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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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The Gigantism Disease

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 17, 2008

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

American cities, like most others in the world, are dying. Despite an emerging downtown renaissance being led by a notable growth in downtown residential development, changing demographics, and escalating gasoline prices.

Cities are dying due to an affliction I call “Gigantism.”

Like overeating, inactivity and obesity, gigantism is not being imposed on us by an evil outside force. It is largely self-inflicted.

We have become our own worst enemy because we have spent over 80 years building a world in which it is nearly impossible to navigate without a car. The Barrier Effect, as described by Todd Litman, when applied to transportation planning, refers to the “barriers” that over-design for car travel creates for other forms of travel. To put it simply, designing an “incomplete” street (a street that is designed exclusively or predominately for cars) makes travel by walking, bicycling and transit extremely difficult, if not impossible. In effect, an incomplete street creates a self-perpetuating vicious cycle because the travel barriers created by incomplete streets tend to continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly non-motorists—non-motorists who now find that on the incomplete street, travel by walking, bicycling or transit is unacceptably unsafe, inconvenient or otherwise unattractive.

Over time, the incomplete street increases the proportion of community members who are now traveling by car. Tragically, this on-going recruitment of new motorists compels many communities to spend large sums of public dollars to widen and speed up roads to (unsuccessfully) strive to accommodate the growing number of motorists. And these newly widened, higher speed roads create an even larger barrier effect. Which recruits even more motorists (“induced demand”), which then builds pressure for even wider roads, resulting in roads that drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users find unpleasant and unsatisfactory, fueling the demand for further “improvement,” usually widening.

We are therefore compelled to insist, at every opportunity, that new development promote car travel. Yet cars and people have vastly different needs. Due to their large size, motor vehicles require vastly over-sized parking lots, large building setbacks and wide, multi-lane roads reasonably free of other motor vehicles (despite the conventional wisdom, most cities actually have too much open space — but this open space is for cars, not people). To achieve that, widely dispersed, low-density, single-use patterns of development are necessary. Street lighting must be tall and bright, and retail signage must be enormous to promote visibility and readability in high-speed motor vehicles.

Because motor vehicles enable us to travel greater distances more conveniently, growing regional “consumer-sheds” are created, which has enabled the rise of gigantic “big box” retail development which takes advantage of such retail regionalism.

We are left with an overwhelming and disheartening amount of auto-centric architecture. Architecture that no one can be proud of.

This brutalization of our everyday world, amplified by the over-sizing of roads and parking lots, leaves a public realm that Americans have understandably fled. Instead, we are compelled to increasingly turn inward into the private realm of our accessorized, huge turn radius for roadluxurious homes and cars. Without a public realm worth caring about and participating in, we seek alternative outlets for a meaningful life. And this is exemplified by the substantial growth in the average size of the now gigantic American house, which has enlarged from 1,385 square feet to 2,140 square feet (a 54-percent increase) from 1970 to 2000.

Our over-sized world stands in stark contrast to what many people tend to prefer, which is smaller building setbacks, human-scaled and low-speed streets, modest lighting, signage and parking. People feel exposed and uncomfortable in gargantuan spaces—spaces over-designed for motor vehicles.

On average, a person in a car consumes 17 times more space than a person in a chair, which means that cars devour an enormous amount of space. The average car is 14 feet long by 6.2 feet wide = 55 square feet. The average person in a chair is 2.25 feet by 2.25 feet = 5 square feet.  Thus, a car consumes 17 times more space than a person sitting in a chair (even more if person is standing). By multiplying the number of cars in Florida in 2005 by 17 square feet, we can estimate that cars consume 1,581,100 square feet or 35,677 acres or about 27,444 football fields.

Planner Victor Gruen, in 1973, estimated that every American car is provided with four parking spaces.

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup estimates about 1 billion parking spaces for cars in the U.S.  If this were all surface parking, parking lots would consume approximately 12,375 square miles (roughly the size of Maryland). As a rule of thumb, a parking lot typically requires an additional 10 to 20 percent of its land area as stormwater basin area, although this can vary rather significantly based on such factors as soil type. Therefore, we can assume that a 300 square-foot parking space (the amount of space a typical car needs for parking, as well as maneuver space in the parking lot) would require 300 x 0.15 = 45 square feet of stormwater basin. In other words, if we include both space taken up by the typical parked car, maneuver space, and stormwater basin space, each car requires 345 square feet of land area just for parking.

