By Dom Nozzi
September 30, 2015
The extremely hostile, enraged opposition to the redesign of Folsom Street in Boulder has unveiled an enormous myth. Boulder has long been touted as being exceptionally progressive and forward thinking regarding transportation. I had bought into this myth myself.
But the stunning opposition to the Folsom Street right-sizing (removal of two of five travel lanes) motivated me to think again about that widespread belief. The following tally shows that Boulder is behind the times on a number of transportation issues.
Traffic Calming. Slowing down and calming dangerous, speeding traffic is extremely important for neighborhood health and safety, not to mention overall quality of life. For these reasons, designing streets to obligate slower car speeds is a widespread and growing action throughout the nation. Boulder essentially ended its neighborhood traffic calming efforts in respond to a funding shortfall and furious citizen opposition in the 1990s and 2000s.
Right-Sizing. Removing travel lanes from oversized roads, like traffic calming, is an essential and cost-effective way to dramatically improve safety, reduce speeding, reduce noise pollution, reduce regional car travel, improve residential and retail health, and nudge a number of residents toward bicycling, walking and transit. Again, right-sizing is a widespread and growing reform throughout the nation. Boulder is likely to end all efforts for the foreseeable future to further right-size gigantic in-city highways due to extreme citizen opposition that emerged in 2015 regarding the Folsom Street project.
Car Parking. Excessive quantities of free off-street parking is a gigantic problem both in Boulder and nationally. It is a massive subsidy to motorists, induces an artificially high level of car travel, destroys city and residential health, and makes for extremely unsafe and inconvenient conditions for walking, bicycling and transit. By substantially dispersing the size of a town center and overall community, excessive parking found in Boulder and elsewhere is toxic to city health. Cities throughout the nation are therefore converting counterproductive “minimum” parking requirements to “maximum” requirements. Boulder parking regulations remain antiquated, after decades of this problem being identified, by continuing to require large minimum parking requirements and doing relatively little to convert free parking to priced parking. Or to convert excessive existing parking into more community beneficial uses such as office, retail, or residential.
Synchronized traffic signals. Synchronizing traffic signals is commonly thought to “ease” car traffic flow or reduce congestion. But it has long been known that we cannot build our way out of congestion by adding new road capacity – and synchronization does this indirectly — as more capacity simply induces new latent car trips that would not have occurred had we not increased capacity. This is particularly true when considering cars, which, because of their enormous size, quickly congest roads. Many cities have therefore opted not to synchronize signals (which, by the way, is surprisingly expensive) or have made the synchronizing less counterproductive by timing the signal lights for bus and bicycle speeds rather than car speeds. Boulder continues to synchronize signals for car speeds, and there appears to be no support for revising this.
One-way streets. One-way streets induce speeding, inattentive driving, motorist impatience, regional car trips, suburban sprawl, and declining retail and residential health. They also discourage bicycle and walking trips. For these reasons, a great many cities have returned their one-way streets to two-way operation, and this trend is accelerating due to the growing awareness of problems associated with one-way streets. The Boulder town center is substantially hobbled by a toxic one-way street loop, and there appears to be no political support for returning to two-way operation.
Bicycle parking. Since at least the early 1980s, it has been well known that the “inverted U” bicycle rack parking design (and minor variations) is the only well-functioning, low-cost design for bicycle parking. Yet it was only in 2015 that Boulder opted to require such parking, and even when it did, the regulations still allow an extremely inferior alternative design.
Transportation is in a silo. For decades, we have known that transportation and land use are intimately related, and profoundly shape each other. Many community objectives cannot be achieved unless transportation and land use work together. We cannot, for example, install an enormous, high-speed highway in the middle of what is intended to be a compact, safe, walkable town center, as the highway undermines the desire for nearby walkability. Yet in Boulder, there is a surprisingly strict separation between long-range transportation plans and long-range land use plans. And the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board has, in at least my tenure, been extremely timid about discussing otherwise obvious land use issues when discussing transportation issues.
Slip lanes. Slip lanes allow cars to make relatively high-speed, inattentive right turns, which create dangerous turning conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists at intersections. Boulder has installed a large number of slip lanes at intersections throughout the city – including in the town center.
Double-Left Turn Lanes. Double-left turn lanes, like slip lanes, allow relatively high-speed, inattentive turns by cars, which results in dangerous conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians, not to mention motorists. Double-left turn lanes create enormous intersection sizes that induce suburban dispersal from such intersections, make crossing by bicycle or foot exceptionally dangerous, kill the important need for intersections to create a human-scaled sense of place, and promote suburban sprawl. In addition, these extremely expensive intersection treatments ignore the fact that we cannot build our way out of intersection congestion. Boulder has installed a very large number of such dual left-turn lanes.
Idaho Law. The Idaho law allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, and red signal lights as stop signs. The law acknowledges the fact that stop sign and signal light regulations are designed for dangerous, heavy, high-speed cars, and are generally unnecessary for bicyclists. Bicyclists depend on leveraging momentum when traveling, and stops eliminate momentum. A number of cities in Colorado have now adopted the long-standing Idaho law to substantially increase bicyclist convenience and reduce inequity. Boulder continues to resist adopting such a law.
Town Center Bicycling. Healthy town centers are places that tend to be superb locations for bicyclists to live and travel, as centers contain a large number of destinations (which reduces travel distances) and the best centers emphasize low speeds. Despite its national reputation for prolific and quality bicycle facilities, however, the Boulder town center contains a large number of roads that are shockingly hostile to bicycling.
Yes, Boulder has provided an impressive system of bicycle paths and transit, which perpetuates the myth that Boulder is unusually progressive regarding transportation. But the paths and transit are much more a matter of Boulder being wealthy rather than Boulder being cutting edge, or brilliant, or progressive. Because off-street paths and transit in no way impede happy, excessive car travel, they require relatively little leadership. Driving by car in Boulder remains highly convenient and enjoyable. Paths and transit, it turns out, are in a way simply green washing lip service.
I was a professional town and transportation planner for 20 years in Gainesville FL. That city is far more politically conservative than Boulder, yet on each of the measures above, Gainesville is much more progressive.
Boulder is also far behind the times when it comes to residential development regulations, but I will save that for a future essay.