Protected Multimodal Intersections

A great video introduction to protected multimodal intersection design, from Nick Falbo at Alta Planning, via People for Bikes and their Green Lane Project:

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!

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US-36: For Whom the Road Tolls

If you live in Boulder, you’ve almost certainly noticed the construction along US-36 — aka the Boulder-Denver Turnpike. The main thing that’s being built here is one new lane in each direction. However, it’s not your average road-widening project.  Usually when additional capacity is added, it’s rapidly consumed by induced demand.  Instead, the two new lanes are going to be special managed lanes. What does that mean?

us-36-w-managed-lanes

These new lanes are going to be optimized for mass transit, in this case buses.  It won’t quite be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), in which the lanes are used exclusively by buses, passengers pay on the platform, and board like you would on a subway or light-rail line.  The US 36 system will be somewhere between that and the express service that we’ve got now.  Even at peak hours, when buses are departing every 3-5 minutes, there will still be a significant amount of spare capacity in the managed lanes.   This capacity will be made available to high occupancy vehicles, and those that are willing to pay a toll.  There may also be a number of permits issued for electric vehicles, though how that would work remains to be determined.  The toll value, the number of passengers required to be considered “high occupancy” and the number of EV permits that might be issued will all be managed to ensure that the buses go at least 50 miles per hour.  The two general purpose travel lanes in each direction will remain free to everyone.

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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.

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Groningen: The World’s Cycling City

Streetfilms shows us what a real cycling city looks like, in the Dutch university town of Groningen:

I can’t help but laugh and sigh whenever someone touts Boulder as a “world class cycling city”.  We are so, so far from that.  But hey, it’s good to have aspirational goals… like 50% of all trips done by bike.  Maybe we just need to elect some young leftists to city council, like Groningen did in the 70s!

 

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Reject the Annexation of Hogan-Pancost

Dear City Council,

I strongly urge you to reject the annexation of the Hogan-Pancost property.

A huge proportion of Boulder is already zoned for low-density single-family residential land use. This type of land use — especially when it is at the very margin of a city — is virtually impossible to serve with mass transit, and tends to be overwhelmingly car dependent, placing further development of this type in direct conflict with our goals as laid out in the city’s Transportation Master Plan and Climate Action Plan.

Low density single-family residential developments also tend to be made up of intrinsically energy intensive buildings — detached housing is expensive to make energy efficient because it has a lot of surface area compared to the volume enclosed, and most energy efficiency upgrades to buildings go into their envelopes. This type of development also tends to have a very large amount of floor area per person housed, which also increases per-capita energy usage. This, again, is in directly conflict with our Climate Action Plan goals.

This type of housing is also intrinsically expensive to produce. If it is to include affordable housing, it can only do so with large subsidies. Any such affordable housing will also end up being car dependent, which will serve to erode its affordability, since according to the AAA, the average American household currently spends close to $9000/year on car-related expenses. Thus, this annexation and the eventual development of the property into low-density residential is also at odds with our affordable housing policies.

I am strongly in favor of more of the right kind of development in Boulder — low-rise walkable mixed use density that’s accessible to transit and bike facilities, intrinsically affordable because it’s small, and easy to make highly energy efficient because it has lots of shared walls. Hogan Pancost does not fit the bill. Please reject the annexation proposal. Boulder is already too suburban.

Open space monies would be far better spent preventing the development of this property than ensuring that the Long’s Garden property remains agricultural in perpetuity.

For more information on the links between building types, transit accessibility, and overall household energy use, see the EPA sponsored study Location Efficiency and Housing Type: Boiling it Down to BTUs.

For an exploration of the ways in which cities and neighborhoods have been both successful and unsuccessful at increasing housing supply and affordability within the existing built environment, please see Unlocking Home, a white paper from Seattle’s Sightline Institute — especially the section on ADUs.

Thank you for your time and attention,

Zane Selvans (Transportation Advisory Board member)

If you agree with the above, please send City Council a note to that effect and CC the planning board: council@bouldercolorado.gov and boulderplanningboard@bouldercolorado.gov. Also consider coming to the public hearing on October 3rd.

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Electric Bikes on Boulder’s Paths

The last year has seen a flurry of Letters to the Editor in the Daily Camera from cyclists and pedestrians alike, frustrated at each others behavior on the Boulder Creek Path, and other well used parts of our path network.  The debate has recently been re-ignited by the city’s proposal to allow electric bikes on the multi-use paths for the next year as a trial.

