Traffic Safety in Boulder

By Dom Nozzi

As a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board, I am alarmed  by the recent uptick in serious injuries and deaths caused by vehicle crashes on roads in our area. I am ashamed that our community seems poised to respond with the same old song and dance.

Three factors are primarily responsible for enormous traffic safety problems that persist in Boulder.bike-car-crash1

First, roadways and intersections have grown enormous in size in Boulder. Roads such as Arapahoe, Canyon, Colorado, 28th Street, and Baseline now have such a large number of travel lanes and turn lanes that pedestrians and bicyclists must now cross a huge distance made more daunting by the high speed car traffic on these roads. Anything more than 3 or 4 lanes is extremely dangerous to cross, and these roadways now contain up to 7 or 8 lanes. This oversizing has been driven by an effort to promote “free-flowing” traffic – even at rush hour. Given the enormous size of cars (a person consumes 17 to 100 times more space in a car than in a chair), and the large number of regional commuters coming to Boulder each day, retaining “free-flowing” traffic — even at rush hour — is a recipe for finding yourself oversizing streets and intersections. Boulder has certainly done that. By doing so, Boulder now has a number of oversized roads that are too big for a city, too big for safe bicycling or walking, and too big to have any reasonable chance to achieve an emerging plan of “vision zero” for crashes (reducing the number of traffic deaths and serious injuries to zero). To put the oversizing problem in perspective, if we want to carry 50,000 people per hour in each direction of a road, we’d need one lane worth of road if they are carried by train, two lanes if carried by bus, and 18 lanes if carried by car.

Second, it is important to note that at the dawn of the auto age a century ago, nearly all American cities – including Boulder — adopted forgiving roadway design. Forgiving design “forgives” a motorist for driving too fast or not paying attention by increasing the width of travel lanes, adding travel lanes, and removing “obstacles” from the areas flanking roads (trees, buildings, etc.). The naïve thought was that this would reduce the number of things motorists would crash into.

The unintended consequence, however, was that this design significantly increased motorist speeding and inattentiveness, as a motorist tends to drive as fast and as inattentively as the roadway design allows. The result of forgiving design is that there is an epidemic in motorist speeding and inattentiveness – aggravated by the concurrent epidemic in sleep deprivation that causes most all of us to occasionally fall asleep at the wheel.

Third, for 100 years, nearly all US cities — every few years — have “renewed their efforts” to improve traffic safety. We “redouble our work” to institute the “Five Warnings:”

Warning signs are installed. Warning lights are erected. Warning paint is painted. Warning education is introduced. Warning enforcement is pushed.

After all those campaigns over the past century have been waged, what has been the result? We have, today, the most dangerous streets we have ever had. Clearly, the Five Warnings have been ineffective.

For several decades, we have been so successful in providing for fast, unobstructed travel by car that it has substantially undermined transit ridership, walking, and bicycling. “Danger” is an all-too-frequent reason given in surveys for not bicycling, for example.

Wide travel lanes and multi-lane roads exert a nearly irresistible influence over a motorist. Even motorists who are not inclined to drive fast creep up to highway speeds. Amplifying this problem: large numbers of drug- or alcohol-impaired drivers, sleep-deprived drivers, and time-starved drivers. These factors are a dangerous mix, as they induce a great deal of high-speed, inattentive, reckless driving.

As noted above, making a street “safer” too often increases vehicle speeds, which makes the streets less safe – particularly for pedestrians and cyclists. One result: a disproportionate number of serious injuries and deaths in Boulder are suffered by pedestrians and bicyclists. About 40 percent of all children killed in motor vehicle crashes nationally are killed while walking or riding a bicycle.

Measured by “years of life lost,” motor vehicles fatalities rank third.

Since 1930, over 30,000 Americans die in motor vehicle crashes annually.

This is appalling. And should be completely unacceptable to any civilized society.

The Importance of Traffic Calming

One of the most common requests by citizens to our Board is the need to reinstate the neighborhood traffic calming program that was defunded in the early 2000s. Speeding, cut-through vehicles are a serious problem for many neighborhoods. Such traffic discourages bicycling and walking, substantially increases noise pollution, endangers our most vulnerable (seniors, children, the handicapped, and pets), is a primary cause of loss of neighborhood quality of life, and fuels opposition to infill development.

Traffic calming, which is a street design that obligates motorists to drive more slowly and attentively, has been shown to dramatically improve street safety. Desirable design examples include traffic circles or roundabouts, curb “bulbouts” (which reduce the width of the street), and removal of travel lanes or turn lanes. Roadway geometry in safety-sensitive areas, such as schools, needs to keep speeds near 20 miles per hour. Traffic circles reduce crashes by 50 to 90 percent, compared to two-way and four-way stop signs and traffic signals, by slowing cars and reducing the number of conflict points.

Note that in general, “horizontal calming interventions” such as circles and neck-downs are more desirable than “vertical calming interventions” such as speed humps. Among other things, humps cause noise pollution problems and can dangerously impede fire truck and other emergency vehicle response times.

Motorists are more likely to collide with pedestrians at higher speeds. At 60 miles per hour, the field of vision of the motorist is two-thirds less than at 30 miles per hour. In addition, the probability of a pedestrian being killed is only 3.5 percent when a vehicle is traveling at 15 miles per hour, but jumps to 37 percent at 31 miles per hour and 83 percent at 44 miles per hour.

Despite the conventional wisdom, stop signs do not affect overall speeds or control speeding. Posting lower speed limits and enforcing them is not sufficient to achieve needed reductions in speeding. Modest physical reconfiguration of streets is the only reliable and cost-effective way to slow and control inattentive speeding.

Calming helps reduce neighborhood noise pollution. Higher speeds substantially increase noise pollution.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) notes that the importance of reducing traffic speed cannot be overemphasized, and has stated that traffic calming is one of the more cost-effective ways to promote pedestrian and bicycle use in urban and suburban areas, where walking and bicycling are often hazardous and uncomfortable. And as for children, Stina Sandels, a world authority on children and road accidents, says that the best road safety education cannot adapt a child to modern traffic, so traffic must be adapted to the child.

Fortunately, there are effective street design tactics to substantially increase road safety, and these methods can be deployed without significantly slowing emergency vehicle response times.

I urge Council to restore funding for neighborhood traffic calming. Since the City does not have the authority to introduce safe, speed-slowing designs on larger state roads, I urge Council to lobby the State legislature to give Boulder the authority to do so.

Summary

How about if we do something effective to improve traffic safety?

  1. What if, instead of pursuing the ruinous objective of maintaining “free flowing” traffic (even at rush hour), we start the process of shrinking the size of the many over-sized roads and intersections in Boulder to induce slower, more attentive driving? (not to mention a financially healthy atmosphere for retail, and a higher quality of life for homes)
  2. What if, instead of continuing the counterproductive “forgiving” street design paradigm, we revise Boulder’s street design manuals to obligate slower speed, attentive driving? (including a restoration of the Boulder traffic calming program)
  3. What if, instead of continuing the failed, century-long effort of using the “Five Warnings” — which amounts to a form of blaming the pedestrian and bicyclist victim — we put more of the onus on traffic engineers to design streets to obligate safe motorist behavior? How about if we return our transportation system to people, instead of our on-going effort to be a doormat for ruinous levels of car travel?

In addition to the above, I recommend more compact development in appropriate locations, sponsoring a transportation safety speaker series, and more street connectivity.

We have a duty to make Boulder streets much safer.

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Walking

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