By Dom Nozzi
October 30, 2018
An article appeared in the 7/23/18 edition of the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper describing how two local activists (with views very similar to my own) were leaving Boulder because they were utterly frustrated by the local politics and had decided that the situation was hopeless.
I am completely sympathetic to the two people (Zane and Christina) that article focused on.
In my ten years of living in Boulder, I have become greatly disappointed (and surprised) by how much Boulder and its citizens dwell in The Dark Ages regarding the views of a very large number of Boulder citizens in the areas of transportation and land use. The city has a reputation for being progressive, and while that may be the case on some issues, it becomes clear, when you look under the covers, that when it comes to transportation and land use development (housing and parking in particular), Boulder is quite elitist, entitled, and politically right wing.
The “progressive” label for those two categories largely comes from the fact that Boulder is so wealthy, which means a lot of money is spent on transportation facilities (the City is infamous for over-designing obscenely expensive facilities such as bike routes and overpasses and underpasses and buses).
The reactionary politics on those two issues means that despite all the lip service paid in Boulder, housing is much more expensive in Boulder than it should be (housing would be much less expensive if there was the will to adopt effective strategies), and transportation is far more car-oriented and car-happy than it should be.
Despite all of this, I intend to remain in Boulder for the long term. Despite the painfully outdated and counterproductive views here, there are so many things I love about Boulder that I am very happy here. That more than compensates for the exasperating politics.
The following are transportation and land use reforms I would have suggested for Boulder had I ever been asked while serving for five years on Boulder’s Transportation Advisory Board (I was never asked, which is telling). This is based on my living in Boulder for several years and my 38 years working academically and professionally in transportation.
Use Effective Street Design Strategies to Meaningfully Improve Safety. Over and over again, for a century, Boulder has applied “The Five Warnings:” applied more Warning paint, added more Warning signs, used more Warning lights, pushed more Warning education, and adopted more Warning traffic law enforcement. It hasn’t worked. Streets are more dangerous than ever. Warnings don’t work partly due to diminishing returns caused by excessive, redundant warnings that now clutter our streets.
Instead, for a noticeable improvement in traffic safety, Boulder must substantially redesign its roads and streets. Design roads to induce slower, more attentive driving. Phase out “forgiving” design. Restore and make permanent the funding for traffic calming design (a citywide effort to create narrower/greener streets, traffic circles, roundabouts, smaller intersections, curb bulb-outs, slow streets, chicanes, etc.). Put a moratorium on road and intersection capacity increases.
Ratchet Down Use of Underpasses and Overpasses. With the possible exception of the Boulder Creek Path, underpasses or overpasses provide very little bang for a very expensive buck. Money saved by building less underpasses or overpasses can fund a great deal of traffic calming for many years, provide a lot more safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, and substantially improve neighborhood quality of life. Deciding underpasses or overpasses are needed should be a message that streets and intersections are too large. They also show that the City has given up on EVER humanizing and greening that street.
Provide Parking Efficiently. Underpriced/free parking is a fertility drug for increasing the number of car trips. Parking also makes an area less compact, less walkable, less safe, and more of a dead zone. In the Boulder town center, new parking should only occur within parking garages, and only to replace existing surface parking spaces (ie, no net increase). Excessive parking is a problem citywide, and must be controlled by converting minimum parking requirements to maximums. The City must annually survey the total number of parking spaces in the town center to ensure that the total number is not increasing over time (it should be decreasing). Free or underpriced parking artificially encourages car use and promotes excessive provision of parking. Improve fairness in funding via increased use of user fees such as parking, a VMT fee, and pay-at-the-pump car insurance. Require that the cost of parking be unbundled from the price of new housing.
Install Beautifying Raised Medians. Too many Boulder streets have dangerous, ugly continuous left-turn lanes. North Broadway, east Pearl, and Arapahoe are examples where “turn pockets” can replace continuous left-turn lanes.
Restore Two-Way Streets. Many cities throughout the nation have converted one-way streets back to two-way operation because it is now widely known that one-ways are extremely dangerous, inconvenient, deadly for retail and homes, and induce excessive driving. The one-way loop in town center Boulder should be restored to two-way operation.
Create an effective way to monitor the condition of bicycling and walking facilities. The City should either hire one or more people to monitor such conditions on a regular basis, provide an easy and high-visibility way for bicyclists and pedestrians to report on problems they encounter, or both.
