Category Archives: Transportation

End Boulder’s Auto-Dependency

December 18, 2010

In 1994, the City began its first “subcommunity” plan in North Boulder. The notion was that the best way to unwind Boulder’s auto-dependent, post-WWII human settlement pattern was to focus on discrete areas of Boulder that could become “primarily self-sufficient” – places where residents would be able to work, shop and play closer to where they sleep without having to drive their car everywhere to do almost everything. Sixteen years later, the automobile still reigns supreme.

We keep kicking the tough decisions down the road (literally). How can we establish walkable neighborhoods? The City should inventory and map residential rental housing. Unlike owner-occupied homes, these investor-owned dwelling units are “in play” for land assembly purposes — an essential first step in the neighborhood and subcommunity center development process.

Transferable residential development rights (TDRs) need to be re-calibrated so that a development right in the County can be traded for 5-7 affordable dwelling units in Boulder. TDRs can then be used to support development of walkable mixed use (WAMU) centers within our existing, sprawling residential areas. The TDR concept should be evolved further to include transferable commercial development rights. This would allow commercial development potential existing in remote areas to be concentrated along transit corridors, nodes, and neighborhood and subcommunity centers. Ultimately, zoning maps need to be created with water colors, not highlighters and sharpies. Interface areas should “bleed” into each other. Large tracts of homogeneous single use zones are inherently auto dependent, the cartographic antithesis of a truly sustainable future.

BVCP Misses Opportunity to Embrace Positive Change

December 4, 2010

Our economy and quality of life are dependent on cheap energy. However, people in China and India want what we enjoy, too. Congress will now ignore this competition for resources. Therefore, the ongoing BVCP 5-year update ought to have special significance and a sense of urgency. Instead, staff’s time and resources are being used to tweak land uses around the margins of only those areas within the City likely to develop in the next five years.

The BVCP identifies the need to reconfigure sprawl by adding mixed-use neighborhood and subcommunity centers along transit corridors and at transit nodes, but then yields to political expediency by embracing “areas of stability” and “areas of change” concepts that leave most of Boulder’s residential neighborhoods off the table. It is high time we acknowledged that much of the residential development added to Boulder since the 1950s is neither walkable nor primarily self-sufficient, and has only limited, inconvenient access to transit.

The BVCP’s current geographical focus needs to be expanded to include the North Metro region’s commuter-shed. We need to make local planning decisions in a regional context and create a forum where regional stakeholders can meet regularly to better anticipate and coordinate them. Our human settlement patterns must be adapted to nurture greater social and economic resiliency, particularly with respect to workforce housing and local agricultural and manufacturing capability. Held captive by past zoning decisions and philosophies, we are squandering an important opportunity to stretch our vision into the future and embrace positive change.

Conservation Is a Conservative Value

April 10, 2010
By Ed Byrne

When an addict wants to threaten his dealer, “I’m looking for a new supplier” has no where near the impact as, “I’m clean and sober, and I intend to stay that way.” For the good of the planet and to strengthen our economy, we have to kick the carbon fuel habit. That such a commitment would rattle a few cages in the Middle East, Venezuela and West Virginia is just a side benefit. Such a commitment will also evidence a willingness to sacrifice to secure a better future, a quality noticeably lacking in the U.S. since WWII.

Our “burn” rate is alarming enough by itself, without bending environmental laws or incurring additional human and ecosystem health risks to feed our energy-consuming beast. We must create economic resiliency in our towns and cities, while hedging our generation’s GHG/Post-Peak Oil bet. Let’s plug every hole, insulate every wall and roof, calk every window (after replacing the porous ones), retire every gas guzzler, ride every bike and bus we can, build new walkable neighborhood centers, add multi-family homes along transit corridors, etc.

