By Dom Nozzi
May 15, 2018
Recently, the Boulder (Colorado) City Council has indicated that improving traffic safety is a significant priority. And rightly so, given the surge in traffic deaths in Boulder in recent years. The City has adopted a “Vision Zero” objective (zero serious traffic injuries or deaths).
However, the Boulder program is the same old song and dance that Boulder and most every other American city have been engaged in to “improve” traffic safety. Every few years for the past century, Boulder has “redoubled its efforts” to deploy The Five W’s: (1) more Warning signs are erected; (2) more (or revised) Warning lights are installed; (3) more Warning paint is painted; (4) more Warning education is called for; and (5) more Warning enforcement is urged. But after a century of redoubling our efforts to do those things, Boulder’s streets are more dangerous than ever. For example, the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper recently reported that traffic deaths in Boulder County were higher than they have been since at least 2004. And while Boulder was once again ranked relatively high as a bike-friendly city a few days ago, the ranking curiously but accurately noted that Boulder ranked poorly for bicycling safety.
The Five W’s path to safety has failed.
Such campaigns border on being patronizing. And traffic safety education is a form of victim-blaming.
As far back as 60 years ago, Binghamton NY had a Vision Zero objective in place. But when we think about it, all US cities – including Binghamton and Boulder – have had a Vision Zero objective for about 100 years (or for at least as long as cars have been around). In other words, all cities have always worked to achieve Vision Zero – at least subconsciously. Therefore, adopting a Vision Zero objective is little more than “putting old wine in new bottles.” The only real novelty is that a growing number of cities are now openly stating that objective, rather than just having it in the back of our minds.
Like most other cities, unfortunately, Boulder has spent the past century designing streets to enable (and therefore encourage) high speed, inattentive driving.
Maximizing motorist speeds and using the “Forgiving Street” design (a design used too often by state and local traffic engineers to “forgive” motorists who drive too fast or inattentively – which thereby encourages speeding and inattentive driving) results in excessive dimensions for roads, an excessive number of overly wide travel lanes, excessive sizes for clear zones and vision triangles and shoulders, and oversized intersections (as well as an over-use of turn lanes). Inevitably, this has led to an epidemic of speeding and inattentive driving, which creates extremely dangerous, deadly conditions for a roadway system. The Five W’s have only a trivial impact on making such a dangerous roadway system safer – particularly because our doubling down on such strategies every few years for the past century has led to severely diminishing returns.
If we are serious about achieving “Vision Zero,” we need to redesign our streets.
What if, instead of continuing to pursue The Five W’s, we start putting more of the onus on transportation engineers and motorists by designing streets and intersections that obligate slower, more attentive driving?
Such driving is conducive to safety as well as nearby residential and retail health.
How do we humanize streets in this manner? We can, for example, install beautifying elements on streets such as more street trees and attractively designed/landscaped and sufficiently large traffic circles, raised medians and roundabouts – many in Boulder are too small. We can reduce the width of streets and travel lanes. We can shrink the size of intersections. We can remove unnecessary travel lanes – particularly on roads with four or more lanes. We can pull buildings up to streets instead of having them set behind parking lots. We can install more on-street parking. We can reduce the size of intersection turning radii. We can remove a number of town center turn and “slip” lanes. We can reduce the size of shoulders and vision triangles. We can reduce the width of driveways. We can substantially increase funding for the neighborhood traffic calming program to create several new neighborhood-based “slow” or “shared” or “give-way” streets.
Inducing slower car speeds is essential for enhancing travel safety, effectively encouraging non-car travel, and improving town center and neighborhood quality of life. There are important reasons why a “slow cities” movement is spreading worldwide.
Boulder is not now politically ready to seriously strive to attain Vision Zero, as there is insufficient political will to do the things listed above. Years after the Folsom Street lane repurposing was put in place, many in Boulder are still screaming mad about it. Some call such traffic safety measures “impede and congest” tactics intended to “annoy” motorists and “force” them to use bicycles or transit.
Why is it not an “impede and congest” tactic intended to “annoy” bicyclists and pedestrians and “force” them to drive a car when it comes to the frequent action to enlarge intersections to have a double-left turn lane? Or install a large parking lot? Is this not a double standard?
Given this lack of political will, the City should suspend the Vision Zero goal until it is ready to deploy the tactics necessary to actually reach Vision Zero.
The 30th Street, Canyon, East Arapahoe, Colorado, and Iris projects should also be suspended for the same reason.
Shame on Boulder.