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Behind the Times: Making It Difficult to Walk or Bicycle in Boulder CO

By Dom Nozzi

July 24, 2017

Despite the conventional wisdom – that Boulder CO has long been a mecca of cutting edge, progressive transportation — Boulder has spent several decades making it very difficult to be a bike commuter (or a pedestrian). This happens in part because the citizens of Boulder are behind the times regarding transportation, but also because many actions taken by the City of Boulder are not easily seen as being detrimental to cyclists (or pedestrians).

Some examples.

Many signal lights at intersections are timed for car speeds rather than cyclist speeds.

Slip lanes and continuous left turn lanes are used in the Boulder town center. Such design is extremely hostile to pedestrian safety and significantly undermines the need to create low-speed, human-scaled design in the town center.

The construction of oversized roads and intersections that are too often deadly or intimidating for those not in a car (streets such as Colorado, Broadway, Arapahoe, Canyon, and the many double-left turn intersections are examples).Arapahoe Ave Boulder CO

Terrible design of bike parking racks (or insufficient amounts of racks) all over town. Like a great many American cities, bicycling is trivialized by assuming that “innovative” bike parking rack design is desirable, instead of functional, easy-to-use design. This assumption trivializes bicycling because we all know that there is only one acceptable way to design a car parking space. Why do we allow an “anything goes” approach when it comes to bike parking?

Traffic rules that are designed for heavy, high-speed cars rather than cyclists. An example is something that only a tiny number of places in America have avoided: the requirement that bicyclists must stop at stop signs. Another example: traffic signals that are needed for cars but not bicyclists.

High-speed road geometries. Examples include overly wide car travel lanes, overly wide intersection turning radii, banked curves in a road (so cars can travel on the curve at higher speeds). Street lights and street signs that are too tall – thereby creating a highway ambience that induces higher car speeds.

Too often allowing a business to place car parking in front of a building. Among the great many problems associated with this all-too-common urban design mistake is the fact that parking lots in front of buildings substantially increase walking and bicycling distances, and destroy the human-scaled ambience that most people enjoy.

Not requiring developers to unbundle the price of parking from the price of the home or business. This action means that bicyclists or pedestrians who don’t need the car parking pay higher prices for goods and services to pay for expensive parking they do not need.

Lack of on-street bike lanes on many hostile, high-speed roads. Roads such as Broadway, Canyon, and East Arapahoe are nearly impossible for all but a tiny handful of bicyclists to feel comfortable bicycling. Boulder’s major streets are so hostile because Boulder has strongly bought into the failed, outdated concept of the “street hierarchy” system of roadways. In this system, roads are designated as arterials, collectors, and local roads. Local, low-speed, low-volume neighborhood roads (relatively safe places for bicycling a walking) feed traffic into collector roads (which are more unsafe due to higher speeds and larger widths), which feed into arterial roads (which are the most dangerous, high-speed, very wide roads). Because of the hierarchy of smaller roads feeding larger and larger roads (in the same manner as a watershed, where smaller streams feed larger and larger creeks and rivers), the larger (arterial) roads often become congested because they must handle car trips from throughout the community. Similarly, larger rivers often flood because they must handle water flowing from throughout the watershed. In addition to increasing the likelihood of congestion, the road hierarchy system also and inevitably creates roadways that are not complete streets. They are too high-speed, too wide, and too hostile for safe, comfortable walking or bicycling.

Lack of compact development, which disperses destinations so they are too far to bike or walk to.

Traffic signals that don’t detect cyclists or pedestrians, which means that cyclists and pedestrians must often suffer the indignity and inconvenience of having to wait for a motorist to arrive before the traffic signal will change to a green light.

There are many, many more examples.

Many of the above impediments to cycling or walking are due to the ruinous transportation imperative that all American cities (including, shamefully, Boulder) have pursued for more than a century: high-speed, unimpeded, free-flowing car traffic. This objective has — as an unspoken objective – been designed to keep cyclists and pedestrians out of the way so motorists can avoid being slowed down in their oversized, high-speed cars.

Stepping up enforcement of the pedestrian crossing rule, for example, masquerades as a way to improve pedestrian safety, but the primary reason is to allow motorists to drive at high, inattentive speeds without needing to slow down and pay attention. Such a rule is a form of victim-blaming.

