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.

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


Continue reading

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sustainable Transportation in Freiburg

Complete Streets

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.

Continue reading

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.
Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another City is Possible: Cars and Climate

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.

The Takeaways:

  • 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.

Continue reading

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Boulder Biketopia at the ULI Salon

Boulder’s newly minted chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) hosted its second salon on December 6th, entitled Biketopia: Dramatically Increasing Boulder’s Bike Mode Share.  Martha Roskowski — the former head of GO Boulder, who now works on protected on-street bike facilities nationwide with Bikes Belong — outlined a plan for pushing Boulder beyond it’s status as a leading bike community in North America, and toward taking a place amongst the world’s best cities for cycling.

Why should we choose to do this?  Getting more people on bikes benefits both individuals and the community. Bikes provide inexpensive mobility for short trips, help address health issues, and reduce congestion. New studies are showing that getting more people on bikes increases the economic vitality of cities in many ways, including attracting “choice” employers and supporting local businesses. Boulder’s status as a leader in climate change can also be reinforced by a visionary approach.

While Boulder’s bike mode share is one of the best in the nation, it trails well behind leading European cities. And Boulder’s growth in bicycling has been stagnant over the past several years, by a number of measures. Boulder is no longer a national leader in its commitment and vision to increase the number of people on bikes. Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia and others are taking far more bold steps to intentionally and systematically make their communities better for bicycling.

Boulder has a choice: we can continue the current pace of slow but steady improvements in infrastructure and rely on external forces like the price of gas and personal concerns about climate change to increase bike mode share. Or, Boulder could become a new national model for a bicycle-friendly community. Boulder has the potential to dramatically increase its bike mode share, perhaps more so than any other community in the country. It has “good bones” in its off-street pathway system, its compact size, growth boundaries, culture of cycling and already large bicycling population.

Martha gave eleven suggestions for taking cycling in Boulder beyond being an “alternative” mode and toward normalizing it to the point where it’s a vital, indispensable part of our transportation system. It can be made accessible to just about anyone as it is already in much of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, where many cities have between a quarter and half of their daily trips being made by bike.  Here’s a short summary of what she had to say, hopelessly intermingled with my own musings, since my notes are now a month old.

Continue reading

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Goss Grove Neighborhood Greenway?

The Goss-Grove neighborhood is a quiet residential enclave in the center of Boulder, bounded by Canyon to the north, Arapahoe to the south, 17th St. to the west, and Folsom to the east. It’s quiet largely because it’s nearly cut off from the rest of the street network. The only through access to the area for cars is 22nd Street, which connects Canyon and Arapahoe north-south. At the same time though, the area is relatively permeable to bikes and pedestrians, with little pocket parks and community gardens making some of the north-south connections at 18th, 19th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd Streets, which all connect Arapahoe and Canyon. Running east-west, Grove Street becomes Grove Circle, connecting 15th all the way to Folsom St. for pedestrians.

Goss Grove Cut Throughs

Goss Grove Cut Throughs

If you’re willing to walk through the parking lot by James Travel and Mondo Robot, you can get all the way from the Farmer’s Market to McGuckins on very quiet streets.

View Larger Map

As a bicyclist, you can get through too, but it’s not designed to make it easy. With some relatively minor changes to the Grove corridor, we’d be well on the way toward creating a Neighborhood Greenway like the ones Portland, Oregon has been putting in. Streetfilms looked at them in this video:

Continue reading

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Making Boulder into one of Jan Gehl’s Cities for People

A couple of months ago I finished reading Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People, and I’ve seen Boulder differently ever since. I’m both more frustrated with it as it is today and more excited about what it could be in 20 years. Where before I might have been diffusely irritated by or in love with a place, I’m now explicitly aware of details that enhance or degrade its functionality for humans. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s short, it’s filled with pictures, and unless you’re a die-hard motorist or collapsitarian neo-primitivist, I think you’ll find its case persuasive. You can watch him give a talk about the book in NYC on YouTube too, if you want another preview.

