Secretly Gutting the Transportation Plan

Late in my career as a city planner for Gainesville, Florida, I tried to blow the whistle on what I believed was a clear violation of adopted protocol for the adoption of local government plans, policies or regulations.

What I experienced was quite remarkable, breathtaking and enraging. And my effort to blow the whistle failed.

It pertained to the draft transportation plan I had authored for the Gainesville Comprehensive Plan.

In a nutshell, what happened was that the City Public Works Department had gutted and emasculated the draft transportation plan.

How much had they gutted it? The department so substantially watered down the plan that I informed my supervisor that the revision would require me to disown the plan. I would no longer want my name associated with it, and would refuse to present it at public meetings — largely because presenting it would give the false impression that I implicitly supported the current version. Essentially, the changes created a blatant internal contradiction in the Comprehensive Plan, since the transportation plan would be aggressively promoting sprawl and a downward spiral in our quality of life – the opposite of what the overall Comprehensive Plan for Gainesville was seeking.

This gutting of the draft plan had been achieved by the Public Works Department despite the fact that at least a strong majority of commissioners (if not all five) would support the language that was removed, revised, or otherwise converted to meaningless pabulum by Public Works staff.

The emasculation of the transportation plan by Public Works were, in effect, done “behind closed doors,” so to speak. It was done secretly because staff had made substantial changes that would be almost impossible for elected officials or citizens to notice. This was because earlier, the version of the plan I had prepared was approved by the Plan Board (an advisory board for the elected officials) a few months ago.

But in a shocking departure from long-standing protocol, the elected officials never saw the version their advisory board had reviewed at a public meeting and recommended to the elected officials for adoption.

The radical, emasculating changes to the plan which were requested by Public Works were hidden from elected officials because the version officials were to see a their next meeting would not show any strike-throughs or underlines to call out the extreme changes demanded by Public Works staff. Changes to the version adopted by the advisory board.

This is never done.

In all my years as a city planner, this kind of underhanded, secretive shenanigans was never engaged in by staff, and for good reason. It is completely unethical and out of line for staff to make major changes to a draft public document without showing the decision-making officials the changes via strike-throughs and underlines.

Again, as I noted above, this veiled tactic to slip changes through the elected officials without their realizing what was happening took my breath away, largely because in my previous conversations with the elected officials, it became clear to me that there was broad support for the language I had placed in the earlier draft of the plan. Elected officials would almost certainly have approved of my language.

But elected officials would never know of my original language because it was removed without showing elected officials the language that was being removed (language that they would have supported).

In my opinion, staff should never hide major policy decisions from the decision-makers.

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“Concurrency” for New Development?

By Dom Nozzi

“Concurrency” is a regulatory rule that seeks to ensure that new development does not result in a diminishment of the amount of parks or schools or potable water per person. Some communities call it an “adequate facilities” rule.

I worked as a town planner for 20 years as a long-range comprehensive planner in Florida, and a great deal of my work involved helping my community implement the state concurrency rule adopted a year before I started my job.

This state growth management law goes into great detail and requires an enormous amount of study to determine, precisely, concurrency needs for facilities (primarily adequacy for roads to avoid congestion). The concurrency rule seems, on the surface, to be a good proxy for our determining if we are “managing” growth and protecting our quality of life.

In fact, it is an incredibly bad measure for sustainability and quality of life.

Despite first impressions, the rule tends to move communities in the opposite, downwardly-spiraling direction.

The rule is fairly harmless for, say, parks or schools. But for roads, maintaining per capita road capacity with a concurrency or adequate facilities rule is ruinous.Burma-207

In most or all instances where concurrency is adopted by a community to manage new development, the rule says nothing meaningful about needing to maintain a level-of-service for the most important elements of a quality community: quality neighborhoods, transportation choice, housing choice, urban design quality, compact development, mixed use, or quality of life.

Instead, nearly all applications of the rule forces the community to divert an enormous amount of time and energy into putting together a huge amount of data that is nearly meaningless for creating quality communities — data that is often counter-productive. And little more than mindless, bureaucratic bean counting.

Because of this, communities with a concurrency rule often have very little available staff time that can be devoted to putting together a vision for quality of life and sustainability. Such communities could have time, but it would require more money to hire more planners — and visionary planners at that. By setting up a concurrency rule, most communities get lowest common denominator planning.

The smaller towns with no planning staff or history of planning are helped to at least start doing something to fight the Wal-Marts and sprawl developers, but for bigger, more sophisticated cities, the rule typically means that planning staff squander a huge chunk of their time on bean counting: working up huge amounts of numbers that don’t help the community — and usually hurts the community.

Almost never does a community with a concurrency rule ask or expect any visioning or designing for quality of life. They are so busy counting beans that they kill themselves to assess concurrency numbers, and then delude themselves into thinking that such a number-crunching effort will somehow give them, magically, a pleasant, walkable town.

We need to start over again on concurrency.

Concurrency must start finding proxies for quality of life.

