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30th Street and Colorado Avenue Redesign: Boulder Colorado is Not Ready

By Dom Nozzi

February 8, 2018

Boulder established a Community Working Group (CWG) in 2017 which was tasked with helping to redesign 30th Street and Colorado Avenue. The redesign effort was motivated by the fact that these roads are characterized by important concerns: a high level of crashes, low levels of bicycling, walking, and transit, poor aesthetics, and issues with residential and retail development along these roads.

The 30th Street and Colorado Avenue redesign should significantly improve health for small retail shops and homes. It should significantly improve safety for all users. It should beautify the corridor. It should be designed to ensure that land uses along the corridor produce sufficient taxes so that the street is financially self-sufficient (in its current state, it is a financial drain). It should, in other words, be a street and not a stroad. Unfortunately, as of February 2018, four of the six options are window dressing options that are doing nothing to advance these important objectives.

I will focus my comments on 30th Street for the sake of simplicity and brevity, but much of this could also be applied to Colorado Avenue.

With regard to mobility vs accessibility, it has become clear to me that the focus of the 30th and Colorado project is heavily tilted toward mobility. Four of the six design options, for example, would maintain the current configuration of four general purpose (GP) car lanes. I have a number of problems with the car-centered bias, and the overall project evaluation.

Including the “No Build” (existing conditions) scenario, there are six design options for 30th:

  1. No Build (existing): Four GP car lanes, bike lanes, sidewalks. Very low financial cost.
  2. Option 1 and 1a: Two GP car lanes, center turn lane, wider bike lanes with buffers, protected bike lanes for 1a, no added ROW needed. Very low financial cost.
  3. Option 2: Two GP car lanes, two bus lanes, center landscaped median, wider bike lanes protected by tree strip, 30 ft more ROW needed. Very high financial cost.
  4. Option 3: Four GP car lanes (with wider outside lanes), wider (and protected?) bike lanes, landscaped tree strip, 20 ft more ROW needed. Very high financial cost.
  5. Option 4: Four GP car lanes (with wider outside lanes), bike lanes removed, wider ped/bike shared sidewalks, 20 ft more ROW needed. Moderate financial cost.
  6. Option 5: Four GP car lanes (with wider outside lanes), wider and buffered or protected bike lanes, no added ROW needed. Very low financial cost.

Over the course of a great many meetings, the staff and consultant worked with the Community Working Group (CWG) to come up with criteria to evaluate the ability of various design options to achieve various community objectives. Unfortunately, these evaluation criteria are flawed and are missing important measures. For example:

  • No evaluation of which design options will result in the highest average motorist speeds (clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in far higher average car speeds).
  • No evaluation of which design options will result in better accessibility rather than an over-emphasis on mobility (clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in excessive car mobility at the expense of accessibility).
  • No evaluation of which design options will result in the largest number of crashes (clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in a far higher number of crashes). There are four evaluation criteria which address safety, and I find it highly misleading that the evaluation scoring shows all six design options making safety “better.” This is highly misleading because it strongly implies that all six design options will be equally beneficial in improving safety. In my opinion, this is absolutely untrue, as the four options maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will be far less safe. For example, let’s say that 10 car crashes occur each year on 30th. While it may be technically true that safety tweaks in the four options proposing to maintain the 4 GP car lanes will result in, say, 9 crashes instead of 10, the two design options which propose 2 GP car lanes will result in, say, 2 crashes instead of 10. Clearly, the 2 GP car lane design options are far safer, but again, the evaluation implies they are all equally beneficial for safety by labeling all of them as “better” for safety.
  • No evaluation of which design options are most conducive to more compact, accessible, walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly retail and residential land use patterns (clearly the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes are far less conducive to such retail and residential development along 30th).
  • No evaluation of which design options are most likely to promote an increase in walking or bicycling or transit travel (clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in far fewer walking or bicycling or transit trips on 30th).
  • No evaluation of which design options are most likely to advance Boulder GHG emissions and climate change goals (clearly, clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in far higher emissions and failure to meet climate change goals).
  • No evaluation of which design options are most likely to advance the Boulder Vision Zero goal (clearly, only the two options which propose to establish 2 GP car lanes have any realistic chance of achieving Vision Zero).

