Tag Archives: transit

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

A Better Transportation Future for Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 7, 2017

A better transportation future for Boulder, Colorado — despite the conventional wisdom — is about reducing excessive driving advantages. It is not about finding more money for bike lanes, sidewalks, or transit.

Boulder has spent decades emphasizing the provision of more bike lanes, sidewalks, and transit as a way to promote non-car travel, but as exemplified by the lack of success in july-2015-2increasing 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.

What I call the “Four “S” strategy to effectively encourage cycling, walking and transit use is the key to success: Reduce car Speeds, Reduce Space allocated to cars, reduce Subsidies for motorists, and Shorten distances to destinations (via compact, mixed-use development).

Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies 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.

 

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Does Increased Transit Ridership Reduce Congestion?

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 5, 2016

I am not convinced — as a great many people believe — that increased transit ridership reduces congestion.

In my view, I don’t see how removing cars from roadways by recruiting motorists to use transit will be able to reduce car volumes. Motorists who briefly free up road space by becoming transit riders will quickly be replaced by the latent demand of discouraged car drivers who are induced by the freed up road space.traffic congestion

I have seen a number of studies that confirm this by showing new transit does not durably reduce congestion.

In my view, the key is to move away from using congestion or delay as a measure of quality. Let’s keep in mind that to be healthy, cities need agglomeration, slow speeds, and compactness. Being concerned about delay or congestion undercuts these ingredients — ingredients needed for a well-functioning city.

A wise city does not seek to reduce congestion. It seeks to provide housing and transport options (including transit) that enable people to AVOID the inevitable congestion of an attractive city.

I will grant that minimizing delays can be a good idea in suburb or rural areas.

But doing that is toxic for urbanized areas.

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Quality Transit is Necessary But Not Sufficient

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 13, 2000

Too often, it is thought that we can get people out of cars and in transit simply by improving the quality of transit.dsc_5732

Two problems with that common theory:

  1. We usually don’t have the money to dramatically improve transit quality; and
  1. Even if transit quality was superb, it would STILL be irrational to use it. Driving a car would remain the most rational choice, as this blog of mine indicates. This will be true unless critical conditions were changed: Scarce and costly parking for cars, congested streets, and reasonably high densities.

If we don’t get those conditions right, transit will never be rational to use for people with a choice about how to travel. The danger here is that transit gets a black eye when we pour big bucks into improving quality, yet see no meaningful increase in ridership. The carbarians can then say, “See. I told you. Even if we pour a huge amount of money into transit, no one will use it. Humans are genetically programmed to like cars and hate buses.”

So the critical key is to fix parking and streets so that cars are not so happy. Quality transit is necessary but not sufficient.

 

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Some Problems Associated with Low-Density Residential Living

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

A large percentage of Americans LOVE low-density residential living, and regularly fight against any proposal that would bring more compact development anywhere near them.

But low-density development has many problems – problems that a growing number of Americans are beginning to recognize.sprawl-development

For example, low-density development locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible. A sense of community is often non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there tends to be no “there there.” Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around. Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car. Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because ALL trips are forced onto one or two major roads (and because cars consume such a vast amount of space). Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded.” The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Increasingly, what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting AGAINST smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.

Tragically, the low-density lifestyle compels people living in such a setting to fight hard against the compact development that would actually reduce the problems cited above. They do so because the low-density pattern quickly results in enraging traffic congestion and loss of car parking. This vested interest in low density locks such residents in a long-term downward spiral, as positive change tends to be fiercely resisted.

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Lessons From Europe

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 16, 2004

Is Europe on the road to ruin, due to increased auto ownership?  To what extent?

As traditional neighborhood architects would say, Europe has “good bones.” That is, many European communities are extremely fortunate in comparison to most American communities in the sense that they were largely built BEFORE the emergence of the ruinous shift to “car cparis narrow sidewalkraze” travel patterns. As a result, these European communities were built for transit, walking and bicycling. That is, their traditional, in-town areas are compact, mixed-use (residential mixed with shops and offices), multi-story, and modest in the provision of surface parking and street size.

This explains why these European communities remain such fantastic places (that millions of non-Europeans love to visit as tourists). They were built using timeless principles – principles that will never go out of style. The design was intended to make people happy, instead of cars.

What this all means is that increased auto ownership in Europe is troublesome but not necessarily fatal to what they have. In their urban areas, car ownership will be obligated to struggle to fit in. For the foreseeable future, it will remain inconvenient and costly to own and use a car in these European places. The danger is that European leaders may incrementally allow suburbanizing, car-friendly changes to the design of their communities — if they do not have sufficient pride in what they have, or leadership.

An enormous obstacle to undesirable suburbanization Europe is that it may be cost-prohibitive to retrofit the space-intensive needs of cars in communities that are now modest in size.

Can the US learn any lessons from European cities, which have within walking distance everything Americans in most cities must drive to reach?

The lessons that can be learned in the US are that traditional community design patterns that we have largely abandoned and forgotten about since approximately WWII are timeless. They remain wonderful, envied places centuries after they were first built. Those traditional principles — mixed use, higher density, walkable compactness, multiple stories, modest parking and street sizes — are an essential component for all communities. They must remain a lifestyle choice in all communities — a choice that is rapidly vanishing in the US. There will always be citizens who wish to enjoy the merits of the traditional, sociable lifestyle. And in the future, the number of citizens who seek such a lifestyle will grow as the auto-dependent lifestyle becomes increasingly unsustainable, unaffordable, and unrewarding.

Why is it that many in the US are stunned when they learn that a large number of European citizens live quite comfortably in cities such as Barcelona without a personal car?

Roughly since WWII, Americans have built their communities to make cars happy. Among other things, this has led to a substantial number of citizens fleeing the downwardly spiraling quality of life in town centers. This flight from the center is in large part due to the fact that car-friendly design in centers almost inevitably worsens the quality of life for people. They flee due to the decline in quality of life AND the fact that they were now able to do so because travel by car means that jobs and other daily needs no longer need to be close to each other. The result of the growing irrelevancy of distance is that we have low-density land use dispersal. Most homes are now quite remote from all daily destinations: work, retail, culture, entertainment, civic, etc. It should therefore not at all surprise us that we find ourselves forced to make nearly all trips by car. The dispersal locks us into extreme car dependency. It naturally seems impossible to nearly all of us that life could be at all possible without continuous access to a car (or someone who can give us a ride). Most of the Baby Boom and more recent generations have never experienced life in a place that is not designed for car dependency. We have lost the cultural memory of the tradition we have left — a tradition rich in travel choices.

Sadly, it is now nearly impossible to a fulfilling live life in America without a car. Too many sacrifices need to be made. Loss of independence. Loss of time. Loss of ability to go to certain places, buy certain things, or work in certain places. Without a car in America today, one is looked upon as a weirdo. A bizarre anachronism.

But as Paul Bedford, the Toronto planning director has pointed out, the sign of a quality city is that it is possible to live an enjoyable life without owning a car.

 

 

 

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Advice to a Friend About Finding a New Dance Venue

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 10, 2004

I have enjoyed “contra” dancing for over 25 years. Contra is an “old-tyme” form of dancing. It is a folk dance made up of long lines of couples. It has mixed origins from English country dance, Scottish, French dance styles in the 17th century, with strong African influence from Appalachia. Sometimes described as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world and have much

Contra dance, Gainesville FL April 2007

popularity in North America and the United Kingdom where weekly or monthly dances and annual dance weekends are common. The dance is guided by a “caller” and tends to get its music from a live fiddle band.

A contra dance friend of mine in Florida – Tara – contacted me in 2004 to ask for advice about the local contra community seeking to buy a new venue building for contra dancing. Here is what I offered.

Hi Tara,

I’m flattered that you have contacted me to ask me about this. I have been seeing the email postings about this exciting proposal for a few days now and, coincidentally, was going to email you about it today.

First, I think it would be a very good idea for the dance community to own and have control over its own facility. Having full control over the scheduling of the building would be an enormous advantage over the current venue.

I don’t mean to rain on this encouraging parade, Tara, but I have very serious concerns about the Moose Lodge location on 23rd Ave. As a long-range city planner, it is my opinion that community-serving “social condensers” (of which the local dance community is one) should not be located away from a downtown location — a location that is essentially inaccessible by foot, transit or bicycle. In particular, inaccessible to the downtown residences.

There are a number of reasons why I believe community-serving “social condensers” should be downtown:

  1. They are an essential building block toward creating a “sense of community.” Like most cities, the town center is about the only place where a sense of community can be experienced, because the center is where residents gather for cultural, civic, political and entertainment purposes. When community-serving activities leave the town center, the sense of community declines.
  1. In the town center, there are “spillover” benefits. At the current location of the dance hall, it is easy for folks to walk to the hall from other town center locations, or to walk from the hall to various town center destinations. Due to the flight of such activities from town centers throughout the nation, there is “no there there” in the town centers of much of America.
  1. In my opinion, an essential ingredient in the creation and maintenance of a quality city, as the Toronto Planning Director once said, is that there is at least one place where people can choose to live without being forced to use a car to get to important, regular activities in life. Despite the erosion of town centers due to flight from them, many centers continue to serve the purpose of providing a car-free lifestyle choice to some extent. Folks who choose to live in the town center (thereby being able to take advantage of a less car-dependent lifestyle) would not be able to walk or bicycle to NE 23rd Ave, and find it more difficult to use a bus to get there.

Given the above, while I am thrilled about the idea of the dance community owning its own dance venue, a location on NE 23rd Ave would mean that (a) Our town would, overall, offer a lower quality of life for those opting for a car-free lifetyle; and (b) Spillover benefits to the town center associated with dancing would decline.

Finally, as one of those “weirdoes” who strives to live a less car-dependent lifestyle, I would sadly need to end my roughly 15 years of attending contra dances in town if the venue was moved to a place that was largely inaccessible to a person wanting to walk, bicycle, or take transit to dances.

Again, thanks for contacting me about this.

 

 

 

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