The above means that to promote ease of motor vehicle travel, there is no alternative but to build sprawling, dispersed, low-density cities.

Of course, the growing size of American vehicles—particularly the SUV phenomenon—has fueled a need to build bloated roads and parking areas to accommodate these over-sized vehicles. Making matters much worse, however, is the decades-long trend of the growing size of trucks—particularly fire trucks.

Unfortunately, some fire chiefs are choosing to purchase larger and often less maneuverable fire apparatus. An unintended consequence is that such choices will dictate future community decisions about street dimensions. Larger truck decisions can prevent a community from designing safer, more human-scaled streets.  Fortunately, wise fire chiefs who are aware of a need for a more charming, safe, human-scaled community are able to make fire apparatus choices that are in line with such objectives (buy purchasing smaller fire vehicles, for example, or at least buying “articulated” vehicles that allow maneuvering in tight streets). If some parts of a community must have larger, less maneuverable fire apparatus for safety reasons, it would be wise to consider having both larger and smaller vehicles. One size, after all, does not fit all when one considers both the larger dimensions found in suburbia and the more modest dimensions found in urban settings.

For engineers, therefore, the design vehicle obligates the design of colossal lane widths and turning radii, which moves cities further from a livable human scale.

Where has the charm gone?

When we look for charming locations in our communities, we find that this charm is invariably found in our historic districts—places built, in general, over 100 years ago. We Catania Italy walkablelove to visit places like Paris and Geneva, with their ancient, intimate architecture, their layout of streets and neighborhoods, and their romantic ambience. And newer places are most valued when they mimic that style. We find that the more contemporary development—the more contemporary streets and roads—are invariably not charming. We have apparently lost the ability to build lovable places.

Why?

Is it because of the need to promote public safety? Is cost an issue?

Hardly.

It is because charm is impossible when we must design for the colossal spaces required to accommodate the car. Buildings must be set back enormous distances from the street to accommodate vast fields of parking (even the turning movements of the motor vehicle require that a building be pulled back from the street intersection to create the “vision triangle” and turning radius necessitated by a large, high-speed vehicle).

One unintended consequence of this dispersal and pulling back of buildings is that buildings lose the ability to “hold” an intersection. Or frame an “outdoor room” ambience on a street. Place-making is not possible when these human-scaled spaces are lost. There is no “there there” anymore.

Nothing to induce civic pride.

The gigantism disease is also aggravated by our decades-long road design efforts to maximize vehicle speeds, and to implement the related “forgiving streets” design paradigm. High-speed road geometries create enormous dimensions for intersection turning radii, lane width, shoulder recover zones, and size of roadside signage.

Forgiving street design delivers tree-less streets, over-sized vision triangles, and a removal of on-street parking, among other things. The motorist is “forgiven” for not paying attention while driving. Forgiven for driving at excessive speeds. Forgiven for careening off the road.

An unintended consequence of such design is that a large and ever-growing number of motorists are found to be driving too fast, too inattentively and too recklessly. Ironically, the intended safety improvements from the forgiving street actually result in less road safety.

High-speed design and forgiving streets, then, result in a loss of human-scaled streets, and the promotion of speeding, inattentive, road-raged motorists completely incompatible with quality urban areas.

Buildings must also be dispersed from each other to accommodate car travel, as the placement and agglomeration of buildings in a walkable, human-scaled pattern quickly creates intolerable vehicle congestion that gridlocks an area.

Induced demand, where a road widening breeds new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened, locks us into a never-ending cycle of congestion, widening, more congestion, and more widening. Endlessly.

Or until we run out of public dollars.

This vicious cycle brings us 4-lane roads. Then 5. Then 6. Then 8. Ultimately, we are left with dangerous, high-speed, overly wide, increasingly unaffordable roads that we dread and are repelled from. Roads that, again, are car-scaled and not human-scaled. Ironically, the roads we hate most are those we’ve spent the most of our tax dollars to build. What does that say about what we are doing to ourselves?