The four design options which propose 4 GP car lanes (No Build, and Options 3, 4, and 5) are exceptionally unsafe for at least three reasons: (1) They induce far higher average car speeds than do Options 1 and 2 (and the speeding driver sets the pace, rather than the prudent driver); (2) They induce frequent lane changing by cars, which is extremely dangerous at higher speeds; and (3) They induce more inattentive driving (due to the large width and relatively low level of “friction”). On the issue of speed, studies have found that the probability of death in a car crash at 20 mph is about 5 percent. At 30 mph, the probability is about 45 percent. At 40 mph, it is 85 percent.

It is now acknowledged by a large and growing number of American traffic engineers (including the US DOT) that a 3-lane road (which is the configuration for the two proposed “2 GP car lanes” design options on 30th ) carries about the same volume as a 4-lane road. That, in addition to the rather large number (and significant) benefits that converting from 4 GP car lanes to 2 GP car lanes delivers, helps explain why City of Boulder staff supported the “2 GP car lanes” design option a few years ago for 30th. The reason 3 lanes carries about the same as 4 lanes is that like on 30th, when there are many left turns not supported by a left-turn lane, the inside lane of a 4-lane road behaves as a 3-lane road because the inside lane is regularly acting like it is a turn lane.

Some on the CWG objected to the evaluation criterion of “reliable” travel times. The thinking of those who objected was that this did not capture the overwhelming objective held by most Boulder residents: That travel time not be increased by a design option. I pointed out that we must first define what we mean by “increased travel time.” Is one additional second of travel time considered unacceptable (in exchange for far fewer car crashes)? Is five seconds unacceptable? How about three minutes? Without defining what we mean by an unacceptable increase in travel time, I don’t believe it is a good idea to change this criterion from “reliable” to an “increase in travel time,” as some CWG members suggested. Personally, I don’t believe it is possible for Boulder to come up with a community-wide, agreed upon definition for what is the unacceptable threshold for increased travel time. In part because there are so many trade-offs (safety, promoting bicycling, retail health, etc.).

In sum, of the six proposed design options, only the two options which propose 2 GP car lanes (Options 1 & 2) have any chance of achieving land use, transportation, climate change, or safety goals adopted by Boulder. Besides the “No Build” option, the other three options which propose 4 GP car lanes (Options 3, 4, & 5) are essentially also “No Build” options with window dressing such as added landscaping or wider bike lanes. In part, these three are “No Build” options because they do almost nothing to advance Boulder objectives. In addition, as Charles Marohn has pointed out in his work for strongtowns.org, the four options which maintain 4 GP car lanes impose a severe and unrelenting financial burden on Boulder because they induce high car crash and maintenance costs, as well as inducing land uses which do not produce taxes that are high enough to support the costs they impose.

For the record, I support Option 1a (2 GP car lanes, center turn lane, and protected bike lanes).Road-Diet

It should be noted that in the scoring of the six design options by staff and the consultant, Option 2 (2 GP car lanes and two bus lanes) scored far better than any of the other options. Curiously, at the January 22nd CWG meeting, nearly all CWG members indicated a preference for one of the three “No Build with Window Dressing” options (4 GP car lanes). Option 3 was particularly popular. Tellingly, even though these three “No Build with Window Dressing” options were by far the most popular among CWG members in attendance, there seemed to be great reluctance for anyone to speak up and explain the benefits. My speculation as to why the three “No Build with Window Dressing” options were preferred by most, then, is either that CWG members were looking out for their own personal interests (despite being told up front that community interests should take precedence over personal interests), or that CWG members were considering the reaction to the Folsom Street project and deciding that the political winds would not make Options 1 or 2 viable.

As I have pointed out previously, I don’t believe Boulder is politically ready to adopt a design option for 30th that will meaningfully achieve a great many important community objectives. I therefore believe that Boulder should suspend this project until such time as the residents of Boulder are politically willing to support a design that is effective in achieving community objectives. Proceeding under existing political conditions wastes time, effort, and money.