The road concurrency rule (which is the only concurrency rule that matters for most or all of the communities which have adopted concurrency regulations) means, instead, that all the community cares about is a quality of life for cars.

The unintended consequence of such a misguided focus on a quality car habitat rather than a quality people habitat? The community makes it inevitable that sprawl will be accelerated and the quality of life trashed. Indeed, both sprawl and quality of life end up being much worse than had the community not adopted a concurrency rule.

And what a bitter irony that would be.

 

 

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Finding the Political Will to Revolutionize Transportation and Land Use

By Dom Nozzi

Many of us have spent decades trying to identify the lynchpins that will catalyze needed reforms in our transportation system and our land use patterns. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that if we continue on our century-long path of making car travel the only reasonable way to travel, our future will be grimly unsustainable.

The most common solutions discussed? “Educating people” is perhaps the most common “solution.” Sadly, our education efforts to change behavior or values are fighting against decades of trillions of dollars spent by the public 91-of-teachers-have-computer-access-infographic--3a4b23f933and private sector to make cars (and suburbanites) happy. Every single day, a person drives their Lexus and a huge, blaring educational message screams at them: “Widen this arterial! Reduce gas prices!!! Make me happy driving my Lexus by allowing me to drive fast!!”

Other common “solutions”: Elect the “right” politicians.  Build more bike lanes and sidewalks. Improve our bus (transit) system.

But none of these tactics will be effective, because none of them will motivate the majority of citizens to change their views and desires about transportation and land use. Without a change in what a community desires, it seems to me that only a benign dictatorship can create changes needed for a better future.

I’m not optimistic at all that we can build much public support for transportation choice until traffic and parking congestion, high parking fees, scarcity of parking, or high gas prices force us to think and behave differently. We made progress on this in the 1970s because the oil price increases forced us to. Candidates for office that supported needed change were doomed from the start (i.e., had no chance of being elected) because it was too cheap and easy to drive a gas guzzler to rent a video across town.

What can be done at the local level that are effective in nudging behaviors and desires toward those which will give us a brighter future?

Gas price increases can be extremely beneficial. Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to increase gas prices locally.

The things we can change are things I often push for:

1. Scarcity of parking. We can revise our land development regulations to make it much easier and less costly to replace deadening asphalt surface parking lots with offices, shops, and residences. We can also change our local regulations to eliminate “minimum parking” requirements (by converting them to “maximum parking” requirements. “Minimum” requirements require developers to provide excessive amounts of free parking as part of their development. Requiring this is ruinous to a city and undermines housing and business affordability – not to mention increasing our cost of living, increasing our taxes, and reducing our quality of life.

2. Increased parking charges. Similarly, we can convert free parking in our community to priced parking. Currently, nearly all of our parking is free. That state of affairs induces “low-value” car trips, increases the costs of goods and services we buy (because “free” parking ends up being paid by the business owner), and forces us to make a vast percentage of our community land area to consist of awful asphalt parking. Besides making our driving and parking more efficient, properly priced parking will provide us with new revenues we can use to improve our transit system and the landscaping along our streets, among many other pressing community needs.

3. Travel lane removal. Too many of our roads and highways are over-sized. Like free parking, free roads have induced too many “low-value” car trips, which have congested our roads and compelled us to excessively widen our roadways in a hopeless, bankrupting, never-ending process of trying to “build our way out of congestion.” As a result of this state of affairs, a great many of our roads and highways are too big, and can be substantially improved by being put on a “road diet” (converting the road from, say, a four-lane to a three-lane roadway).

4. Moratorium on street widening. Coupled with road diets, we should put a stop to future widening of roads and intersections. Widening roads and intersections is extremely costly initially, and leads to gigantic future costs due to increased operation and maintenance expenses, increased car crashes, degraded public health (due to increased car emissions and reduced bicycling, walking, and transit), worsened household/government/business finances, degraded community aesthetics, and worsened suburban sprawl (among many other problems associated with road and intersection widening).

5. Local models. It is also beneficial to revise counterproductive local development regulations to make “smart” development (development that is walkable, compact, and sustainable) more likely. Too often, local development regulations make us our own worst enemy because they require unsustainable, ruinous, car-dependent development, and make sustainable, lovable development illegal. If we revise our local development regulations to make the lovable and sustainable development the default, and make the unsustainable, car-dependent development hard to do (in other words, reverse the current approach we use), we can more quickly see a proliferation of on-the-ground models — models where we can see with our own eyes that sustainable, walkable design is not only popular, but highly profitable.

In each of the above five tactics, we have local control to effectively nudge our community behaviors and desires toward those that are consistent with a better future.

In my opinion, it will only be then that we can find success in achieving the changes we have so long desired.

 

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Design Blunders When Gainesville FL Put It’s Main Street on a Diet

By Dom Nozzi

In the first decade of the 21st Century, Gainesville, Florida made the highly admirable decision to put its over-sized Main Street on a “road diet” by taking that street from four and five lanes to three lanes. Doing so would create a safer, more pleasant ambience, reduce speeding, improve the attractiveness of the street, promote the health of businesses on that street, convert the street from a “drive through” to a “drive TO” experience, and reduce overall operation and maintenance costs.

