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A Transportation Vision For Boulder—Regional Transportation and Sustainable Travel


By

Editor’s note: The Blue Line has been running a serialized version of PLAN-Boulder County’s A Transportation Vision for Boulder. This installment includes Sections 3 and 4, Regional Transportation and Sustainable, Green Travel, respectively. To read the entire paper, start with the Introduction.


Section 3. Regional Transportation

Photo by Chris Liu-Beers via unspash

Photo by Chris Liu-Beers via unspash

Regional Car Trips

Boulder suffers from high levels of in-commuting regional car trips. The excessive in-commuting is primarily driven by the fact that Boulder has become a regional employment center, attracting workers from the entire Front Range. The result is that Boulder has a jobs-housing imbalance: There are substantially more jobs in Boulder relative to its residential population than found in most communities. This imbalance, combined with Boulder’s attractiveness, creates a very high demand for housing, driving up home prices. Many people who work in Boulder choose to live in more affordable outlying areas, and therefore make relatively long commutes to get to work. Over-sizing of roadways, intersections, and parking in Boulder enables or otherwise induces a large number of regional trips—particularly the most inefficient and detrimental single occupant vehicle (SOV) trips.

Enlarging the sizes of roads, parking and intersections to accommodate large volumes of regional car trips results in an attempted remedy that is worse than the illness. Over-sizing roads, intersections, and parking lots does not durably reduce congestion and instead increases the number of car trips. Therefore, these measures

  • Are detrimental to public safety,
  • Cause a decrease in transit, bicycle, and walk trips,
  • Promote suburban sprawl and strip commercial development,
  • Increase overall and per capita greenhouse gas emissions[1] and fuel consumption, and
  • Reduce affordability[2]

In other words, a conventional, car-centric response to regional car trips can exacerbate the problem, damaging our quality of life.

Travel time budget. One important way that conventional methods to ease car travel patterns (such as widening a road) can fuel negative consequences is through the concept known as the “travel time budget.” The travel time budget refers to the amount of time people are willing to allocate to travel on a regular basis. The settlement of American cities has always been limited by how far a family breadwinner is willing to commute to work, as transportation specialist S. B. Goddard has pointed out,[3] a maxim that in our car-oriented society needs to include not just distance but time. Cross-culturally and throughout history, people devote an average of about 1.1 hours per person per day to travel round trip. African villagers, the middle class, and the super-rich, who travel by foot, personal automobile and airplane, respectively, have all been shown to have similar travel-time budgets. This indicates travel homeostasis where improvements made to reduce travel time result in a compensatory change in behavior that maintains a constant travel time. This creates a vicious cycle where an increase in supply places more demand on the network, which triggers transportation professionals to increase the supply (for example, by widening a road). As a city’s transportation system expands to allow longer and higher-speed travel, people will disperse in a pattern that in the long run will return to that 1.1-hour round-trip commute standard.

By designing only for car travel—with huge roads, huge intersections, huge parking lots, huge speeds and huge subsidies, cities thus unknowingly dictate how they would develop when they deployed such elements. The immediate goal became making motorists happy, and drivers always want less traffic congestion, shorter drive times, fewer traffic signals, and higher speed limits. It has become a vicious cycle that locks cities into sprawl and its attendant ills—worse congestion, malls, strip retail stores, seas of parking lots, and on and on.

Excessive numbers of regional SOV trips can be reduced to a more manageable level if our transportation system becomes more efficient. Effective measures[4] to reduce excessive regional in-commuting into Boulder include:

  • Providing more housing in areas well-served by transit to create more of a jobs-housing balance. This might be achieved by requiring new employers to demonstrate the existence of adequate housing for employees as a condition for development approval
  • Downsizing over-sized roads, intersections and parking, coupled with a moratorium on enlarging the size of such facilities
  • Tolling regional routes such as U.S. 36
  • Improving transit service by expanding routes, increasing service frequency, and improving the quality of transit service (with Bus Rapid Transit, for example)
  • Providing more efficient parking, which includes more use of employee cash-out by employers, priced parking, shared parking, leased parking and the use of maximum rather than minimum parking regulations
  • Limiting further increases in the number of jobs
  • Adopting a county-wide Eco Pass

Smart Transportation and Smart Land Use

In many cities, land uses such as housing, jobs, and retail tend to be dispersed and in outlying, low-density areas. Smart transportation—that is, transportation that is sustainable and resilient because it is easy to walk, bicycle, or use transit—is most likely if smart land use is provided in appropriate places. Smart land use clusters housing, employment, goods and services. Smart transportation results when compact land use patterns are developed in town centers and in nodes along transportation corridors.

