Cities Without Traffic

Vintage Congestion
Ditch the vintage 1962 vision of Autopia. Cars are not people. The freedom to drive everywhere is “not quality of life”. We can have cities without traffic.

It’s an underlying axiom, a chanted mantra, a litany:

More people means more cars.
More cars means more traffic.
More traffic means more congestion.
We hate congestion, ergo:

The litany was recently recited by John D. English in his Daily Camera guest opinion, imploring Boulder to “preserve our quality of life” by protecting the right of motorists to drive in the city without encountering traffic congestion.  But cars are not inextricably linked to people, and the freedom to drive everywhere is not quality of life.  Equating these things stalls infill development in the name of auto dependence, and keeps half the city trapped in late-20th century office park purgatory.  It preserves not quality of life, but underused asphalt oceans, impenetrable superblocks, and sad bike lanes painted on the side of roads that might as well be freeways.

The assumption that more people must inevitably mean more cars means different things to different people.  To the member of traditional Motordom with an interest in infill development, it means we need to build more regional road capacity (induced demand be damned!).  To auto-dependent neighborhood activists who cannot stomach the thought of Change in Our Fair Town, it means infill is unacceptable.

We can have more people, fewer cars, and less driving.  Other cities have already done it, and we’ve implicitly stated it as a goal in our Transportation Master Plan (TMP) and Climate Commitment.  The key to success is dramatically revising Boulder’s parking policies, and creating great streets for people.

More is Less is More

If like many Americans you’ve squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars on commuting over the years, I can see how it would be horrifying to realize that people don’t actually need to drive, but it’s true.  I know dozens of people living quite happily and prosperously in Boulder without cars.  We should be doing whatever we can to let more people live this way if they want to.  The city knows this.  One of the high level objectives set by Boulder’s recently adopted Transportation Master Plan (TMP) and Climate Commitment is a reduction in the overall number of miles driven:

Reduce vehicle miles of travel (VMT) in the Boulder Valley by 20% by 2035.

The objective doesn’t explicitly say that we’re going to increase the city’s population at the same time, but that’s certainly the general expectation.  One could imagine meeting this goal by getting rid of people.  We could just bulldoze everything to the east of Foothills Parkway and call it Open Space.  Or I’ve heard some independently wealthy Boulder retirees complain about our “plague of jobs.”  They seem to think it would be preferable to reduce employment in the city.  Also known as the Detroit option.  Neither of those choices really sounds like a solution to me.  But how can we possibly reduce driving while the region’s population is growing, without suffocating the city’s economy?

What we need to do is build things that destroy some existing automotive trips entirely.  You might think it’s good enough to just try and replace long trips with short trips, but it isn’t, because it’s very hard to ensure that drivers come from nearby rather than far away.  Also, even short trips increase congestion, especially if people spend a lot of time cruising for parking.  We need to remove some fraction of existing car trips, and replace them with non-driving trips.  Some of those new trips may be regional transit, but we can make a lot of them short walking and biking trips. What kind of development can turn being stuck in traffic into a stroll or a bike ride?  Putting people next to destinations, and destinations next to people.

Restaurants, coffee shops, food carts, and common lunch-time errand destinations in isolated office parks.   Rowhouses less than a 5 minute ride from office space and a grocery store.  But mixing uses will only work well if walking to the cafe or sushi joint is quick and enjoyable, so we need to make great human scale streets too.  Streets that are slow and narrow, quiet, safe and detailed.

Detractors will say adding these new uses — new restaurants and cafes and housing and offices — will just increase driving!  If we make a nice place, people will come from far away too!  Or they’ll bring up the sadly ubiquitous split household — with one person living near their job, and the other commuting to Denver.  And think of the busy children of our Fascinating Modern Age!  They need to get to soccer practice, and how could they possibly get there without an SUV?

Yuba Mundo With Kids
It’s sporty! It’s utilitarian! It’s a vehicle!

The Wedge

There’s a simple way to dissociate people from cars without increasing congestion: restrict parking.  Cars need parking; they are totally useless without it.  At the same time, people who aren’t driving don’t care about parking at all.  We don’t even notice that it isn’t there… unless it’s because we don’t have to walk across a parched, lifeless blacktop expanse on the way from the sidewalk to the front door of your business establishment.

The binding energy between cars and people — how hard it is to rip them apart — depends on how accessible the alternatives to driving are.  The binding energy is catastrophically high in the refinery dotted drained bayou subdivisions surrounding Houston, Texas.  Travel by foot, bike, or transit there borders on physically impossible.  On the other hand, in compact, transit saturated, under-parked Zürich, Switzerland the binding energy is almost non-existent — it’s one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, and only half the households has a car at all.

To remove the crutches we give to cars today we have to ask: is it easy to walk for utilitarian purposes?  Is it relaxing and convenient to bike?  What about with kids?  In winter?  Can you get there and back again by bus without having to plan ahead or think too hard?  If not, then making driving more difficult will just piss people off.  But if people have options, then when they notice that driving is annoying, they can choose to do something else.  At least they can if they’re flexible, which not everybody is.  But that’s fine — it’s fine to create some places that actively select for people who are flexible about their transportation.  Not every place needs to be a car place.  Not every place needs to be equally accessible to driving.

