Boulder’s Protected Bike Lane Removal Would Be Just the 4th Nationwide

Boulder’s Folsom Street on Friday afternoon. Photo: Eric Budd

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Boulder, Colorado, will vote today on whether to become the fourth U.S. city to remove a modern protected bike lane.

The others are Memphis, where a riverside project was removed this year after the end of a one-year pilot; Boise, where a downtown network was removed last year after the end of a one-month trial; and Portland, Oregon, where in 2012 the city decided not to replace a series of posts that had been torn out by car collisions on one of its bridges.

As of last month, 75 U.S. cities (including Memphis, Portland, and Boulder) have built permanent protected bike lanes, and the number of such projects is doubling every two years or so.

But in Boulder, as Streetsblog reported last week, the latest project has taken a turn. On Thursday, city staff recommended scaling back what was planned as a year-long pilot just 11 weeks in.

That’s an unexpected change of direction for one of the four cities in the country rated as “platinum” by the League of American Bicyclists.

“This is not what we would ever expect to see for a platinum city,” League spokesman Steve Clark said in an email Friday. “Or gold, or silver. Extremely bad precedent.”

The protected bike lanes on Folsom Street were added in July as part of a redesign that replaced two general travel lanes in each direction with one general travel lane in each direction plus a new center turn lane.

The number of reported collisions on the street dropped immediately, city data show.

collisions per week 570

That’s consistent with similar turn-lane road diet projects around the country. The Federal Highway Administration says these redesigns lead to a 19 to 47 percent drop in collisions, because they prevent the most reckless drivers from weaving between travel lanes and because they give everyone driving a clear view of people crossing the street on foot — a car driving in the curbside lane won’t block the sight line of someone else driving in the same direction.

The new center turn lane, meanwhile, cancels out most of the potential traffic delay because it gives left-turning cars a place to wait without blocking other traffic.

“Injuries from vehicle crashes rise as the width of a road increases,” says the AARP in its fact sheet about turn-lane projects.

In the case of Folsom, the redesign had a side benefit: It let the city widen the existing bike lanes and add plastic posts to turn them into protected bike lanes.

The project’s installation corresponded with the normal increase in biking after school returned to session, so it’s hard to know how much the lanes contributed to the immediate jump in bike use.

weekday bike use 570

But because rush-hour auto volumes were so high on Folsom, and because the city had previously installed a pair of mid-block crossing signals in an effort to make the street safer to walk across, safety and increased bike use weren’t the only effects.

During its busiest time and direction, the southbound evening rush hour, it took an extra 104 seconds on average to travel the eight-tenths of a mile on Folsom between Valmont Road and Canyon Boulevard.

rush hour travel time 570

This made some Boulder residents furious.

In a letter to the Boulder Daily Camera, one week after the city’s first responders had told the newspaper that the redesign would have no effect on their work, resident Jeff Schulz painted a satirically dire scenario of what might happen in a future fire:

The Boulder Fire Department is ready to roll, but, unfortunately, it’s rush hour and the recent lane reductions combined with all the flashing crosswalks have caused perfect gridlock everywhere. Smoke can now be seen from the downtown treehouse where council members are playing rock-paper-scissors to decide on whom to train their high-powered bureaucracy cannon at next.

Other Boulder residents favor the Folsom redesign. In part due to an organized effort from Boulder-based advocacy group PeopleForBikes to rally the city’s bike supporters, 57 percent of the comments the city received about the project by late August were in support.

But the other 43 percent tended to be angrier, and more likely to have contacted the city of their own volition.

“The community has been pretty clear that parts of this project are not successful for them,” Councilman Sam Weaver, who had voted for the plan in June, told the Camera on Friday.

Change of course for staff and council members

Boulder council member Lisa Morzel, left, at a 2011 election forum. Photo: Zane Selvans

One month ago, Boulder’s council had seemingly agreed to stick with the Folsom redesign for a while.

That changed last week. Go Boulder Manager Kathleen Bracke said in an interview that staff from the city’s transportation, public works, and city manager’s offices had come to a mutual decision to recommend reversing the southern half of Folsom’s redesign, a sharp turnaround from August.

Sue Prant, executive director of Boulder-based advocacy group Community Cycles, said her understanding was that renewed discussion among the city council preceded the sudden change of direction from staff.

Prant said Boulder’s change of direction is upsetting because it suggests to her that many residents of the famously green and well-to-do city aren’t willing to actually change their habits in order to preserve the climate.

“How can you not think that you’re going to do a little bit more because you’re leaving your kids with a shitty world?” she said of Boulder “environmentalists who should be our allies.”

“If they can buy their way out of the climate problem, then it’s OK, but if it’s behavior change — or allowing someone else to have behavior change — they can’t make the connection,” Prant said. “You’re never going to get everybody everywhere they want to go on multi-use paths.”