Boulder and nearly all American cities have a lot of work to do if it expects to remove the many obstacles to safe and easy bicycling and walking in town.

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

Redeveloping the Boulder Community Hospital Site in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 27, 2017

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

As owners of the Boulder Community Hospital (BCH) site bounded by Broadway, Alpine, 9th Street, and Balsam, the City of Boulder has a golden opportunity to demonstrate the preferred vision for creating compact, walkable development in appropriate locations within Boulder.

For too long, citizens have rightly attacked many new projects in Boulder. We now have a chance to show how to do it right.

The following is one man’s opinion about how we can do it right at the BCH site.

First Determine the Context

Our very first task in establishing a “How to Do It Right” vision is to determine the “context” of the site. Where is it located in the community? Is it a walkable town center? A drivable suburb? A farmable rural area? Only when we answer that question are we able to know which design tactics are appropriate and which are inappropriate. For example, if we are in a suburban context, it is inappropriate to insert shops and offices within the neighborhood, or use small building setbacks. However, if we are in a town center context, those design tactics are entirely appropriate and desirable.

transect

In the case of the BCH site, it is generally agreed by the City that the context is walkable town center (what is called “Urban Center Zone” in the above figure). It is now important, given that, to ensure that the design of the site is compatible with that vision.

How do we do that?

A Form-Based Code

Perhaps the most effective way to do that is to establish what is called a “form-based code (FBC)” or a “subcommunity overlay plan,” which was successfully used to guide the development of the Holiday neighborhood in North Boulder.

The FBC or plan emphasizes the importance of “form” by specifying the appropriate and desirable building placements, street dimensions, and building materials. This differs from the conventional “use-based” zoning codes, which over-emphasize the importance of uses within a building, and only specify designs and dimensions that are prohibited, rather than specifying what is desired by the community.

As Andres Duany notes[1]

…A FBC protects us from the tendency of modern designers to disregard timeless design principles in favor of “anything goes.” An “anything goes” ideology too often leads to “kitschy” buildings, unwalkable streets, and other aspects of low-quality urban design.

…A FBC protects us from the whims of boards and committees.

…A FBC is necessary so that the “various professions that affect urbanism will act with unity of purpose.” Without integrated codes, architects, civil engineers and landscape architects can undermine each others’ intentions by suboptimizing.

…A FBC is necessary because without it, buildings and streets are “shaped not by urban designers but by fire marshals, civil engineers, poverty advocates, market experts, accessibility standards, materials suppliers and liability attorneys” – none of whom tend to know or care about urban design.

…A FBC is necessary because “unguided neighborhood design tends, not to vitality, but to socioeconomic monocultures.” The wealthy, the middle-class, and the poor segregate from each other, as do shops and restaurants, offices, and manufacturing. A FBC can ensure a level of diversity without which walkability wilts.

…A FBC is necessary to reign in the tendency of contemporary architects to design “look at me” buildings that disrupt the urban fabric.

…A FBC is necessary to ensure that locally appropriate, traditional design is employed, rather than “Anywhere USA” design.

…A FBC is needed to protect against the tendency to suburbanize places that are intended to provide compact, walkable urbanism.

…A FBC is necessary to protect against the tendency to over-use greenery in inappropriate places such as walkable town centers. In particular, grass areas tend to be inappropriate in walkable centers. Over-using greenery is a common mistake that tends to undermine walkability.

…A FBC is needed because codes “can compensate for deficient professional training. Because schools continue to educate architects towards self-expression rather than towards context, to individual building rather than to the whole.”

We can craft a FBC in hands-on workshops driven by citizens and urban designers. When crafting a FBC, such workshops are called “charrettes,” where professional urban designers provide attendees with a one- or multi-day training course in the time-tested design principles of creating a successful town center, suburb, or rural area. Armed with such knowledge, citizens and designers craft a FBC that is appropriate for the context and community values.

Designing the BCH Site

The following are my own individual suggestions for a FBC that would employ time-tested principles for creating a successful walkable, lovable, charming town center.

