Tag Archives: traffic congestion

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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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

Improving Transportation in Boulder, Colorado

A Facebook Conversation between Dom Nozzi and a friend

December 18, 2016

In December of 2016, a Facebook friend of mine responded to an illustration I posted showing the ENORMOUS amount of space that cars consume.

Friend: Then what’s the answer for Boulder, Dom?. Can [the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) you sit on] or the City do much more to encourage bus and bike usage, especially in winter?

Dom Nozzi: The politics and values I have observed in Boulder spell very bad news for Boulder’s future. I’ve been surprised by how uninformed the Boulder population is on transportation (it is a national problem, but a surprise to me that this is also true in allegedly informed Boulder).

A large number in Boulder have opted for the strategically ruinous strategy of equating free flowing traffic with quality of life. Traffic congestion is viewed (like nearly everywhere else in the world) as a terrible problem that must be reduced. Given the huge amount of space that cars consume, this common desire inevitably means that Boulder is over-widening its streets and intersections, and has spent decades trying to prevent – or at least minimize — development densities (it is wrongly believed in Boulder that this would reduce the crowding of roads and parking lots).

The results include a lot of suburban sprawl (in the form of wanna-be-Boulder towns in areas surrounding Boulder), very unsafe roads and intersections (because they are over-sized), a city that is too dispersed to make walking practical, and a city that contains oversized car habitats (such as huge, numerous parking lots) that degrade quality of life.

This state of affairs has meant that Boulder has been unable to meaningfully increase the number of people who walk, bicycle or use transit for several years.

It will be a long process to change this reality, but Boulder needs to see new politically influential pro-city activist groups arise (such as Better Boulder) to reverse this downward spiral. A better future centers on reducing the three “S” factors: Reduce Space allocated to cars, reduce Speeds cars can travel, and reduce Subsidies that motorists enjoy. Doing so will consequently deliver more compact, mixed development, and better quality of life, a better economic situation, and a lot more safety and choice of both lifestyle and forms of travel.

Until Boulder moves away from its long-term strategy of pampering cars and thinking doing so can be a win-win strategy with bicycling, walking, and transit, city design will continue to be overly car-friendly. Roads and intersections too big, car speeds too high, and motorist subsidies too inequitable.

Can TAB do anything to encourage less car dependence? Sure, if we start adopting the above tactics by ending our counterproductive efforts to make cars happy. I have a very long list of needed transportation reforms for Boulder that seem highly unlikely to be adopted for a long time. I am very surprised by how behind-the-times Boulder is regarding transportation, despite the conventional wisdom. There are very few short-term tactics we can deploy.

Reforming parking would be a good start. I continue to strongly support road travel lane repurposing. For decades, the City has mostly taken the easy path of spending money to address transportation issues. But again, it is about taking away size, speed and subsidies from motorists. It is not about spending money on bike lanes, transit, and sidewalks. In the winter, transportation choice is highly unlikely without compact development. Boulder, in short, has its work cut out for it.

Facebook friend: Replace “motorists” with “citizens”. Do the citizens of Boulder support these initiatives? I sometimes get the sense that some on TAB believe they have the correct answers and don’t really care what the people of Boulder actually think, hence the right sizing controversy on Folsom. Public outreach and forming a collective vision for the future of our city is key to any kind of reform that impacts people’s preferred mode of transportation.

Dom Nozzi: Very few motorists (using “citizens” implies that we are all motorists and non-motorists do not matter) support these ideas in Boulder or elsewhere in the US. This is largely because of a century of huge motorist subsidies and the fact that over-providing for motoring is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. That is, the bigger we make roads arapahoe-ave-boulder-coand intersections and parking (to keep motorists happy), the more difficult and unsafe travel becomes for non-motorists (which continuously recruits more motorists, thereby adding to the downward spiral).

Support for these ideas tends to emerge only when motoring pays its own way and does not degrade the human habitat (ie, the gas tax is substantially increased, road tolls and parking charges are instituted, and roads are kept at modest widths to keep car speeds relatively low).

A great many useful transportation tactics are highly counter-intuitive (the Folsom right-sizing road diet project is a good example). In Boulder and throughout the nation, motorists predictably fight aggressively against such leveling of the playing field and protecting quality of life because they are living a life where travel by car is obligatory (due largely to car-only, oversized road design, as well as the large distance to destinations). They see little choice other than to keep spending trillions of public dollars to widen roads and intersections and provide more “free” parking.

Because doing such things is unsustainable, destructive, and detrimental to community safety, we therefore become our own worst enemy.

My comments above illustrate an enormous dilemma that spell a grim, difficult, painful future. There are very few (if any) painless, easy, quick, popular, effective, win-win tactics to improve our transportation system, given our century-long track record. “Public outreach” is almost entirely ineffective in a world that is so heavily tilted toward enabling easy, low-cost motoring. What good would it do, for example, to “public outreach” to motorists who live several miles from their destinations to suggest they should consider riding a bike or walking on a dangerous, car-only road for 7 miles? Only when the playing field is more level and community design more conducive will such outreach be useful.