“We’re not anti-car,” Prant added. “But we are pro making safe places for people to ride bicycles. And sometimes that means that a decision needs to be made between 100 percent accommodation of automobiles and something less than that.”

If car lanes are untouchable, how can car dependence be reduced?

Photo: Eric Budd

Former Boulder mayor Will Toor said in an interview that the fight over Folsom reminded him of a similar battle, when he was elected mayor in 1998, over whether the city should invest in biking and walking or should keep building ever-wider roads.

“What really brought the community to a consensus… was that this is about giving people choices that they don’t have today,” he said. “We’ve got lots of ways that you can safely drive around town. We don’t have a lot of ways that you can safely bike around town.”

“That seemed to be a really powerful and positive argument that a wide variety of people in the community were able to see,” Toor said.

As for Boulder’s current council, Toor said that if they agree to reverse the changes to Folsom, he hopes they’ll propose alternative ways to reduce the city’s dependence on cars.

“Certainly everybody on council and who is running for council who is opposed to the protected lanes keeps saying that they want to make biking safer and more attractive,” Toor said. “I’ll take them at their word. What I would like to see people asking is, if you don’t think this is the solution, what do you think the solutions are, especially for those north-south routes?”

Prant predicted that such a high-profile retreat by the city would mean that “it’s going to be a long time before you can do any major on-street improvements.” She said the city will probably try to refocus its biking investments on more off-street paths where they’re possible.

“Can you build that in every situation?” she said. “No. Even in Boulder. Even with all the money in the world.”

Correction: A previous version of this post didn’t mention that the increase in bike traffic on Folsom corresponded to the return of the school year.

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48 thoughts on Boulder’s Protected Bike Lane Removal Would Be Just the 4th Nationwide

  1. “If car lanes are untouchable, how can car dependence be reduced?”

    Car dependence will be reduced if and when the price of gas goes through the roof. Seriously, though, I don’t know what it would take to create a real, nationwide cycling culture in the U.S. At this point, it may be impossible. We kind of missed our chance and we have too much of a “cars first” attitude to really encourage anything but private autos.

  2. This bugs the heck out of me. For one, the collision data is in, clearly there is a reduction. Yes, there is an increase in travel time. Now its very clear what decision your making (regardless of the cycling situation), you are choosing to prioritize convenience over safety. Why is there no liability. If they revert the design, and I’m in a collision on the road, why can I not sue the city council/staff/designers who knowingly implemented a more dangerous design. Their choice lead to a statistical increase in collisions, and they know that it would. Surely there is room for a class action lawsuit. A similar situation is occurring in my city right now. And again, this ignores cycling entirely, in my city, its eliminating turn restrictions which have proven to improve intersection safety, nothing to do with cycling. Unacceptable that people, any people really, would choose to maim and kill people for convenience. Shameful.

  3. The thing about this decision, is it isn’t even “cars first”, its “cars above safety”. They’re reverting to a design known to be more dangerous, to prioritize travel time. Even people who drive should abhor this. After all, they’re the ones injured most of the time. Shameful.

  4. “Level of Service” has always been the impetus behind American traffic design. It’s predicated on moving as many cars (note: NOT “people”) as quickly as possible. Of course, this just reflects an American cultural bias that this is a laudable goal.

    “Even people who drive should abhor this. After all, they’re the ones injured most of the time.”

    Well, traffic accidents are culturally normalized. They are seen as unfortunate but unavoidable consequences of the freedom that the automobile brings.

  5. City officials flee from liability, except when it is about streets. Advocates for non-car modes need a wind behind our backs to get past crap like this, and that probably means a heavy carbon tax.

  6. In situations like this, in which the design has been proven to prevent injuries, anyone voting to remove it should have to point to specific people in the room that they would be willing to have experience a serious injury in order to revert the design. For example, let’s say there are 100 people in the room, and the new design has reduced injuries by 38%, they should have to point to 38 people and say, “I would be perfectly happy if you were injured, so long as it meant I could drive my car faster on this block.”

  7. I used to think high fuel prices would be our deus ex machina, too, but then I looked at Europe’s example. Prices are often double or triple ours, and in many cities auto traffic goes unaffected. Also, it’s not clear to me that high prices will make people turn to human-powered transportation. Maybe, instead, they’ll just buy more efficient cars. Electric cars are here, now, and don’t use gasoline at all.

  8. I think it depends on how expensive energy in the aggregate becomes. I’m skeptical that going to electric-powered cars would be cheaper than staying with gasoline-powered cars (though obviously this may happen if oil gets really expensive), because if everyone starts using electric, the price of electricity will go up. We’d have to be producing a lot more electrical energy and have a better power distribution grid to make an electric system “work”.