However, a number of important blunders were committed when this decision was made.

First, the decision was made to increase the size of the “turning radii” at several intersections by making the corner angle at the junctions of the two streets more of a gentle slope. Doing this was intended to make turning movements by larger vehicles more feasible. The unintended consequence, however, was that smaller motor vehicle turning movements were made much faster and less attentively, which reduced traffic safety. It also substantially increased the crossing distance for pedestrians, which significantly reduced pedestrian safety.

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Such a design decision is entirely inappropriate for a town center, where slow speeds and the need to make the pedestrian (not the motor vehicle) the design imperative is essential.  The last thing we should be doing in a town center is creating conditions that are unpleasant and unsafe for pedestrians. A walkable ambience is critical if town center expects any sort of competitive leverage with strip commercial areas. After all, being walkable is one of the key ways a town center can outcompete the strip areas.

Another extremely important factor that is undermined by a larger turning radius at intersections is the “small town”, historic feel that a small turn radius imparts. One of the most powerful ways to destroy a small town ambience that so many of us love is to create over-sized turn radii at intersections. Conversely, insisting on retention of a small turn radius is a superb way to retain a small town feel (not to mention retaining and promoting pedestrian safety).

The second major design blunder that Gainesville opted for in its otherwise desirable road diet of Main Street was to remove the historic, charming, lovable brick that was under the asphalt.

A brick street surface is a very effective calming device. It also creates spectacular, romantic, historic ambience (which explains why cities like Orlando, Florida have spent millions to uncover the brick underlying many of their streets. In addition, despite the conventional wisdom, bricks reduce maintenance costs in the long run — asphalt is more expensive to maintain in the long run.

What I found most puzzling about the removal of the historic brick and the increased size of turning radii on Main Street was that doing so did not even raise a peep of protest from the local historic preservation people. This despite the fact that retaining the historic brick and the historically modest turning radii on Main Street were two of the most powerful ways to engage in priceless protection of Gainesville’s historic heritage on Main Street (by preserving its historic character).

Third, the decision was made to not only keep the curbs at the same location (rather than moving them closer together), but to not add more than a tiny number of new on-street parking spaces when the excess through lane in both directions was removed. This occurred at least in part because the City opted to install in-street bike lanes on the newly configured Main Street. A decision was also made to include bus pull-outs on the new Main Street.

Several problems are associated with these decisions.

Reducing crossing distances for pedestrians by moving the curbs closer together, and adding several new on-street parking spaces are very important benefits of a road diet, because doing so dramatically improves pedestrian safety, improves the health of retail stores, improves conditions for any residential that may be on Main Street, reduces car speeds (by moving away from a “highway-oriented ambience” of an overly wide street), and creates a more human-scaled feel to the street. Not moving the curbs or adding a lot of new on-street parking after the diet was therefore unwise.

Installing in-street bicycle lanes on a street that should be designed for slow speeds and human scale undermines those objectives because the bike lanes increase street width, which increases average car speeds and increases pedestrian crossing distances. They also make it very difficult or impossible to install the on-street parking that a healthy town center thrives on. A well-designed town center main street is one that obligates slow speeds and attentive driving by motorists, and doing this allows bicyclists to safely, comfortably share the travel lane with cars, rather than needing a bicycle lane.

The City also opted to add bus pull-outs on the new Main Street. Again, doing this undermines the critical need to create a more pleasant, safe pedestrian realm. Bus pull-outs are inappropriate in a town center because they increase crossing distances for pedestrians, increase average motor vehicle speeds, reduce the amount of on-street parking that can be added to the street, and slow down bus speeds (largely because buses often find they must often wait to find an opening in car traffic before re-entering the travel lane).

Finally, the City opted not to install “post-mounted” traffic signals on the 7390694268_93120010d5_znew Main Street, despite my strong recommendation that they do so. “Post-mounted” signals create a slower-speed, human-scaled ambience for a street (not to mention restoring historic design). Motorists must drive slower and more attentively with post-mounted signals, which make them highly appropriate for a town center. By contrast, the mast-arm signals the City opted to retain creates a more high-speed, highway-oriented ambience thatCroton-on-Hudson_Dummy_Light degrades the character that a health town center needs.

In sum, Gainesville’s road dieting of Main Street was a highly desirable decision, but many ill-advised design decisions created a new street that could have been so much better for pedestrians, businesses, civic pride, and overall quality of life. Had the City avoided these design mistakes, future road diets would have seemed much more desirable, as the Main Street diet would have produced much more obvious benefits.

 

 

 

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The Consequences of Muzzling Professional Public-Sector Staff

By Dom Nozzi

I was a town planner in Gainesville, Florida for 20 years. About three-quarters of the way into those years, I published a book about suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, and quality of life. It was essentially a “lessons learned” book about the wisdom I had gained from my years as a professional planner for an American city. I started giving public presentations about the book to audiences throughout Florida and around the nation.