TAB members are appointed by Council at least in part to provide advice on improving transportation based on our knowledge of transportation. This knowledge comes from our academic and professional background, our experiences of spending years getting around in Boulder, reading adopted community plans, and our listening to others in the community.

Sometimes the advice from TAB (or from Planning Board or Council) is not popular. But this is the nature of dealing with a transportation world I describe above. If “most popular” was the only means of deciding what to do, we would not need Council or advisory boards. We would simply have a computer measure community opinion on various measures. Instead, we have a representative democracy because such a direct democracy approach is unworkable and undesirable (particularly for complex, counter-intuitive issues). And because of the dilemmas I cite above, strong leadership in transportation is extremely important. I have always liked the following observations on leadership:

A leader is someone who cares enough to tell the people not merely what they want to hear, but what they need to know. — Reubin Askew

Margaret Thatcher once said that consensus is the absence of leadership.

To achieve excellence should be a struggle. – Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley

To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. — Elbert Hubbard

One of my heroes – Enrique Penalosa (former mayor of Bogota) – was despised early on in his term — largely because he enacted policies that aggressively inconvenienced cars in his efforts to make people, rather than cars, happy. Many wanted to throw him out of office. But eventually, his policies (which nearly all his citizens strongly opposed initially) resulted in visibly obvious quality of life and civic pride improvements. He went on to become much-loved and honored by most in Bogota.

Let us not forget that back in the day, the majority opinion was to oppose granting equal rights to women, blacks, non-Christians, or gay/lesbian people. Nearly all of us believed the earth was flat. That smoking and DDT were okay.

By the way, it may comfort you to know that my views — because they are so counter to the conventional wisdom in Boulder –tend to be ignored by other TAB members, city staff and by Council. On most all “tough” votes, I am almost always on the losing end of 4-1 TAB votes (would transportation be “better” in Boulder, in your view, if those TAB votes were 5-0?).

For a century and up to the present day, Boulder citizens, elected and appointed officials, and staff have been nearly unanimous in thinking that happy motoring was and is a good idea. In my view, that has been a tragic mistake. Boulder can do much better if it discarded that discredited (yet conventional) view.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

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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How Do We Preserve Small Town Ambiance?

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2015

The most sought after, popular form of community for Americans today is the small town.

When we ask many community activists to describe what they seek for their community, they state that they are trying to preserve or restore a “small town feel.”

How do we do that?

For most NIMBYs and assorted anti-development champions of happy cars, it is to fight against density, tall buildings, and congestion.

But I believe this is counterproductive in creating a small town ambience.

I agree we shouldn’t allow skyscrapers. My limit is five stories.

beacon hill bostonBut the most effective way to preserve or restore the small town feel is to keep roads and intersections modest in size, and avoid sprawling low density.

Pushing for lower densities and fighting to reduce densities, by contrast, almost always compels a community to build monster roads and intersections.huge turn radius for road

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Traffic Congestion and Parking

 By Dom Nozzi

June 30, 2014

An essential ingredient for a healthy city is to be compact (not sprawled), and able to leverage “agglomeration economies.”

Because a healthy city ALSO provides for the full range of lifestyle choices (rather than forcing everyone to live the same way), we must provide for the full range of land use patterns. The town center should be relatively compact (agglomerated), and outlying areas should retain a more dispersed pattern.

Given that, it is not at all appropriate or feasible to have a “one-size-fits-all” measure for the level of motor vehicle travel delay a community adopts. If we adopt a measure that strives for too little delay citywide, the town center loses its competitive strength: compactness and agglomeration. In a healthy, thriving city, it is essential that traffic congestion measures such as “travel delay” be calibrated geographically.

Can we say up front what we believe to be the MAXIMUM size for parking? For roads? For intersections? I believe we MUST (and can) do that. We must draw a line in the sand. We can say, for example, that our quality of life means it would NEVER be okay to have a six-lane highway in the town center. In fact, when I wrote Gainesville FL’s transportation plan, I succeeded in having that plan contain a policy that did this very thing: “No road in city limits shall exceed 4 through lanes.” Much as I hate to make this concession, we might also want to say that “no intersection shall exceed 2 turn lanes in the outlying areas, or one turn lane in the town center” here in Boulder.

Boulder, like nearly every other American city, has a very large oversupply of parking lot space — mostly because cars consume so much space, and most all of it is free. Because imagesnearly all parking is free, there tends to be an endless effort to try to provide “enough.” This process is endless because a free product or service in great demand induces a nearly infinite demand for such a product or service. The enormous and infamous Soviet bread lines is an excellent analogy.

“Free” parking is paid for in higher costs for groceries and haircuts by those retail and service shops providing all that parking, and the inducement of too many unnecessary car trips.

