Slow Cars, Not Free-Flowing Traffic

Tragically, Boulder has strived for decades to ease traffic flow via the Transportation Master Plan (TMP) objective of minimizing congestion and promoting “efficient” car travel. Lip service is paid to other quality of life measures, but the issues that significantly bother most Boulderites every day are 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 advancing these three “solutions” seem like common sense, they worsen congestion, and the typical tactics to try to reduce congestion undermine our quality of life. The community, for example, suffers from an excessive number of over-wide and high-speed roads and intersections, over-sized asphalt surface parking lots, glaring light pollution, excessive noise pollution, too many car crashes, overly high transportation-related taxes, an unacceptable number of traffic injuries and deaths, too little walking and cycling and transit, and too little housing affordability.

Free-flowing traffic also undermines an extremely important objective that Boulder has emphasized for decades: Promoting more transit use, bicycling, and walking. Striving for free-flowing traffic not only fails to promote more of such socially desirable travel. It actually REDUCES such travel because it strongly induces new car trips that would not have occurred had the City not made it easier and more pleasant to drive a car via free-flowing traffic tactics.

The objective of “No more than 20% of roads congested” (or any effort that seeks to reduce congestion by easing car travel) is counterproductive to the Transportation Master Plan (TMP), and should be removed. It induces low-value car trips, more car travel, more air emissions, and more sprawl. It also destroys human-scaled community charm.

Despite the conventional wisdom, more people bicycling, walking and using transit will not reduce congestion (due to gigantism, unpriced roads/parking and latent demand). Boulder’s history of explicitly striving for free-flowing traffic has also played a part in elevating motorist expectations in Boulder that traffic will always be relatively high-speed and not slowed or impeded (even though slower traffic is an essential element ofroad-diet (3) safety and a quality city). This toxic expectation was exemplified by the extremely hostile and widespread opposition to a road diet proposed for Folsom Street – a level of opposition that was the most extreme I have ever seen in my career as a transportation planner. I have written more about trying to reduce congestion here and here.

A town center thrives when speeds are relatively slow. The town center is undermined when speeds are relatively high and free-flowing. Slower speeds are highly beneficial for businesses, and are essential for substantially improving traffic safety. No other tactic is more effective in improving safety than reducing motor vehicle speeds.

A healthy town center not only has relatively slow speeds, but also features compact, human-scaled dimensions where streets, alleys, building setbacks, block sizes, turning radii, and parking areas are relatively small in size. Indeed, when these features are scaled correctly, the space-hogging motorist should feel like an inconvenienced intruder, while the pedestrian and cyclist feels like a welcome guest. Unfortunately, Boulder has expended far too much effort in creating a town center design where the motorist feels like a guest and the pedestrian and cyclist feels like they don’t belong. This is toxic for a town center. And for quality of life.

Accessibility should be the emphasis, not mobility. A mobility emphasis privileges car travel and puts driving on a pedestal. Accessibility prioritizes quality of life design because itAccessibility emphasizes the promotion of all forms of travel. Rename the “Transportation Mobility Plan” the “Transportation Accessibility Plan.”

About Dom Nozzi

Urban designer, Complete Streets instructor, smart growth specialist, town planner, walkable streets and bikeable streets and trails specialist, writer, editor, public speaker, world adventurer, skier, kayaker, SCUBA diver, bicyclist, hiker, dancer, book reader, cook, urbanist.
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