I was flattered by the many compliments and praise I tended to hear from those audiences. A few local elected officials noticed, and asked that I make the presentation to the local “Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization” (MTPO), a group made up of elected city and county commissioners making decisions about transportation and sprawl in my county.

But when I asked my supervisors at my city planning office for permission to give the presentation, I was informed that I would not be allowed to give a speech to the MTPO.

Apparently, my views were considered “too controversial.” Or “too politically incorrect.”

This was despite the fact that the views expressed in my book and speeches were entirely compatible with the adopted policies of the City of Gainesville.

One of my friends, an elected county commissioner who had suggested I give my presentation to the MTPO, asked if I was given an official explanation for being told I would not be allowed to give a speech to the MTPO.

I informed my friend that I was told some citizens at the MTPO meeting (or watching at home) would hear me make controversial comments, get angry, and not know whether I was speaking as a spokesperson representing the views of the City of Gainesville planner. At that time, as an aside, I was also prohibited by my supervisors from having my views published by the local newspaper because, I was told, even if I explicitly stated up front a disclaimer that the views I was expressing were mine alone and not necessarily those of the City of Gainesville (which was my standard practice in any event), citizens would still believe the opinions were those of the City.

In other words, my rights to free speech were being denied.

This sort of muzzling exemplified how the City of Gainesville was running scared. Professional staff are to be prohibited from making any citizen unhappy, or having any opinion about planning at all. Staff are especially not allowed to make sprawl developers and property owners (or Not-In-My-Backyard no-growthers) angry or upset.

Have you ever noticed how whenever a bureaucrat writes a report or speaks in public, they always sound so empty and boring? How they use nothing but puzzling, meaningless jargon? The situation I describe above about how my ability to communicate was so severely restricted provides a superb example of how, over time, bureaucrats are conditioned to never say anything meaningful at all. A bureaucrat is well-schooled in being able to talk for 30 minutes without actually saying anything. These are the origins of milquetoast bureaucrats.

An important consequence of this is that written words or speeches of a bureaucrat are completely watered down pabulum that are designed to be empty babble. The training of a bureaucrat is to only say or write things that will offend no one. The bureaucrat is punished if she or he says anything meaningful or honest.

A corollary to this state of affairs is that when leadership is absent, professional staff is not allowed to engage in any form of common sense judgement or calibration of adopted rules, even when it is clear to all parties involved that following the letter of the law is, in some cases, absurd.

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The bureaucrat also learns another ruinous lesson: My job is not to strive to implement adopted policies or recommend new policies designed to achieve community quality of life objectives.

No, my job is simple and straightforward. Follow the letter of the law. No judgement or opinion allowed. Cover my ass. Nothing else is important.

This state of affairs shows the essential need for government and its elected officials to have some courage and leadership. If a public sector bureaucrat is stating a position in line with adopted policies of government, the role of the elected official (if the official is interested in being a leader) is to stand behind the staff person. Too often however, elected officials are not leaders. If a citizen complains to them about an opinion expressed by a staff person (including opinions that are consistent with adopted community policy), the knee-jerk response from timid, spineless officials is to unfairly blame or scapegoat the staff person.

“It’s not my fault, it is the fault of that staff person!”

A true leader takes a different approach. He or she informs the citizen that “the staff person is expressing adopted community policy, and I stand behind that staff person.”

By scapegoating staff rather than showing leadership, elected officials and their timid public agencies are wasting our time and money as Rome burns. And they are training their staff to be do-nothing, say-nothing bureaucrats.

Is it really worth it for us to offend no one? What objective does that achieve? I am convinced that such a tactical approach is a recipe for doing nothing.

 

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Overthrow: A Review

By Dom Nozzi

I just finished reading a book written in 2006 called Overthrow, by Stephen Kinzer.

I highly recommend it.

overthrowHow many of us know of the shameful, sordid history of our US government overthrowing leaders in Hawaii, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Vietnam, Iran, and Afghanistan? How in nearly all cases, we did so to secure access to resources, or were doing the bidding of multi-national corporations which desired continued easy access to such resources? How in each case, we cloaked our attack not on such exploitative reasons, but based on the false claim that we are doing so to “liberate oppressed people,” to “bring democracy and freedom,” to “stop a dangerous tyrant,” or to “help people who could not govern themselves”? How most all of the nations we overthrew became much worse off during and after our “regime change” actions?

Many of us, the author points out, believe such fairy tales of our “bringing democracy and freedom” because of the common belief in “exceptionalism,” where the US is seen to be inherently more moral, godly and just than all other nations, and therefore a country that can only do right and never do wrong.”

A friend responded to the above by saying, “Don’t we already know this?” To which I replied with the following…

In The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich notes the terrifying reality that America has now reached a political consensus: The vast majority of Republicans and Democrats are now flag-waving supporters of ramped up and never-ending US militarism, which clearly shows that the majority does NOT already know this (unless most of us are barbarians, and support such aggression even though it is in support of multi-national corporations rather than our security).