The overall layout is compact and walkable. For example, building setbacks are human-scaled and quite modest. Private front and backyards are similarly small in size. Public parks are smaller pocket parks rather than larger, suburban, fields of grass (note that abundant grass and athletic fields are provided adjacent to the west of the BCH site). Some of these parks are relatively small public squares formed by buildings that face the square on all four sides. If surface parking is unavoidable at the site (and I would very strongly urge against such parking), the parking should be designed as a public square that occasionally accommodates parked cars. Block sizes are relatively small, based on a street grid, and include many intersections. Internal streets and alleys are plentiful and narrow enough to obligate slower speed, more attentive driving. Give-way streets, slow streets, woonerfs, and walking streets are all appropriate and desirable.

Internal streets should have a spacing of at least one-to-one (or two-to-one or one-to-two) ratio of flanking building height to street width. (Pearl Street Mall has a ratio that fall within the ranges below).

ratio

To promote vibrancy and safety, the City should encourage 24/7 activity by discouraging weekday businesses, such as offices, that close after 5. Businesses that close after 5 create night-time dead zones.

Service vehicles that may use streets, such as buses, delivery vehicles, or fire trucks should be small enough that they do not obligate the establishment of overly large streets or intersections. When such vehicles cannot be relatively small, it is appropriate for such vehicles to be obligated to move more slowly and carefully. Dimensions, in other words, should be human-scaled, not tractor-trailer-scaled.

If feasible, Goose Creek under the BCH site should be daylighted. It would be appropriate to create a bustling, miniature version of the San Antonio Riverwalk, with homes and shops lining the creek. At a minimum, a daylighted creek needs to be relatively permeable with several pedestrian crossings along the way to promote walkability. Since the BCH site is in a compact, walkable zone, wide suburban greenspaces flanking the creek would not be appropriate.

Alignments are more formal and rectilinear. Internal streets, sidewalks and alleys have a straight rather than curvilinear (suburban) trajectory. Street trees along a block face are of the same species (or at least have similar size and shape), have a large enough canopy to shade streets, and should be formally aligned in picturesque straight lines rather than suburban clumps. Building placement is square to streets and squares rather than rotated (to avoid “train wreck” alignment more appropriate for suburbs). Buildings that are rotated rather than parallel to streets and squares are unable to form comfortable spaces.

Streets deploy square curbs and gutters. Stormwater requirements should be relaxed at the site to prevent unwalkable oversizing of facilities. Streets are flanked by sidewalks. Signs used by businesses are kept relatively small in size. For human scale, visual appeal, and protection from weather, shops along the street are encouraged to use canopies, colonnades, arcades, and balconies. When feasible, civic buildings or other structures with strong verticality are used to terminate street vistas.

Turn lanes and slip lanes in streets are not allowed on the site.

Street lights are relatively short in height to create a romantic pedestrian ambiance and signal to motorists that they are in a slow-speed environment. They are full cut-off to avoid light pollution.

Buildings are clad in context-appropriate brick, stone, and wood. Matching the timeless traditional styles of the nearby Mapleton Hill neighborhood is desirable. Building height limit regulations exempt pitched roofs above the top floor of buildings to encourage pitched roof form and discourage the blocky nature of flat roofs. Obelisks and clock towers are also exempt from height limits.

Buildings taller than five stories should be discouraged for a number of reasons. First, they tend to be overwhelming to pedestrian/human scale. Second, they tend to induce excessive amounts of car parking. Finally, if we assume that the demand for floor space is finite at the BCH site, it is much preferable from the standpoint of walkability for there to be, say, 10 buildings that are 5 stories in height rather than 5 buildings that are 10 stories in height.

Floor-area-ratio (FAR) is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land. A relatively high FAR is supportive of walking, transit, and bicycling. In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0.[2]  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers.[3]

FAR

Buildings along the street are often graced with front porches to promote sociability, citizen surveillance, and visual desirability.

Relatively small offices and retail shops are sensitively interspersed within the neighborhood. For additional walkable access to shops and services, Broadway to the west of the BCH site should incorporate designs which make the crossing more safe and permeable. Narrowing crossing distances and various slow-speed treatments can effectively achieve increased permeability.

First floors of buildings along sidewalks provide ample windows. First floors of buildings are not appropriate places for the parking of cars.