We know what needs to be done, but we’re whistling past the grave yard, hoping to put it off another day. Instead, let’s reduce our leaks and our profligate use of carbon fuels, before opening up the supply spigots further. Expensive, hard-to-find, environmentally risky oil and coal production should wait until our entire energy system has been fine-tuned to waste none of it. Conservation is a conservative value, isn’t it?

South of Downtown Area (SoDA) Needs a Facelift

March 24, 2010
By Ed Byrne

Robb’s Music may have been robbed, but that’s no reason to micromanage the south block face of Canyon Boulevard between 14th and 16th.. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Boulder’s land use staff is preparing an “area plan,” but their focus is on one thin slice of an area that really is worth a closer look: 14th to 17th from Canyon Boulevard to Arapahoe Avenue. This larger area is actually deserving of close scrutiny. The slice selected neither deserves the sobriquet, “South of Downtown Area (SoDA),” nor the special attention.

“Being Green,” no offense to Kermit, means carefully targeting future residential development to meet the needs of our 50,000 in-commuters, securing local food production for future generations in a $6.00/gallon world, and attracting sustainable businesses that will increase Boulder’s resiliency in the face of mounting Green House Gas and Post-Peak Oil challenges. That means mixed use, walkable subcommunity centers and cascading density along transit corridors. We need to say “yes” to every project that moves us closer to true sustainability – the sooner, the better.

This may finally be the tipping point. We can’t move closer to a sustainable future with a less is more approach. More is more – provided it is in the right place. Body count logic is no substitute for time-tested, community-enhancing, urban planning principles. Some want “planning” to be simple: fewer people = better plan. How could more people make things better? Well, if they’re housed in the right place for the right reasons, and it means they aren’t commuting into Boulder everyday to work, that’s an improvement, isn’t it? They’re already here, driving on our streets; they just don’t have a place to sleep close to where they work.

Yes, Boulder is a wonderful place, but it is not even close to sustainable in its current form. 50,000 in-commuters every day, doing jobs that must be done, are the most important part of Boulder’s most daunting future challenge: reducing our environmental impacts and carbon footprints. We can’t reduce either in any significant way unless we can create housing types our in-commuters desire, in places they want to live

Who will do our work when the price of gasoline heads over $4.00 per gallon and our workforce starts looking for jobs closer to where they sleep? And what about our aging Boomers? We are losing our wisdom and our youth. The elderly can’t afford their property taxes on a fixed income, so they’re looking to downsize. $1,000 per square foot units are not their answer either.

Who’s building the kind of multiple dwelling unit developments our sons and daughters are looking for, so they don’t have to live in eastern Boulder County and points beyond forever? The Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964) and their children, the Baby Boomlet (1978 – 1995), will drive housing markets for the next 20 years because there just aren’t enough Generation X’ers to purchase all the single family, detached homes the Boomers have already built (one of the reasons for the real estate crisis).

As gas prices rise, large carbon footprints empty wallets, and walkable neighborhoods gain traction in the marketplace; we’ll desperately need to build more of them. No-growthers, like Gulliver’s Lilliputians, are trying to tie this burgeoning demographic monster down with a thousand puny ropes, shrink-wrapping Boulder’s downtown neighborhoods. But you can’t fool Mother Nature. Our seniors want to simplify and our youth want to keep it simple. Young people and old people appreciate, need and are willing to buy smaller units for a fair price in a good location.

Other than the Wells Fargo parking lot (north of Walnut between Broadway and 13th), SoDA is Boulder’s next opportunity zone. You can certainly build affordable housing on the north east quarter of the 1300 block south of Canyon – the City already owns the land. The north side of Arapahoe between 13th and 17th should be rezoned to encourage redevelopment of more affordable units over retail and some office uses – the interior blocks in Goss Grove will benefit greatly from the buffer thus created between them and Boulder High School’s intense activity. The south side of Canyon between 14th and 17th (the City owns the rest up to Broadway) should frame the boulevard, which now features: a bank, office building, Robb’s, the Liquor Mart parking lot, a gas station, and another bank.

