The design is based on long-standing Dutch standards, and actually embodies the prioritization of modes that Boulder’s TMP lays out (but which our physical infrastructure often fails to implement). These are intersections that just about anyone can walk or ride or drive through safely and with minimal stress. They’re not standard in the US. Yet. Let’s change that!
I have some urban envy: a development under construction in the Lloyd neighborhood of Portland called Hassalo on 8th (almost like you’d buy it at Ikea…) has 657 apartments, 1,200 bike parking spaces, and 328 (underground) car parking spaces on 4 city blocks with car-free streets between them. They hope to land a grocer for one of the ground floors. Special attention to parking for families (cargo bikes and trailers). Bike Portland has more details.
One of the new buildings is 20 stories tall, but if everything on the superblock were built to 7 stories, I think overall it would have a similar FAR or probably close enough anyway.
And why is it we can’t we build something like this in Boulder?
A bizarre account of the NIMBYs fighting against tiny apartments in Seattle. They fear that small living spaces must necessarily end up filled with sketchy-ass meth-heads. But it turns out they’re more often young professionals, retirees, and other completely normal folk who either don’t want or can’t afford the canonical American Dream of yesteryear… and would rather live downtown and have access to the city.
I recently came across an interesting article by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher about the city of Freiburg, Germany and its transportation system and planning since WWII (when it was 80% destroyed by Allied bombing raids). The city isn’t so different from Boulder, Colorado, but it’s a lot further down the path to sustainability that we are. In fact, their transportation mode split today is roughly what Boulder has laid out as our long-term goal in our Transportation Master Plan: less than 1/3 of all trips are made in cars. Fully half of trips are done under human power (23% walking, 27% biking), with another 18% via the city’s 4 tram lines and many feeder buses. The transit system covers 90% of its operating costs from the fare-box, with most people buying monthly flat-rate unlimited use passes for around $50. Around 2/3 of all citizens and all jobs are located within a 3 minute walk from a tram line, and the trams run every ~5 minutes during peak hours. Households in the US spend about $8000/year on transportation, or $2700 more per year than Germans do, and it ends up being a higher proportion of our overall household expenditures (19% vs. 14%). You might think that that’s just because the government is spending more on their behalf, but actually their total governmental spending is also lower — $460/year vs. our $640/year. All this, and Freiburg’s per capita transportation GHG emissions are only 29% of the US average. So the idea that a high-quality, low-carbon transportation system has to be expensive is a myth.
Last week I taught a class at the University of Colorado for a friend. The class is entitled Another City is Possible: Re-Imagining Detroit. She wanted me to talk about the link between cars and climate change. As usual, I didn’t finish putting the talk together until a couple of hours before the class, but it seemed like it worked out pretty well anyway. In fact, I actually got feedback forms from the class just today, and they were almost uniformly awesome to read. As if I might have actually influenced someone’s thinking on how cars and cities interact, and how cities could really be built for people. It makes me want to figure out a way to teach on a regular basis. Here’s an outline of what I said, and some further reading for anyone interested.
What is a car?
For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “car” I mean a machine capable of moving at least 4 people at a speed of greater than 80 km/hr (50 mi/hr). This means cars are big (they take up a lot of space) and cars want to go fast (though in reality they go at about biking speed on average, door-to-door, in urban areas). Cars as we know them today are also heavy, usually in excess of 500 kg (1000 lbs) and numerous, because they’re overwhelmingly privately owned. These four characteristics in combination makes widespread everyday use of automobiles utterly incompatible with cities that are good for people. Big, fast, heavy, numerous machines are intrinsically space and energy intensive, and intrinsically dangerous to small, slow, fragile human beings.
Tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg — the vast majority of the sustainability problems that cars create have nothing to do with what fuel they use, or how efficiently they use it. Amory Lovins’ carbon-fiber hypercars could run on clean, green unicorn farts, and they’d still be a sustainability disaster.
The real problems that come from cars are the land use patterns they demand, and the fact that streets and cities built for cars are intrinsically hostile to human beings. In combination, sprawling, low-density land use and unlivable, dangerous streets functionally preclude the use of transit, walking, and biking as mainstream transportation options. In a city built for cars, you have no choice but to drive.
The good news is that another city is not only possible, it already exists. Very modest density (about 50 people per hectare or 10 dwelling units per acre) is enough to drastically reduce car use, and make low energy transportation commonplace. In combination with good traditional urban design, these cities are extremely livable, healthier, cheaper to maintain, much more sustainable, and much safer than our cities.
The bad news is Peak Oil is not going to save us. There are a whole lot of unconventional hydrocarbons out there in the oil shale of the Dakotas, the tar sands of Alberta, the ultra-heavy crude of Venezuela’s Orinoco basin, and the ultra-deep water reservoirs off the coast of Brazil, etc. We’d be crazy to burn them all, but hey, maybe we’re crazy. And even if we did run out of oil, it’s entirely possible to electrify our cars for everyday urban use, even with today’s mediocre battery technology. If we want a different kind of city, we’re going to have to choose to build it.
The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has put together a study of suburban densification strategies called Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development. I haven’t read it yet, but based on my experience of Belmar in Lakewood (which is one of their case studies) I’m not particularly optimistic. Maybe Belmar is better now than it was a few years ago — further built out, etc… but back then it seemed like a weird Disneylandish island lost in a sea of cars. Like a mall on steroids, ringed with parking structures. Dunno. Should be interesting reading.
A long format talk by Hans Rosling at the Open Knowledge Festival, on the importance of not just liberating public data, but also using it to weave engaging stories for the public about the facts of the world as we know it exists today. It does no good to allow students to debate why women in the Muslim world have more children than elsewhere, because it isn’t true. Sweden still sends foreign aid to China, even though China just bought Volvo. People think that 30% of our power comes from wind and solar, because wind and solar grew 30% last year. Why don’t more activists demand good data? Why don’t they use it to build fact-based cases for their causes, instead of seeking out only the data that confirms their pre-existing ideologies?
Note: Rosling’s talk begins at 35 minutes into the archived video stream.
Passive Passion is a good 20 minute long film introduction to the German Passivhaus energy efficiency standard, which reduces building energy use by 80-95% (depending on what existing code you compare it to). It looks at the roots of the design standard in Germany, and gives a few examples from the tens of thousands of Passivhaus certified buildings in Europe, including single family homes, row houses, apartment buildings, public low income housing, and office buildings. They talk about what makes the standard work: airtight building envelopes, super insulation, no thermal bridging, heat recovering ventilation. The film also looks at a few builders and designers in the US trying to popularize the cost effective implementation of these methods. It’s clearly possible. The examples are out there today. We just have to decide to do it! If we’re going to get to carbon zero, someday our buildings will all have to function something like this.