Tag Archives: road widening

Response to an Editorial by the Editor of the Boulder CO Newspaper

By Dom Nozzi

July 2, 2017

On July 2, 2017, Dave Krieger, the editor of Boulder, Colorado’s major newspaper — the Boulder Daily Camera — published an opinion piece called “Traffic Engineering Rules Still Apply.” The piece contained several unfair misstatements.

Mr. Krieger refers to something he calls “basic traffic engineering.” One must assume by this comment that the reference is to the conventional methods traffic engineers have used for over a century: Widening roads and intersections to “reduce congestion” or “accommodate expected growth in area car trips.”

There is one small little problem with such “basic traffic engineering.”

It has utterly failed for a century.

The trillions spent on widenings not only failed to resolve congestion. By ignoring the well-documented, inevitable impacts of induced demand (caused by what Anthony Downs calls the “triple convergence”), the widenings over the past several decades have also worsened land use patterns, increased per capita car trips, decreased per capita bike/walk/transit trips, increased household transportation costs (they are now higher than all or nearly all other household costs), increased air emissions, and caused severe financial strain not only to households but to all levels of government.51df393d218c6-image

To call Boulder council members “ideologues” is inflammatory and ironic, since those calling for widenings have a much stronger ideological bent (the ideology of a car-based, high-speed, anti-city lifestyle). Similarly, to suggest that not widening is a form of “social engineering” is hypocrisy, given the fact that the most extreme form of social engineering engaged in by a society — by far — is the social engineering of compelling millions for over a century to be car dependent.

It is mis-informed to suggest that the “complete streets” road design tactics sometimes employed in Boulder and Boulder County are ineffective in modifying behavior, as a great many studies conclude that this form of “nudging” is extremely effective in guiding many motorists to drive in more socially desirable ways.

I choose the word “nudging” deliberately, as complete streets road design tactics retain the choice to travel by car. By contrast, pro-car design tactics such as widenings are much closer to forcing most of us to travel by car.

Which is, by definition, a strong form of social engineering.

Is it okay to engage in social engineering if doing so compels a lot more people to drive by car? (ie, the normalized way to travel)

It again is an inflammatory (yet common) falsehood to claim, as this opinion piece does, that not widening forces most or all motorists to abandon their car in order to walk, ride a bike, or use transit (which the author asserts is impractical for most). Such a claim is silly, unless one can make the case that a car trip that takes seconds or minutes longer will “force” people to abandon their cars.

It needs to be pointed out that many wrongly assume, as the author does, that a growing number of people inevitably requires there to be a growth in the number of travel lanes on local roads to accommodate such growth. If this were true, cities such as NYC and LA, which are home to several million people, would have needed to build roads that are hundreds of lanes in width to avoid gridlock.

Furthermore, the author forgets that transportation is a zero-sum game. That is, when conditions are modified to further increase the ease travel by a larger number of cars, traveling by walking, bicycling, or transit is made more difficult (what Todd Litman calls the “barrier effect”), The barrier effect recruits even MORE per capita car travel.

In addition, another overlooked, yet highly important impact – particularly for the residents of Boulder – is the highly negative downstream impacts of the larger volume of cars that road widening induces. By enabling and therefore inducing higher car volumes on Arapahoe, widening imposes more noise and air pollution on Boulder, puts more wear and tear on Boulder streets, consumes more parking (which obligates Boulder to build even MORE parking), makes Boulder streets more dangerous, and dramatically reduces overall quality of life in Boulder.

Finally, it is highly misleading to assert or imply, as the author does, that all trips on Arapahoe are long-distance, relatively important and time-sensitive commuter trips from small towns (ie, trips that can only be practically made by car). We know from many studies that a large number of trips on Arapahoe are relatively low-value (ie, trips to buy a cup of coffee). Such trips are induced at times that include rush hour by over-sized, non-tolled roads such as Arapahoe, and by the lack of compact, connected street, mixed use neighborhoods. These lower value trips are less affected by slower travel times due to the relative ease of shifting when such trips occur during the day.

In sum, the author criticizes Boulder for failing to follow “basic traffic engineering rules,” yet ironically, it is he who is unaware of a great many basic engineering rules, such as the triple convergence, the barrier effect, the travel time budget, the variable nature of trip value, downstream impacts, the zero-sum game, and the social engineering that compels car travel. Worst of all, the author ignores something that has been known for several decades and is so invariable that it can be considered not only a “basic rule” but an iron law: We cannot build our way out of congestion. Widening a road to reduce congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity. It wrongly assumes that car traffic behaves like water flowing through a pipe. In fact, for reasons I cite above, car traffic behaves like gas. That is, when the pipe is enlarged (widening) — car traffic — like a gas, inexorably expands to fill that larger pipe.

