Boulder Junction is supposed to be one of the most bike, pedestrian, and transit accessible places in our city: a place where owning a car is optional, and costly structured parking can be purchased a la carte, instead of bundled with every rental unit. It’s also supposed to be a major transit hub for the eastern core of Boulder, which is now building out. Transportation planners are often stymied by “the last mile” — it’s much cheaper and easier to do a few trunk lines than it is to put high frequency transit within a 5 minute walk of most of a city’s population. Planning for people to drive to get to transit means you still require people to own cars, and they still contribute to traffic congestion within the city. They also require exorbitantly expensive or land intensive park-and-ride facilities. For all these reasons, it’s in our best interests to make it as easy as possible for people to combine bikes with transit to solve the last mile problem. One of the best ways to do this is to provide plenty of convenient, secure, sheltered bike parking at major transit hubs — essentially creating a high quality bicycle park-and-ride, at a tiny fraction of the cost and space required for an automobile park-and-ride of the same capacity. This is the idea behind the “Bus-then-Bike” shelters that the City and County of Boulder have been collaborating to install — in Longmont, at the Table Mesa Park-and-Ride, and most recently, at the downtown Boulder transit center, as well as elsewhere. Three more of them are going in elsewhere along the US-36 corridor in the near future. Incredibly, it looks like we’re at risk of failing to do the same thing in Boulder Junction!
A couple of weeks ago a large development dubbed Rêve (“dream” in French) became the first project to get called up by Boulder’s City Council at concept plan review (see the concept book for the project here). Rêve would occupy a 6.7 acre site on the southeast corner of Pearl Parkway and 30th St., just to the west of the Solana apartments. Much of it would extend south beyond the boundaries of the Boulder Junction area. I offered some comments to City Council on the project, as someone who would like to see more human scale, rather than auto-oriented development in Boulder. If we’re going to be able to do that anywhere, it seems like it ought to be Boulder Junction (formerly the Transit Village). Once we get the BRT up and running, it should be highly transit accessible. It’s surrounded by regional employment centers — the expanding east CU campus to the south, the new Googleplex to the east, and who knows what else eventually as the area builds out… or rather, builds in. Also, despite being part of “east” Boulder, Boulder Junction is really quite centrally located within the city as a whole. As I wrote recently both here and in the Daily Camera, I think that if it’s done with a particular focus on the human scale, and with less accommodation than we’re used to for automobiles, development in the area need not have substantial direct impacts on existing residential neighborhoods in the city, in terms of parking spillover, traffic congestion, and viewsheds.
I’m not opposed to the overall intensity of the development. In fact, I think it could be much better for people on the ground with a higher FAR. Improving the project at the current or higher intensity hinges on doing a better job of curating and cultivating the spaces between the buildings, turning them into great outdoor rooms and corridors, and wholeheartedly turning them over to human beings. This is just a matter of focusing on traditional (like, thousands of years old) urban design.
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:
NO MORE PEOPLE.
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.
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?
Graphing Parking is a site dedicated to visualizing the wonkery laid out in Don Shoup’s tome The High Cost of Free Parking. It maps out visually the requirements that different cities have for parking associated with various land uses all over the country. Occasionally they make sense…. but generally, it’s a random city destroying mess.
On street bike parking (bike corrals) have become very popular with local street-level businesses in Portland, Oregon. I think it’s time for Boulder to regularize our bike corral program. We need to get some decent non-diagonal racks in there with higher capacity, like the Portland racks, and also create a process through which businesses can request the racks, and get them. Portland has nearly 100, by population, Boulder ought to have something like 16.
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.
A writeup by The Atlantic Cities of a paper in the Transportation Research Board journal of the National Academies looking at the effects of parking on the vitality of urban centers. It’s found that the detrimental effects of dedicating urban real-estate outweigh the potential benefits of making it easier for drivers to access your central business district. Those cities that stopped adding parking to their urban cores after 1980 were found to have more jobs and higher incomes on average than those that continued adding parking.
The problem with cars in an urban context isn’t (just) related to sustainability… It’s a problem of space, and the best way to allocate it in the pursuit of a high quality of life. Even if you don’t care about oil dependence or climate change, dedicating vast tracts of urban real-estate to car storage doesn’t make sense, because it degrades the functionality of the city.
Many new apartment complexes in Portland have no parking, because many of their residents have no cars, and building parking spaces would bump rent from $750 to $1200. Cities that don’t require you to drive are often more affordable than those that do. And nicer to live in, too…