In Morality Wars, Charles Derber finds that cloaking barbaric “gunboat diplomacy” as bringing “democracy and freedom” has been in existence for many centuries for nearly all empires, and few, if any, societies were able to see through the hysteria and deception. I see no evidence, to this day, that the vast majority of Americans (including most Democrats) oppose wars of aggression by the US. The majority of Democrats and Republicans have cheered Obama adopting the largest military budgets in US history, as well as his many wars of aggression, and there seems to be a near political consensus that US aggression is justifiable.  Where, for example, is the outrage about Obama’s drone war, his on-going war of aggression in Afghanistan (which a HUGE number of liberals and feminists heartily support as a way to bring “democracy” and “women’s rights” to that ravaged nation), his saber rattling over the Ukraine, and his military action in Libya (which most Democrats supported)?1280511495

If “we” Americans already knew this, why did we re-elect one of the most warlike presidents in our history (Obama)?

Or maybe by “we” you mean you and me?

PS – I’m one of the most well-read people I know, and I knew only a tiny amount about the awful US history since 1898 of orchestrating regime change. I would say over 99 percent of Americans know nothing about that history. Most of the Overthrow book was news to me. Maybe I’m a moron, but maybe not. The book sickened me to the point where I am both utterly ashamed to be an American, and startled that educated citizens continue to vote for major party US presidential candidates, given how many wars of aggression presidents of both parties have called for over the past century.

 

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Should a City Transportation Plan Seek to Reduce Traffic Congestion?

By Dom Nozzi

I’m proud to say that I live in Boulder, Colorado – a city admired around the nation for pursuing progressive objectives.

Boulder has admirably established an aggressive, necessary objective: The community shall achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) production. Achieving this lofty goal will require adopting effective, historically significant tactics.

Is Boulder bold enough to embrace such measures?

Because of the enormous contribution that transportation emissions add to the overall ledger of community GHG emissions, one of the first places to look is the City Transportation Master Plan, which is currently being updated. Are the tactics in the updated plan audacious enough to do the job?

No. In my opinion, the current draft of the update remains too timid to have the city take the steps needed to approach the important goal of an 80 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

In my view, the first step in reaching the goal is to revisit the “congestion” objective in the plan.

The Traffic Congestion Objective

Since at least the 1990s, Boulder has had an objective in its long-range transportation plan that states:

“No more than 20 percent of roadways congested (at Level of Service [LOS] F)”

This is perhaps the most important, influential objective in the Boulder Transportation Master Plan (TMP). On the surface, it seems like a wonderful idea. But when a city strives to maintain “free-flowing” car traffic, as this objective intends to do, there are a great many hidden, unintended consequences that can undermine important Boulder objectives.

Counterintuitively, substantially reducing GHG emissions will require the city to significantly revise how it approaches traffic congestion management.

Here’s why: Achieving a free-flowing traffic objective…

…induces “low-value” car trips (i.e., using the car to buy a cup of coffee).

…results in an increase in toxic air emissions (despite the conventional wisdom that claims free-flow reduces emissions) due to the induced low-value trips.

…informs the City of Boulder and its citizens that it is useful to maintain or increase road and intersection capacity, even on roads and intersections that are too big already. This problem has been common in Boulder for a number of years now. While the City tends to steer clear of road widening, it has approved the construction of double left turn lanes at many urban intersections (see note below about double left turn lanes). Engineers are particularly eager to create such oversized intersections because enlarging intersections is much more effective in reducing congestion (at least for a brief time) than adding more travel lanes to a road.

…strongly discourages road diets (removal of one or more lanes from a road). This despite the fact that road diets are a powerful way to achieve a number of Boulder objectives, such as adding bike lanes and on-street parking, creating more sidewalk and streetscape space, slowing cars, significantly reducing pedestrian crossing distances, dramatically improving safety, significantly reducing severe car crashes, improving retail and residential health, reducing air emissions and fuel consumption, reducing low-value (and regional) car trips, reducing maintenance costs, increasing civic pride, reducing speeding, and improving overall quality of life. See map below of a possible road diet vision for Boulder.

…puts far too much emphasis on what James Howard Kunstler calls “happy motoring.” Too often, free-flowing traffic is considered a key way to achieve urban quality of life. However, free-flowing traffic undermines quality of life in a number of ways. By putting free-flowing traffic on a pedestal, so to speak, or placing such travel in an exalted, privileged position, the City is strongly promoting car travel, and such a car-centric focus is rightly the antithesis of what Boulder is about.

…promotes use of conventional methods of maintaining free-flowing traffic, such as intersection widening, which are so costly that other important transportation needs for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users are starved of funding.