There are already places in Boulder where you can live quite happily without driving: the Broadway corridor, Downtown, Whittier, Goss-Grove, University Hill, and many other places along our greenway network.  Soon we’ll add Boulder Junction and the East CU campus.  However, there’s a cultural divide.  A divide between mostly older people who grew up with a rural or suburban version of the American Dream, predicating their notions of personal freedom on the automobile, and mostly younger people for whom a car is just a sometimes necessary burden, just one of many options for access.  These younger folks don’t write as many letters to the editor or guest opinions.  They’re probably not reading a newspaper at all.

So the binding energy between cars and people also depends on these cultural norms — how much people see the car as a part of their identity — as a necessity, regardless of its actual utility.  Not everybody is as easily separated from their vehicle.  That’s fine.  There’s no shortage of exurbs all across America designed very specifically for people who refuse to do anything but drive.  Today we need to be creating other kinds of places, that can serve other kinds of people.  And if you want to both drive everywhere and complain about congestion, there’s just not much that can be done for you.  As much as anybody else, you are the traffic; you are the congestion.  You’re asking for a privileged position, where you get to drive but others don’t, but unless you want to price road capacity and pay for that privileged position like London and Stockholm, or strictly ration that same road resource by limiting the number of cars in the city at any given time as Zürich does, it’s not going to happen.

So here’s what we do.

We can build more offices, more housing, more cafes and pubs, so long as they don’t come with more parking.  Will this work for everyone?  Of course not, but it doesn’t need to — it just needs to work for the people who will live and work and be entertained in those places.  So long as we can attract enough people who want to live in these new places without depending on cars, the new places and people can thrive without undue impact on everyone else.  It’s worth noting that this kind of place is rare in the US, especially outside of big old cities.  Can we use this strategy anywhere?  No — we can only do it in places where we already have, or are willing to create, alternatives to driving, and the more people those alternatives are attractive to, the better.

Won’t this result in “overflow parking?” when people who didn’t get the memo try and drive to these places anyway?  Sure.  That’s what we’ve got neighborhood parking permit districts and parking meters for.  We can’t keep treating on-street parking like it’s a (tragic) commons.  It’s a limited, precious rivalrous and excludable good.  Like road capacity, we can either price or ration it, but refusing to regulate it and then complaining when it’s over-utilized is idiotic.

Limiting the parking supply to regulate transportation choices will definitely annoy some Car People.  That’s unavoidable.  They will feel excluded from these places that have not been built to cater to them.  But exactly the same thing that makes people grumpy about managed parking is what makes it work — it’s noticeable.  You can’t change behavior without somebody noticing that something changed.  If nobody noticed, nothing would change!  And if you’re asking for a big change, probably a lot of people are going to have to notice.  Is this “social engineering?”  Yep.  Just like forcing developers to provide vast quantities of parking for free is social engineering.

Parking is a ridiculously powerful policy knob.  If you build a city with zero parking, you can be sure there will be zero cars.  It’s an impossible to ignore, durable physical mandate.  Do we need to turn this particular knob all the way up to eleven to keep congestion under control while our population grows?  Probably not.  But it’s there in our back pockets, and it’s a much more powerful and economical stick than any of the carrots we have left at our disposal.

Does this sound like some harebrained utopian scheme?  Zürich, Switzerland already does it.  They haven’t built a new parking space in the city since 1996.  The city is consistently ranked as one of the cities with the highest quality of life in the world.  To quote John D. English: people are “free to move about their community with ease.”  They just don’t do it with cars.

So we tell the developers they can build, as long as they accept strict parking regulations.  There won’t be very much parking, and it will have to pay its own way.  It will have to be unbundled — sold separately from the development it supports.  In many districts, it’ll need to be part of a shared pool.  Developers may even need to pay to cover the administration of parking permit districts in neighboring areas, where spillover might otherwise occur.  The streets will need to feel cozy and quiet, and more streets will be shared by all modes at low speeds.

If developers don’t want to help build a city for people, rather than a city for cars, then maybe they just don’t get to build here.  My guess is that faced with this challenge, there will still be plenty of builders who want to do infill, and no shortage of Boulderites happy to live in these new urban places.

Because when you take away the cars, traffic and congestion become something else entirely.

They become activity.  Street life.  Public life.  People.

Published by

Zane Selvans

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

5 thoughts on “Cities Without Traffic”

  1. I think a key first step is convincing Boulder to allow certain areas to be car free. Developments without parking or at least limited parking. I think the Vauban district in Freiburg, Germany is a great example of this type of development. It hosts about 5000 people and 600 jobs. The blocks are set up to mostly eliminate car traffic and encourage walking. A tram line goes directly into the development which makes public transit the easy option. The Vauban is a desirable neighborhood because most people find there quality of life increases when they can walk and let there kids play in car free zones. Having near by cafe’s and open space parks right in the development leads to a vibrant community of residents that have central places where they can meet and interact.

    Thanks for the post! Let’s start creating cities for humans.

  2. “Reduce vehicle miles of travel (VMT) in the Boulder Valley by 20% by 2035.” I feel this is not enough. It should be reduced down to around 80%! With a 20% reduction, add in the population increasing and this reduction number will not be enough. It will still lead to massive grid-lock! Shoot for a number over 50%, but I feel to make it right it should more be around 80% VMT reduction.

    1. I’m all for more aggressive VMT reductions, but the 20% reduction that’s in the TMP right now is not per-capita, it’s an absolute reduction of the overall VMT in the Boulder Valley — which means that if we were able to meet the objective, we wouldn’t have massive gridlock (we’d have less traffic than we do now).

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