 

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Random Thoughts Regarding Town Planning

By Dom Nozzi

We must avoid further subsidizing dysfunctional suburban locations at the financial and quality-of-life expense of urban residents (for the sake of equity, among other reasons). And stop throwing good public money after bad.

Congestion, in cities, is our friend. It effectively delivers infill, redevelopment, multi-story buildings, less car use, more walking/bicycling/transit travel, healthier in-town retail by smaller and locally-owned business, more density, more compact development, more migration from remote to in-town locations, less severe crashes, less speeding, less air pollution and gas consumption (at the regional level), and more political support for non-car travel.

I like the idea of passively letting dysfunctional suburban development become white elephants that are increasingly abandoned. I like the idea of people increasingly looking upon urbanists as saviors for our cities.

I like the idea of leveraging envy. Having suburban folks increasingly look with desire upon a walkable lifestyle.

Having worked as a city planner for 19 years, there is little that is more naïve than the idea that we can create more connectivity in suburbia by buying Right-Of-Way and demolishing homes to build new, connecting roads (both of which are essential in creating travel choices). With the exception of places wiped off the face of the earth by hurricanes, has this happened ANYWHERE?

I am concerned that urbanists might squander scarce resources fighting, in a futile way, for such things as more connectivity or other efforts against the suburban juggernaut.

I believe we are rapidly approaching the time when we can no longer afford the road fly-overs. The road widenings. The sound walls.

I’m a materialist. I don’t believe we can convince a meaningful number of people to agree to progressive change (such as increased connectivity, compactness, or more transit) through education-based persuasion. Such change in values comes from changes in material conditions. Effective persuasion and meaningful behavior change comes, in this case, from dramatically increased financial costs and inconvenience associated with our transportation system.

Until suburban auto dependency becomes intolerably costly, there is little that can be done to shift our system toward a sustainable, equitable way of doing things. We’ll continue to privilege cars. The habitat for Fords and Chevys will “improve” while the habitat for Dick and Jane declines.

Given all of the above, the best I can do is work to equitably increase the costs of auto dependency. And establish envious urbanism. An urbanism that, as Andres Duany once said about Winter Park FL, stands as an indictment to Kunstler’s suburban fiasco.

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America Has the Lowest Level of Bicycling on Earth: What We Can Do to End the Shame

By Dom Nozzi

In his 2010 book, One Less Car, Zack Furness points out something that should utterly shame all bicycle advocates, alternative transportation activists, planners, and elected officials: no nation on earth has a lower percentage of bicyclists than the United States. A pathetic one percent of all commuting in the US is by bicycle. Even in places with bitterly cold, forbidding weather – such as the Northwest Territories adjacent to the North Pole – bicycling rates are higher.

How could this be? After all, those promoting more bicycling and less motoring have successfully convinced towns all over the nation to install bike lanes, bike paths, bike showers, and bike parking.

The reason, as Michael Ronkin, former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the State of Oregon has brilliantly and provocatively pointed out, is that it is NOT about providing facilities for bicyclists. To effectively convince large numbers of Americans to commute by bicycle, it is necessary to TAKE AWAY SPACE FROM CARS (and increase the cost of car travel).

[Note that in this essay, I am referring to “commuter” bicyclists. Commuter/utilitarian bicyclists are those who use a bicycle for travel to work or shop, for example. “Recreational” bicyclists, by contrast, are bicycling for entertainment or exercise.]

A new paradigm is needed for effectively promoting a large increase in bicycling in America. For several decades, there have been two large advocacy groups aggressively promoting their idea of the best way to recruit more bicycling:

1. The “vehicular cyclists,” led by John Forrester. The VC advocates claim that no in-street bike lanes or separated-from-the-road bike paths are needed for bicycling. The best, safest way to bicycle is to have a bicyclist travel by following the same rules of the road as the motorist (largely to increase predictability and visibility). I subscribed to this view ever since reading Forrester’s Bicycle Transportation in grad school back in the early 1980s.

2. The “separated bicycle path” group, which holds that the way to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists is to separate them physically from dangerous, high-speed car traffic. The assumption of this group is that the main reason we don’t see large numbers of bicyclists in the US is that most people are put off by the danger inherent in bicycling in the street with cars.

