Human Powered Comments on the Boulder County Transportation Master Plan

Reserved Parking

I went to one of the inaugural Boulder County Transportation Master Planning meetings… on January 13th.  I took notes, but never wrote them up (bad blogger!).  The process will probably take most of the year, and it’s looking out 25 years or so into the future, so really 6 weeks isn’t too big a deal, right?  If you haven’t already, please do take the Boulder County TMP survey.

Before the meeting there was a mingling session with a bunch of poster board presentations (available here as PDFs), mostly maps showing a bunch of different current and projected data.  Where people are, where jobs are, where trips go, both today and our imagining of 2035.  I talked briefly to George Gerstle (whose bicycle parking spot is pictured above) about the current and projected population centers in the region.

Boulder Population and Job Density 2010

Boulder County 2010: Blue=Households, Red=Jobs

The expectation is that there will be a lot of sprawling, suburban, car dependent development just beyond the southeast corner of Boulder County around Broomfield, in Jeffco, and also in the southwest corner of Weld County (which does not participate in RTD).  Also, growth is projected along the I-25 corridor, and along US 36.  By and large, what happens beyond the county’s borders is out of our control.  There’s a little bit of open space out there that we own, and we can control what kind of infrastructure exists within the county, but barring sudden and sustained increases in gas prices, it seems unlikely that these communities are going to embrace transit oriented development and compact urban design.  We’ve got sprawl at the gates, and we have to decide what to do about it.  These bodies politic are apparently not interested in planning around the possibility of significantly higher fuel costs in the future.

Boulder Population and Job Density 2035

Boulder County 2035: Blue=Households, Red=Jobs

Gerstle opened up the main presentation (slides available as a PDF), which was well attended for this kind of meeting, maybe 30-40 people total?  Unsurprisingly, he framed the question of transportation planning as one of how to best move people around.  In particular, how we can move more people around without moving more cars around.  This is a big improvement from the traditional cars = people assumption that most transportation planning in the US makes, but I think we could do even better, and acknowledge that personal mobility is itself a means of providing access to various opportunities.  Social, recreational, economic, etc.  The cheapest, greenest trip is the one you never had to make, because what you wanted access to was right next door.  That kind of thing is traditionally more the purview of planning departments and land-use policies — encouraging, or at least allowing density, mixed-use development, and fine-grained street networks.  The two problems are not separable.

We’re always going to be moving some people around, and counting people instead of cars is an improvement, but if we succeeded at making sure people where already where they needed to be, then measuring our success by looking at how many people got moved might lead us to the wrong conclusions.

In 2010 the county estimates that there were about 500k inter-county trips and 1.2M intra-county trips per day.  By 2035 the projections are that there’ll be about 642k inter-county trips (an increase of 28%) and 1.36M trips within the county (an increase of only 12%).  The county’s population is expected to expand from 305k to 390k over the same timespan (a 33% increase) and the number of jobs is expected go from 180k to 215k (a 19% increase).  Currently the biggest transportation flows are between Boulder and Longmont, and Boulder and Louisville.  The same basic pattern is expected to persist into the future.  Those kinds of predictions are always at least a bit suspect.  We like nice linear projections, even when the underlying systems are heinously non-linear.  But the area is very nice, and certainly there’s a history of people moving here, so if you’ve got to make a prediction, more people seems like a reasonable one.

2010 Intra-County Daily Trips for Boulder County

Julie McKay talked about the county’s demographics.  In 2035 we’re expected to have 22% of the population over 65, and 15% under the age of 14.  These are populations which are poorly served by automotive infrastructure, and will benefit from better transit and pedestrian connections, and youth in particular will get a lot of freedom for very few dollars with good bike infrastructure.  But I don’t think we should sell “alternative transportation” on the basis of its benefits to the old and the young and the infirm and the poor.  Actually, I don’t think we should be selling it as “alternative” at all.  If we want to increase its utilization significantly, it needs to be mainstreamed.  It just needs to be transportation.  If we make the system work well enough that everyone can and does use it, then it will certainly provide good service to those population segments which are poorly served by automotive infrastructure, but the economics will be better, and there will be less risk of the system being seen as some kind of expendable welfare project.