The character of the land use pattern must be conducive to the transportation vision that the community has for the area in question. If the vision for a transportation corridor is that it be easy and popular to walk, bicycle, or use transit, these forms of travel are enhanced when land use patterns are compact (that is, housing is co-located within a short walking distance of such things as offices, recreation, culture, services and retail). And compact, walkable land use patterns will not emerge and be sustainable where the accompanying transportation system is high-speed, over-sized, and car-oriented.

The character of the street and the overall street network must be conducive to the land use or urban design vision that the community has for areas surrounding the street and the overall community. If the vision for a town center calls for compact, walkable design, the street must be low-speed (less than 35 or 40 mph) and human-scaled with no more than one through lane in each direction.

Building over-sized roadways and obligating excessive amounts of free parking inevitably results in dispersed, car-dependent development that degrades quality of life and undermines both the financial health of the community and efforts to retain a small town feel. Boulder has adopted strong objectives, policies, and regulations in the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan and Boulder Revised Code to minimize dispersed land use patterns, large roads and excess parking that collectively result in destruction of “small town feel.”

Given that, Boulder must ensure that its street and parking system are synchronized with its land use and quality of life objectives. Because Boulder strives to provide for all lifestyle and travel choices, the street and parking system in existing and emerging town centers should be modest in size and human-scaled, with modestly larger and somewhat higher speed roads in lower-density areas.

Section 4: Sustainable, Green Travel

riding the bus makes you more attractive

Transit, Walking and Bicycling

Public transit—by bus, light rail, heavy rail, and Bus Rapid Transit—is an essential tool in creating a more environmentally and financially sustainable future, and is a critical element in promoting quality of life. There are a number of ingredients that are necessary to creating a healthy transit system—a system that not only attracts those in our society who have no choice but to use transit, but also those who do have a choice about what form of travel to use. In such a system, it is sufficiently desirable and advantageous to use transit that a large number in the community choose transit frequently. Lower-quality transit is unable to attract members of the community who have a choice, and such public transit is therefore doomed to a long-term downward spiral.

Similarly, high levels of bicycling and walking are strongly associated with a high quality of life, substantially reduced noise pollution, much better public health, reduced air emissions and fuel consumption, reduced government expenditures for transportation operation and maintenance costs, healthier local and small-scaled retail, less sprawl, healthier transit, reduced transportation-related injuries and deaths, more safety for vulnerable populations such as seniors and children, a more attractive and sustainable community, and more affordability.

Essential ingredients for high levels of transit, walking and bicycling include:

  1. Efficient motor vehicle parking. For transit, walking, and bicycling to be much more common among the large number of people who have a choice about how to travel, motor vehicle parking must not be overly abundant or generally free to use. As Donald Shoup has said, free and abundant parking is a fertility drug for cars.[5] Conditions necessary for the efficient provision of parking include the reform of minimum parking requirements. The amount of parking should either be unregulated by local government or ideally capped with a parking maximum during development or redevelopment processes. Efficient parking is also found when much of the community parking is shared or leased, most or all parking for employees is through a parking cash-out program, and a high percentage of parking in the community is priced. Those who seek to buy or rent housing should be able to find that the price of parking is unbundled from the price of the housing, so that a person can opt to have lower-cost housing in exchange for choosing to have fewer (or no) parking spaces available to them.
  2. Vehicle miles traveled fees and limitations. Roads are tolled. Other helpful, equitable user fees include gas taxes, VMT fees, and pay-at-the-pump car insurance.
  3. Normalization. For transit, walking, and bicycling to be much more common (i.e., used by large numbers of people who have a choice about how to travel), these forms of travel must be seen as something engaged in by normal or fashionable people, rather than being looked upon as rare, impractical, or only engaged in by the homeless or unemployed (when not normalized, a bus is looked upon as a “loser cruiser”). With transit, if passengers do not seem to be somewhat familiar, transit can seem risky for interested but concerned potential riders.
  4. Modest, human-scaled sizing of roads, intersections, and parking. For large numbers of people to bicycle, walk, or use transit, roads, intersections, and parking cannot be over-sized. Over-sized motor vehicle infrastructure induces impacts, mentioned throughout this paper, that are toxic to bicycling, walking, and transit use. Transportation infrastructure must be human-scaled and otherwise designed to induce low-speed travel.
  5. Compact community layout. When residences, jobs and other elements of a community are too dispersed in sprawling patterns, transit can’t operate efficiently and walking and bicycling aren’t practical. Potential transit riders are so scattered that the long distances cause excessively slow transit. Short trip distances are provided by compact development through reasonably dense housing found near transit hubs and corridors, and by mixing housing with neighborhood-scaled office and retail.
  6. Conversion of one-way streets back to two-way operation. One-way streets induce high-speed motor vehicle travel, motorist impatience, longer trip distances, and inattentive driving. This creates significant safety and discomfort problems for bicyclists and pedestrians. These impacts are also toxic to nearby residential and retail, and often lead to abandonment.
  7. Advantages to Bicycling and Walking. A crucial means of growing the number of citizens who bicycle, walk, or use transit is to make such travel more advantageous than traveling by car. Even places like Boulder have a long way to go in creating such an environment—an environment where it is clearly seen by most everyone that bicycling, walking, and transit are faster, more pleasant, less costly, more efficient, more healthy, more safe, more trendy and fashionable, and more convenient.
  8. Safety in Numbers. One of the leading reasons why people do not walk or bicycle is the perceived danger of doing so—particularly on streets deemed to be unsafe. Because of this, one of the leading ways in which to successfully encourage citizens to walk and bicycle more often is to create a safer transportation environment for the interested but concerned citizens who would walk or bicycle if they perceived that it was safe to do so. A large number of bicyclists and pedestrians sends a very clear signal to non-bicyclists and non-pedestrians that bicycling and walking is safe, healthy, practical and fun.We now know from research and places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam that perhaps the most effective way to provide safety for cyclists (and to recruit a lot more people to become cyclists) is to leverage safety in numbers. People are substantially more safe (and feel more safe) when lots of other people are bicycling or walking, and are much more likely to start bicycling or walking if they see a large number of fellow citizens cycling or walking. Given this, we need to effectively deploy each of the preceding walking and bicycling recruitment tactics if we are to benefit from safety in numbers.When there are large numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians using streets on a regular basis, motorists are more likely to expect to see bicyclists and pedestrians. Expectation improves safety, in part because surprise is reduced. In addition, when motorists commonly see in-street bicycle lanes, crosswalks and sidewalks being used by bicyclists and pedestrians, the motorist learns how to drive more safely near bicyclists and pedestrians.
  9. Speed Reduction. Reduce the speed differential between cars and bicycles/pedestrians. On slow-speed streets, bicycling and walking tend to be extremely safe and comfortable.

