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.
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.
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.
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.