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. The number is inexcusable.
One of the most common requests by citizens to our Board, the Transportation staff, and City Council is the need to reinstate the neighborhood traffic calming program that was defunded in the late 1990s. Speeding, cut-through vehicles are a serious problem for a great many neighborhoods. Such traffic discourages bicycling and walking; substantially increases noise pollution; endangers our most vulnerable (seniors, children, and pets); is a primary cause of loss of neighborhood quality of life; and fuels opposition to infill development.
What caused this state of affairs?
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.
Many who venture out on a bicycle are soon reminded by an impatient motorist that she’s in the way and doesn’t belong there. “Danger” is an all-too-frequent reason given in surveys for not bicycling.
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.
Making a street “safer” too often tends to increase vehicle speeds, which makes the streets less safe. 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 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.
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.
Roadway geometry in safety-sensitive areas, such as schools, needs to keep speeds near 20 miles per hour.
Portland finds that traffic circles are most effective when constructed in a series. They are sometimes also located in the middle of the block. Circles reduce motor vehicle speeds. Circles reduce crashes by 50 to 90 percent, when compared to two-way and four-way stop signs and traffic signals, by reducing the number of conflict points. Seattle likes circles so much that they were building about 30 circles each year a few decades ago.
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. From a distance of 48 feet, a car traveling at 56 miles per hour makes ten times more noise than a car traveling at 31 miles per hour. Reducing average speed from 25 miles per hour to 12 miles per hour reduces noise levels by 14 decibels (ten times quieter). At higher speeds, every 12 to 15 miles per hour in speed increases results in a 4 to 5 decibel noise increase.
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 (by adding new dollars rather than shifting existing dollars from the current city transportation budget). 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, as well as to stiffen penalties for driving infractions.
I also 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. Let us not delay doing so.