Control Size. The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. In other words, because most all Americans travel by car, one of the most common desires expressed by citizens is larger parking lots, wider roads, and bigger intersections. Yet this constant refrain has left Boulder with oversized spaces that are dangerous and utterly lack any sense of charm – what I call the “gigantism” disease. The urbanist (and the transportation engineer) must therefore regularly urge their community to resist this temptation, as smaller, human-scaled spacing is a fundamental key to lovability, public health and safety, and happiness. Given this, Boulder must hire one or more enthusiastic new urbanist transportation engineers who have a track record in reducing transportation infrastructure sizes.
Keep Service Vehicles Small in Size. Overly large fire trucks, buses, and other service vehicles obligate traffic engineers to use excessive (and therefore dangerous) street and intersection dimensions to accommodate oversized vehicles. This can be avoided by ensuring that fire trucks, buses, and other service vehicles are relatively small in size.
Require City Staff to Use Plain English and Avoid Biased Terms. Boulder transportation documents and presentations should not use language that is biased toward car travel. Use “plain English” as much as possible. Adopt a plain English and Unbiased Communication Stylebook.
Create a larger supply of compact, walkable housing. Boulder has a vast oversupply of drivable suburban development and a substantial undersupply of compact walkable development. Boulder must do what it can to provide a much larger supply of walkable housing — in appropriate locations. Accessory dwelling units and co-ops should be allowed “by right” in single-family zoning (and without a requirement that off-street parking be required), form-based (rather than conventional use-based) zoning should be applied throughout most or all of the city, density and height limits need to be increased in many parts of the city – particularly near transit routes, the maximum number of unrelated people who are allowed to live in a home needs to be increased, mixed use zoning should be more widely allowed throughout the city, and on-street parking needs to be installed on a great many city streets.
Adopt the “Idaho Law.” Cities in Colorado such as Aspen have adopted the “Idaho Law” which allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and stoplights as stop signs. This simply makes legal what the vast majority of cyclists already do, and encourages more cycling by making cycling much more advantageous.
Remove Barriers to Conversion of Surface Parking Lots. The conversion of parking lots to buildings should be extremely easy – particularly at older shopping centers. In the town center, remove any regulatory barriers to that conversion by eliminating parking requirements, softening stormwater requirements in the town center, etc.
Fee-in-lieu of Parking. To reduce the enormous and wasteful amount of space consumed by surface parking lots, allow developers to pay a fee-in-lieu of parking and use that revenue to create public parking (preferably in space-efficient stacked parking garages).
I do not intend to suggest that a huge number of cities in the US are doing a lot better than Boulder on this list of 13 strategies. They are not. But some cities – cities that have a lot less brainpower and a lot less money – are adopting some of these strategies more boldly than Boulder.
Who to blame for Boulder (and nearly all other US cities on nearly all of these strategies) being so backward in transportation and land use? My broken record answer is that I believe it started a century ago when cars emerged, which locked nearly all US cities in a self-perpetuating downward cycle that leads large numbers of citizens to be obligated to politically press for happy cars rather than happy people. After decades of that effort, a much larger number of citizens are now car cheerleaders who have become obligated to be dead set against most or all of the 13 strategies I list above.
When citizens are thereby trapped in auto-dependency, there is very little that elected officials or staff can proactively do. At the margin, aggressive and exceptionally courageous officials and staff can strive to adopt prices that signal citizens to incrementally live a less car-dependent life (cash-out, paid parking, unbundled parking, road tolls, etc.), eliminate required parking rules, shrink roadways and parking lots, etc. Passively, officials and staff can keep their fingers crossed that a gas crisis or energy crisis or economic crisis gives citizens a kick in the pants.
In sum, I believe Boulder and nearly all US cities are decades away from moving away from the car-dependence downward spiral. It matters very little who is elected or what ideas are employed, because in the US (where I agree with the observation I saw recently that US cities have too much democracy – ie, we too often allow unschooled, emotional citizens to make decisions that professionals should be making — like we do with medicine, for example), too many citizens live in a world where a life other than a car-based life is impossible, and will not elect or support officials who do not pamper car travel. Citizens in nearly all cities – including Boulder – are forced to make the world a better place for car travel rather than a better place for people.
Many Boulder friends I discuss the above issues with speak wistfully about how much they miss the way Boulder was when they first moved here. It strikes me that nearly all of what they miss (quieter, smaller, safer, easier to bike and walk, etc.) has been lost in Boulder because like nearly every other American city, Boulder was not wise enough to avoid the seductive trap: Failing to realize that making car travel easy is not a way to protect quality of life. It is instead a recipe for ruin. Boulder has thrown away so much of its lovable charm by trying to make cars happy, and in the process destroyed so much of what it had that people loved.
I am sad to see Zane leaving. He has been a friend and political ally of mine (we served together on the Transportation Advisory Board). I wish him well.