It is a great disservice to Boulder that we have an editor-in-chief of our local newspaper that is writing poorly-informed opinions that severely undermine many important community objectives, convince many citizens that Councilmembers and their adopted long-range plan are wrong-headed (to the point of being evil and undemocratic), and make it more likely that there will be increased political will to have the community adopt ruinous tactics that have almost universally failed for over a century.

Someone on Facebook responded to my comments by asking what to do about the 50,000 commuters that drive into Boulder each morning. We don’t have a clean slate, he told me. My response:

A fundamental principle is that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Stop treating Boulder like a doormat repeatedly (by continuing to widen, as Boulder has done over and over again historically), in other words.

There are several tactics that can be employed to positively address the large number of commuters. An obvious tactic is more housing — particularly more affordable housing. We can also start tolling major roads, provide more transit coupled with more park-n-ride, provide more compact and mixed use development, make major roads more like complete streets (rather than the car-only stroads they are), create more priced parking and parking cash-out (particularly at workplaces), reduce the quantity of free parking, convert minimum parking regulations into maximum parking requirements, and reduce the size of over-sized roads and intersections. NONE of those things PROHIBIT a person from continuing to in-commute by car to Boulder.

A person can continue to do that.

What each of these equity-enhancing tactics do is NUDGE travelers toward more socially, economically, and environmentally desirable travel. Some motorists will be inconvenienced in the short term, which many of us consider to be a very fair trade-off, since the inconvenience creates more equity, less air and noise emissions, lower taxes, less wear and tear, more safety, and less per capita car travel. In the long term, such tactics will improve the region, as they will induce more commuters to live closer to their destinations, enhance transit service, increase the amount of in-town housing, reduce higher speed car travel, improve conditions for smaller stores (rather than Big Box stores), and increase Boulder’s ability to shrink oversized parking lots, roads and intersections.

Note that most all of the motorists would be commuters, but it must be kept in mind that a large number of motorists on Arapahoe are NOT commuters (which means they will have more flexibility about where or when or how they travel).

Economists have calculated the approximate financial cost of travel by car, bike, walk, or transit. Those calculations show that each car trip imposes a financial COST on the community (a cost that most or all in the community must pay, regardless of whether they drive a car or not). Each bike/walk/transit trip results in a positive financial BENEFIT for the community (a benefit that most or all in the community enjoy, regardless of how they travel).

Knowing this, what should we do to be fair and to achieve community objectives? In other words, how do we make our community more financially sustainable?

Many of us believe that should one choose to travel by car, one should compensate for the cost imposed on the community. The most fair way to do this is to deploy user fees such as a gas tax, tolls, a VMT fee, etc. (rather than have everyone pay, through sales taxes, property taxes, higher grocery bills, or lower quality of life, regardless of whether they travel by car or not).

Again, user fees are nudges. They do not force people to stop driving a car. Therefore, they rightly acknowledge that many trips must be made by car. User fees simply make transportation more equitable, and nudges those with a choice to consider traveling in more socially desirable ways.

Note, too, that traffic congestion is a form of nudge. As Todd Litman would say, congestion imposes a “time tax” on the rush hour motorist, which nudges those with a choice to consider driving at non-rush hour times or live closer to their destination, or choose a different route. A time tax is obviously easier to achieve than a more effective and efficient tolling of the road, of course.

Temporarily reducing congestion by widening short-circuits that relatively affordable and achievable form of nudging.

Many cities in the past put all of their “eggs” (their trillions of public dollars) into the conventional “basic engineering” tactics that the author promotes. They did so while being in precisely the same situation that Boulder is in: What to do about congestion? What about all the in-commuters? They all greatly worsened their transportation situation and their quality of life. Examples of those cities include Phoenix, LA, Houston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.

I don’t want the Boulder region to go down the path of any of those unfortunate cities by opting for “basic engineering” tactics that the author urges, because those “common sense” tactics greatly worsened the situation.

We can do better. Let’s not keep making the same ruinous, bankrupting mistakes.

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

By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Should Arizona build a new Freeway to Ease Congestion?

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 17, 2017

Regarding the proposed $2 billion to TEMPORARILY save seconds or minutes by building the “Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway” in southern Phoenix AZ…

Will that $2 billion expenditure of public tax dollars be worth it.

After about 2-5 years, the congestion will be worse (not the best way to spend $2 billion public dollars). Not MIGHT BE worse. It WILL be worse. Adding capacity/widening Carmageddon highway(which often destroys low-income areas or areas lived in by those without political power) is pretty much the worst thing that can be done.

By contrast, one of the more effective tools is a road/highway toll.

