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The Myth of Boulder CO Being a Top Bicycling City

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 7, 2017

In the September and October 2016 editions of Bicycling Magazine, the magazine issued a “Hall of Shame” recognition to the City of Boulder, Colorado for removing protected bicycle lanes on Folsom Street. The magazine also moved Boulder down the Top Ten Bicycling Cities list from 6 to 10. While I agree with both of these decisions, Bicycling Magazine may want to consider lowering Boulder’s status even further as a top US cycling city.

The extremely hostile opposition to the redesign of Folsom Street in Boulder has unveiled an enormous myth. Boulder has long been touted as being exceptionally progressive and forward thinking regarding bicycle (and other forms of) transportation. I had bought into this myth myself.

But the stunning opposition to the Folsom Street right-sizing (removal of two of five travel lanes) motivated me to think again about that widespread belief. The following tally shows that Boulder is behind the times on a number of transportation issues.

Traffic Calming. Slowing down and calming dangerous, speeding traffic is extremely important for neighborhood health and safety, not to mention overall quality of life. For these reasons, designing streets to obligate slower car speeds is a widespread and growing action throughout the nation. Boulder essentially ended its neighborhood traffic calming efforts in respond to a funding shortfall and furious citizen opposition in the 1990s and 2000s.

Right-Sizing. Removing travel lanes from oversized roads, like traffic calming, is an essential and cost-effective way to dramatically improve safety, reduce speeding, reduce noise pollution, reduce regional car travel, improve residential and retail health, and nudge a number of residents toward bicycling, walking and transit. Again, right-sizing is a widespread and growing reform throughout the nation. Boulder is likely to end all efforts for the foreseeable future to further right-size gigantic in-city highways due to extreme citizen opposition that emerged in 2015 regarding the Folsom Street project.

Car Parking. Excessive quantities of free off-street parking is a gigantic problem both in Boulder and nationally. It is a massive subsidy to motorists, induces an artificially high level of car travel, destroys city and residential health, and makes for extremely unsafe and inconvenient conditions for walking, bicycling and transit. By substantially dispersing the size of a town center and overall community, excessive parking found in Boulder and elsewhere is toxic to city health. Cities throughout the nation are therefore converting counterproductive “minimum” parking requirements to “maximum” requirements. Macys-at-29th-St-July-2015-smBoulder parking regulations remain antiquated, after decades of this problem being identified, by continuing to require large minimum parking requirements and doing relatively little to convert free parking to priced parking. Or to convert excessive existing parking into more community beneficial uses such as office, retail, or residential.

Synchronized traffic signals. Synchronizing traffic signals is commonly thought to “ease” car traffic flow or reduce congestion. But it has long been known that we cannot build our way out of congestion by adding new road capacity – and synchronization does this indirectly — as more capacity simply induces new latent car trips that would not have occurred had we not increased capacity. This is particularly true when considering cars, which, because of their enormous size, quickly congest roads. Many cities have therefore opted not to synchronize signals (which, by the way, is surprisingly expensive) or have made the synchronizing less counterproductive by timing the signal lights for bus and bicycle speeds rather than car speeds. Boulder continues to synchronize signals for car speeds, and there appears to be no support for revising this.

One-way streets. One-way streets induce speeding, inattentive driving, motorist impatience, regional car trips, suburban sprawl, and declining retail and residential health. They also discourage bicycle and walking trips. For these reasons, a great many cities have returned their one-way streets to two-way operation, and this trend is accelerating due to the growing awareness of problems associated with one-way streets. The Boulder town center is substantially hobbled by a toxic one-way street loop, and there appears to be no political support for returning to two-way operation.

Bicycle parking. Since at least the early 1980s, it has been well known that the “inverted U” bicycle rack parking design (and minor variations) is the only well-functioning, low-cost design for bicycle parking. Yet it was only in 2015 that Boulder opted to require such parking, and even when it did, the regulations still allow an extremely inferior alternative design.

Transportation is in a silo. For decades, we have known that transportation and land use are intimately related, and profoundly shape each other. Many community objectives cannot be achieved unless transportation and land use work together. We cannot, for example, install an enormous, high-speed highway in the middle of what is intended to be a compact, safe, walkable town center, as the highway undermines the desire for nearby walkability. Yet in Boulder, there is a surprisingly strict separation between long-range transportation plans and long-range land use plans and at public workshops pertaining to street or land use strategies for particular locations in the city. And the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board has, in at least my tenure, been extremely timid about discussing otherwise obvious land use issues when discussing transportation issues.

Slip lanes. Slip lanes allow cars to make relatively high-speed, inattentive right turns, which create dangerous turning conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists at intersections. Boulder has installed a large number of slip lanes at intersections throughout the city – including in the town center.

Double-Left Turn Lanes. Double-left turn lanes, like slip lanes, allow relatively high-speed, inattentive turns by cars, which results in dangerous conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians, not to mention motorists. Double-left turn lanes create enormous intersection sizes that induce suburban dispersal from such intersections, make crossing by bicycle or foot exceptionally dangerous, kill the important need for intersections to create a human-scaled sense of place, and promote suburban sprawl. In addition, these extremely expensive intersection treatments ignore the fact that we cannot build our way out of intersection congestion. Boulder has installed a very large number of such dual left-turn lanes.