Another interesting demographic feature that got mentioned was a negative correlation between density and both car ownership and income.  The county seemed to assume that the causality was that families that could not afford a car for every potential driver in their household chose to live in dense areas to deal with that fact.  In my own case, I know this is wrong, and I’d like to believe it will be wrong for an ever growing number of people.  I could afford a car, but I choose to live downtown so that I don’t have to, and I can save that money instead (some of it gets spent on the higher rent, but that’s okay).  If we do a good job of building livable density, we’ll create a lot more 1-car or even car free households.  We should not a priori assume that anyone who can afford a car, will choose to do so.  In fact, we should be hoping for just the opposite.

The county expected to see lots of people from the Mountain communities (Nederland, Gold Hill, Ward, etc) at the meeting, but mostly got Boulderites.  The presentation had a significant amount of information about the mountain transit plans.  Given the incredibly low population densities up there, relative to the rest of the county, it seems like a large per-capita investment would be required to make transit functional at all.  It seems more reasonable to say, as the city has with water, that if you want to live in the mountains, that’s fine, but there are big infrastructural costs associated with that decision, and you shouldn’t expect us to subsidize them for you.  We shouldn’t be inducing people to live in the boonies or the burbs.

There was a long Q&A session, that took up something like half the presentation time, which was good.  The audience was clearly very skewed toward those who care about sustainability and alternative transportation.  But then, who did you think was going to show up to these meetings?  Motorists aren’t used to having to advocate for their infrastructure.  They can usually just take it for granted.

I think the uncomfortable political reality is that to make regional non-car transportation work well, especially with the bulk of the new regional trips being generated outside of the county, we’re going to have to let many of our roads get congested, and make the alternatives to more attractive than driving.  Bus rapid transit (i.e. dedicated bus lanes) with good bike carrying capacity like we have on the regional buses today, allowing bikes to solve some part of the last-mile problem (only 1/3 of jobs in the county are currently within 1/4 mile of a bus stop).  Restricted and/or more expensive parking in the city centers.  Good inter-city cycle tracks like the ones recently featured on Copenhagenize:

Provincial Bike Lanes

And land use policies that put a higher proportion of our jobs within easy walking distance of our major transportation hubs… which means more density around those hubs.  This came up in the context of a question about transit oriented developments and the increasingly inaccurately named “FasTracks” rail project.  Gerstle said he sees the Northwest Corridor commuter rail and increased density around it as “more of a 50 year solution”.  Which is well beyond the event horizon of our political process unfortunately.

If you say you want people to stop driving by themselves, and then build more road capacity to enable just that behavior, people pay a lot more attention to the action than the words.  Thankfully the county seems to understand that we can’t build our way out of transportation capacity issues.  But that doesn’t mean there won’t political pressure to try.  The current strategy is to “give people choices”, but they also need an inducement to make a particular choice.  Artificially cheap parking and the state and federal biases toward highway funding provide the wrong inducements, which we unfortunately have to try and counter if we want to do something outside of the state and federal transportation box.

Something that came up in the Q&A was a suggestion that the city and/or county support the introduction of electric or alternative fuel vehicles, subsidizing charging stations, making fleet purchases, etc.  I was disturbed that people seemed enthusiastic about this.  Swapping fuels, whether it’s algal biodiesel or fossil fueled electricity, only addresses a small subset of the problems cars create.  Maybe it’s comfortable, because people don’t see it as requiring any change in their daily routine?  Better land use policies and normalizing the use of active and mass transit has so many additional benefits.  Health, road safety, pollution, the livability of our public streetscapes.

Another thing that came up in the Q&A was the community-wide transit pass program that’s being piloted in Lyons.  In theory, once the smart card system is in use, each community would be able to simply pay in aggregate the estimated cost of providing the passes.  This would put the buses on more equal footing with driving, but we need to fix the RTD funding mechanism so that they have a financial incentive to provide more service in response to increased ridership.  And of course I’d rather see the costs of transportation made more transparent… instead of rendering them all equally opaque.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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