In general, since it tends not to be politically feasible to apply a toll, the best options are to realize that congestion is inevitable (a sign of a healthy place people want to be in), and to create ways to avoid the congestion: close-in housing/jobs/shopping, connected streets, grade-separated transit, etc.

The new highway is the same old tactic America has tried to solve congestion for the past century. Every one of those unimaginably expensive efforts has failed. Every one.

Oops.

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Transportation Drives Land Use Despite What Transportation Planners Tell Us

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 5, 2000

Nearly all transportation planners say they are widening the roads just to follow the land-use decisions that already have been made by the community.

Nonsense.

While almost all transportation planners make this claim, it is an old, discredited, conventional wisdom that is so conventional that even most non-transportation people believe it. Of course, it is quite handy for the transportation people because they can escape guilt when the strip commercial and sprawl happen. “Not my fault. It was those planners and elected officials who changed the land use.”

Seems sensible until you look closer and find out how the market brings unbelievable and relentless pressure to change the designations when we widen the roads and the intersections, and expand the parking.

If we are incredibly courageous and true to our principles, we might be able to delay the re-zoning caused by those enlargements for a few years. But that just means that because the road carries so much high speed, high volume traffic, it is no longer feasible to keep in street without on street parkingresidential because the quality of life is so miserable (as a result, the residential building eventually is abandoned, or is downgraded from owner-occupied to rental), or it is no longer rational to keep it as a farm because you can make millions by selling it for a shopping center.

Also, all the conditions that people dislike about the city — whether real or perceived — such as noise, crime, etc., can be more easily fled if the newly widened roads allow you to get to work each day in a reasonable period of time, even if you live in an outlying area. The ultimate result is that as we add capacity to streets, we set in motion a pattern of sprawl and strip, we wipe out farms, and we accelerate the decline of in-town areas.

And I’m convinced that the driving force is our roads, NOT our inability to hold the line on our land use and zoning maps.

Hard to believe, but before WWII, planners were god-like. Here is an apropos comment I found on the new urbanist listserve a few days ago:

“…[A] colleague suggested in passing that planners and architects abandoned urban design as such in the late 1940s and retreated to their respected spheres of influence – policy and buildings, respectively, leaving the ground to the public works engineers.  Note, the Amer. Soc. of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a division devoted to “urban design” (urban highways, streets, water and sewer and drainage systems).  The American Institute of Architects does not.”

So yes, let’s return to the golden age of cities and planning before we ruin ourselves in our insane efforts to make cars happy…

 

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Conditions Motivate Lifestyle Values in Community Design

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 5, 2002

Which comes first? Transportation choice and compact, walkable urbanism, or traffic congestion?

I continue to insist that we will NEVER find the political motivation to require the private sector to provide transportation choices, or the motivation to obtain public dollars to create such choices, UNLESS we create the material conditions that force LARGE numbers of citizens to DEMAND that such choices be created.

Congestion in America MUST precede the creation of transportation choices, as we have seen in so many of our bigger cities. We will never be able to create transportation choices in advance of congestion, because without congestion or the pricing of parking (or roads), it is absolutely rational for everyone to drive a car, even if there are quality alternatives available.

It happened at the University of Florida in Gainesville with parking shortages and priced parking. We would have NEVER seen such a big increase in student bus use if we tried to demand transit improvements from private developers, or fought to have public dollars be used for more transit (in other words, if we fought to have good transit in place before on-campus congestion occurred).

Since it is unrealistic for local government to create toll roads or establish priced parking or create parking supply shortages, we only have one option to create that political will: Not letting roads crowded with motor vehicles compel us to add road capacity or otherwise widen roads.

It is the price we MUST pay to pay for the road-widening, car-subsidizing sins of our predecessors. I do not have a worry that not widening a crowded road will, later on, create the political pressure to widen. I am confident that we will soon be unable to afford widenings. Even if the state and federal dollars could somehow be found (increasingly unlikely), it would still require a LONG time to do the construction, and the longer it takes, the more likely we’ll have a change in politics.

I’m quite willing to take the risk that being passive about congestion will deliver us transit and compact urbanism, not widenings. Even the road-happy California DOT now says widenings are over as a congestion-fighting tool.

Frankly, I don’t believe we should stop walkable projects in our urban area if it will further congest an already congested road. Or if transit is not available to serve the infill. We must keep in mind that congestion is a fundamental, helpful part of a healthy, walkable city rich in transportation choice. Fighting a walkable, mixed-use project for fear of congestion is therefore anti-city and pro-sprawl.

The WORST thing we can do about a proposed mega-project is to demand bigger roads and30th-and-arapahoe-double-lefts bigger intersections to deal with expected increases in car trips. Congestion is our friend, and if we fight against it by using the “bigger road capacity” tool, we are digging our own grave and ensuring a south Florida future. Bigger roads at larger proposed projects simply means more auto dependence and more sprawl. Why spend a bunch of public dollars for THAT?

