By Dom Nozzi
Boulder, Colorado has a magnificent greenbelt that will stand as an engine for quality of life far into the future.
But there is a counterbalancing sickness, exemplified by an asphalt cancer that is spreading within the city. Why? Because a person in a car consumes as much space as 17 people sitting in chairs. Despite all of the admirable things Boulder has done, there are lots of cars in the city.
The needs of cars (mostly lots of asphalt space and high speeds) and the needs of people (mostly low speeds and human-scaled spaces like Pearl Street Mall) are diametrically opposite. When Boulder provides (or allows) all of this expensive asphalt for cars, a powerful sprawl dispersant is created.
Boulder is suffering from a disease faced by many cities: GIGANTISM. Gigantic streets, gigantic speeds, gigantic intersections, gigantic parking lots, and what amounts to gigantic sprawl.
Despite this overabundance of asphalt for cars, roads and parking lots are often congested, due to how much space each car consumes (see the images). It is also because roads are free to drive on, and nearly all parking is free. First year economics (and the Soviet bread lines) inform us of the inevitable result: congestion and long lines.
There is plenty of conversation about affordable housing, but no mention of a powerful tool to create such housing: designing neighborhoods so that households own one car rather than two. Or two cars rather than three. The annual cost of owning a car is $9,000. With proper neighborhood design, a household able to shed a car can devote that $9,000 to a mortgage or rent each year.
Boulder actually has plenty of affordable housing. But that “housing” is for cars, not people. And it is in the form of inhospitable seas of asphalt that people abhor. We’re in a vicious cycle, as space-hogging cars have an insatiable need for ever more asphalt, which makes Boulder less walkable. Less human-scaled. Like drug addicts, cars can never have enough “free” road and “free” parking space. The excessive amounts of car parking is another reason why housing is much less affordable, as many are forced to pay for expensive parking they don’t need.
Part of the vicious cycle: the more asphalt we create for cars, the more driving we induce, because the excessive asphalt makes it increasingly unpleasant and dangerous to walk, bicycle, or use transit. Fewer walk or bicycle each time we add turn lanes or off-street parking. More of us are compelled by the added asphalt to drive more frequently.
The asphalt cancer accelerates global warming, a thinly-spread and unsustainably sprawling region, and a self-inflicted (and enormously expensive) ruination of our quality of life.
Causes and treatment for this cancer?
• The four- and five-lane Canyon and Broadway in the town center. Since three lanes is the limit for human scale and calm speeds, we must put these highways on a “road diet” (reduce them to three lanes) when they enter Boulder’s town center – a place that should be calm, low-speed, and human-scaled, not for high-speed regional highways.
• Fair pricing. Motorists shouldn’t be subsidized. Price roads and parking.
• Double-left turn lanes. Engineers point out that adding a second turn lane suffers from severely diminishing returns. We cannot exempt Boulder from the Iron Law of Roads: You cannot build your way out of (intersection) congestion.
• Large off-street parking lots. In a town center which should be compact, walkable, and charming, big off-street lots create unwalkable, gap-toothed dead zones that repel pedestrians, small shops, and homes. Such parking should be incrementally supplanted with buildings and if necessary replaced by on-street parking and parking garages. Parking rules should be reformed and more efficiently provided by allowing more shared parking, and by properly pricing it so that people are not spewing car exhaust as they circle in search of parking (proper pricing ensures there will be available parking spaces).
• Continuous left turn lanes on North Broadway and East Pearl Street. Needed intervention: transform these into “turn pockets” with raised medians.
Enrique Penalosa once pointed out that a city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both.
Boulder must return to the timeless tradition of designing to make people happy, not cars. Our future should be green, compact, place-making, and more calm. It should not be riddled with an asphalt cancer that only a car could love.
Note: A version of this essay was published by the Boulder Daily Camera on February 21, 2014.