    I remember a cultural critic saying once, ‘Americans will continue to use cars for their primary transportation, even if due to continual rising oil prices a ‘car’ becomes something the size of a skateboard that you attach to backside by means of a bungee cord’. He was being funny, but I think there may always be a bias against non-motorized and public transportation in the U.S.

  9. Under this logic, anyone injured in a highway accident could sue the fed and force them to turn 6 lane highways into 2 lane roads. Also, let’s reduce the speed limit to 5 mph. It’s well known that we compromise safety to decrease traffic and increase efficiency on roadways. At the very least, the author could normalize the accident data based on the new volumes of bikes and cars on the road. At the most, the car-on-car data would be removed entirely or data from alternate routes should be examined. This is a poor presentation of data intended to skew the views of the reader. Mission accomplished.

  10. For the record, the Riverside project in Memphis had piss-poor results. It was there for a year, pretty much everyone was pissed off about it, and almost no one used it. Turning conflicts at parking lot entrance/exit points made any kind of speed quite hazardous. The 2-way cycle track was stuffed into the width of a single travel lane and felt far too narrow, meanwhile pedestrians were allotted the other full travel lane. 4 lanes of traffic were stuffed into 2 lanes, with curbs and medians on both sides. If there was a crash or a car broke down, there was nowhere to get out of the way or go around, and so the whole thing would get shut down.

    These so-called “protected” lanes (tracks) are not the be-all end-all solution. In many cases such as Memphis the result was quite poor.

  11. So, car volume rarely changes with road diets, as for splitting up data, it is, shown in several colours, and its pretty clear how much car v. car accidents have gone down. This is quite common with road diets. As for liability, you’re making a straw man argument. There is a reason we have courts. If you put a speed limit of 5 mph on every road in the US, you’ll not change injuries, and you’ll create real chaos. But here we have a decision that’s proven to increase injuries, that’s making only a very minor improvement in travel times. This is bad policy, which should be plain to everyone. This is why we have courts, to differentiate the two.

  12. Germans drive 1/3 the VMT we do plus

    Typical german cities have car communting Modes of 30%

    Typical US cities have car communting modes of 85%-95%

  13. It’s cheaper to generate energy at scale, so energy consumed via electricity off the grid will always be less expensive than generating energy via an internal combustion engine, all else being equal. Of course, all else is not necessarily equal as we have practical concerns like battery size and storage efficiency to deal with. But in general electric-powered cars should be more energy-efficient than gas-powered cars over the long run (of course, public transit is far more energy efficient still, not to mention biking).

  14. Bah. Your suggestion that cities should be held liable for planning decisions which prioritize convenience over safety is a straw man in itself. Planning agencies use multiple metrics to evaluate the performance of a project; courts follow. There isn’t any malice here. Boulder is cycling paradise already, almost to a fault, and city officials aren’t hiding their rationale for suspending the pilot.

    Your assertion that road diets don’t cause a decrease in car volume is physically impossible given the average rush hour drive time data above. We don’t need your extensive road diet experience here, but glad to know this is a rare condition. (I doubt that)

  15. If residents and the leadership of Boulder cannot accept less than two minutes of delay during rush hour to improve safety for people on bikes – which they have a ton of – and to encourage more people to use this most efficient of all transportation options, then this is yet another example of how our own human nature is dooming us to permanently trash our home, the planet Earth. We think we need to colonize Mars because of what we might do to Earth…I’d rather be dead than live that existence where Mars may be better than what he have (or had) here.

  16. Actually, the chart above shows that the pilot project decreased safety for people on bikes, even if you normalize for the increased volume of them.

  17. I also laughed a little when they talked about crash stats over an 11-week period. That’s simply not enough time to make any statistically significant claim. You usually need at least 2-3 years, if not 5.

  18. Well, German cities are also much denser than American ones of similar population size… but then we’ll start talking about chicken-and-egg scenarios.

  19. People make their decisions based on cost, convenience/time, and safety. Cost of gas is one consideration, cost of parking is another lever that can be used. But ultimately, I think people care about what is easiest and most convenient – as long as it is reasonably safe and comfortable.

  20. Yes. Also, a typical German city has separated bicycle paths, at least in my experience from cycling across northern Germany.

    Your point is well taken, but it also tends to show my implicit argument, that it’s not gasoline prices per se that drive cycling, but instead infrastructure. The UK, for instances, has similar gas prices as Germany (high) but manages U.S.-levels of cycling mode share (low).

  21. Streetsblog doesn’t seem to have an issue with citing data from similar time periods as proof that other facilities are improving safety.

  22. First of all, this isn’t about cycling, cycling collisions increased under the new road, although hard to say whether its related to increase in volume or what. I’m actually talking about safety for drivers. Vehicle v. vehicle collisions decreased substantially under the new road.