…promotes car dependency, which is an engine for high-speed car travel, suburban sprawl, regional car trips, and low-density land uses. By contrast, healthy town centers are slow speed. And compact, vibrant, sustainable cities avoid sprawl. Free-flowing traffic also reduces travel choice, as walking, bicycling, and transit become less pleasant and less safe when car travel is free-flowing.

The Congestion Paradox

Most every change in behavior that a citizen engages in when responding to traffic congestion – such as avoiding rush hour driving, living closer to daily destinations, driving slower, traveling on non-major streets, trip chaining (combining, say, a trip to get groceries with a trip to the doctor), foregoing low-value car trips – is good for the community. By contrast, many (most?) actions a government agency takes when responding to traffic congestion – such as widening a road or intersection, downzoning in the town center, adding more free parking, synchronizing traffic signals for car speeds, converting a two-way street to one-way – is undesirable for the community.

Because cars consume so much space (a person in a car consumes 17 to 100 times as much space as a person not in a car), only a relatively small number of motorists are needed to congest a road. That means that any reasonably attractive city has a traffic congestion “problem,” and any city without a congestion “problem” may have something wrong with it, as it may be a sign that the city is too feeble or sickly to have even a handful of citizens traveling on a road at the same time.

By far, the most effective way to manage congestion is not to try to somehow reduce it or stop it from increasing (which is an enormously costly tactic that quickly leads to worse congestion), but to develop ways to avoid it. A sustainable, smart city addresses congestion, for example, by providing travel choices (bike paths, sidewalks, transit), providing housing near destinations such as jobs, and providing a connected street system so congested streets can be avoided (and car trips more dispersed on multiple streets, rather than burdening one or a few major streets).

Boulder staff has made the point that the congestion objective has long been in the TMP and therefore provides a long, valuable, historic record of changes in congestion over time. I agree that congestion trends are valuable, and should be maintained over time. But this can be done even if Boulder revisits the congestion objective.

In sum, I am convinced that Boulder should revise its congestion objective in the TMP. To its credit, the State of California now recognizes the counterproductive nature of fighting to reduce congestion, and is looking at adopting alternatives that Boulder should also consider: controlling such things as total vehicle miles traveled (VMT), total fuel consumption, or car trip generation. California is also looking at assessing and promoting multi-modal level-of-service, and adopting the position that infill development improves overall accessibility.  As an aside, Boulder staff has recently added “neighborhood access” and “vehicle miles traveled per capita” to the list of TMP objectives, and is starting to look at a multi-model level-of-service.

Double left turn lanes

Traffic engineers commonly claim that such intersection “improvements” as adding a second left-turn lane will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing congestion, and believe a double left turn does not conflict with the transportation plan objective of promoting pedestrian and bicycle trips. In contrast, I believe that double-left turn lanes will increase emissions and will reduce pedestrian and bicycle trips. Double left turn lanes have been shown to be much less effective than commonly thought even if we are just looking at car capacity at an intersection. This is because adding a second left turn lane suffers significantly from diminishing returns. A double left turn does not double the left turn capacity – largely because by significantly increasing the crosswalk distance, the walk cycle must be so long that intersection capacity/efficiency (for cars) is dramatically reduced.

One of the absurdities of this state of affairs is that many cities today regularly cite severe funding shortfalls for transportation, yet these same cities seem eager to build expensive and counterproductive double left turn lanes. This is probably because transportation capital improvement dollars are in a separate silo than maintenance dollars, and that the former dollars are mostly paid by federal/state grants (which cities naturally consider to be “free” money).  Michael Ronkin, former bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for the State of Oregon, states that double left turn lanes are “an abomination.” He adds that “they are a sign of failure: failure to provide enough street connectivity. With low connectivity, according to Ronkin, “when drivers do come to an intersection, the intersection needs to be gigantic, so it can accommodate all the left turns that had not been allowed prior to that point. Ronkin points out that “many trips on extra wide arterials are very short, and involve three left turns: one left turn onto the arterial and one left turn off the arterial: there trips could and should be made on connected local streets.”

Double-left turn lanes…

…destroy human scale and a sense of place.

…increase per capita car travel & and reduce bike/ped/transit trips.

…increase GHG emissions & fuel consumption.

…induce new car trips that were formerly discouraged.

…promote sprawling, dispersed development.

…discourage residential & smaller, locally-owned retail.

Boulder needs to draw a line in the sand: Impose a moratorium on intersection double-left turn lanes and eventually remove such configurations – particularly in the more urbanized portions of the region. Double-lefts are too big for the human habitat. They create a car-only atmosphere.

Proposal for a Road Diet Vision for Boulder

Healthy town centers need to be slow speed, compact, walkable, and human-scaled. In part, that means that roadways in the town center should not exceed three lanes. In Seattle WA, road diets resulted in such obviously beneficial outcomes for businesses and residences along the dieted streets that those on two other arterial streets asked for the road diet treatment on their street. Overall, Seattle has completed over 30 road diets, according to Peter Lagerwey. The following street sections in the Boulder town center exceed that size and would benefit from a road diet.