It makes perfect sense that the sprawl and auto lobbies fight planned congestion. I don’t understand why conservationists sometimes seem to join them in that fight.

Our leverage in getting transportation choices should come from congestion, NOT from the threat of withholding approval of a project — particularly a walkable project.

 

 

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Can Local Government Control Which Businesses Locate on a Street?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2002

A very common misconception about city government is that it can have a lot of control over what sorts of retail occur in various locations. In nearly all cases (in a capitalist economy such as ours), it is the private sector (business owners and property owners) who decide what sorts of businesses go in. City government plays the reactive role of having regulations in place to control how those businesses are built and operate, but really doesn’t have any say as to what businesses locate along a street. Yes, it would be wonderful if we had more interesting shops, cafes, etc. along certain streets. But government has no real ability to pick and choose what sorts of shops emerge on a street.

That being said, let me hasten to add that government DOES have a VERY powerful tool  — albeit an indirect one — with regard to what occurs along a street. As I say over and over again in my speeches and books, transportation drives land use. When countless cities widened their main street in their town center, they locked those streets into having a great many low-value, auto-oriented places and a lot of vacancies.

Why?

vacant-lots-chris-wass-derek-welteBecause big, high-speed roads are hostile for pedestrians and shoppers. Add to that the fact that it is relatively inconvenient to drive and park along town center streets compared to, say, a shopping center parking lot. What happens is completely predictable: EVERYONE shops at the shopping center and no one shops in the town center. Instead, downtown gets vacancies, low property values, pawn shops, gas stations, deadening offices, fringe activities, tattoo parlors, etc.

There is a way to turn this around, nearly overnight: If the town center builds on its strengths, it can successfully compete with the shopping center. Its strengths are a walkable, romantic ambience, sociability, and human scale. The shopping center cannot compete with such attributes, and there is a surprisingly large segment of our communities that is quite willing to patronize such walkable places — even if they are more expensive and less convenient.

The historical push by so many American cities to widen main street, and to build a bunch of town center parking lots, killed town centers because town centers were trying to compete on the auto-oriented terms of the shopping center. The shopping center will ALWAYS win such competitions with the town center on those terms – the terms that are the strength of the shopping center.

No, town center must build on its unique strengths. That is why I am completely convinced that when/if a community engages in a main street road diet (by removing ill-advised travel lanes), government will INDIRECTLY be bringing in those shops and places meatmarketwe desire. A walkable, human-scaled town center main street will inevitably deliver small, interesting, vibrant, sociable shops, cafes, etc. Businesspeople and property owners will suddenly see a healthy market that will encourage them to build such things on their property. As it is on the widened main streets, the high-speed car sewers chase such shops and experiences away. Car sewers create a very poor market for the kinds of businesses we desire.

Cities need to leverage their strength and the strength of their town center by returning their main streets to their former walkable glory.

 

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Putting a Cap on Road Size

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 13, 2003

When it comes to issues pertaining to evacuation plans, communities need to be on guard against people who want to widen roads to promote sprawl and free-flowing, high-speed car travel. Commonly, the Happy Car lobby will use “emergency evacuation” as a scare tactic. By mentioning evacuation, the road widening lobby can achieve the “moral high ground.” Who, after all, could be opposed to evacuating the population if there is an emergency?

The hidden agenda, of course, is to widen the road to promote sprawl, real estate, and happy cars.

The community needs to use whatever tools it has available (state laws, local plans, etc.) to establish a MAXIMUM SIZE for its roads. In the case of Gainesville, Florida, where I was a town planner, the City adopted my suggested maximum that the City shall never build a road bigger than 4 lanes. Because, as I point out in many of my transportation speeches, big roads are very harmful to the quality of life (and sustainability) of a community.

The community could decide (if it is using a growth management tool) that, say, 4 lane roads are the maximum size roads allowed. The maximum is a tool chosen by the community to protect its quality of life. That becomes the “level of service standard” that the community adopts in its growth management plan.

The 4-lane maximum road then becomes, indirectly, a limiting factor for population growth in the community. The community could turn the destructive evacuation strategy I mention above on its head. The community could, for example, use a growth management laws as leverage to say to a proposed new residential developer: “I’m sorry, but our adopted plan does not allow you to build here. If you build here, there will be “X” number of new car trips that will need to be evacuated in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately for you, our evacuation plan states that we must be able to evacuate our community in “Y” minutes. If the new car trips from your proposed project were added to our 4-lane roads, we would not be able to evacuate fast enough. Since our plan clearly states that we will not exceed 4 lanes on our roads, we cannot approve your project.”

 

 

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