By Dom Nozzi
February 8, 2018
Boulder established a Community Working Group in 2017 which was tasked with helping to redesign 30th Street and Colorado Avenue.
The redesign effort was motivated a high level of crashes, low levels of bicycling, walking, and transit, poor aesthetics, and issues with residential and retail development along these roads.
Given this, my view was that the redesign of the roads should result in significant improvement in the health of small retail shops and homes. It should significantly improve safety for all users. It should beautify the corridor. It should be designed to ensure that land uses along the corridor produce sufficient taxes so that the street is financially self-sufficient (in its current state, it is a financial drain). It should, in other words, be a street and not a stroad.
The first and most powerful step in restoring a reasonable level of societal civility, safety, and urban financial health in American society is to put our “stroads” on a road diet (that is, to remove unnecessary travel lanes from over-sized roads). This is necessary in several instances for every city in America.
What is a “Stroad”?
A “stroad” is a delightful term coined by Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, and refers to those dangerous, multi-laned thoroughfares you encounter in nearly every city, town, and suburb in America. They’re what happens when a street (a place where people interact with businesses and residences, and where wealth is produced) is ruinously also designed to serve as a road (a high-speed route between productive places). They are enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive. They’re also very dangerous. And they are the futon of transportation” because, just as a futon is neither a particularly good bed nor a particularly good couch, a stroad is neither a particularly good road or a particularly good street.
Greenville South Carolina illustrates the merits of this transformation quite clearly. Motorists are obligated to drive 15-25 mph smoothly on appropriately road dieted main street – a former stroad. This is contrasted with the 45-55 mph speeds motorists are allowed and enabled to drive on Greenville’s many stroads. Of course, on a stroad a motorist is not driving at those higher speeds smoothly. Instead, the stroad inevitably forces motorists to engage in “jackrabbit stop and go” travel, where motorists engage in short bursts of excessive speeds followed by frequently repeated stops and slowdowns.
Despite the fact that nearly everyone expects a slow-speed road to be frustrating and unpleasant to drive on (“WE ARE VERY BUSY AND NEED TO BE ABLE TO DRIVE FASTER!”), driving on main street in Greenville versus driving on the Greenville stroads leads to far better and more enjoyable motorist experiences.
On slow-speed main street, nearly all drivers are more courteous, more calm, more relaxed, more happy and smiling, more polite, more well-mannered, more patient, and filled with civic pride.
The drive, even though slow in speed, FEELS like it goes by relatively quickly. This is because the drive is more aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable. Some drivers don’t want the driving experience to end.
On higher speed stroads, by striking contrast, drivers are more hostile, angry, stressed, impatient, hot-tempered, and enraged at any fellow citizen who dares to get in the way by driving or turning too slowly, and ashamed to live in a city with such an oversized, strip-commercial roadway blight (this is exemplified by the fact that no one in Greenville takes their out-of-town guests to show off the higher speed stroad, whereas many show off main street to their guests).
The drive, even though higher in speed, feels like it takes a relatively long time. This is because the drive is ugly, frustrating, and stressful. Drivers can’t wait to get off the stroad.
The unpleasant, stressful, angering, impatient, hostile, uncivil, short-tempered emotions induced by stroads spills over into the stroad-driving motorist’s life beyond the unpleasant stroad experience and into the realm of family life, work life, social life, and interactions with fellow neighbors and other citizens.
In sum, converting stroads to streets is an effective way to substantially promote civility (and happiness!) in American society.
We start doing that by removing excessive numbers of lanes on stroads. In other words, treating the failing stroad with a life-giving road diet.
Getting Back to Boulder and Their Road Redesign
Most all the options for redesigning the two failing stroads in Boulder were window dressing options that did nothing to advance the important objectives I listed above.
The redesign effort emphasized mobility vs accessibility. These terms are vastly different and actually are in conflict with each other, but are often inappropriately equated to be the same thing — which leads to unsafe, vehicle-based design. In other words, promoting mobility worsens accessibility.
Mobility in transportation is promoted when motor vehicles find it fast and easy to drive to and park at a destination. Accessibility, by contrast, is promoted when all forms of travel – not just motor vehicles, but bicyclists, walkers, and transit users – find it safe and easy to reach a destination.
With regard to this redesign project, it became clear to me that the focus was heavily tilted toward mobility. Most of the design options, for example, would maintain the current configuration of a four-lane road.
Over the course of a great many meetings, the staff and consultant worked with the working group to come up with criteria to evaluate the ability of various design options to achieve various community objectives. Unfortunately, these evaluation criteria were flawed and were missing important measures.
