No Vision for East Arapahoe

Typical East ArapahoeI went to the Open House for the city’s Envision East Arapahoe project last night. This process was originally supposed to look at transportation improvements and potential land-use changes along the East Arapahoe corridor. But based on the presentation from and some conversations with staff, it sounds like they’ve scaled the project back on the land-use side to only considering what the best split between employment/retail/housing would be for the 4,300 jobs they estimate could be out there under current zoning but which haven’t been built out yet.  When you compare that number to the existing ~34,000 jobs in the study area, it’s clear that no change in the character of the corridor is going to be considered.

Which is amazing, because it’s horrible for the most part now.  People who have to walk and bike through the area use words like “hellhole” and “wasteland” and “disaster area.”  But I guess Motordom seems to think it’s just fine as is.

The city has apparently been inundated with “Don’t make it like Boulder Junction!” comments, and so have been scared off from doing anything substantial to the land use.  Of course there’s still lots of flowery language about bike and pedestrian amenities, but they’ll be of little use if there are no destinations in the area to speak of, and it continues to have a giant freeway running through the middle of it.

At this point it feels like the best outcome within these constraints might be to stop throwing planning resources toward land use changes at all (including the 4,300 jobs/housing/etc) but get a real BRT line along Arapahoe, so that if/when we come to our senses on land use, the transit trunk line capacity is already in place to potentially support redevelopment without creating a traffic disaster.

It would be nice if there was at least one scenario modeled in all this — if they’re going to continue putting staff hours into it — that included substantial changes to the zoning.  Just to see what it looks like in terms of VMT, GHG emissions, potential street cross-sections, etc.

It would also be nice if the superblock between the east CU campus and Boulder Junction got special treatment, and were looked at with an eye toward knitting those two urbanizing areas together into one cohesive whole.  It’s miserable to walk or bike through now, built to very low intensity with a ton of surface parking, but it could be a wonderful mixed use district served well by the new transit hub and in easy walking distance of the University.  Restaurants, lab and office space for university spin-offs or startups, some housing, etc.  More than any other part of the Arapahoe corridor, that place seems to have a context that demands some re-envisioning in the shorter term.

The whole package goes to Council tonight (Tuesday, 10/28) for their feedback.

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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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