Given the affordable housing crisis in Boulder, ample affordable housing must be provided. Residences above shops are desirable, as are accessory dwelling units and co-ops. An important element in providing affordable housing will be the fact that the inclusion of shops, services and offices within the neighborhood, residences will be able to allocate larger proportions of household money to their homes and less to car ownership and maintenance (since the household would be able to shed cars by owning, say, one car instead of two, or two instead of three).

An important way to make housing more affordable is to unbundle the price of parking for residences from the price of housing. Available parking is modest in quantity and hidden away from the street. Parking is space efficient because shared parking is emphasized and tends to be either on-street or within stacked parking garages. No parking is allowed to abut streets, unless the parking is on-street, or in a stacked garage wrapped with retail and services along the street.

The BCH site is exempted from required parking, and is also exempt from landscaping requirements.

Unbundling the price of parking and reducing the land devoted to parking are both important ways to create more affordable housing.

The Washington Village neighborhood project a few blocks to the north on Broadway and Cedar is a good model for appropriately compact and walkable spacing at the BCH site.

Let’s not squander this important opportunity. Let’s insist that we build a neighborhood that fits the pattern of walkable Siena, Italy, not drivable Phoenix Arizona.

phoenix

 

References

[1] “Why We Code,” Sky Studio. http://www.studiosky.co/blog/why-we-code.html?utm_content=bufferdde8c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] SNO-TRAN. Creating Transportation Choices Through Zoning: A Guide for Snohomish County Communities. Washington State (October 1994)

[3] Untermann, Richard. (1984). Accomodating the Pedestrian, pg190.

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Reforming Parking

By Dom Nozzi

January 18, 2016

Based on what I have learned in my 20-year career as a town planner, there is little that is more important than substantially reforming parking regulations. Nearly all community parking regulations – including those in Boulder, Colorado – are horribly outdated.images

The first task is to jettison required parking rules. That is, eliminate laws that require new development to provide parking. As Donald Shoup points out so clearly, nearly all community parking requirements are almost completely arbitrary and nearly always excessive. Excessive parking artificially induces car trips that would not have occurred had such parking not been provided. Fear that the elimination of such a rule will lead to the provision of insufficient parking is unwarranted, as property owners are well aware that they are slitting their own throats if they provide insufficient parking, because insufficient parking will threaten the financial viability of their development.

A town center should also emphasize priced, on-street parking and discourage free, off-street parking.

The price of parking needs to be unbundled from the price of housing, so that a person can opt to pay less for their housing if the decide they don’t need a parking space. This is a great way to get more affordable housing.

Codes need to be revised, if necessary, to allow existing businesses to easily infill into existing parking areas. Because nearly every community has required the installation of excess parking, a great many parking areas are opportunities for town center financial benefits and enhanced vitality. Most land development codes put significant barriers in the way of doing this – for example, by not allowing there to be a reduction in the amount of parking at the location in question. Developers should not be required to devote time and money to the revision of codes in order to convert parking to a better use of land.

Surface parking should be kept away from streets. When surface parking lots abut streets, they create “gaptooth dead zones” that kill the vibrancy of the street and undermine agglomeration economies. Existing surface parking lots abutting streets must be retrofitted with liner buildings along street frontages at a minimum.

The Codes need to allow a substantial amount of joint parking so that parking can be shared. Allowing the sharing of parking obviously reduces the amount needed, and it is very common for this to be possible, since businesses often have provided far more parking than they need (usually as a result of the excess parking required by local government). Another reason why shared parking is often possible is that many businesses have hours of operation that do not overlap the hours of nearby businesses. Rather than have such parking sit unused, that parking can be used by a nearby business.

A downtown association should have city-owned parking garages that can be leased to businesses and residences (so they don’t have to provide as much of their own). This is a form of “cash-in-lieu” of parking.

Businesses should be required to provide a “parking cash-out” option whereby employees are given a choice: either retain a free parking spot (the status quo) or be given a higher salary, a bus pass, or money to purchase a bicycle (among other possible rewards).