Effectively inducing a large increase in bicycling, walking and transit trips is not about providing more bike paths, or sidewalks, or buses. It is about taking away space (via road and parking lot reductions), speed (via traffic calming), and subsidies (via user fees) from cars, and shortening distances to destinations.

Unbiased, Plain English Transportation Terminology

Ian Lockwood, a transportation engineer, prepared a report for West Palm Beach Florida in the 1990s that identified biases inherent in some of the transportation language commonly used today for transportation projects. The report recommended more objective language be used for all correspondences, resolutions, ordinances, plans, language at meetings, etc., and when updating past work. Lockwood noted that much of the current transportation language was developed several decades ago at a time when the car was the major priority in cities. However, an important contemporary objective for many cities is creating a balanced, equitable, and sustainable transportation system characterized by freedom of travel choice. Unfortunately, transportation language has not evolved to comply with this objective, and much of it still carries a pro-car bias. Continued use of biased language is not in keeping with the objective of a balanced, equitable, sustainable, “smart” transportation system.

Too often, bureaucrats use terminology in their presentations and reports that are unnecessarily confusing or hard to understand. The result is that many undesirable government actions face less public opposition because citizens are unable to understand the implications of the proposal. Many believe that not using plain English is a deliberate form of obfuscation, as it gives bureaucrats more power (citizens must rely on the bureaucrat to explain the communication), or protects the bureaucrat from criticism (because citizens are unaware of the implications of the proposal). In a democracy, government must be as transparent as possible, which means that communications from government must strive to use as much plain, simple language as possible.

Make People Happy, Not Cars

The most admirable, beneficial principle in the update of Boulder’s Transportation Master Plan is that the pedestrian comes first in town center design—before cars, before transit, and even before bicycling. By making the pedestrian the design imperative, Boulder properly asserts that the pedestrian is the linchpin—the key catalyst—to quality of life. If our community gets it right for those on foot, a great many community objectives inevitably fall into place.

America lost its way when the car emerged a century ago. The timeless tradition of designing for human comfort and pleasure gave way to a new and ruinous paradigm: designing to make cars happy. Tragically for American communities, which celebrated the car more vigorously than anywhere else in the world, designing for the car set in motion a declining quality of life and a nearly irreversible vicious cycle where more and more public money and political will was funneled into happy motoring.

The vicious cycle has been largely fueled by the inevitability of what economists call the barrier effect. The barrier effect occurs when designs to ease car travel make it more unpleasant, inconvenient and unsafe to travel by walking, by bicycling and by transit.

Because car-happy design increases the difficulty of travel by walking, bicycling and transit, residents of a community are increasingly forced to travel only by car, which compels a growing percentage of residents to demand that the community be designed to ease car travel and car parking. After all, what choice do we have? It is increasingly impractical to travel by bicycle, by foot or by transit.

