Tag Archives: sprawl

Fighting Against What Is Wanted

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 26, 2017

Many in Boulder CO hold contradictory views.

On the one hand, one hears a lot of folks saying they hate sprawl and cars (at least those driven by others) and the high cost of housing in Boulder.NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341

On the other hand, many of these same people hate the things that would most cost-effectively reduce those problems: compact development, accessory dwellings, increasing the number of adults who can live in a home, buildings over one or two stories, smaller setbacks, less private open space, traffic calming, restricted/priced/managed parking, and shrinking oversized roads.

Oops.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

The Deadly Stew of Transportation

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 18, 2017

American society mixes together a deadly stew in transportation: We combine forgiving road design (which forgives motorists for not paying attention) with very busy lives (which inevitably induces an epidemic of motorist speeding), sleep deprivation (which inevitably leads to falling asleep at the wheel), and a car-dependent community design (which obligates most of us to drive for all our trips — and putting all those huge, heavy, high-speed metal boxes on our roads inevitably creates frustration because all the boxes of our fellow citizens are always congesting roads).

Instead of continuing our century-long, single-minded effort to maximize the speed of cars (and therefore condition motorists to expect high-speed driving), we need to more universally design our street system to obligate slower and more attentive driving forgiving(thereby conditioning motorists to expect slower speed driving — at least in cities).

Forgiving street design is not the ONLY cause of distracted, high-speed, angry driving, but I believe it counterproductively amplifies existing societal problems, such as the desire to live in dispersed, car-dependent living arrangements. Forgiving street design makes dangerous driving more frequent.

We have ramped up education and enforcement efforts every few years since the 1920s to fight dangerous driving, yet we probably have more distracted, speeding, angry driving than ever before. Even if those levels are not the highest ever, they are certainly unacceptably high today.

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Filed under Transportation

Is Boulder, Colorado in Danger of Becoming Too Dense?

By Dom Nozzi

March 9, 2017

I hear it all the time as a resident of Boulder, Colorado: “Boulder is too dense!”

I beg to differ.

I support Boulder’s long-standing objectives, such as reducing the city carbon footprint (to ease global warming), reducing noise pollution, improving affordability, increasing the number of trips made by foot or bike or transit, slowing tax increases, ensuring the City has the fiscal capacity to engage in needed/ongoing maintenance of our infrastructure, protecting environmentally sensitive outlying areas from suburban development, reducing traffic injuries and deaths (in part by designing streets to be slower speed and obligate motorists to be more attentive), promoting small retail shops and discouraging large retail shops, encouraging diversity and creativity, improving public health, and retaining a lovable character rather than an Anywhere USA character.

Each of these worthy objectives are furthered by more compact (dense) development.

Unfortunately, despite the conventional wisdom, Boulder is actually quite dispersed. Shockingly so.

Indeed, Boulder is so extremely low-density suburban that if we don’t become more compact and add a lot more housing, we will continue to undermine each of the objectives I list here.

Besides the low density and short-statured nature of development I have observed in Boulder, there is another element that strongly signals that Boulder is suburban in character. sprawl
Christopher Leinberger has pointed out that in compact, walkable neighborhoods, “more is better.” That is, new, more compact development tends to be welcomed because it typically improves the quality of life of those living a walkable lifestyle (more things to walk to, for example). By contrast, says Leinberger, in a drivable suburban neighborhood, “more is less.” In such a setting, new and more compact development tends to be detrimental to the drivable quality of life of residents (roads are more congested and parking is more scarce, for example).

For decades, Boulder has had a near consensus that “more is less,” which is a strong signal that Boulder is a drivable suburban community. Indeed, stopping development – or, if not possible, at least minimizing the density of new development — tends to be the be all and end all of protecting or improving quality of life in Boulder.

Our very low-density, dispersed suburban character means that Boulder’s per capita environmental impact is, ironically, very large (being “green” means far more than engaging in curbside recycling or driving a Prius). Dispersed land use patterns found in Boulder are unsustainable, very environmentally destructive, and ensure that nearly all trips in Boulder will be made by motor vehicle.

There is a growing desire for compact, walkable, town center housing — particularly with the Millennial generation — yet Boulder provides very little if any of that sort of housing. Demand for such housing is substantially higher than the supply of it. Which severely amplifies the affordable housing crisis in Boulder.

Sustainability is far out of reach for Boulder unless we provide a lot more compact, walkable housing.

In sum, I think Boulder is quite far from being “too dense.” So far that a “too dense” Boulder will not happen in our lifetimes — if ever. Indeed, it seems to me that Boulder’s biggest concern should be that we are too dispersed.

I previously wrote about why I believe so many people in Boulder (like in so many other American communities) believe their community is “too dense,” despite the obvious signs I cite above.

It is enormously ironic that a great many Boulder residents — not to mention the millions worldwide — love the great historic cities and towns of Europe so much that they happily spend huge sums of money to visit such towns on a regular basis. Nearly all of us love Copenhagen. We adore Amsterdam. We are charmed by Perugia. We are delighted by Dubrovnik. We cannot get enough of Granada.

Yet each of these celebrated cities are far more compact – far more dense – than Boulder.

Why this disconnect?

I believe there are three important reasons. First, the contemporary modernist architectural paradigm we have been saddled with for several decades has thrown the inherently lovable 315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lotand timeless traditional building design into the waste can in favor of repellent, “innovative,” look-at-me design. Citizens are thereby conditioned to equate new compact development with hideous buildings. Second, local zoning regulations in cities such as Boulder have made lovable, human-scaled design illegal by requiring excessive setbacks, excessive car parking, and excessive private open space. Third, nearly all citizens live car-dependent lifestyles. And because their cars consume such an enormous amount of space, motorists are compelled to fear and oppose town design that they otherwise love as tourists. They have, in essence, become their own enemies by striving to improve their life as motorists (equating quality of life with easy parking and free-flowing traffic), not realizing that doing so is ruinous to a healthy city and a lovable quality of life.

For much of our history up until the 20th Century, citizens welcomed and celebrated new development in their communities because they knew that almost invariably, the new development would improve the quality of life in their community.  Steve Belmont has informed us that a densifying city is a sign of city health. But that welcoming of new development has been understandably inverted into a widespread opposition to new modern-architecture-Ronchamp-Chapeldevelopment, largely due to the modernist architectural paradigm, local car-friendly development regulations, and car-dependent citizens who have become cheerleaders for their cars rather than for themselves, their family, and their neighbors.

Boulder can comfortably house a great many more newcomers, and if our land development regulations are properly crafted to insist that new development be walkable, our community will be greatly improved in each of the ways I list above.

For the record, I generally dislike buildings taller than 5 stories (the limit set by city charter), but know that the city can be much better and provide a lot more housing by allowing buildings to be 3-5 stories in appropriate locations.

Note, too, that I do not believe that EVERYONE should be obligated to live in more compact, walkable housing. A community should always provide sufficient housing for the full range of lifestyle choices: walkable town center, drivable suburban, and rural.

Unfortunately, drivable suburban is about the only lifestyle option offered in Boulder. Because we have made the cities we love impossible to build.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

The Problem of Gigantism

By Dom Nozzi

January 13, 2017

Gigantism, in my opinion, is a HUUUUUGE problem in America.

Enormous roads, enormous setbacks, enormous (and improperly located) parking lots, enormous (and improperly located) stormwater basins, enormous distances between destinations, enormous road intersections, enormous subdivisions, enormously tall street lights, enormous signs, enormous retail areas.Monster road intersection

The enormity of the American land use pattern is obvious when one walks the historic center of so many European cities and towns. My recent visit to Tuscany with my significant other was, once again, so saddening and maddening because the streets we walked were so stunningly lovable, charming, and romantic. Americans have thrown all of that charm away in our car-happy world.

Not only is it impossible to love most all of urban America. It is also, as Charles Marohn points out so well, impossible to afford to maintain. A double whammy of unsustainability. And extreme frustration in my career as a town planner who toiling for decades to try to nudge our society toward slowing down our ruinous love affair with making the world wonderful for car travel. And finding that even most smart people in America strongly oppose going back to the timeless way of building for people instead of cars.

It is said that dinosaurs went extinct due in large part to gigantism. I believe the same fate is likely for America, unless our society wakes up and realizes we are way better off in so many ways if we get back to building our world at the (walkable) human scale.

A friend asked me recently what I would do if I were in charge, had a blank slate, and could design a community any way I desired.

If I had such an opportunity, my community would be much more compact and human-scaled. One can walk historic town centers in Europe for models of what I speak of here.

WAY less “open space” for cars is essential.

I would ratchet down our extreme (and artificial) auto-centric value system by making roads and parking and gasoline purchases and car buying directly paid for much more based on USER FEES rather than having all of society pay for happy cars via such things as sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes.

In other words, making our world much more fair and equitable.

We have over-used and over-provided for car travel and car housing in large part because the cost to do so is mostly externalized to society rather than directly paid for via user fees. Eventually — maybe not in our lifetimes? — car travel will be mostly paid for via user fees and externalized costs will be more internalized. Car travel will therefore become much more expensive, signaling us to cut down on our over-reliance on it.

When that happens, we will inevitably see the re-emergence of the lovable, human-scaled world we once had. Fortunately, we are starting to see car travel becoming much more expensive and unaffordable — even though it continues to fail to be user-fee based.

And we are seeing the Millennial generation showing much more interest in compact town center living and much less interest in being car happy.

It is way past time for our society to a people-happy rather than car-happy world.

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Filed under Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

What Do I Think of the Diverging Diamond Interchange?

 

By Dom Nozzi

Febuary 2, 2017

Superior, Colorado built a “diverging diamond” interchange that opened in October 2015. It was only the second such interchange to ever be built in Colorado. Traffic engineers are imagessinging its praises throughout the nation. A newspaper article appearing in the February 2, 2017 edition of the Boulder Daily Camera fawned over the fantastic new addition to the region’s transportation system.

I am not joining the engineers or the newspaper in their love affair with the design.

Instead, I find such designs a colossal waste of money – money that could have been used for, say, transit. They are also a colossal waste of land. An entire city could fit inside one of these intersections.

The diverging diamond is a boondoggle for those reasons. But it is also a blunder because they promote increased per capita car travel. Why? In part because they are nearly 51df393d218c6-imageimpossible to cross by foot or bicycle. And in part because in the long run they will further disperse land development in a more sprawling way. Those increased distances will make it increasingly impractical to walk, bicycle or use transit.

Ironically, the major justification for the car-only design is that it briefly reduce intersection congestion, which will initially save a few seconds of motorist time (think of the fiscal irresponsibility of spending millions of public dollars spent to save a few seconds temporarily). Ironic because by artificially inducing more car trips than would have occurred had the diverging diamond not been built, the design will lead to MORE traffic congestion and MORE time delay for motorists in the long term (both at their location and areas in the region).

To hide the embarrassing fact that the millions spent ($14 million in this case) to briefly save a few seconds of time, the publicly proclaimed explanation is that it will improve safety. For the conventional traffic engineer, “improved safety” actually means that motorists can now drive faster and more inattentively with less fear of crashing. No mention is made of the fact that the intersection is much less safe for pedestrians or bicyclists, or that faster, less attentive driving is very dangerous for everyone.

The diverging diamond, therefore, is an excellent example of the century-long failure by conventional traffic engineers to understand induced car trips that are created by (briefly) reducing traffic congestion with these designs. There is a reason, after all, that many researchers repeatedly urge us to understand that it is impossible to build our way out of congestion. It is like loosening your belt to solve obesity.

But wait. There’s more.

Not only is the diverging diamond a boondoggle in the above mentioned ways. It also damages our world by adding more auto emissions into our air (by increasing per capita car trips) and reducing potential tax revenues in the region (by encouraging dispersed rather than compact land use patterns).

Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief over why our generation built these monstrosities.

There is one tiny upside to this overwhelmingly negative idea: it produces future jobs for people hired to remove these mistakes after we regain our senses.

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Filed under Bicycling, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

The Undesirability of Autonomous Cars

By Dom Nozzi

December 16, 2016

Autonomous cars remind me of the many techno optimists in the 60s and 70s who assured us that we would soon be driving flying cars like The Jetsons.jetsons

So much faster! End of traffic jams! No air pollution!

Assuming autonomous cars become a significant part of our lives — which is highly unlikely given enormous difficulties associated with making autonomous vehicles work in the real world — such vehicles are likely to create a great many negative unintended consequences.

First, there will be a huge increase in per capita car travel due to the relative ease of car travel by such vehicles. Many trips that were formerly made by walking/biking/transit (or not at all) will now be by car — including by kids, the handicapped, and seniors who are now unable to drive.

Second, there will be a need for wider roads to handle that per capita increase.

Third, we will see higher average car speeds.

Fourth, we will see more pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars since the software will direct the car to kill such people rather than the driver.

Fifth, there will be a big increase in obesity due to the increased amount of travel by car.

And finally, we will suffer from a perpetuation of unsustainable transport energy consumption, toxic air emissions, and dispersed land use patterns.

uber-carOverall, like standard cars, autonomous cars are extremely toxic to cities. To be healthy, cities require slow speeds (which promote the agglomeration economies that cities require). Higher speeds induce more low-density dispersal, which destroys city health and the essential need for social capital. Cars isolate us, yet our genes and our cities need interaction.

In general, autonomous cars are a solution looking for a problem.

Given the consequences I mention above, we need to hope that autonomous cars are as “successful” as George Jetson’s flying cars. I’m not worried because I am confident autonomous cars will soon be forgotten.

What bothers me most is that such pie-in-the-sky vehicles distract us from pressing city and human needs we have neglected and failed to address for several decades.

How much progress have we made on passenger rail design and implementation, for example?

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

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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Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design