Property taxation needs to be inverted so that a “Land Value Tax” is used https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax. The fact that nearly all cities assess much higher taxes on a property owner that develops/improves/upgrades their property strongly encourages downtown land speculation (which helps explains why there is WAY too much surface parking in American downtowns). In this counterproductive situation, property owners tend to hold their property unused or undeveloped (to avoid a taxation penalty for developing it) until they find the property can be sold for an attractive price.

Push-back you can expect: POOR PEOPLE CANNOT AFFORD TO PAY PARKING METERS! IT WILL HURT DOWNTOWN! NOT EVERYONE CAN RIDE A BIKE!

Each of those red herring arguments will need to be squashed by leadership. There are quite a few well-known responses to these concerns that can convincingly show why the concerns are not valid.

Reforming parking is one of the most important, effective ways to improve the health and vitality of a town center and many other locations in a community.

 

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Managing Parking at the Trailhead Development in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 1, 2014

There is a new neighborhood being built at the western side of Boulder (just east of the Sanitas Trail System) called “Trailhead.”

For Trailhead to be a great neighborhood, it needs to incorporate some or all of the following parking-related ideas. As far as I know, sadly, these design features are not being incorporated.

Parking meters should be installed on Trailhead streets to reduce spillover parking to nearby neighborhoods, ensure that sufficient parking is available in Trailhead, and provide revenue for enhancements and upkeep of street and sidewalk infrastructure in Trailhead. I think that spillover parking from Trailhead will be almost unnoticeable in this neighborhood. If there IS significant spillover, parking permits or parking meters (that homeowners can be exempt from paying) would solve the issue.

I don’t like the idea that the Trailhead developer has to pay – up front – to provide “free” parking to residents of the development. Such parking requirements convert a cost drivers should pay at the end of their trips (the cost of parking) into one developers must pay at the start of their projects (and then pass on to homebuyers). Having developers pay up front is also problematic because it is unfair to those in the development who have relatively few or no cars. The price of parking should be unbundled from the price of housing at Trailhead so that a buyer has the option of paying less for a home by not opting to have parking provided.

I don’t at all like the idea of having the developer of Trailhead have to install a LOT more asphalt on the development site to provide “affordable housing for cars.” I much prefer the provision of less parking at Trailhead so that there is less asphalt for storing cars at Trailhead.

Studies throughout the nation over the past several decades show that the more parking provided at a development like Trailhead, the more cars will be owned per household, asphaltwhich increases the miles driven per household. I prefer less cars owned per household, and less per household miles driven.

I prefer more demand for transit by Boulder residents. Providing more parking at Trailhead reduces transit demand by those living at Trailhead.

I support community-wide eco-passes (a pass that allows the pass-holder to ride the bus system in the region for free), but only when Boulder properly manages parking in the city. Providing more parking at Trailhead makes community-wide eco-passes less likely, because there will be less demand for such passes.

I prefer compact, walkable, charming design at Trailhead. The more parking that Trailhead provides, the less walkable, compact and charming it will be.

Providing more parking at Trailhead makes that development more suburban. Making it more suburban means it will fit in less with the walkable character of the adjacent, historic Mapleton Hill neighborhood.

 

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Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Keys to Walkability

By Dom Nozzi

December 11, 2006

How do we make a place exceptionally walkable?

PROXIMITY is crucial as a measure – perhaps reducing all other measures to insignificance by comparison. In nearly all of America, unfortunately, our car-centric history has dispersed destinations to a point where it will be nearly impossible to retrofit walkability into American cities. Tragically, it will require decades or generations before we will see sufficient infill and densification in our communities for any semblance of area-wide walkability to be established.

In addition to lack of proximity, another enormous problem we face in striving to encourage more utilitarian walking (and bicycling and transit use) is that America is drowning in an over-abundance of FREE PARKING. When we know that plenty of free parking awaits us nearly everywhere we need to go, we are essentially being begged to drive a car, and we end up seeing many drive even when their destination is only a short distance away (and even though there may be wide sidewalks and vibrant, pulled-up-to-the-street buildings).

As an aside, the fact that free and abundant parking is so strongly demanded and is such a powerful way to manipulate travel behavior is curious, since for most Americans, there is little that is more anathema than deliberate behavior modification.

It is therefore essential that we work to restrict the availability of free and ample parking. Some strategies: unbundling the price of parking from housing, parking maximums instead of minimums for new construction, market-priced parking, locating the parking on the side or rear of new buildings, etc.