If you care about your parents, your children and the future, sitting still right now means Boulder is falling behind. We’re also diminishing our legacy as a forward-looking, visionary community that believes the way to secure a better future is to plan for it. We need to prepare for a future that is as close to carbon neutral as we can manage, and as protected from the negative effects of high-priced gasoline as we can imagine.

FasTracks Tax Is Worth Doubling

February 13 2010

The real value associated with FasTracks is only peripherally related to rail lines, guided bus lanes and service enhancements. The value comes from creating an infrastructural transportation armature that is scalable without purchase of additional right-of-way, around which future growth and development can be organized more efficiently.

There are some who want more buses and trains, so all those other people on the road will choose a different mode. That’s not much of a reason to support a doubling of the transit tax. RTD’s representatives want people to vote for the tax in order to personally ride a train or bus. RTD’s trying to sell the wrong product. People take the train when it is convenient to do so (it rarely is here in the West, where most of the rails that might take you where you want to go today were torn up more than half a century ago). People ride the bus when they have no other choice (in Boulder, you’re stuck in the same traffic, stopping every couple of blocks – whoopee . . .).

As the price of gasoline doubles, and then doubles again, people will want to live closer to where they work, shop and play. If we don’t establish and protect efficient connections between our regional communities soon, sprawl will continue to expand in every direction, making connections harder or even impossible to make in the future. Transit oriented walkable neighborhoods are the answer. The value is in the nodes.

2010 Resolution

December 26, 2009

Boulder needs to recapture its “joie de vivre.” As a community, we’ve gotten many things right. We should celebrate them. Even so, some humility is warranted, since there is much left to be done. We are not sustainable yet, but we’re ready to launch. Our success will be a joy to behold! What we need is a renewed commitment to embrace positive change, change that will move us closer to lifestyles we can be proud of because they aren’t borrowed from our children and grandchildren, or taken from others.

Lives with true meaning are consciously chosen at no one else’s expense. It will take us awhile to get there, but we will be very happy to arrive. Walkable neighborhoods are more energy efficient, they waste fewer resources, and they are more fun to live in than what we’ve been building for the past sixty or so years. They are also “dense.” Boulder isn’t. Neither is the rest of the northwest metro region. But we can resolve as a community and region that all our future development will be smarter than what we’ve built in the recent past.

We can construct affordable housing closer to where the jobs are, and, as consumers, we can choose to sleep closer to where we work. The supply/demand curve being what it is, it may cost us more to inhabit less space, but the pay-off in the overall quality of our lives will be well worth it. Sooner is better. Carpe diem!

Historic Preservation & Floor Area Ratio Caps

December 17, 2009

“Our quality of life won’t get better; it will get worse more slowly.” I first heard this comment during a commercial growth cap debate in 1996. I wondered how such an uninspiring vision could gain any traction. Was an oft-cited statistic, 95% of Boulder was already “built out,” undermining Boulder’s self-confidence? How could we fix what was broken with the remaining 5%?

Since then, subcommunity-based, transit-oriented planning has channeled new growth and development to reconfigure land use patterns it had taken us fifty years to screw up. Our next challenge is rehabilitating residential and non-residential structures built more than 25 years ago — when energy was cheap. However, date-driven historic preservation and numeric home size restrictions may work to prevent or unwisely delay such renovation and innovation.

An incentive-based approach is needed because homeowners must make a leap of faith to realize the potential of Xcel’s new Smart Grid system. City Council and Boulder County’s Commissioners seem determined to cram energy conservation and efficiency into every building permit, but their top-down, “our way or the highway” (literally), approach ignores market opportunities better served by the County’s ClimateSmart loan program (renovation costs run with the property, lengthening payback potential).

Architects and developers are not the enemies of positive change. Home size and historic preservation are cost-dependent design challenges. Home expansion caps and overly-aggressive historic building regulation may prevent widespread rehabilitation of Boulder’s housing stock and commercial buildings, just when we need it most. Quality-blind math calculations are still not the answer.