Agglomeration Economies

Cities, to be healthy, must leverage “agglomeration economies.” That is, thriving, vigorous cities are characterized by densification, concentration, compactness and clustering of people, buildings, and activities. As Steve Belmont points out in Cities in Full (2002), an intensification of property is a sign of city fitness and dynamism. As city property is converted to a less intense activity such as parking, widened roads or over-sized building setbacks, the energy of the city is dissipated, and is a sign of a city in decline. Therefore, the gigantism borne from the gap-tooth dead zones created when property is cleared for vehicular parking or roads is toxic to a city.

The vehicle “habitat” in cities (parking and highways) drains the lifeblood from the metropolis.

It is not only the directly deadening effect of replacing buildings and activities with roads and parking that kills a city. Highways and parking also indirectly eviscerate a city by powerfully fueling the residential and commercial dispersal of communities through sprawl.

Finding Our Way Back to the Future

It is said that both the dinosaurs and the Roman Empire collapsed due to gigantism. For our society to avoid that fate—to restore safety and quality of life to our cities in the future—will require us to return to the timeless tradition we have abandoned for several decades. For cities to become sustainable, safe, enjoyable places to live, we must return to the tradition of designing for people first, not cars. In cities, that means that we return to low-speed street geometries and compact building placements.

We already have models. The historic districts of our cities. The charming, lovable places that tourists flock to the world over. As James Howard Kunstler noted in 1996, “[From]  1950 to 1990…we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings, particularly civic buildings. Look at any richly embellished 1904 firehouse or post office and look at its dreary concrete box counterpart today.” “The everyday environments of our time, the places where we live and work, are composed of dead patterns…They violate human scale. They are devoid of charm. Our streets used to be charming and beautiful…[in] Saratoga Springs, New York, there once existed a magnificent building called the Grand Union Hotel…”

One element of this return is that the “forgiving street” design paradigm be replaced by the “attentive street” paradigm in cities. That is, streets must be designed not to “forgive” reckless driving, but to instead obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively, which, as European demonstration projects have found, improves traffic safety. Doing so will also restore human scale.

Ideally, given the enormous space consumed by motor vehicles and the much smaller spaces that most people (as pedestrians) prefer, the motor vehicle must feel squeezed and inconvenienced when it finds itself within the city.

Only then will quality of life for people, not cars, flourish.

References

Belmont, Steve. (2002). Cities In Full. APA Planners Press.

Downs, A. (1992). Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak Hour Traffic Congestion.  Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Kunstler, J. (1996). Home from Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 88, 90.

Litman, Todd. (2002). “Evaluating Nonmotorized Transport.” TDM Encyclopedia. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm63.htm

McNichol, Tom (2004). “Roads Gone Wild.” Wired Magazine. December.

 

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Traffic Congestion, Suburban Sprawl, Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

December 7, 2007

Cars are the enemy of cities.

Cars and people have clashing values. Cars seek high-speed, gigantic roads and parking lots to be happy. People, on the other hand, are repelled by such designs. As the world expands for cars, the world shrinks for people. Consequently, we must understand that in a community designed for people, the motorist should feel like an intruder. Driving a car should be an inconvenience. As Enrique Penalosa has said, a community can design for cars, or it can design for people. But it cannot do both at the same time.

Cars, as I noted in my December 5 presentation, consume an enormous amount of space (approximately 17 times more space is used by a person driving a car than a person sitting in a chair). Indeed, I believe it is essential to understand that our 40 people without blk textproblem is not too many people. It is too many people in cars.

Because cars consume so much space, traffic congestion occurs very quickly. Only a small handful of cars are necessary to crowd a road given how much space cars take up. Because so few cars can congest a road, it is nearly impossible for a healthy, attractive city to escape congestion. In fact, one can accurately argue that the lack of congestion is the sign of a declining, unhealthy community. Urging a reduction in congestion conjures up Yogi Berra, who once observed that “the place became so crowded that no one went there anymore.”

For this reason, I am convinced that it is a tactical mistake for community improvement advocates to strive to reduce traffic congestion. Because congestion is nearly impossible to avoid, strategies such as “better transit” or “improved bicycle and pedestrian” facilities or “enhanced carpooling” will inevitably fail to reduce congestion in any meaningful way. This plays directly into the hands of the sprawl/Big Roads lobby, as this faction can point to efforts to improve transit or bicycling and claim that such efforts were wasteful, as they failed to reduce congestion.