I just returned from a two-week trip in southern Italy and Sicily. It was magnificent, Catania Italy walkablecharming, romantic, delicious, boisterous, and invigorating. We visited some of the world’s most walkable cities, and enjoyed the experience of walking in places filled with pedestrians (mostly local, as we were there off-season). We were immersed in a walking culture.

Guess what? Most all of the places we walked had no sidewalk at all (or had “sidewalks” only a meter or so wide). “Pedestrian Level of Service” (called “PLOS”) is an effort to quantify the quality of the walking environment. Is the PLOS high or low in these Italian cities?

I believe so many walk in these wonderful Italian cities because of proximity, the difficulty in finding parking, and the expense of owning and driving a car. Very little (or none) of it is due to wide sidewalks or pleasant landscaping, unlike what many in America seem to think.

I believe that to promote walkability, many Americans call for the installation of wide sidewalks because truly effective strategies (proximity and restrained/priced parking) are 141104-harding2too costly, too painful, too long-term, or not seen as realistic in any way at all. So we build sidewalks (sometimes) because we can. It helps many of us pay lip service to providing walkability. And when no one ends up using the sidewalks, skeptics point to them as confirmation that Americans will never be pedestrians in any meaningful way.

In this interim, grim time for pedestrians, we need to encourage compact, human-scaled, parking-restrained, place-making projects that can serve as shining examples of what we need on a broader scale.

We have spent enormous sums of public and private dollars, and several decades, to do all we can to enable car travel. For most of America, there will be no overnight path to walkability.

Indeed, as James Howard Kunstler argues, much of America may not have a future.

 

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The Proposed Student Village in Gainesville Florida

By Dom Nozzi

December 14, 2005

I reviewed plans for the design of a new “student village” in southwest Gainesville Florida in late 2005.

I am an enthusiastic advocate of walkable, quality urbanism and was therefore quite pleased to see the dense, mixed-use, walkable, compact design that had been created by a student studio project group for this southwest Gainesville location at the southwest gateway to the University of Florida campus.

Here are some items that concern me:

I believe it is unwise to allow the size of fire trucks to dictate the height of the buildings and the width of the travel lanes, as this plan proposes. If walkable design requires certain dimensions, I don’t think it is a good idea to revise those dimensions to accommodate over-sized trucks. I would suggest that the final report recommend that the City and County invest in smaller fire trucks (and maybe smaller transit vehicles) to accommodate the walkable, compact, human-scaled neighborhoods that we will increasingly be building in our communities.

Yes, buying such trucks would probably be more expensive. But it is a lot more expensive to save money on the conventional over-sized fire trucks and then be obligated to bear the large costs (car crashes, lower-value/lower-quality development, etc.) that result from those big trucks.

Quality urbanism is somewhat more expensive than mediocre urbanism, but this community needs to have the wisdom and the pride to willingly want to pay those extra costs by, for example, buying smaller fire trucks.

I was impressed by how the proposal is illustrating block size comparisons for the downtowns of well-known cities in other parts of the world. It is crucial for walkability that the block sizes used in the Student Village be as small as possible (200 to 400 ft). Note that Portland OR is widely admired for its modest block sizes.

Similarly, it is crucial that the design maximize connectivity and accessibility, as this significantly adds to travel choice and walkability, not to mention substantially reducing traffic congestion.

In my opinion, the design options are showing an over-abundance of park space. While I acknowledge that a large number of SMALL parks, plazas and squares is important for quality urbanism, we should be careful about relatively large parks. Such parks can detract from the human-scaled proximity that walkability requires by introducing walking Tetro_Student_Village_Renderings_003distances that are too large. As a side note, I would be concerned that the quantity of greenspace in the proposal might have a significant deadening effect on the Village — walkability is better promoted when we have a bustling, compact concentration of mixed and vibrant buildings in close proximity to each other. Parks, if not laid out modestly, can detract from that.

