Vision Zero and Safety Politics

It seems that by far, the most significant strategy being proposed by the City of Boulder to achieve Vision Zero is more safety education (such as “Heads Up, Boulder”).

Such campaigns imply that pedestrians (and bicyclists) need to be treated like irresponsible children, as if any of us as young children were not told by our parents over and over and over again to “LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE CROSSING THE STREET!!”

Even though a very large number of traffic fatalities and other traffic crashes are the fault of motorists, there are very few messages or signs saying “Heads Up, Motorists” or “Don’t Fall Asleep or Talk on the Phone, Motorists” or “Don’t Drive a Car with Tinted Windows, Motorists.” Not that such a campaign would help, as most of us are well aware of the fact that such campaigns are highly ineffective.

Such a campaign of ramping up pedestrian education implies that pedestrians (and cyclists) are nearly always at fault for crashes, and motorists are almost never at fault.

Studies show otherwise.

As far back as 60 years ago, Binghamton had a Vision Zero objective in place (see black & white photo below). 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, Boulder has spent the past century designing streets to enable (and therefore encourage) high speed, inattentive driving.Vision Zero4

Every few years for the past 100 years, 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 reported on 12/30/17 that traffic deaths in Vision Zero 1957Boulder County were higher than they have been since at least 2004.

The reason our roads are more dangerous than ever is because all US cities – including Boulder – have managed their roadway systems for the past century with three overriding goals: (a) Maximizing motorist speeds; (b) Deploying the failed Forgiving Street design strategy; and (c) Stubbornly sticking to the same old song and dance of more safety signage, more safety lighting, more safety paint, more safety education, and more safety enforcement for safe roadways.

The Five W’s path to safety has failed.

Maximizing motorist speeds and using the “Forgiving Street” design (a design used too often by federal, state, and local traffic engineers) 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. More safety signage, more safety lighting, more safety paint, more safety education, and more safety enforcement 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.

Given these three goals/strategies Boulder has been saddled with for the past century, it is nearly certain that our roadways will continue to grow increasingly unsafe and our ability to achieve Vision Zero will continue to diminish.

The City needs to abandon the deadly objective of maximizing motorist speeds and using “Forgiving Street” design. Such a goal and design substantially undermine a large number of important Boulder transportation, safety, and quality of life objectives.

What if, instead of continuing to pursue The Five W’s – which is a way of blaming the pedestrian and bicyclist victim, by the way – we start putting more of the onus onVision Zero transportation planners 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 development) 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 eliminate super-elevations on turns. We can remove double-yellow lines on neighborhood and collector streets. We can substantially increase funding for the neighborhood traffic Shared streetcalming program. We can use traffic calming tactics to create several new neighborhood-based “slow” or “shared” or “give-way” streets.

Slower car speeds are 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.

At this time, Boulder is not politically ready to adopt effective tactics for achieving Vision Zero. 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 toSlip lane enlarge intersections to have a double-left turn lane? Or install a large parking lot? Is this not a double standard?

Boulder established a Community Working Group (CWG) in 2017 which was tasked with helping to redesign 30th Street and Colorado Avenue. The redesign effort was motivated by the fact that these roads are characterized by important concerns: a high level of crashes, low levels of bicycling, walking, and transit, poor aesthetics, and issues with residential and retail development along these roads.

The 30th Street and Colorado Avenue redesign should significantly improve health for 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.  Unfortunately, as of February 2018, four of the six options are window dressing options that are doing nothing to advance these important objectives.

I will focus my comments on 30th Street for the sake of simplicity and brevity, but much of this could also be applied to Colorado Avenue.

With regard to mobility vs accessibility, it has become clear to me that the focus of the 30th and Colorado project is heavily tilted toward mobility. Four of the six design options, for example, would maintain the current configuration of four general purpose (GP) car lanes. I have a number of problems with the car-centered bias, and the overall project evaluation.

Including the “No Build” (existing conditions) scenario, there are six design options for 30th:

  1. No Build (existing): Four GP car lanes, bike lanes, sidewalks. Very low financial cost.
  2. Option 1 and 1a: Two GP car lanes, center turn lane, wider bike lanes with buffers, protected bike lanes for 1a, no added ROW needed. Very low financial cost.
  3. Option 2: Two GP car lanes, two bus lanes, center landscaped median, wider bike lanes protected by tree strip, 30 ft more ROW needed. Very high financial cost.
  4. Option 3: Four GP car lanes (with wider outside lanes), wider (and protected?) bike lanes, landscaped tree strip, 20 ft more ROW needed. Very high financial cost.
  5. Option 4: Four GP car lanes (with wider outside lanes), bike lanes removed, wider ped/bike shared sidewalks, 20 ft more ROW needed. Moderate financial cost.
  6. Option 5: Four GP car lanes (with wider outside lanes), wider and buffered or protected bike lanes, no added ROW needed. Very low financial cost.