Town Center Boulder Road Diet vision map

 

Celebrating Community Gatherings

We all know that an attractive city – particularly its town center – will attract people. In healthier, more pleasant cities, the number of people drawn to a city – particularly its town center – will lead to an ambiance that is more festive, convivial, and enjoyable. Humans tend to be sociable by nature, which means that many seek out places that entice a gathering of people. A place to “see and be seen.” A place where we can expect to serendipitously bump into friends as we walk on a sidewalk or square. A place where we can share the news of the day and linger with our fellow citizens. Or share a laugh or an idea. A place that at times creates a “collective effervescence” of people enjoying experiences with others. A place, in other words, that is likely to be rewarding.brugge walkable st

Indeed, the prime reason for the creation of cities throughout history is to promote such exchange. Exchanging goods, services, synergistic ideas, and neighborliness is the lifeblood of a thriving city.

For these reasons, an important sign of a healthy city is that it is a celebrated, beloved place that regularly draws and gathers many citizens of the community. Unhealthy cities, by contrast, are featured, in part, by citizens who are more isolated and more alone. Sociologists such as Robert Putnam would say that these loner cities have “low social capital.”

While larger amounts of people in a gathering can — for some — feel “crowded,” when large numbers arrive in space-hogging cars, conditions are particularly likely to seem undesirably “congested” – even with a relatively small number of people gathering.

Given all of this, a “crowded” or “congested” town center is likely and normal. It is a clear sign that a city is attractive and in good health.

As Yogi Berra once said, “the place became so crowded that no one wanted to go there anymore.” Precisely.

Striving to reduce congestion in the Boulder Town Center, as the Boulder TMP does, is therefore to work at cross purposes to what we seek and should expect and exalt as part of a strong, vigorous city. Widening roads and intersections to “smooth traffic flow” and reduce congestion is akin to the many engineers in the past who fervently believed that it was necessary to convert streams into concrete channels in order to smooth water flow and reduce flooding. Today, we recognize that doing so destroyed the stream ecosystem and made flooding worse downstream. It is time for us to realize that at least in town centers, widening roads and intersections will destroy the human ecosystem and make congestion worse.

Providing Lifestyle and Transportation Choices

Many urbanists, in recent years, have adopted the equitable tactic of using a “rural-to-urban transect” for urban design. Using this method, the full range of lifestyle and travel choices is provided for. A community should provide for those who seek a walkable, compact lifestyle. It should also provide for the more dispersed, drivable lifestyle.

If Boulder opts to better use this method (it already does to a limited extent), it may be beneficial to take a “middle ground” approach to managing traffic congestion. Rather than applying citywide my proposal of ending efforts to reduce congestion, Boulder can consider an approach used in my years as a senior town planner in Florida.

In 1985, Florida adopted a growth management “concurrency” (or “adequate facilities”) law that prohibited development if the proposed development reduced “level of service” standards adopted by the community for such things as parks, potable water, schools, and road capacity. The law seemed highly beneficial when enacted, for obvious reasons. It was also an important tenant of the law that to fight sprawl and promote community objectives, in-town development should be encouraged and remote, sprawling development should be discouraged. But many soon realized that there was a significant unintended consequence with the growth management law. The “concurrency” law, when applied to roads, was strongly discouraging in-town development and strongly encouraging sprawl development.

Why? Because available road capacity tends to be extremely scarce in town centers, and much more available in sprawling, peripheral locations. Concurrency therefore made sprawl development much less costly and infill development much more costly. The opposite of what the growth management law was seeking.

The solution was to allow communities to adopt what are called “exception” areas in the city. That is, cities were authorized to designate various in-town locations (where the city sought to encourage new development) as “transportation exception areas” that would not need to abide by concurrency rules for road (or intersection) capacity when a new, in-town development was proposed.

To provide for a fuller range of lifestyle and travel choices, then, Boulder could consider an intermediate approach to a citywide congestion reduction objective. Using this approach, the congestion objective could perhaps be revised as follows:

“No more than 20 percent of roadways congested (at Level of Service [LOS] F), with the exception of the Boulder Town Center [defined as _____].”

One of the reasons this “exception” approach makes sense is that reducing traffic congestion supports both the needs of those seeking the more dispersed, suburban, drivable lifestyle, as well as the needs of those seeking a more compact, walkable lifestyle. Without the “exception,” the traffic congestion objective obligates providing more space for car travel and car parking in the more compact, walkable town center (to reduce congestion). Doing so has a deadening influence, and therefore undermines an essential ingredient of the walkable lifestyle: the collective gaiety and convenient walking distances that such a lifestyle thrives on and exemplifies.

Dave Mohney once said that the most important task of the urbanist is to control size. This point is crucial. Healthy town centers must retain a compact, human scale. Which is exactly why trying to reduce congestion in a town center is one of the most toxic things that can be done to a town center, as the main objective of congestion reduction is to substantially increase spaces from a human scale to a car scale with huge roads, huge intersections, and huge parking lots. The enormity of these huge, deadening car spaces sucks the lifeblood out of a town center. As was said in Vietnam, excessive road sizes, intersections and parking lots kill a town center in the name of “saving” it.