Both of these tactics have miserably failed to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists in the US. The US continues to have, by far, the lowest number of bicyclists in the world.

Why?

The vehicular cyclists take an approach that even in theory is only applicable to a small number of people – those who have the courage, skill and athleticism to bicycle in the street with cars. Even VC advocates admit that their approach, even if widely used, would not result in a large number of new bicyclists.

While they believe their approach would lead to a large number of new bicyclists, off-street bicycle path advocates fail to understand that “perceived danger” for bicycling is only a minor reason why commuter bicycling is not popular in the US.

Car travel is so heavily provided for and promoted in the US that it is highly irrational to travel by foot, bicycle or transit (even if we provide bike paths, sidewalks, better transit, etc.). There are a great many reasons why nearly all trips in the US are by car. Some of the more important reasons why the car is more rational in the US is that compared to other forms of travel, the car excels in the following ways:

Comfort

Protection from weather

Climate, music and noise control

Cargo-carrying capacity

Passenger-carrying capacity

Status

Ego

Protection from violent people and strangers

Speed

Travel range

Subsidized fuel and roads

Subsidized parking

The perceived safety provided by off-street bicycle paths, when compared to the above car benefits, does not even come close to convincing the vast majority of Americans that bicycling is preferable to car travel. In other words, the above list of car travel benefits far exceed the benefits of safer bicycling.

As an aside, an important reason why the off-street bike path tactic is highly counterproductive, is that even if it were possible to find the trillions of public dollars necessary to install a comprehensive network of off-street bicycle paths, doing so would essentially abandon the road to it always being a “car sewer.”

A Third Way for Bicycle Promotion

The key to successfully creating a large number of new bicyclists, and reducing undesirable car dependence, is to establish a “third way:” End the extreme pampering of the car so that the list of reasons why it makes sense to bicycle outweigh the reasons why it makes sense to travel by car.

Tactics for Effectively Creating Large Numbers of New Bicyclists

A. Government Measures

  • Narrow roads in the community (popularly called “road dieting.”). In general, streets in a town should be no larger than three lanes in size.
  • Reduce the amount of off-street car parking (particularly FREE parking). Governments should end the highly counterproductive, costly practice of requiring new development to provide off-street parking. Much existing off-street parking should be shrunk in size and often replaced with buildings.
  • Design streets to obligate slower and more attentive driving. Tactics include provision of on-street parking, use of relatively narrow travel lanes, requiring buildings to be pulled up to abut streetside sidewalks, removal of traffic safety devices (such as traffic signals, flashing lights, stop signs, etc.), installing bulb-outs, reducing the height of street lights and traffic signals, installation of canopy street trees, shortening block lengths, and other traffic calming measures.
  • Electronically pricing roads and parking so that drivers pay their own way with user fees, instead of being heavily subsidized with free roads and free parking (free parking is the biggest subsidy, by far, in the US).
  • Substantially increase the state and federal gas tax. The gas tax has not been raised in 18 years (1993). By not increasing the gas tax, the US transfers an enormous amount of national wealth to oil-producing nations in other parts of the world. The relatively low gas tax is another in a long list of examples of motorist subsidies that promote excessive car travel. This loss of user fee revenue severely strains government finances, because in order to pay for the enormous costs of providing for car travel, governments must raise (non-gas) taxes such as property taxes or sales taxes or income taxes to pay for car travel. Alternatively, governments must cut other government services, which harms quality of life and makes our society less civilized.
  • Require relatively large employers to provide a “parking cash-out” program, and use such a program for all government offices. Parking cash-out, as Donald Shoup points out, is a program that offers the car commuter a choice: Either keep your free parking space at work, or give up the parking space in exchange for a higher salary, a bus pass, or other perks.
  • Require that the cost of parking be “unbundled” from the cost of a home or business. Currently, nearly all homeowners and consumers of goods and services pay a hidden parking cost – housing, goods, and services are more expensive because it is expensive to be required to buy extra land to provide for (and maintain) car parking. If this car parking cost was unbundled, housing, goods, and services would be less expensive, and people would be less compelled to drive a car excessively.
  • Requiring relatively high levels of street connectivity. When streets are connected, bicyclists that are less comfortable on main roads are able to find lower-speed, lightly-trafficked side streets for bicycling. Existing dead ends and cul-de-sacs can sometimes restore bicycle connectivity with connector paths linking the cul-de-sac with a nearby street.
  • Converting one-way streets into two-way streets. One-way streets strongly discourage bicycling because such street design promotes excessive car speeds, motorist impatience, and inattentive driving, not to mention the loss of residential and retail development along such streets. Increasingly, towns in the US are converting one-way streets back to two-way operation, and seeing extremely rapid improvements. See my blog for my thoughts about one-way streets.
  • Reducing trip distances. Governments are able to do this by finding ways to increase residential densities in appropriate locations, allowing “mixed-use” development (where homes are combined with offices and retail, for example), and keeping “community-serving social condensers” such as farmers markets and important government offices in the town center (rather than allowing them to relocate to remote suburbs).