Copenhagen Cafe Culture

Gehl is a Danish architect who’s lived and worked in Copenhagen for the last 40 years, designing urban spaces for human beings. His first memory of the bicycle is riding away from the city as a small boy with his father, all day and all night, to escape the Nazi occupation. In his childhood, Copenhagen was dominated by pedestrians and bicycles. By the time he’d become a young man, the city was being occupied not by an invading army, but by automobiles. He was trained as a modernist architect, in the tradition of Le Corbusier’s isolated towers surrounded by parklands and freeways — a tradition Gehl almost immediately rebelled against — but in the 1960s, few wanted to hear about cities for people. Somehow, human and humane cities were not part of society’s vision of The Future. A devastated continent was being re-built in the modernist mold, and re-designed to accommodate cars, but by the early 1970s citizens across northern Europe had begun to question that vision. A lot of the resistance to transforming Europe’s cities into automobile friendly spaces didn’t come from environmental concerns as we see them today. Rather, re-making cities to work well for cars ended up degrading the quality of urban life dramatically. Jane Jacobs said we’d either erode our cities with cars, or the cars would suffer attrition at the hand of good cities. Then the first OPEC embargo highlighted the economic risks associated with oil dependence. We chose erosion in the US, but many European cities chose attrition. Energy economics, the quality of urban life, and environmental concerns together were enough to convince these nations to re-consider their Modernist visions of the future, and they revolted against the automobile invasion.

Continue reading

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Preventing Bicycle Fatalities at US-36 and Violet

Ghost Bike at Violet and US-36 in North Boulder

Two bicyclists have been killed at the intersection of US-36 and Violet Avenue since 2009. The most recent was TJ Doherty, on July 24th, 2012. Both cyclists were headed southeast on US-36, and were hit by cars traveling northwest, making left turns onto Violet. In this area US-36 is just outside of Boulder’s city limits, in the county, but it’s the Colorado Dept. of Transportation (CDOT) that’s responsible for it. Looking at the aerial view below we can explore why this intersection might be particularly dangerous for cyclists.

View Larger Map

Northwest bound vehicles on US-36 have a dedicated left turn lane, and no obligation to stop before making their turn. The angle that Violet Ave. makes with the highway is quite oblique, meaning that it can be taken at high speed, and because US-36 has a speed limit of 55 mph in this area, cars often will take it at high speed if they don’t see any oncoming traffic.

From a southeast bound bicycle’s point of view, there’s no obviously correct place to be on the road, if they’re planning to proceed through the intersection. The shoulder on the west side of the road narrows to a few inches, and it’s to the right of a right-turn-only lane. If you ride all the way to the right, you risk a vehicle turning in front of you onto Violet. Your intent to continue through the intersection is also unclear to oncoming traffic. Most cyclists instead take a position that’s well within the right turn lane, to prevent right-turning vehicles from passing them and immediately turning right in front of them. However, this lane position still leaves their intent ambiguous to oncoming traffic. Alternatively, you might choose to straddle the line separating the through travel lane and the right turn lane. This makes the bike relatively visible, and more clearly conveys the intent to continue through the intersection, at the expense of potentially sandwiching the cyclist between right turning vehicles and very fast moving through traffic. If the cyclist instead chooses to behave exactly like a motor vehicle, moving into the through lane of traffic, the very large difference in speed between the bike and the other vehicles in that lane creates a hazard. Thus, there’s no right place for a cyclist to be on this road if they’re planning to continue through the intersection.

When we combine the unavoidable ambiguity of the through cyclist’s intent with the very high left-turning speeds of oncoming traffic, we have a recipe for disaster. A recipe which has killed two people in three years.

Continue reading

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bikes and Bus Rapid Transit


There’s still political wrangling to be done and funding to be found, but with a little luck we’ll see something resembling Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) coming to the US 36 corridor Real Soon Now.  I think this is great, and will make very efficient use of the infrastructure, and limited tax dollars that we’ve got to spend from the FasTracks fund, but it does pose an issue for those of us who like to combine the regional express buses with bicycle-based last-mile connections.  In the current RTD system, the regional buses have a huge amount of bicycle carrying capacity.  There are two racks on the front, as with nearly all RTD buses, but the cargo bays underneath can easily accommodate another dozen bikes.  Lots of the features that make BRT significantly better than normal buses also make them difficult to integrate with our current practice of taking our bikes along with us on the bus.  See the Transmilenio system in Bogotá as an example:

Continue reading

Posted in journal | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments