, bicycling or using transit.

The process is very much like the infamous Soviet bread lines. The Soviets wanted to reduce the extremely long lines of people waiting for free bread. Their counterproductive “solution” was to make more free bread. But more free bread just induced more people to line up for bread. Likewise, the conventional American solution to traffic congestion is to make more free space for cars (widening the road or adding a second turn lane). The result is the same, as the bigger roads and intersections inevitably induce more car trips on those routes. The efficient and effective solution, as any first-year economics student will point out, is to NOT make more free bread or wider, free-to-use roads or second turn lanes. The solution is to price the bread and the car routes so that they are used more efficiently (and not wastefully by low-value bread consumers or car travelers). Or, to let a moderate level of congestion discourage low-value rush hour trips.

Given all of this, widening a road or adding a second left-turn lane to solve congestion is like loosening one’s belt to solve obesity. Similarly, despite conventional wisdom, car traffic does not behave like water flowing through a pipe (i.e., flowing easier if the pipe is expanded in size). Car traffic, instead, behaves like a gas. It expands to fill the available, increased volume provided.

Boulder’s Overriding Objectives

Boulder (and PLAN-Boulder County) has outlined key community objectives.

1. One is higher quality of life and more happiness. But counterproductively, happy cars lower quality of life due to clashing values and needs.

2. Another objective is for a more compact, walkable, vibrant city. Unfortunately, over-emphasizing cars means more sprawl.

3. An objective that is much talked about in the area is more affordability. By inducing more car dependence via easier car travel, the congestion reduction objective undermines the affordability objective by making Boulder less affordable (more on that later).

4. Given the growing concern for global warming, Boulder is placing more emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Easing traffic congestion, however, induces new car traffic, which increases car emissions.

5. Boulder and PLAN-Boulder County seek more travel (and lifestyle) choices. But the congestion reduction objective in Boulder’s plan is again undercutting other objectives because it leads to bigger car infrastructure (bigger roads and intersections), thereby reducing travel and lifestyle choices.

As shown above, then, Boulder’s congestion reduction objective undermines each of these five essential community objectives.

Oops.

Conventional methods of reducing congestion include wider roads, bigger parking lots, one-way streets, and huge intersections. These tactics are a “win-lose” proposition. While they can reduce congestion (briefly), they also cause a loss of human scale and charm; a loss of social gathering; sprawling dispersal; more car dependence and less bicycling, walking, transit; higher taxes; economic woes (for government, shops and households); a decline in public health; and more air pollution.

By striking contrast, other less commonly used but much more beneficial transportation tactics are “win-win” propositions. Some of these tactics include road diets, designing streets for slower speeds, and designing for travel and lifestyle choices. They can result in:

  • More parking spaces
  • More civic pride (induced by human scale)
  • More social gathering
  • A more compact and vibrant community
  • Less car dependence and more bicycling, walking, and transit
  • Lower taxes
  • Economic health (for both government and households)
  • Improvement in public health
  • Less air pollution

If we can’t get rid of congestion, what CAN we do? We can create alternatives so that those who are unwilling to tolerate the congestion can find ways to avoid it. Congestion can be better avoided if we create more housing near jobs, shops, and culture. Doing this allows more people to have better, more feasible ways to travel without a car. We can also create more travel routes, so that the congested routes are not the only routes to our destinations. Some of us can be given more flexible work schedules to shift our work hours away from rush hour. And some of us can be given increased opportunities to telecommute (work from home).

How Can We Design Transportation to Achieve a Better Destiny?

An important way to start Boulder on a better destiny for the city is to revisit the “No more than 20 percent congested road miles” objective in the Boulder transportation master plan. Some possibilities: adopt a “level of service standard” not for cars, but for bicycle, walking and transit travel; “Level of service” standards for cars is becoming outdated because it is being increasingly seen as counterproductive, as described earlier. Other alternatives to the “congestion” objective is to have a target of controlling or reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) community-wide; or set a goal of minimizing trip generation by individual new developments in the city.

Another option is to keep the congestion objective, but create “exception” areas where the congestion rule does not apply. Those exception areas would be places where Boulder seeks to encourage new development.