Idaho Law. The Idaho law allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, and red signal lights as stop signs. The law acknowledges the fact that stop sign and signal light regulations are designed for dangerous, heavy, high-speed cars, and are generally unnecessary for bicyclists. Bicyclists depend on leveraging momentum when traveling, and stops eliminate momentum. A number of cities in Colorado have now adopted the long-standing Idaho law to substantially increase bicyclist convenience and reduce inequity. Boulder continues to resist adopting such a law.

Town Center Bicycling. Healthy town centers are places that tend to be superb locations for bicyclists to live and travel, as centers contain a large number of destinations (which reduces travel distances) and the best centers emphasize low speeds. Despite its national reputation for prolific and quality bicycle facilities, however, the Boulder town center contains a large number of roads that are shockingly hostile to bicycling.

Summary

Yes, Boulder has provided an impressive system of bicycle paths and transit, which perpetuates the myth that Boulder is unusually progressive regarding transportation. But the paths and transit are much more a matter of Boulder being wealthy rather than Boulder being cutting edge, or brilliant, or progressive. Because off-street paths and transit in no way impede happy, excessive car travel, they require relatively little leadership. Driving by car in Boulder remains highly convenient and enjoyable. Paths and transit, it turns out, are in a way simply green washing lip service.

The “Four S” Strategy. Boulder has spent decades emphasizing the provision of more bike lanes, sidewalks, and transit as a way to promote more non-car travel, but as exemplified by the lack of success in increasing non-car travel for a great many years, this “supply-side” tactic is well known by both practitioners and researchers to be almost entirely ineffective – particularly if land use densities are low and car parking is underpriced and abundant.

The “Four S” strategy to effectively encourage more cycling, walking and transit use: reduce car Speeds, reduce Space allocated to cars, reduce Subsidies for motorists, and Shorten distances to destinations (via compact, mixed-use development). Given the clear effectiveness of this strategy, Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies in Boulder need to place more emphasis on nudging citizens with sticks such as user fees (which still retains the choice to travel by car, it must be noted), and less emphasis on carrots such as bike parking and sidewalks. While “supply-side” strategies and “green gizmo” technology ideas (such as self-driving cars) are seductive at first glance (largely because they are relatively easy to implement politically), they will remain ineffective.

I was a professional town and transportation planner for 20 years in Gainesville FL. That city is far more politically conservative than Boulder, yet on many of the measures above, Gainesville is much more progressive.

 

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Efficient, Unbundled Parking

By Dom Nozzi

American cities tend to provide extremely “inefficient” parking. That is, most all parking tends to be underpriced or free to use, which encourages excessive amounts of “low-value” (inefficient) parking. An example of “low-value” and “inefficient” parking is when a single person parks a 100-square foot vehicle on an expensive piece of town center real estate to buy a cup of coffee at rush hour.

Little if any parking is “shared” between nearby land uses (such as a church and a grocery store). Parking tends to be excessively provided by developers, partially because of “minimum parking requirements” imposed by local governments (which tend to be based on outdated, excessive requirements used in other communities, rather than a local assessment of need).parking_sea

As Michael Manville notes in Spring 2014 issue of Access Magazine, when cities require parking to be provided with all new residential construction, it shifts what should be a cost of driving—the cost of parking a car—into the cost of housing. A price drivers should pay at the end of their trips becomes a cost developers must bear at the start of their projects. Similarly, Donald Shoup points out that “free” parking is not free. We all pay indirectly for the “free” parking at a grocery store by paying more for the groceries inside that store, because the grocery store must pay for the purchase of land, as well as the operation and maintenance cost, for that parking. Conventional, out-dated parking requirements have made excessive, costly parking provision the norm in nearly all American communities. Such requirements induce excessive amounts of “low-value” car trips (Shoup rightly calls “free” parking a fertility drug for cars); make housing much less affordable; induce excessive amounts of regional car trips and suburban sprawl; increase air emissions; reduce the amount of bicycling, walking and transit use; and make the renovation and reuse of lovable historic buildings much more costly and therefore less likely to occur.

It is important to note that even if a community no longer requires the provision of parking in its town centers (or citywide), developers will still face enormous pressure to provide parking. This is because lenders usually require the developer to provide large amounts of parking as a condition for obtaining a loan. And tenants and purchasers of developments (as well as neighbors) usually insist that parking be provided. For these reasons, a great many cities have converted their minimum parking requirements to maximum parking caps, since the provision of excess parking is much more likely and much more of a threat to communities than the provision of too little parking.

To make parking more efficient (and in line with a large number of community sustainability and quality of life objectives), communities should convert most or all of its minimum parking requirements to maximum parking caps. To the extent possible, the price of parking should be unbundled from the price of housing. Barriers to construction of buildings on existing (usually underused) surface parking lots should be lowered. Employers based in the community should be required to provide “cash-out” parking to employees. Shared and leased parking should be substantially increased and encouraged.  In walkable centers, parking should be located behind the building rather than in front of the building. “Free” parking should be much more rare. The exception rather than the rul.

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