I wonder about how much dense urbanism we can realistically expect in this location. While it is close to the UF campus, I don’t know that it will contain a major transportation “crossroads” that throughout history has been essential in the emergence of dense urbanism. Main Street and University Avenue originally did that in Gainesville. Today, it is primarily the I-75 interchanges that provide such a critical mass of vehicle trips. Can we realistically expect a critical mass of trips in this location to drive dense urbanism? I believe this is an important question, as doing such things as changing land use designations from low density to high density doesn’t do much at all to influence the emergence of dense urbanism.

I am uncomfortable with the recommendation to allow buildings that are 7-10 stories high. Taller buildings typically detract from walkability, because they generally result in excessive amounts of auto parking surrounding them. Taller buildings also result in a smaller number of buildings in the Village. For walkability, I’d rather have, say, 6 five-story buildings than 3 ten-story buildings. More buildings means more vibrancy and more proximity, and less dead space. Paris, for example, is one of the great cities of the world with regard to quality urbanism, and I believe they limit their buildings to 5 stories.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of creating tall, dense development in the southwest corner of our urban area. Frankly, I don’t believe that poly-centric cities are a good idea. My concern is that a second “downtown” for Gainesville would drain retail, office and residential energy that is so desperately needed in Gainesville’s original downtown. Also, it seems to me that for the sake of creating a sense of community and reducing vehicle travel, our civic, socially-condensing institutions should be located in a single place (downtown, and to a lesser extent UF), rather than creating a second set of civic buildings at our urban edge.

One could argue, I suppose, that the Village could become a stand-alone “new city” that is distinct from Gainesville, but again, due to the lack of an important crossroads here, I’m not sure this is a realistic idea.

I applaud the project for recognizing the importance of creating low-design-speed streets in the Village. That is essential if this is to be a successful, dense, vibrant, walkable project. As I indicated at the meeting, there are a great many designs that can be introduced to slow vehicle speeds beyond creation of 10-foot wide travel lanes. I firmly believe that to create safer, low-speed, high-quality streets, we need to move back to the timeless tradition of re-introducing friction in our streets (on-street parking, buildings and street trees close to the street, bulb-outs, no more than 3 lanes of street width, etc.). Streets are safer when motorists are obligated to pay attention and be careful. Streets are less safe when we follow the “forgiving street” convention of removing friction, which enables inattentive, high-speed car travel.

A dilemma for this project in its desire to create low design speeds is that the Village is located in a suburban, high-speed environment. That means that when driving in this portion of our urban area, motorists have a very strong expectation of being able to drive very fast and very inattentively. That means that it is crucial that the Village incorporate strong, unmistakable messages at its borders. That is, high-visibility Gateway Street treatments are important. As a motorist enters the Village, the street should clearly announce that the motorist is entering a slow-speed, pedestrian-oriented village. Features that could be used to announce such a message might include a narrowing of the street, buildings closer to the street, lower-profile post-mounted traffic signals, perhaps a roundabout, landscaped monument signs (and maybe a banner of some sort) proudly announcing entrance to the village, on-street parking, brick paving, painted paving, etc.

In my opinion, parking strategies are essential to the success of this project as a walkable, vibrant, urban place. First, it is very important that this project strongly encourages (or if feasible, requires) new residential (and ideally, commercial) development to UNBUNDLE parking from the cost of the residential unit. The convention of bundling the cost of the parking into the price of the residence is almost begging people to own and use cars at the residence. Since the project recommends a strong transit element, I am confident that a good number of residents would opt to forego paying more for their residence by not purchasing a parking space (only possible if the parking is unbundled from the residential price).

I have some concerns about the project calling for structured, multi-story parking garages. The per-space cost for such parking is quite enormous, and I am not at all sure that the land/market where the Village is located will be able to justify such an expense. How many retailers or prospective residential tenants, in other words, would be willing to pay roughly $10,000 per parking space in this location? Also, I have learned over the years that people tend not to want to park in structured parking unless they will be parked for several hours (for a job, a major entertainment event, etc.). Typically, people don’t like parking in a garage in order to go shopping.

In sum, I believe that parking in the Village should emphasize priced parking — particularly on-street parking. Certainly, structured parking is preferable to surface parking because it minimizes the parking footprint, thereby promoting compact walkability and additional retail opportunities. But while I favor structured parking, I don’t know that we can expect the market to be able to provide it in the Village. This is not to say we should just have a free-for-all on surface parking. Surface parking can and needs to be controlled by having the Village be parking exempt (don’t require new development to provide parking). Downtown Gainesville, for example, is parking exempt — a necessity for any place that intends to be walkable. It also needs to be controlled by only allowing it to occur at the rear or side of buildings. Structured parking, by the way, should only be allowed if it is wrapped by office/retail/residential.