The biggest problem with parking is not too little space. It is too much space. Too much asphalt space means, among many other things, flooding problems, stormwater quality problems, lack of walkability, lack of community aesthetics or civic pride, creation of spaces that feel unsafe or uncomfortable (particularly for women and seniors), high/unaffordable costs for households, governments and consumers of goods and services.

Calibrating the price of parking so that supply of parking and demand for parking is “in balance” is successfully being used in a great many cities right now, and is one of the most important principles pushed by the national parking guru (and hero of mine) – Donald Shoup. Shoup has successfully gotten a great many cities to use the “Goldilocks” principle in parking pricing. Prices vary throughout the day and week based on demand (quite easy with today’s electronic technology) so that approximately 80 percent of the parking spaces are being used at any one time. If more than 80 percent are used, prices automatically increase. If less than 80 percent are used, prices automatically decrease. The “Goldilocks” price (“just right”) is the price that results in about 80 percent use.

Minimum parking requirements for new development has been used by nearly every American city has been used for 100 years now. The required number of parking spaces is almost never based on studies estimating expected parking demand for the development in question. Instead, it tends to be quite arbitrary and not based on local conditions, as the required number is based on a survey of national parking requirements.

The required minimum number of spaces is almost always excessive, largely because the parking is available for use by the motorist at no charge. Such “free” parking inevitably induces excessive demand for parking because even relatively trivial motor vehicle trips – such as buying a cup of coffee at rush hour on a major street – are encouraged by the lack of a fee for parking.

If we convert minimum parking requirements to MAXIMUM parking requirements, the business owner — rather than government mandate using arbitrary numbers — is able to decide how much to provide: Zero to the maximum. The minimum parking requirement says the owner MUST provide AT LEAST “X” spaces, and that number, again, tends to usually be too many spaces. Since a property owner is much better able to assess how much parking he or she needs to provide (to be profitable or to make financiers happy) than government, a maximum gives the owner a lot more flexibility than a minimum.

Priced parking is a superb way to assess how much parking is appropriate. The developer or the city decides how much parking is “enough,” and if the use is more than 80 percent of available spaces, the price of parking is increased. If less than 80 parking, the price is reduced.

No need to increase the amount of asphalt parking.

It is important for cities that use a maximum traffic congestion level of service (LOS) standard to sunset the auto LOS measure in the town center, since such a standard undermines a great many objectives for a healthy town center (low speeds, agglomeration economies, safety, reduction in car trips and fuel emissions, etc.). Instead of measuring and capping traffic congestion, we need to find a measure that creates disincentives for adding more road, intersection or parking capacity, and creates incentives for shrinking the space we allocate to car travel and car parking.

In my view, the over-allocation of space to cars is a HUGE problem in American cities. And most LOS measures incentivize providing larger roads, bigger parking lots, and more massive road intersections.

Some favor a “people” LOS or a “multi-modal” LOS, which I believe are big improvements over our auto LOS. But it seems that both might create incentives for wider roads, or bigger intersections.

 

 

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Is a Road Bypass (Beltway) a Good Idea for Cities?

By Dom Nozzi

November 12, 2016

An extremely common suggestion for “improving” or “easing” car travel in cities is to create a bypass road (sometimes called a “beltway”) to take regional motor vehicle trips not destined for the city center away from the city center to reduce congestion.

I question the conventional wisdom that traffic congestion is bad for cities. I have written and given speeches extensively on this topic. See here and here, for example.

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that it is a good idea to reduce city traffic congestion. Will a road bypass reduce congestion and help make for a better city?

I think it is now clear that a bypass does not reduce congestion, and has been toxic for many cities throughout the nation.

By funneling a large number of motor vehicle trips away from the city center, a bypass drains the lifeblood from a city center: retail shops, offices, homes, and dollars depart from the city center and into remote, sprawling locations as they chase after the disappearing trips and dollars and vibrancy.

The idea that a road bypass would only accommodate regional trips not needing to go into the city center has not been realized, as a bypass tends to attract a large number of local trips (due to the promise of faster trips).

All of these big downsides for a city in exchange for saving seconds or minutes in a car trip — savings that usually end up being a loss of time for the motorist, as they tend to end up driving much greater distances.photo_verybig_174793

We also find (due to Anthony Downs Triple Convergence) that the bypass tends to become congested in a few short years, because the bypass induces new car trips that would not have occurred had the bypass not been built.

The solution, in my view, is not to funnel urban trips on a few large capacity roads and highways but to move away from the hierarchy of roads toward a more connected street system that more evenly distributes slower speed (and less congested) traffic. Such an approach also more successfully recruits transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians (which, among other things, creates more parking spaces for motorists).

Another big plus: by avoiding building a bypass, there is a big reduction in the need for initial and on-going transportation dollars for capital projects and operation and maintenance expenditures.

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