The congestion objective in the Transportation Master Plan exemplifies this growing demand for convenient car travel by elevating the comfort and convenience of the car to be an important concern in the community, and again, by doing so, works at cross-purposes to a great many critical community objectives. The community can easily devolve into a downwardly spiraling road to ruin.

Equating free-flow traffic and easy parking with quality of life is counterproductive, yet seduces many of us—including Boulderites—into thinking it is the way forward. Lip service is paid to other quality of life measures,[6] but the issue that significantly bothers most Boulderites every day is traffic congestion and parking woes. It is a daily reminder on our drive to work or to run errands that (1) the roads and intersections are not wide enough; (2) there is not enough parking; and (3) growth is too rapid (“out of control”) because local government is too lax in stopping growth and too willing to allow high density development. While these three critiques and their implied solutions seem like common sense, implementing them worsens congestion and undermines our quality of life. The community, for example, sees wider, high-speed roads and intersections, larger asphalt surface parking lots, glaring lighting, more noise pollution, more car crashes, higher taxes, more injuries and deaths, less walking and cycling and transit, and less affordability.

While Boulder, in recent decades, has avoided the terrible mistake of widening roads, the city continues to suffer from the car-happy gigantism disease by, for example, building massive, double-left turn lane intersections. Again, the congestion objective in the Transportation Master Plan perpetuates such quality-of-life destroying efforts to make cars happy, undermining Boulder’s future.

It is time to be bold. It is time to return to the tradition of the ages: building our community to make people happy, not cars.

Read the next installment: Recommendations

[1] See https://dola.colorado.gov/demog-cms/sites/dola.colorado.gov.demog-cms/files/demog-docs/presentations_publications/region3.pdf

Also see the Boulder Transportation Plan Update: https://www-static.bouldercolorado.gov/docs/boulder-tmp-sos-final-report-1-201311011545.pdf

[2] Affordability is reduced because car-oriented development promotes car dependency. Higher levels of car dependency increase the number of cars a household must own. As of 2014, AAA estimates that, on average, the annual cost to own and operate a car is $9,500. If a household must own two cars rather than one, it has $9,500 less to spend on housing and other household needs.

[3] Goddard, S.B. (1994). Getting There. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pg. 68.

[4] Each of these tactics would reduce rush hour SOV trips by shifting such trips to carpool or transit trips, by shifting some trips to alternate routes, and by shifting some trips to non-rush hour times.

[5] Shoup, Donald (2005). The High Cost of Free Parking. Planners Press/American Planning Association.

[6] Categories and attributes of quality of life and civic pride in Boulder include Pearl Street Mall & the Boulderado Hotel; low crime rate; proximity to the scenic Flatirons/Foothills/Skiing/Hiking/RMNP; desirable climate & air quality; transportation choice and reduced car use; seniors & children feel relatively safe and independent; the Boulder greenbelt open space; culture & quality restaurants; small town ambience; highly-educated creative class population; quality jobs; quality schools; housing choices; and low levels of noise pollution.


The mission of PLAN-Boulder County is to ensure environmental sustainability, promote far-sighted, innovative, and sustainable land use and growth patterns, preserve the area’s unique character and desirability, and reduce our carbon footprint and environmental impact.

PLAN-Boulder County envisions Boulder County as mostly rural with open land between cities and towns that support working farms on good agricultural land and provides for conservation of critical habitats for wildlife and native flora. Within Boulder and neighboring communities, urban boundaries limit sprawl and growth is directed to meet community goals of housing affordability, diversity of all kinds, environmental sustainability, neighborhood identity, and a high quality of life. PLAN-Boulder County further supports green building practices that minimize energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, PLAN-Boulder County supports a more balanced transportation system that actively promotes public transit, bicycle commuting, and pedestrian travel, and provides for smarter use of automobiles.

The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the various city and county organizations with which the authors are affiliated.

Dom Nozzi, principal author of this paper, is a member of the PLAN-Boulder County Board of Directors and the City of Boulder Transportation Advisory Board. Mr. Nozzi has a BA in environmental science from SUNY Plattsburgh and a Master’s in town planning from Florida State Univ. For 20 years, he was a senior planner for Gainesville, Forida and was also a growth rate control planner for Boulder. He has authored several land development regulations for Gainesville, has given over 90 transportation speeches nationwide, and has had several transportation essays published in newspapers and magazines. His books include Road to Ruin and The Car is the Enemy of the City. He is a certified Complete Streets Instructor providing Complete Streets instruction throughout the nation.

Pat Shanks, Jeff McWhirter, Alan Boles and Scott McCarey also contributed to this paper.

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