Boulder needs to ensure that the community land development and transportation design tactics are appropriately calibrated within each “transect zone” of the community. (The “transect” principle identifies a transition from urban to rural, whereby the town center is more compact, formal, low-speed, and walkable; the suburbs are more dispersed, informal, higher-speed, and drivable; and the rural areas most remote from the town center are more intended for a farming and conservation lifestyle. Development regulations and transportation designs are calibrated so that the differing lifestyle and travel objectives of each zone are best achieved.) However, the difficulty with the transect principle in places like Boulder is that the demand for compact, walkable lifestyles and travel choices is much higher than the supply of such places in Boulder. There is, in other words, a large mismatch. By contrast, the supply of suburban, drivable areas is quite high. To correct this imbalance, Boulder should strive to create a larger supply of compact, walkable places similar to Pearl Street Mall, the Boulder town center, and even the CU campus. Opportunities now being discussed are the creation of new, compact villages and town centers at places such as street intersections outside of the Boulder town center.

As an aside, the community transect concept informs us that in the town center, “more is better.” That is, the lifestyle being sought in the community center is one where more shops, more offices, and more housing enhances the lifestyle, as this more proximate, mixed, compact layout of land uses provides the thriving, sociable, convenient, vibrant, 24-hour ambience that many seeking the walkable lifestyle want more of.

By contrast, in the more drivable suburbs, “more is less.” That is, the drivable lifestyle is enhanced in quality when there is less density, less development, more dispersal, and more isolation of houses from shops and offices. The ambience generally desired is more quiet and private.

While town center housing is increasingly expensive compared to the suburbs—particularly in cities such as Boulder—such in-town housing provides significant cost savings for transportation. Because such a housing location provides so many travel choices beyond car travel, many households find they can own two cars instead of three or one car instead of two. And each car that a household can “shed” due to the richness of travel choices provides more household income that can be directed to housing expenses such as a mortgage or rent. Today, the average car costs about $9,000 per year to own and operate. In places that are compact and walkable, that $9,000 (or $18,000) per year can be devoted to housing, thereby improving affordability.

In addition to providing for the full range of housing and travel choices, Boulder can better achieve its objectives through road diets, where travel lanes are removed and more space is provided for such things as bike lanes or sidewalks or transit. Road diets are increasingly used throughout the nation—particularly converting roads from four lanes to three. Up to about 25,000 vehicle trips per day on the road, a road that is “dieted” to, say, three lanes carries about as much traffic as a four-lane road. This is mostly due to the fact that the inside lanes of a four-laner frequently must act as turn lanes for cars waiting to make a left turn. Four-lane roads are less desirable than three-lane streets because they induce more car trips and reduce bicycle, walking and transit trips. Compared to three-lane streets, four-lane roads result in more speeding traffic. As a result, four-laners create a higher crash rate than three-lane streets. Finally, because the road-diet (3)three-lane street is more human-scaled, pleasant, lower-speed, and thereby place-making, a three-lane street is better than a four-lane street for shops. The three-lane street becomes a place to drive TO, rather than drive THROUGH (as is the case with a four-lane street).

If Boulder seeks to be transformative with transportation—that is, if the city seeks to significantly shift car trips to walking, bicycling and transit trips (rather than the relatively modest shifts the city has achieved in the past)—it must recognize that it is NOT about providing more bike paths, sidewalks, or transit service. It is about taking away road and parking space from cars, and taking away subsidies for car travel.

Another transportation tactic Boulder should pursue to achieve a better destiny is to unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing. People who own less (or no) cars should have the choice of opting for more affordable housing—housing that does not include the very expensive cost of provided parking. Currently, little or no housing in Boulder provides the buyer or renter the option of having lower cost housing payments by choosing not to pay for parking. Particularly in a place like Boulder, where land values are so high, even housing intended to be relatively affordable is more costly than it needs to be because the land needed for parking adds a large cost to the housing price. Indeed, by requiring the home buyer or renter to pay more for parking, bundled parking price creates a financial incentive for owning and using more cars than would have otherwise been the case.

Boulder should also strive to provide parking more efficiently by pricing more parking. Too much parking in Boulder is both abundant and free. Less parking would be needed in the city (which would make the city more affordable, by the way) if it were efficiently priced. Donald Shoup recommends, for example, that parking meters be priced to ensure that in general, 2 or 3 parking spaces will be vacant on each block.

Efficient parking methods that could be used more often in Boulder include allowing shops and offices and churches to share their parking. This opportunity is particularly available when different land uses (say churches and shops) don’t share the same hours of operation. Again, sharing more parking reduces the amount of parking needed in the city, which makes the city more compact, walkable, enjoyable and active.

Like shared parking, leased parking allows for a reduction in parking needed. If Boulder, for example, owns a parking garage, some of the spaces can be leased to nearby offices, shops, or housing so that those particular land uses do not need to create their own parking.

Finally, a relatively easy and quick way for Boulder to beneficially reform and make more efficient its parking is to revise its parking regulations so that “minimum parking” is converted to “MAXIMUM parking.” Minimum parking rules, required throughout Boulder, are the conventional and increasingly outmoded way to regulate parking. They tell the developer that at least “X” amount of parking spaces must be provided for every “Y” square feet of building. This rule almost always requires the developer to provide excessive, very expensive parking, in large part because it is based on “worst case scenario” parking “needs.” That is, sufficient parking must be provided so that there will be enough on the busiest single day of the year (often the weekend after Thanksgiving). Such a provision means that for the other 364 days of the year, a large number of parking spaces sit empty, a very costly proposition.

In contrast, maximum parking rules tell the developer that there is an upper limit to the number of spaces that can be provided. This works much better for the community and the business because the business is better able to choose how much parking it needs and can finance. Since financial institutions that provide financing for new developments typically require the developer to provide the conventional (read: excessive) amounts of parking as a condition for obtaining a development loan, the big danger for communities in nearly all cases is that TOO MUCH parking will be provided rather than too little. The result of setting “maximum” instead of “minimum” parking rules is that excessive, worst case scenario parking developments become much more rare.

The reform of parking is easy: simply convert the existing minimum parking specifications to maximum parking standards (“at least 3 spaces per 1,000 square feet” becomes “no more than 3 spaces per 1,000 square feet). An incremental approach to this conversion is to apply maximum parking rules in those places that are already rich in travel choices, such as the Boulder town center.

Again, what will Boulder’s destiny be? As the preceding discussion sought to demonstrate, much of that destiny will be shaped by transportation decisions.

Will destiny be shaped by striving for happy people and happy places for people? Or will it be shaped by opting for the conventional, downwardly-spiraling effort of seeking easy car travel (and thereby unpleasant places where only a car can be happy – such as huge highways or parking lots)?

Will Boulder, in other words, retain or otherwise promote place-less conventional shopping centers full of deadening parking, car-only travel, lack of human interaction, and isolation? Or will the city move away from car-happy objectives such as the congestion reduction policy, and instead move toward a people-friendly future rich in sociability, pride in community, travel choices, sustainability, place-making and human scale?

An example of these contrasting destinies is Pearl Street. West Pearl features the charm and human scale we built historically. West Pearl Street exemplifies a lovable, walkable, calm, safe and inviting ambience where car speeds are slower, the street is more narrow, and the shops—by being pulled up to the streetside sidewalk—help form a comfortable sense of enclosure that activates the street and feels comfortable to walk. The shops tend to be smaller—more neighborhood-scaled.

East Pearl Street near 28th Street is starkly different. There, the street is a “stroad,” because it is an overly wide road that should be a more narrow, lower-speed street. Shops are pulled back long distances from the street. The street here is fronted not by interesting shop fronts but enormous seas of asphalt parking. The layout is car-scaled. The setting is hostile, unpleasant, unsafe, stressful and uninviting. The shops tend to be “Big Box” retail, and serve a regional “consumershed.” There is “no there there.”

East Pearl Street was built more recently by professional planners and engineers who have advanced degrees that far exceed the professionalism and education of those who designed the more lovable West Pearl Street. Where has the charm gone? Why have our streets become less pleasant in more recent years (by better trained and better educated designers, I might add)? Is it perhaps related to our more expensive and sophisticated efforts to ease car traffic and reduce congestion?

There is an inverse relationship between congestion and such measures as vehicle miles traveled and gas consumption. At the community level—despite the conventional wisdom—as congestion increases, vehicle miles traveled, gas consumption, air emissions DECREASE. And as conventional efforts to reduce congestion intensify, quality of life and sustainability also decrease.

Again, is Boulder aligning itself with the Sprawl Lobby by maintaining an objective of easing traffic flow – by striving to reduce congestion?

 

On Controlling Size

David Mohney reminds us that the first task of the urban designer is to control size. This not only pertains to the essential need to keep streets, building setbacks, and community dispersal modest in size. It also pertains to the highly important need to insist on controlling the size of service and delivery trucks. Over-sized trucks in Boulder lead the city down a ruinous path, as street and intersection dimensions are typically driven by the “design vehicle.” When trucks are relatively large, excessive truck size becomes the “design vehicle” which ends up driving the dimensions of city streets. A healthy city should be designed for human scale and safety, not for the needs of huge trucks. Indeed, because motor vehicles consume so much space, a sign of a healthy, well-designed community is that drivers of vehicles should feel inconvenienced. If driving vehicles feels comfortable, it is a signal that we have over-designed streets and allocated such excessive spaces that we have lost human scale and safety.

A proposal for human-scaled streets: in Boulder’s town center, no street should be larger than three lanes in size. Outside the town center, no street should be larger than five lanes in size. Anything more exceeds the human scaling needed for a pleasant, safe, sustainable community.

It is time to return to the timeless tradition of designing to make people happy, not cars. Boulder needs to start by revisiting its congestion reduction objective, putting a number of its roads on a “road diet,” and taking steps to make the provision of parking more efficient and conducive to a healthy city.

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 More about the author

 Mr. Nozzi was a senior planner for Gainesville FL for 20 years, and wrote that city’s long-range transportation plan. He also administered Boulder’s growth rate control law in the mid-90s. He is currently a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board.

 Studies Demonstrating Induced Traffic and Car Emission Increases

Below is a sampling of references to studies describing how new car trips are induced by easier car travel, and how car emissions increase as a result.

http://www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/articles/hwyemis.asp

http://www.vtpi.org/gentraf.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Induced_demand

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/1993/04/18/does-free-flowing-car-traffic-reduce-fuel-consumption-and-air-pollution/

TØI (2009), Does Road Improvement Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions?, Institute of Transport Economics (TØI), Norwegian Centre for Transport Research (www.toi.no); summary at www.toi.no/getfile.php/Publikasjoner/T%D8I%20rapporter/2009/1027-2009/Sum-1027-2009.pdf

Robert Noland and Mohammed A. Quddus (2006), “Flow Improvements and Vehicle Emissions: Effects of Trip Generation and Emission Control Technology,” Transportation Research D, Vol. 11 (www.elsevier.com/locate/trd), pp. 1-14; also see

www.cts.cv.ic.ac.uk/documents/publications/iccts00249.pdf

Clark Williams-Derry (2007), Increases In Greenhouse-Gas Emissions From Highway-Widening Projects, Sightline Institute (www.sightline.org); at

www.sightline.org/research/energy/res_pubs/analysis-ghg-roads

TRB (1995), Expanding Metropolitan Highways: Implications for Air Quality and Energy Use, Committee for Study of Impacts of Highway Capacity Improvements on Air Quality and Energy Consumption, Transportation Research Board, Special Report #345 (www.trb.org)

D. Shefer & P. Rietvald (1997), “Congestion and Safety on Highways: Towards an Analytical Model,” Urban Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 679-692.

Alison Cassady, Tony Dutzik and Emily Figdor (2004). More Highways, More Pollution: Road Building and Air Pollution in America’s Cities, U.S. PIRG Education Fund (www.uspirg.org).

http://www.opr.ca.gov/docs/PreliminaryEvaluationTransportationMetrics.pdf

 

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