Homeward Bound by Zane Selvans on flickr

Plenty of well meaning suggestions have been made to alleviate the conflicts — better signage, more enforcement of the existing 15 mph speed limit, education and outreach campaigns — along with the predictable complaints from each side about the bad behavior of the other: careless roadies zipping by at 20 miles an hours without any warning, careening around blind curves and underpasses on the wrong side of the path.  Deaf iPod zombies walking dogs on 12 foot long leashes while they meander unpredictably. Etc.

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Unlocking Home

Alan Durning from Seattle’s Sightline Institute has put together a 50 page eBook polemic called Unlocking Home that explores and advocates for three simple code changes many North American cities could make, to almost instantly create hundreds of thousands if not millions of affordable residential units in our existing cities, without requiring subsidies or even much construction.  They all center around bringing back historical dwelling forms that have provided intrinsically affordable housing for as long as people have lived in cities, and eschewing our current habit of legally mandating middle-class norms of desirability for everyone, regardless of their own personal taste or economic means.

First, he advocates re-legalizing rooming/boarding houses in which private sleeping/living areas share some common spaces and amenities (bathrooms, kitchens, courtyards, laundry facilities, gardens, etc.).  This type of living arrangement provided affordable housing for not just the poor, but working class singles and the young and upwardly mobile in North American cities for a century or more, before it was shut down for largely racist reasons in the 1920s, with the advent of “modern” zoning laws.

Second, (in a chapter which is posted in full on Shareable) he says we should decriminalize roommates — in Cascadia alone he estimates that there are roughly 5 million bedrooms in which nobody is sleeping, partly because of occupancy limits which prohibit non-family members living together.  Even if only a small fraction of those rooms got rented out, it would be a vast affordable housing resource.  Boulder has exactly the same kind of laws, and they make creating a (legal) housing co-op here nearly impossible.

Third, he points out the latent sub-lot-scale infill capacity that converted garages, basements, carriage houses, garden cottages, and other Accessory/Auxiliary Dwelling Units (ADUs) represent. Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood — a low-rise area filled with 2 and 3 bedroom duplexes built in the 1920s — managed to illegally double its population density via ADUs by the 1980s, to about 13 dwelling units per acre, without altering the character of the neighborhood.  This density is enough to allow neighborhood retail and self-supporting full and frequent mass transit.  After the fact, Vancouver decided to decriminalize these accommodations, regularizing and then encouraging them — currently they’re debating whether to require new construction to be built such that conversion to ADUs is cheap and easy in the future.

These three code changes (along with the end of off-street parking requirements) are really the low hanging fruit of sustainable, affordable housing development.  Fixing these codes is just getting out of the way, allowing people to live modestly if they prefer to do so.  There are also much more aggressive and exciting ways forward, like the Baugruppen of Germany — collaborative, community-oriented owner-built urban infill developments that now house hundreds of thousands of people.

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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.

20100708105423 by Zane Selvans on flickr

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Sustainable Transportation in Freiburg

Complete Streets by K_Gradinger on flickr

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.

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Cool Planning in Boulder

I spent the day at a workshop organized by the city with Smart Growth America and Otak, looking at how cities in the US can change their transportation and land use policies to create more livable, healthier, less carbon intensive, more fiscally sustainable communities.  Otak put together the Cool Planning Handbook for Oregon a couple of years ago, laying out the basic toolkit

It was nice to spend the day with a bunch of other Boulder folks, talking about our Actually Existing city, and not just abstract concepts.  We looked at huge printouts from Google Maps, and marked them up, with the current centers of activity and best potential locations for re-development along walkable, bikeable, transit accessible lines.  For instance…

  • The more intense development of the CU East Campus, to the point where it rivals the Main Campus in terms of square footage, with student housing and classroom space, in conjunction with the build-out of Boulder Junction and the Transit Village Area Plan just to the north will potentially create an eastern urban center of gravity for the city
  • Both the east Arapahoe corridor and East Pearl/Pearl Parkway will potentially knit that eastern urban core into the existing older core — the University, Uni Hill, and Pearl St… if we can create human scale connections between them, and mitigate a lot of the surface-parking blighted strip mall wastelands between them today.
  • Table Mesa, Basemar, The Meadows shopping center and the Diagonal Plaza could all be much better neighborhood hubs.
  • NoBo needs a grocery store.  Will it get one as the Armory and other planned infill goes in up there?
  • Could the service-industrial spaces along North 28th St. and East of Foothills Parkway between Valmont and Baseline be transformed into a walkable version of itself?  Lofts over light industrial spaces?  That kind of land use (which we do want to keep in the city!) doesn’t have to be such a sprawling mess.
  • What would it take to fully develop the Broadway corridor, both north and south, to provide the neighborhoods to the east and west of it walkable access to amenities without invading their space too much?
  • How can Colorado and 30th St. be made part of the new walkable core in the next 10-20 years?
  • How can transit oriented development (TOD) in Gunbarrel tie that outlying chunk of the city in with the core?