    As for volume, physically impossible? Please. A well designed road can carry far more cars than a poorly designed one. The increase in travel time doesn’t mean a decrease in traffic volume. Slower moving cars can be spaced closer together. This is basic traffic modeling.

  23. Yep, I stand corrected. Hard for me to believe that drivers don’t seek alternate routes facing congestion but your point stands in the larger context.

    We both know that vehicle vs vehicle collisions are what’s at stake here, but the people want fast safe transportation, and not all of them are willing or able to bike. Must find balance. It’s no bad policy. There are just conflicting views.

  24. The orange part of the first graph, “car hits person on bike” is bigger in the “after” scenario than the “before” scenario, yet, the guy that blogs for “people for bikes” likes the after scenario better. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a blog of “people for cyclists”?

  25. Actually, the increase to overall electric energy consumption by electrifying transportation is surprisingly small – probably about 15% of total . And since energy efficiency and rooftop solar are cutting into demand, with utilities worried about a potential “death spiral”, demand from EVs could partially offset this demand destruction; and most charging happens at night when utilities typically have excess capacity (and when we have the most wind power available in Colorado).

  26. I agree that the low VMT is the result of many items. Cost of driving is a key factor. driving congestion is another, by US standards German highways have shockingly low number of lanes.

    Main routes in the countryside will have 1 lane in each direction in Germany. In the US, a similar route would be limited access 4 lane highway.

    Superhighways ( Autobahns ) are also ‘underlaned’ by US standards.

    Price is a whopping big factor but you are correct, there are others also

  27. Also, the batteries provide a distributed storage system when “excess” generation would have to be taken off line. Put it in the batteries and if John Q Public doesn’t drive his Leaf tomorrow, take some back.

  28. Not certain abput the density numbers. One would really need to have figures for Urban Core versus urban Core rather than simply City Limits

  29. As far as I know there is no Autobahn with more than 8 lanes (that is, 4 in each direction). There are a few exceptions (like the A3 at the Heumar interchange near Cologne) but the only run a few hundred meters.

  30. This isn’t that surprising considering that bike traffic was up 54%. What is notable is that by slowing down the cars, they number of car on car collisions declined sharply. Even separate lanes still won’t protect cyclists from inattentive or uncautious drivers at intersections.

  31. One big difference is that German autobahn lanes are typically 50% wider than those in the US. This design was on purpose to handle the higher speeds, but the wider widths also help accomodate higher traffic volumes. FWIW.

  32. Bicycle traffic increased by 54% and bicycle collisions doubled.

    The reason why this isn’t a surprising result is that this design make bicycle collisions at intersections more likely than less likely because cyclists can be seen by motorists and cyclists can’t easily see motorists until the point of impact. Separated bike lanes don’t “protect” cyclists from motorists.

  33. Well, for starters, Streetsblog is using this same 11 week dataset to claim that the bike lane is making things safer.

    Here, a 6-month study is cited:

    Here, 204 hours of video is used:

    Even this study of sidewalk riding patterns only uses 7 or 8 months of data:

    It doesn’t seem that the requirement of “at least 2-3 years, if not 5” for validity is applied that often.

  34. Most protected bike lanes seem to work well…If only American cities scrutinized urban freeways with as much diligence, perhaps we’d remove more of them!

  35. So,the city council voted unanimously for MORE CAR CRASHES. More pedestrians and motorists hit. I think liability attaches to that decision, eh? The science on 4 lanes vs. 3 is quite clear.

  36. Most people don’t know that gas cars waste upwards of 80% of the energy in gasoline. If we generated electricity from gasoline at 50% efficiency or so and ran electric cars with it we would save energy.

  37. So people were lied to when told a road diet from 4 to 3 lanes would not increase congestion in the face of common sense? When the truth bore out, you are surprised they wanted their road back? Other failed road diets have been reversed.

  38. Protected? Schmotected. Bicycle volume went up by 54%, but car-bicycle crashes went up by about 2.5 times and so the car-bicycle crash rate went up by about 1.6 times. As has been described elsewhere in comments here, most car-bike crashes in urban areas invove crossing and turning movements. Forcing motorists to cross a bikeway to enter a travel lane, and forcing bicyclists and motroists to start turns from the wrong side of each other, only make these crashes more difficult to avoid.

  39. Uh, it doesn’t make sense to generate electricity from gasoline except for small portable generators. Larger installations can use fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — which don’t require as much refining and so are less expensive. Large installations also can use hydro, wind, solar and nuclear.

  40. The graphs and article say nothing about motor-vehicle volume. The smaller number of crashes may reflect traffic’s being diverted to other streets, not only that it is slower on thsi street.

  41. Emphasis on “seem.” The real data, the old data and the new data, shows that bicycle facilities that rely on physical separation of same direction traffic are not making cycling safer.

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