Charter Schools, Planning Nightmare

December 12, 2009

Charter schools may exemplify the phrase, “the enemy of good is perfect?” I’m pretty sure focus schools do, too. Generating a site-specific school identity in order to attract students from other neighborhoods to replace the ones you’re losing is a zero sum game. Competition has, in general, made our public schools better, but niche schools can be, and often are, a transportation and neighborhood nightmare.

In a community where the schools are all performing well above average, open enrollment is enabling helicopter parenting, without the helicopters – school drop-off zones are death-defying and school buses run half-filled, but cost the same. If we truly intend to reduce our collective carbon footprints, devoting our creative educational energies to optimizing our neighborhood schools is a better approach.

We have gifted and talented students in all of our schools now. Perhaps as important, many of the skilled parents volunteer hither and yon in order to enhance their offspring’s educational experiences – their active involvement is one of the BVSD’s greatest strengths.

Charter and focus schools constitute an “easy” out and a temptation our community should resist, for the above societal reasons and many more. Let’s mainstream our geniuses – all of our kids will be better off, including the bright ones. Childhood is fleeting. Let the kids be kids for as long as possible. There may be cities and towns in the U.S. where the best students need rooms of their own in order to thrive, but Boulder isn’t one of them.

Let Our People Go (to Copenhagen)

November 21, 2009

Boulder’s carbon footprint per capita tops the national average. Nearly 60,000 employees commute to their jobs in Boulder every work day. I’m not sure we deserve the honor of being the only municipality that has been invited to make a presentation in Copenhagen, but it is an honor nonetheless. Our hearts and minds are in the right place, but our reputation exceeds us. We have much work to do walking our talk. Literally.

Our human settlement patterns are better than some communities, but they still reflect classic sprawl – an auto-dependent layout that has us driving too often to do almost everything. We get passing grades for our environmental achievements (preservation of our open space, riparian corridors, and mountain backdrop), but our performance with respect to the other two legs of the sustainability stool, our economy and social equity, do not.

The unintended consequences of Boulder’s local land use policies negatively impact our region, harm our people and the planet, and are resistant to change. What we need are more walkable neighborhoods, but the projects that have been proposed to create them are too often defeated by local opposition. Here, the enemy of good is perfect. No single project can prevent global warming, but we still need many of them to house our workers and create viable neighborhood centers.

Sending two key City planners to Copenhagen with CAP dollars is money well spent. When they return to Boulder with new energy, enthusiasm and ideas, we will all be better served.

Boulder’s Transportation Culture

October 9, 2009

The sooner Boulder’s transportation culture changes, the better. The challenge is that too many of our neighborhoods are not walkable or bike-able today; they were designed for automobiles. The planning assumption was you could rely upon cheap fuel to carry you, in a car, whenever and wherever you needed to go.

As we struggle to re-insert pedestrians and cyclists into our transportation infrastructure, all the blinking lights and shouted warnings we’re installing won’t change human nature. When you’re behind the wheel of an automobile, pedestrians and cyclists are not a threat. Your brain will take note of the semi-trailer truck your eyes see, but the poor bicyclists and walkers can be filtered out.

To bicyclists and pedestrians, Rule 1 is: you’re “invisible.” Rule 2 is: if a driver can see you, they will try to kill you! Every injured bicyclist I met as a municipal prosecutor told me the same story: I made eye contact with them, they “saw” me, and then they ran me over. No, they didn’t see you. Their eyes were gazing in your direction, but their brain, safely encased within their cranium, which was safely encased within a 2,000 pound steel shell on wheels, didn’t care.

Every driver should look carefully for what they can not see. Where are the blind spots? Where are the pets and people? Instead of looking for what can kill you, look for what you might kill – two very different points of view. Courtesy is contagious – just do it!