B. Citizen Measures

  • Civil disobedience. There are a number of measures which are being used increasingly in the US to protest excessive, detrimental car dependence in the US. These measures include various forms of civil disobedience, “guerilla” tactics, or direct action. Examples include “critical mass” bicycle rides (where large numbers of bicyclists will gather and ride in large groups on streets in such a way as to inconvenience motorists), temporarily converting car parking into parks, etc.
  • Elections. Citizens can campaign for candidates who support the measures described above.
  • Normalizing bicycling. Bicycling in the US is substantially marginalized because bicyclists dress in ways that visibly set them apart from “normal” people. Most wear a bicycle helmet, which tend to be unfashionable, messes up hair, and sends a message that bicycling is dangerous. Many bicyclists also wear brightly-colored lycra bicycle clothes, which gives a very unusual, “elite athlete” appearance. It is important that bicycling be seen as more “normal” if bicycling is to become more common in the fashion- and status-conscious US. Bicycling advocates, then, can better promote bicycling by dressing in everyday leisure or work clothing while bicycling, and using a bicycle helmet less often (particularly when bicycling in relatively safe, low-speed environments such as town centers). See my blog for my thoughts about bicycle helmets.

Providing New Bicycle Facilities

I would be remiss if I did not mention the need to provide well-designed bicycle facilities and parking. While neither would recruit large numbers of new bicyclists, both are important for at least two reasons. First, it is important that bicyclists be given safe, convenient places to bicycle and park. Second, providing such facilities sends the important message that the community respects and promotes bicycle travel.

The Bicycling Transect

There is an emerging concept in urban design known as a “transect.” The concept essentially posits that there is a place for everything and everything has its place. Dennis McClendon states that it is “a way of classifying different kinds of neighborhoods along a continuum, from rural to suburban to city neighborhood to downtown; things that belong in once zone would be out of place in another.”

In the Smart Code introduction, version 6.5, Andres Duany says that “one of the key concepts of transect planning is the idea of creating what are called immersive environments. Successful immersive environments are based, in part, on the selection and arrangement of all the components that together comprise a particular type of environment. Each environment, or transect zone, is comprised of elements that keep it true to its locational character…planners are able to specify different urban intensities that look and feel appropriate to their locations…a farmhouse would not contribute to the immersive quality of an urban core, whereas a high-rise apartment building would. Wide streets and open swales find a place on the transect in more rural areas while narrow streets and curbs are appropriate for urban areas. Based on local vernacular traditions, most elements of the human habitat can be similarly appropriated in such a way that they contribute to, rather than detract from, the immersive character of a given environment.”

Applying the Transect to Bicycle Facility Planning

Appropriate bicycle travel routes vary based on their location in a community in the following generalized ways:

Walkable Town Center

In this location, the pedestrian is the design imperative, which means that quality design emphasizes a low-speed street design. This means that there are generally no more than two travel lanes (and possibly a turn lane or pocket). Curb radii are modest, and combined with intersection and mid-block bulb-outs, minimize crossing distances for pedestrians.

Further enhancing the safety, comfort and convenience of the pedestrian is on-street motor vehicle parking, sidewalks, and buildings abutting the back of sidewalks.