For example, there was no evaluation of which design options will result in the highest average motorist speeds.
There was no evaluation of which design options will result in better accessibility rather than an over-emphasis on mobility.
There was no evaluation of which design options will result in the largest number of crashes.
There are four evaluation criteria which addressed safety, and I found it highly misleading that the evaluation scoring showed all six design options making safety “better.” This was highly misleading because it strongly implied that all six design options will be equally beneficial in improving safety. In my opinion, this was absolutely absurd, as the four options maintaining the four-lane roadway design would be far less safe.
There was no evaluation of which design options were most conducive to more compact, accessible, walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly retail and residential land use patterns.
There was no evaluation of which design options were most likely to promote an increase in walking or bicycling or transit travel.
There was no evaluation of which design options were most likely to advance Boulder air emissions and climate change goals.
There was no evaluation of which design options were most likely to advance the Boulder Vision Zero goal (i.e., no traffic deaths or serious injuries).
The four design options which proposed maintaining four-lane road design were exceptionally unsafe for at least three reasons: (1) They induce far higher average car speeds (on a four-lane road, the speeding driver sets the pace, rather than the prudent driver); (2) They induced frequent lane changing by cars, which is extremely dangerous at higher speeds; and (3) They induced more inattentive driving (due to the large width and relatively low level of “friction”). On the issue of speed, studies have found that the probability of death in a car crash at 20 mph is about 5 percent. At 30 mph, the probability is about 45 percent. At 40 mph, it is 85 percent.
It is now acknowledged by a large and growing number of American traffic engineers (including the US DOT) that a three-lane road (which is the configuration for two design options on 30th) carries about the same volume as a four-lane road. That, in addition to the rather large number of (and significant) benefits for converting from four-lane to three-lane roads, helped explain why City of Boulder staff supported the three-lane road design option a few years earlier for one of the roads being redesigned. The reason three lanes carry about the same as four lanes is that when there are many left turns not supported by a left-turn lane, the four-lane road behaves like a three-lane road because the inside lane of the four-lane road is regularly being used as a turn lane.
Some on the working group objected to the evaluation criterion of “reliable” travel times. The thinking of those who objected was that this did not capture the overwhelming objective held by most Boulder residents: That travel time not be increased by a design option.
I pointed out that we must first define what we mean by “increased travel time.” Is one additional second of travel time considered unacceptable (in exchange for far fewer car crashes)? Is five seconds unacceptable? How about three minutes? Without defining what we mean by an unacceptable increase in travel time, I don’t believe it is a good idea to change this criterion from “reliable” to an “increase in travel time,” as some working group members suggested.
Personally, I don’t believe it is possible for Boulder to come up with a community-wide, agreed upon definition for what is the unacceptable threshold for increased travel time. In part because there are so many trade-offs (safety, promoting bicycling, retail health, etc.).
In sum, of the six proposed design options, only the two road diet options (converting four-lane roads to three-lane) had any chance of achieving land use, transportation, climate change, or safety goals adopted by Boulder.
Besides the “No Build” option, the other three options which proposed four-lane roads were essentially also “No Build” options with window dressing such as added landscaping or wider bike lanes. In part, these three were “No Build” options because they do almost nothing to advance Boulder objectives.
In addition, as Charles Marohn has pointed out in his work for strongtowns.org, the four-lane road options impose a severe and unrelenting financial burden on Boulder because they induce high car crash and maintenance costs, as well as inducing land uses which do not produce taxes that are high enough to support the costs they impose.
It should be noted that in the scoring of the six design options by staff and the consultant, one of the road diet (four lanes to three) options scored far better than any of the other options. Curiously, at the January 22nd working group meeting, nearly all working group members indicated a preference for one of the three “No Build with Window Dressing” options (four-lane road).
Tellingly, even though these three “No Build with Window Dressing” options were by far the most popular among working group members in attendance, there seemed to be great reluctance for anyone to speak up and explain the benefits.
My speculation as to why the three “No Build with Window Dressing” options were preferred by most, then, is either that working group members were looking out for their own personal interests (despite being told up front that community interests should take precedence over personal interests), or that working group members were considering the reaction to the Folsom Street road diet project (which resulted in ferocious, years-long rage by many citizens) and decided that the political winds would not make road diet options viable in these projects.
As I have pointed out previously, in 2018 I did not believe Boulder was politically ready to adopt a design option for these roadways that will meaningfully achieve a great many important community objectives. I therefore believed that Boulder should suspend this project until such time as the residents of Boulder are politically willing to support a design that is effective in achieving community objectives.
Proceeding under existing political conditions wastes time, effort, and money.