Obligating Enhanced Design

When the State of Florida decided to allow “transportation exception areas,” it specified that such exception areas would only be allowed if certain design, facility and service conditions were in place. To adopt transportation exception areas, the community had to show that it was also providing a full range of travel choices – choices that were available for those who wished to find alternatives to driving in more congested conditions.

Boulder could consider adopting a similar approach. For example, the congestion exception I’m suggesting above for the Boulder Town Center could be coupled with a rule that requires that the exception is only granted to proposed development if the development provides design enhancements beyond those already required by Boulder. Such enhancements might include one or more of the following requirements: That the new development provide more bicycle parking. Or provide eco-passes for employees or residents. Or place the front building façade up against the streetside sidewalk. Or provide a mix of uses. Or provide cross-access routes to ease pedestrian travel — among a great many other possible design enhancements.

Variation in the Value of Trips

Last but not least, I want to point out the essential need for us to recognize that some trips are relatively high-value, and some trips are relatively low-value. A motorist driving a car on a major street at rush hour to buy a sandwich is making a trip that is much lower value than a motorist who is racing to the hospital for a medical emergency. When roads are free to use (i.e., there is no toll that drivers must pay to use it), roads tend to be flooded with relatively low-value trips. The mistake made too often is that when a community opts to widen a road or intersection if it becomes congested, all of the trips on the road are assumed to be equally high-value.

This is simply not true.

A large number of trips on free-to-use roads are trips for relatively minor tasks such as buying a cup of coffee. Or trips that could have occurred on different routes. Or at different times of day. Or by bicycle, walking or transit, rather than by car.

By assuming, as is almost always the case, that all trips are essential, the community is opting to spend enormous amounts of public dollars to widen a road or intersection to enable or otherwise accommodate such low-value car trips. This sort of worst-case-scenario design  is utterly unaffordable and unsustainable from a financial point of view. And helps explain why there is a huge, nearly universal shortfall of transportation revenue throughout the nation (and including Boulder).

Given this, sustainability and financial health requires that Boulder avoid assuming that all trips are equally high in value when it comes to managing congestion. There are much cheaper and more fair ways to managing congestion than by spending many millions of public dollars to widen a road or intersection as a way to accommodate car trips to the coffee shop at rush hour.

“Social Engineering”?

A common critique offered in this conversation about transportation is that suggesting road diets, road tolls, or pricing parking in order to modify behavior or change travel behavior is “totalitarian.” Or represents “social engineering.” Nonsense. It is the free parking, free roads, and oversized roads and parking lots that are unnatural. Or being forced on us. Indeed, many have accurately pointed out that the American tradition of providing free roads and free parking is the biggest form of social engineering in world history. After all, look at how much suburban behavior this form of car pampering created among humans that lived for ages in compact places. By pricing roads and parking, and restoring human-scaled roadways, we are returning to normal, natural conditions. We are restoring fairness and removing what economists call “market distortions.”

Restoring the Timeless Tradition

The most admirable, beneficial principle in the update of Boulder’s Transportation Master Plan is that the pedestrian comes first in community design – before cars, before transit, and even before bicycling. By making the pedestrian the design imperative, Boulder properly asserts that the pedestrian is the key to quality of life. If our community – particularly our town center – gets it right for those on foot, a great many community objectives inevitably fall into place.

America lost its way when the car emerged a century ago. The timeless tradition of designing for human comfort and pleasure gave way to a new and ruinous paradigm: designing to make cars happy. Tragically for American communities, which celebrated the car more vigorously than anywhere else in the world, designing for the car sets in motion a catastrophic, nearly irreversible vicious cycle where more and more public money and political will is funneled into “happy motoring.”

The vicious cycle is largely fueled by the inevitability of what economists call the “barrier effect.” The barrier effect occurs because designing to ease car travel ensures that it will be more unpleasant, inconvenient and unsafe to travel by walking, by bicycling and by transit.

Because car-happy design increases the difficulty of travel by walking, bicycling and transit, residents of a community are increasingly forced to travel only by car, which compels a growing number of residents to demand that the community be designed to ease car travel and car parking. After all, what choice do we have? It is increasingly impractical to travel by bicycle, by foot or by transit.

The congestion objective in the Master Plan elevates the comfort and convenience of the car to be the top concern in the community, and doing so — again — works at cross-purposes to a great many critical community objectives. The community devolves into a downwardly spiraling road to ruin.

While Boulder, in recent decades, has avoided the terrible mistake of widening roads, the city continues to suffer from the car-happy “gigantism” disease by, for example, building massive, double-left turn lane intersections. Again, the congestion objective in its transportation plan perpetuates such quality-of-life destroying efforts to make cars happy, undermining Boulder’s future.

It is time to return to the tradition of the ages: Building our community to make people happy, not cars.

 

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