There is a dense, connected grid of streets with short block lengths.

When designed properly, the modest motor vehicle speeds mean that most all bicyclists are able to safely and comfortably “share the lane” with motor vehicles (that is, ride within the motor vehicle travel lane). Those bicyclists who are not comfortable sharing the lane with vehicles are able to ride on nearby parallel streets.

In walkable urban locations, in-street bicycle lanes should generally be considered a “transect violation,” since their installation usually means that average motor vehicle speeds are increased (due to the perceived increase in street width for the motorist). Bicycle lanes also tend to increase the crossing distance for pedestrians, and are often incompatible with on-street parked cars unless an excessively wide bicycle lane is created.

Note that I do acknowledge that when a walkable, compact urban location contains major (arterial) streets that such streets generally require the installation of in-street bicycle lanes. However, when such major streets require bike lanes, it is a strong indication that the street itself is a transect violation. Ideally, such streets should be re-designed to be compatible (or “immersive”) in the walkable location through such techniques as removing travel lanes, adding on-street parking or other mechanisms that dramatically slow down motorists and obligate more attentiveness in their driving.

Also incompatible in this location are bicycle paths separate from the street. Such paths are not only unaffordable to install in this location, but significantly increase bicyclist danger.

Suburban

In this location, in-street bicycle lanes tend to be most appropriate on major (“arterial”) streets, due to the increased average car speeds. Bicycle lanes should be 4-5 feet wide.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to be used somewhat less on suburban roads than on walkable urban streets. Building setbacks are larger, as are turning radii.

In general, bicycle lanes are not necessary on intermediate (“collector”) streets, due to low traffic volumes.

Like walkable urban locations, bicycle paths separate from the street are generally incompatible in this location. Such paths significantly increase bicyclist danger, largely due to the number of cross streets, the reduced visibility of the bicyclist, and the false sense of security created for the bicyclist.

Rural

In this location, bicycle paths separate from the road tend to be most appropriate, due to the relatively high speed of motor vehicles here, and the relative lack of crossing roads.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to not be used on rural roads. Building setbacks are largest in this portion of the transect, as are turning radii.

In-street bicycle lanes are sometimes appropriate here, but are not as appropriate as in suburban locations.

Transect Summary

In sum, bicycle travel routes are increasingly separated from motor vehicles as one moves along the transect from walkable urban to suburban to rural.

Bicycle Parking

My master’s thesis in graduate school emphasized providing properly-designed bicycle parking. It has become quite common for bicycle parking to be provided improperly. So many strange, unusual, non-functional forms of bicycle parking are provided that I have concluded that the main criterion for selection of bicycle parking is aesthetics and low cost. Like car parking, there is only one form (or with very minor variations) of acceptable bicycle parking design: the “inverted-U” (also known as the “Hitch-To”). This relatively low-cost, durable bicycle parking design is vastly superior to most all other forms of bicycle parking that have proliferated in the US. Communities should require this design in the same manner as they require only one form of car parking. Doing otherwise trivializes bicycling.

Summary

It is quite possible for the US to end its humiliating, unsustainable lead in the world for lowest level of bicycling. Americans are NOT genetically predisposed to drive a car rather than bicycle. The effective tools are not a mystery. Using them is simply a matter of leadership on the part of citizens and elected officials. Yes, it will be difficult to “take away from the car” to increase bicycling. But if we are, as a nation, truly serious about reducing ruinous, unsustainably high levels of car dependence, and substantially growing the number of bicycle commuters, the steps I outline above are essential.

There are very few, if any, “win-win” tactics for car and bicycle travel. Instead, car travel and bicycle travel are more of a zero-sum game. Increasing the level of bicycle travel inevitably means taking away space from cars, inconveniencing cars, and making car travel more expensive.

It is important to point out here that for over 100 years, the US has engaged in the opposite: We have taken away space from bicycles, inconvenienced bicycles and made bicycling more expensive.

For the sake of improving our health, the health of our cities, and our future quality of life, we must begin the incremental, long-term practice of ratcheting down car pampering. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be.

_________________________________________________

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