By Dom Nozzi
July 1, 2016
There have been a great many traffic injuries and deaths in the Boulder area in recent weeks. This is a terrible tragedy and tracks what is happening nationally. If we are to call ourselves a civilized society, there are effective things we must do to make our streets safer.
A very large percentage of neighborhood streets in Boulder (and the region) are excessively wide, which induces excessive driving speeds and dangerously inattentive driving. Boulder needs to redesign many of these streets to be safer. Good tactics are the common and effective traffic calming measures which narrow the street (yet still allow adequate emergency vehicle response times), including the use of slow streets, give-way streets, and shared streets. Each of those designs deliver slow design speeds which are crucial for neighborhood safety. A quick, easy and low-cost way to create slower, more attentive neighborhood streets is to allow and encourage a lot more on-street car parking, in addition to bulb-outs, traffic circles and chicanes. Slow speed neighborhood streets dramatically improve neighborhood quality of life and safety, and effectively promote more walking, bicycling and sociable neighborhood interactions.
An extremely common suggestion to address dangerous speeding is to lower speed limits. But mounting signs with lower speed limits, as nearly all traffic engineers know, is highly ineffective unless we also redesign the street. The typical motor vehicle speeds are generated by the design speed of the street rather than speed limit signs (which are so commonly disregarded that many derisively call them “suggested” speed limits). It is also unfair to the motorist to install a speed limit sign that is far below the street design speed. When the street design strongly encourages motorists to drive at higher speeds than the speed limit, a large number of speeding violations and tickets result.
I have been a bicycle commuter in a great many cities in the US, and in my opinion, the state highways in Boulder (in particular, Broadway, Canyon, and 28th St) are among the most hostile, deadly state roads I have ever bicycled or walked. The state highways in Boulder are death traps not only for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users, but also motorists. Those streets (and their huge intersections) are too big and therefore too high speed to be located within a city. It is important to note that city health is promoted with slow speeds, so these state highways are undermining the quality of life in Boulder.
The fierce opposition to the Folsom street reconfiguration project, as well as opposition to other safety and quality of life street redesign measures such as the traffic calming program in the 1990s, suggests that many in the Boulder population are not ready to accept enactment of street designs which effectively improve street safety and quality of life.
Even in Boulder, it is nearly impossible for the vast majority to travel anywhere without a car. American cities (including Boulder) are designed so that regular, safe, convenient travel by bicycle, walking, or transit is out of the question for almost all of us (mostly because roads are too big and distances are too large). That means, inevitably, that large numbers of people are obligated to drive a car even though it is too dangerous for them to do so. They have had too much to drink. Or they are angry or emotionally upset. They are distracted or exhausted by their multi-tasking, busy lives. Or their driving skills are questionable due to age or poor eyesight or other factors. In a society where nearly all trips must be made by motor vehicle, this problem is large and unavoidable.
It is incumbent on us, therefore, to design our streets and communities to be more compact and slower in speed. Otherwise, dangerous streets and unacceptably high numbers road crashes will always be a part of our lives.