Public Engagement and Leadership

Some words of caution regarding “public engagement” when it pertains to transportation.

Boulder, like most cities in the nation and world, is trapped in a self-perpetuating downward spiral when it comes to transportation.

For two reasons.

First, there are large car subsidies in Boulder. Second, providing for car travel (by, for example, striving to maintain free-flowing traffic) has exclusionary impacts. Subsidies and exclusion artificially increase the desire and need to drive a car.

The main subsidies for car travel are free parking, free-to-use roads, artificially low price for gasoline, and the fact that most public money used for road infrastructure comes from general taxes rather than user fees such as gas taxes.

Providing for car travel is exclusionary because it is a zero-sum game. Whenever we ease car travel, we exclude or make more difficult travel by transit, bicycling, or walking. Economists call this the “Barrier Effect.”

The artificially high desire and need to drive a car means that if we ask Boulder citizens what they desire for road design or parking, the answers for most all citizens are obvious: Make it cheap and easy to drive a car.

The dilemma, then, is that while the City of Boulder has correctly recognized for decades that excessive car use undermines a large number of important community objectives, the downward spiral I mention above motivates large numbers of Boulder residents to demand easy and cheap car travel.

This means that leadership is needed in Boulder.

For example, had the Boulder City Council – prior to the construction of Pearl Street Mall —  asked citizens to vote on whether they wanted Pearl Street to be closed to cars and replaced by a pedestrian mall, citizens would have voted overwhelmingly against the Mall. There would be no Mall today, despite the fact that the Mall is now much loved by both Boulder residents and many living elsewhere. It took leadership to create Pearl Street Mall. Similarly, it took leadership to repurpose North Broadway from 4 lanes to 3, and repurpose lanes on Baseline Road.

Recognizing the above, an American city traffic engineer (Rob Burchfield) asked a Dutch official (Hans Voerknecht) how they were able to adopt powerful tactics such as high driving user fees and strong physical restrictions on car use to inconvenience and discourage car use. How did the Dutch not only powerfully discourage car use but grow the levels of bicycling and walking and transit use to such high levels in The Netherlands?

Voerknecht’s response: “…if you would ask the Dutch public, ‘Would you rather pay less tax on your cars and pay less tax on your fuel,’ everybody would say ‘Oh yes!’ But the thing is, we don’t ask them! You shouldn’t ask all the time, ‘Do you want to spend money?’ Of course they say no…Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it’s about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions. The cost of maintaining a road network is high and the users should pay for them…there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Charles Montgomery tells a story about Columbia, South America, where Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, was implementing policies that are consistent with…hedonics, an economic philosophy whose proponents focus on fostering not economic growth but human happiness:

“A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,” the new mayor Enrique Penalosa announced. He shelved the highway plans. He increased gas taxes and prohibited car owners from driving during rush hour more than three times per week. He also handed over prime space on the city’s main arteries to a bus rapid-transit system.

Bogotans were so angry with this that they almost impeached their new mayor. Business owners were outraged. Yet by the end of his three-year term, Mr. Peñalosa was immensely popular and his reforms were being lauded for making Bogota remarkably fairer, more tolerable and more efficient……“Before Peñalosa, mayors were terrified to take on the issue of auto-dominated public space, for fear that motorists would rebel politically,” says Walter Hook. “But he not only challenged auto dependency, he succeeded politically. He’s given other politicians the courage to follow. And other mayors have realized that they can’t build their way out of congestion.” …In 1996, when traffic congestion was considered the city’s biggest problem, [the citizens of Bogota] voted against auto restrictions. It took courage…for Mr. Peñalosa to ignore the polls.

Adam Grant once said that “…the least effective leaders were those who followed the will of the people and the precedents set by their predecessors. The greatest [leaders] were those who challenged the status quo and brought about sweeping changes that improved the lot of the [community].”

Similarly, Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has said that “[t]o achieve excellence should be a struggle.”

And Elbert Hubbard pointed out that “[t]o avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

The above does not mean that we should not listen to the citizens of Boulder. We live, after all (and thankfully!), in a representative democracy. But the key is that it is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. The citizens of Boulder should be regularly solicited to clearly understand their broad life objectives for the community. In sum, Boulder citizens generally seek such things as high public safety, transportation and lifestyle (walkable, suburban, rural) choice, reduced air pollution, and lower costs. But it is less appropriate for citizens in a representative democracy to decide on the tactics to best achieve those goals. That is best done by professional city staff as guided by elected officials who have as one of their roles the need to weigh tradeoffs and find the proper balance of costs and benefits. Boulder tends to lean too far in the direction of having citizens make technical decisions.

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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