I would refer the designers of this proposal to Donald Shoup’s new book (The High Cost of Free Parking). In my 19 years as a city planner, it is one of the most magnificent book I have ever read. The book should be required reading for all planners, engineers and elected officials.

I have not seen this yet in the Village plan, but I assume that the plan will recommend that there is a modest build-to requirement that obligates buildings to be pulled up to the street and sidewalk.

In sum, I am quite impressed by the project, despite my concerns.

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Congestion and Transit in Toronto

By Dom Nozzi

May 2013

In 2013, a Toronto friend told me that traffic congestion is a problem in that city and its economy.

I told him that I don’t agree that congestion significantly harms the local economy (in most cases). See, for example, this from the economist Todd Litman : http://www.vtpi.org/UMR_critique.pdf Transportation “improvements” to “reduce” congestion suffer today from the law of diminishing returns.

Each transport dollar we now spend results in fewer and fewer benefits than in the past (indeed, in my view, most all dollars WORSEN our communities and their economies).

It is not a coincidence that the most economically healthy cities tend to be severely congested. Because cars consume so much space, only a tiny number of people in cars are needed to create congestion. Given that, there is a problem if a city is NOT congested in certain locations. The problem is not congestion. Congestion is a sign of a healthy, attractive city that people want to be a part of. The problem is when there are no alternatives to avoid the congestion.

Congestion is a powerful motivator. It can be very helpful in generating the political will to create alternatives to avoid the congestion, as Toronto is finding with its interest in more transit. Other ways to avoid the largely inevitable congestion: More housing in town center locations. More street connections (by reducing dead ends and cul-de-sacs). Tolling roads. Putting roads on a diet. Making streets more “complete” so they handle more than just cars. More jobs and shopping in residential areas. Properly priced car parking (nearly all cities provide too much underpriced or free parking). Cash-out parking. Unbundled parking. Paying for car insurance at the gas pump. And so on.

As a Michael Ronkin and I often say these days, creating more walking, bicycling and transit is much more about TAKING AWAY things from motorists (subsidies, road & parking space, etc.) than it is about providing facilities for bicycling, walking and Safeway-July-2015-smtransit. So while sidewalks, bike paths and better transit are usually important, it is typically the case that such things are secondary to doing the things I list above.

Too many cities put the cart before the horse by providing transit with the necessary prerequisites of properly managed parking, proper pricing, and proper land uses, for example. Toronto has done reasonably well on this. But I also suspect there is much more they can do to create better conditions for healthy transit.

Easy and fair way to pay for more and better transit is tolling roads and properly pricing the parking, among other things. I suspect as good as the city is compared to most other cities, Toronto has a long way to go in creating fair user fees for transport. I’m sure that like in most larger cities, transit is well-used because it is costly and inconvenient (as it should be, for fairness and quality of life) to drive a car.

“Agglomeration Economies” are very important for the (economic and social) health of a city, and things that “ease congestion” tend to create urban DISPERSAL, which directly undercuts the agglomeration economies that cities need to be healthy.

Something else to consider: the “travel time budget,” which informs us that humans are apparently hard-wired for a certain amount of time allocated to daily commuting. Cross-culturally and throughout history, that budget tends to be about 1.2 hours per day (some do more, some do less, but the average is about 1.2). Given that, we can know the consequences of certain actions regarding congestion: When faced with the “time tax” of congestion, many will (in the long run) live closer to work or travel at non-rush hour times or take different routes, or travel by bike/bus/walking as a way to stay within their travel time budget.

The conventional (and mostly failed) approach is to “ease congestion” by widening roads and intersections. The triple convergence and travel time budget let us know that by doing so, we will NOT ease congestion for very long (by widening). About all we will achieve is greater geographic dispersal of where jobs, shopping and housing are found in the city (city sprawl accelerates). That, of course, quickly worsens sprawl and increases commute times.

 

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