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:
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.

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Managed Lanes in Colorado

Will Toor and Mike Salisbury at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project have put together a good paper called Managed Lanes in Colorado (it’s a PDF) that looks at the policy rationale behind (and a few issues with) creating additional highway capacity in the form of managed lanes with tolling, that also allow high occupancy vehicles and transit to take advantage of the investment, addressing some of the “Lexus Lane” criticism of using tolls in the public right of way (on projects that are still mostly publicly funded).  It’s not quite as fun to read as my magnum opus from this winter on the same topic (US 36: For Whom the Road Tolls) but might be more appropriate for forwarding to policymakers.

America’s Cities Are Still Too Afraid to Make Driving Unappealing – Emily Badger – The Atlantic Cities

It’s the relative attractiveness of different modes of transportation that shapes our choices, and American cities are still terrified of making driving less attractive.  This really puts a cap on what fraction of trips we can get over to biking, walking and mass transit.  Partly because driving is such an ingrained cultural norm (even if it’s just as easy to drive as to bike, the default behavior amongst most people will be to drive), and partly because accommodating cars well means degrading the walking, biking and transit amenities.  In a place like Boulder where people actually have alternatives to driving — no, not everyone, and not for every trip, but many people for many trips — we have to start putting some downward pressure on driving, or we’re never going to get much past our current bike/ped/transit shares.  And it’s not like this has to be punitive — a lot of it is just removing historical crutches that have been provided to cars, like free parking.  Cities like Bern and Freiburg and Zürich have 70% or more of their trips being done outside of personal motorized vehicles.  It’s doable (in the fullness of time).  Let’s do it!

Hamburg’s Car Free Greenway Network

Grünes Netz - Stadt Hamburg

There have been a bunch of links floating around recently about the German city of Hamburg’s plans to “go car free” in the next 15-20 years.  For example this BBC Future article which references this post on Inhabitat, which then points to Arch Daily which finally links directly to the actual city planning site from Hamburg (auf deutsch of course).

Unfortunately, these seem to be just click-bait headlines.  As far as I can tell (and I don’t read German) the real point of the plan is to create an extensive, connected network of bike and pedestrian greenways that provide easy access to the entire city, without requiring users to interact with motor vehicle traffic, “eliminating the need for cars.”  Which is awesome!  But also very different from “going car free”.  There are plenty of cities where cars are generally unnecessary, but some people still choose to use them some of the time, and I don’t see why Hamburg would end up being any different after the implementation of the greenway plan.

Why Your Big Move to the Big City May Be Your Last

Moving to the city seems to be a one-way trip, and a couple of new studies sheds some light on why.

People re-normalize risks that they are exposed to on a regular basis, while often over-estimating novel risks.  Driving is vastly more dangerous than flying, but it’s much more common for people who drive regularly to fear flying.  In the same way, “crime” is often cited as a risk associated with city living, but once you’ve been exposed to the risk for a long time, and it is familiar, the perceived severity of that risk decreases significantly.

At the same time, it turns out your mode of transportation — the way you pass through the world around you — affects your snap judgements about the people you encounter.  Driving makes it much more likely that you will assume the worst about others, while walking predisposes you toward relating to them as human beings.

So once you’ve moved to the city, and begun to live an urban, walking life, it feels like a safer, homier, more human place to you.

New Walkscore and Location Affordability Tools

A couple of already pretty awesome publicly available tools for looking at transportation, land-use, and affordability have just gotten big upgrades, which is wonderful as Boulder heads into updating its Transportation Master Plan and the comprehensive housing strategy discussion over the next year.

First, WalkScore has done a big overhaul of their data and algorithms, and now they’re using real-world routes to determine the time of travel — it’s a great interactive tool for getting a quick idea of how accessible various locations are by mode — also interesting to see visually how something like the Foothills Parkway or US 36 acts as an impenetrable wall, increasing travel times because you have to go out of your way to cross them.  All of the BHC Co-ops are in highly walkable locations, with at least decent access to transit and great (by US standards) access to bike facilities.  Chrysalis is a “Walker’s Paradise”, just a couple of blocks from Pearl downtown.

I looked up the WalkScore ratings for both the Long’s Garden and Hogan-Pancost properties, which I’ve talked about recently in connection with human scale development (or rather, the lack thereof in Boulder…).  Right now they’re both car-dependent — especially Hogan Pancost — but the area around Broadway and Iris could, if it were re-developed well, extend the largest contiguous walkable area within the city — rather than creating an isolated island of human scale urbanism, which is all you can ever get with a development at the margin, like Hogan Pancost, or even the Table Mesa shopping center — which on its own it’s fine, but it’s disconnected from the rest of the city from the pedestrian’s point of view.  In Alex Steffen’s vocabulary, both NoBo and Table Mesa lack “deep walkability“, while the Long’s Garden area could potentially tap into the deepest pool we’ve got.

Second, the US DoT has worked with HUD and Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology to develop a tool that allows you to explore the cost of living by location, including both housing and transportation costs — either typical for the region, or customized by your own travel preferences and rent/mortgage.  You’d think this would be standard practice, but alas, it’s not.  CNT has been doing this for a long time, but the Feds are only now picking up on it.  And a lot of the mortgages that went belly up in 2008/2009 and which continue to under perform are the ones stranded in utterly auto-dependent exurban disaster areas.  The tool takes the form of an interactive Location Affordability Index map.  I love that it lets you build your own particular household, instead of having to go with the regional averages.  I saw the story over at The Atlantic Cities first.

It’s really interesting to look at the location affordability of central Boulder vs. Longmont or Louisville — they’re actually not that different, especially if living in central Boulder means your household can ditch a car.  Some of the rents I saw estimated in their tool for Boulder were pretty low though — I adjusted them up significantly, and central Boulder was still competitive if it meant one fewer vehicles or one fewer commuters.

The 2013 Rad-ish Council Candidate Forum

Last night seven Boulder city council candidates visited the Rad-ish Collective, an activist co-op that does a lot of volunteering behind the scenes of Boulder Food Rescue.

Candidate Literature

The candidates had some motley seating, including one stool made out of the back half of an old bike frame (Andrew Shoemaker) and a chair upholstered in what appeared to be a faux Yeti pelt (Sam Weaver). Half the walls were covered with murals, and the other half with event flyers, political literature, and all the daily household bookkeeping that goes into making a co-op run smoothly.

The crowd’s median age was probably under 25, and most of us sat on the floor. As the event progressed, more and more people filtered in, and those sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front slowly scooted forward until we were within reach of the candidates’ feet. Sam Weaver remarked at some point that it was probably the largest or second largest audience of any forum they’d attended, even though it was being held in a living room!

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Oregon Road User Fee

Since 2001 Oregon has been exploring ways to fund transportation using a use fee.  Sometimes called a VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax, this kind of funding mechanism is much more equitable than the current combination of gas and sales taxes that do a lot of our state and local funding.  As electric vehicles proliferate, and fuel economy increases, we’re going to have to find another way to fund our transportation infrastructure.  This mechanism is much more fair, and would also allow time of use congestion pricing and pay by the mile insurance.  If you’d like to see this kind of funding in Colorado, get in touch with your state legislators.  In 2013 Oregon finally went ahead with a 5000 person opt-in trial, to see how the scheme affects behavior and work on scaling the system up.

And since we’re all being tracked at all times by the NSA via our phones and local police via license plate scanners anyway, there’s no additional erosion of privacy… bittersweet, that.

Traffic down with rising population in Vancouver

Streetsblog DC has a good roundup on Vancouver, where by some miraculous intervention unseen in the rest of North America, they have a rising population (up 4.5% since 2006) and decreasing traffic (vehicle counts 20-30% in the same time span).  Impossible, you say?  It’s pretty freaking straightforward — increase population density and the mix of land uses, give people walking, biking, and transit options that work, and stop prioritizing automotive uses of the streets.  Seriously.  It Works™. Nobody should be surprised by this.  Refusing to allow the population and density of your city to grow because you fear traffic congestion and knife fights over curbside parking spaces means you’re hell bent on providing a crappy car-centered transportation system.

No Agricultural Easements Inside Boulder

Setting aside large parcels of land in the center of a city for agricultural purposes is bad for sustainability and not in line with the mission of Boulder’s Open Space program.  I am referring in particular to the proposal to purchase a permanent agricultural easement on the property known as Long’s Garden, immediately East of Broadway in N. Boulder, as discussed in this Daily Camera Op-Ed, and proposed in this 2011 Boulder City Council memo.  This proposal is contrary to Boulder’s sustainability and open space preservation goals for several reasons.

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