Over the course of a great many meetings, the staff and consultant worked with the Community Working Group (CWG) to come up with criteria to evaluate the ability of various design options to achieve various community objectives. Unfortunately, these evaluation criteria are flawed and are missing important measures. For example:

  • No evaluation of which design options will result in the highest average motorist speeds (clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in far higher average car speeds).
  • No evaluation of which design options will result in better accessibility rather than an over-emphasis on mobility (clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in excessive car mobility at the expense of accessibility).
  • No evaluation of which design options will result in the largest number of crashes (clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in a far higher number of crashes). There are four evaluation criteria which address safety, and I find it highly misleading that the evaluation scoring shows all six design options making safety “better.” This is highly misleading because it strongly implies that all six design options will be equally beneficial in improving safety. In my opinion, this is absolutely untrue, as the four options maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will be far less safe. For example, let’s say that 10 car crashes occur each year on 30th. While it may be technically true that safety tweaks in the four options proposing to maintain the 4 GP car lanes will result in, say, 9 crashes instead of 10, the two design options which propose 2 GP car lanes will result in, say, 2 crashes instead of 10. Clearly, the 2 GP car lane design options are far safer, but again, the evaluation implies they are all equally beneficial for safety by labeling all of them as “better” for safety.
  • No evaluation of which design options are most conducive to more compact, accessible, walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly retail and residential land use patterns (clearly the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes are far less conducive to such retail and residential development along 30th).
  • No evaluation of which design options are most likely to promote an increase in walking or bicycling or transit travel (clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in far fewer walking or bicycling or transit trips on 30th).
  • No evaluation of which design options are most likely to advance Boulder GHG emissions and climate change goals (clearly, clearly, the four options which propose maintaining the 4 GP car lanes will result in far higher emissions and failure to meet climate change goals).
  • No evaluation of which design options are most likely to advance the Boulder Vision Zero goal (clearly, only the two options which propose to establish 2 GP car lanes have any realistic chance of achieving Vision Zero).

The four design options which propose 4 GP car lanes (No Build, and Options 3, 4, and 5) are exceptionally unsafe for at least three reasons: (1) They induce far higher average car speeds than do Options 1 and 2 (and the speeding driver sets the pace, rather than the prudent driver); (2) They induce frequent lane changing by cars, which is extremely dangerous at higher speeds; and (3) They induce 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 3-lane road (which is the configuration for the two proposed “2 GP car lanes” design options on 30th ) carries about the same volume as a 4-lane road. That, in addition to the rather large number (and significant) benefits that converting from 4 GP car lanes to 2 GP car lanes delivers, helps explain why City of Boulder staff supported the “2 GP car lanes” design option a few years ago for 30th. The reason 3 lanes carries about the same as 4 lanes is that like on 30th, when there areRoad-Diet many left turns not supported by a left-turn lane, the inside lane of a 4-lane road behaves as a 3-lane road because the inside lane is regularly acting like it is a turn lane.

Some on the CWG 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 CWG 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 options which propose 2 GP car lanes (Options 1 & 2) have 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 propose 4 GP car lanes (Options 3, 4, & 5) are essentially also “No Build” options with window dressing such as added landscaping or wider bike lanes. In part, these three are “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 options which maintain 4 GP car lanes 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.

For the record, I support Option 1a (2 GP car lanes, center turn lane, and protected bike lanes).

It should be noted that in the scoring of the six design options by staff and the consultant, Option 2 (2 GP car lanes and two bus lanes) scored far better than any of the other options. Curiously, at the January 22nd CWG meeting, nearly all CWG members indicated a preference for one of the three “No Build with Window Dressing” options (4 GP car lanes). Option 3 was particularly popular. Tellingly, even though these three “No Build with Window Dressing” options were by far the most popular among CWG 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 CWG 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 CWG members were considering the reaction to the Folsom Street project and deciding that the political winds would not make Options 1 or 2 viable.

As I have pointed out previously, I don’t believe Boulder is politically ready to adopt a design option for 30th that will meaningfully achieve a great many important community objectives. I therefore believe 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.
Vision Zero5

About Dom Nozzi

Urban designer, Complete Streets instructor, smart growth specialist, town planner, walkable streets and bikeable streets and trails specialist, writer, editor, public speaker, world adventurer, skier, kayaker, SCUBA diver, bicyclist, hiker, dancer, book reader, cook, urbanist.
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