We talked about needing more buy-in from the origin end of a lot of our in-commuting trips — how do we get the L-burbs to give people access to the transit that can get them to jobs in Boulder?  Can they do TOD?  Can we have get better bicycle park-n-ride facilities?  And then, how do we make more of the city accessible to in-commuters that are coming on transit?  Can we get real BRT on the Diagonal?  On East Arapahoe?  All the way up and down Broadway?  What would it take to make the East Boulder office parks work for people who aren’t driving?  Where do they have lunch?  Or go to the dentist?

The day didn’t turn out to be a very contentious discussion.  After describing a particular policy option, our hosts often noted that we already had that policy in place.  From a technocratic point of view, there’s a lot of agreement on what we should be doing.  Our problem is actually getting it done — funding it, and building the political support and leadership to change the city.  And we need to change the city, if we are to have any hope of addressing climate change in a serious way.  East Boulder will never be walkable, and will never have decent transit service at its current intensity of use.  Similarly many of our single-family residential neighborhoods are too large and too diffuse to support any kind of non-conforming infill mixed-use — there just aren’t enough potential customers within the 5-minute/500m walking radius to justify adding new businesses.  We talk a lot about supplying amenities for pedestrians and cyclists and transit riders, but we don’t talk very much about actually supplying the pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders themselves!

My suspicion is that there’s a lot of latent demand for the kinds of things we talked about today, from people who are less engaged in the public processes.  University students are famously transient, but the population as a whole is persistent.  Younger professionals and the highly skilled technological workforce we have are somewhat more persistent, but they’re still prone to moving for career and family reasons, and that makes it hard to get them to participate in processes that often last 5-10 years (which is too long anyway).  A lot of the “interested but concerned” people who would like to ride their bikes if the infrastructure felt safer aren’t connected with bike advocacy… because they don’t currently bike.  A lot of people who would like to live in a slightly more urban environment aren’t engaged because any individual who brings that up in polite conversation hears something to the effect of That’s Not Boulder from the powers that be, and maybe they weren’t planning on living here for 10+ years anyway.  We need an organization that gives those people a voice, and that can be urged to vote in a bloc if need be.

There’s a kind of painful irony in the fact that the last time Boulder was transformed in short order was when we built out all of our sprawling superblocks.  The backlash against that and a lot of other mega-projects changed the way planning got done — here and elsewhere in the US — and made it much easier for a vocal minority to stop things they didn’t like.  That same bias toward hearing vocal opposition rather than broad silent support has paralyzed us.  Doing nothing is better than doing actively bad things, but we need to do more than nothing.  We need to un-do the bad things we’ve already done.

So I want another workshop, and here’s what I want it to cover:

  • How do we build political support for smart growth policies?  What community organizing tactics and strategies should we apply?  Who needs to apply them?  What regional and national organizations can support us in that?  Who are our core constituencies, and how do we activate them?
  • How do we fund all this work?  It was pointed out that public investment spurred the re-development of the Holiday neighborhood and NoBo, as well as the ongoing work in Boulder Junction, while a lack of public investment helped contribute to the land-use disaster that is the 29th St. mall.  If we don’t have a big tract of city land we can leverage, what can we do?  Long term, what’s the best way to reduce the per capita cost of building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure?
  • Assuming we’re going to get to climate neutrality by 2050, what does the city need to look like?  How will that transportation and land use system be different from what we’ve got now?  How many people do we need to have in the city to make it work?  What are the quantifiable waypoints between here and there?  What if we wanted VMT to be 80% lower in 2050?  What would that city look like?  What would Boulder look like if it had the population of Zürich, Switzerland (which is about the same area as Boulder) or the same area as Delft, in the Netherlands (which has the same population as Boulder)?  What if we un-developed a lot of the sprawling eastern areas?  What if we removed the Foothills Parkway?  These might not be the right changes, but they’re the right scale to be discussing.  Incremental adjustments to an urban form that sprang from the suburban building boom of the 1950s and 1960s won’t get us where we need to go.
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