The lobby can then claim that we should use “real” solutions, instead of soft-headed, unrealistic strategies, to reduce congestion. And their default strategy: widen roads.

One sign of a healthy community is traffic congestion. It is a sign that people want to congregate in the town due to its attractiveness. Any community worth its salt, then, has a “traffic problem.”

In sum, it is in the interest of local residents and their neighborhoods to welcome congestion as an ally. It is only out-of-towners (and those who live in auto-dependent peripheral locations) who want to drive through the town at high speeds. It is only they who benefit from wide roads, and high-speed, free-flowing traffic.

Wide, high-speed highways and large parking lots are a community dispersant. Car-happy design spreads out a community and guarantees suburban sprawl. Quality transit, bicycling and pedestrian facilities, on the other hand, aggregate, concentrate and condense community elements in a compact, sustainable way. Healthy, affordable, economically vibrant communities depend on these “agglomeration economies.”

A strong community, therefore, does not seek to “reduce congestion.” “Reducing congestion,” too often, is sought after by widening roads, which is a damaging, bankrupting, counterproductive strategy for a community. The community-building, prosperous method, instead, is to ensure that the community provides alternatives to the congestion. In other words, people who are unwilling to tolerate the congestion are instead able to live closer to work, use transit, bicycle, walk, travel different routes, or live in more compact settings proximate to retail, offices, schools, civic institutions and jobs.

Richard Florida, in his ground-breaking book entitled The Rise of the Creative Class makes the essential point that economic development strategies have reversed in recent decades. Formerly, businesses were attracted to a community by promising them tax breaks, subsidies and lax development regulations. This sort of “doormat” method of wooing new business results, of course, in a worsened quality of life for existing residents.

However, in recent times, a new paradigm has emerged. Today, Florida describes what he calls the “creative class,” which consists of quality, well-educated knowledge- and idea workers. Businesses have come to covet such employees, due to the substantial business improvements such employees can deliver. The result is that economic development specialists are now focused on attracting and retaining quality employees, rather than businesses. The essential task is to create and protect a community that boasts the high quality of life that such employees demand. When quality of life is high, quality creative class employees are likely to want to remain in the community, or migrate into the community from elsewhere. Businesses now increasingly understand that the key for attracting and retaining quality employees is to ensure a quality of life in the community where the business is located.

Quality of life, rather than low taxes or lax regulations, is therefore attracting and retaining high-quality businesses which seek high-quality employees. Happily, this is a win-win recipe, as economic development founded on quality of life in the community benefits both economic development and the lives of existing residents of the community.

Quality of life is a powerful economic engine, in other words.

Thus, in today’s economic environment, a community must effectively create and protect its quality of life if it is to realize a healthy future. How does a community build political support for quality of life strategies?

By promoting widespread community pride on the part of local residents.

Pride that is sufficient to ensure that large numbers of local citizens will always be eager to defend the qualities of the community, and fight to improve qualities when they have been degraded.

There are two prongs that improve and protect a community quality of life:

(1) Effective, careful, well-researched promotion of environmental conservation. Protecting valuable, healthy ecosystems in the region is essential for quality of life, reduced costs, and a sustainable future. Public visibility of the success of a community struggling to protect its natural features is important, and is attained by assembling and publishing “trend indicators” that clearly show whether ecological health is being maintained. Over the past 10 years, has carbon dioxide emissions gone down? Has the population of songbirds gone up?

(2) Deployment of a transect-based, form-based land development code that ensures a comprehensive range of lifestyle and transportation choices are provided in a quality manner. Walkable, compact, high-quality urbanism, attractive suburban, and sustainable rural farming and preservation are ensured by context-sensitive development regulations. As Victor Dover suggests, “know where you are in your community, and design for that location.” In other words, designing a community in which we return to the timeless way in which communities were created before the destructive emergence of the car.

Another way of putting it is to say that the problem is not growth, per se. The problem is how the growth occurs.

It is with the establishment and maintenance of these two prongs that a community can ensure quality of life, which is the wellspring of sustainable, healthy economic development and citizen satisfaction.

 

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