Insufficient data

Critics say Council voted before they had information necessary to evaluate rightsizing experiment

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Joel Dyer

Boulder’s first of three “rightsizing” pilot projects has rubbed many Boulder residents the wrong way — so wrong, in fact, that on July 28, City Council decided not to move forward with the next two pilot projects as soon as initially planned. The first project — reducing the number of car lanes and widening bike lanes on Folsom Street between Arapahoe Avenue and Valmont Road — has elicited significant public outcry. Many citizens claim City Council didn’t have adequate data to proceed with the project, which critics say has turned the corridor into a parking lot.

It appears that at least some of that criticism has merit.

Interviews with city officials and transportation staff reveal the city did not look into whether vehicle lane reductions on the three corridors chosen for right-sizing — Folsom Street, Iris Avenue and 63rd Street — would hamper traffic flows on the few remaining large arteries in town, particularly Broadway, 28th Street, Violet Avenue and the Balsam-Edgewood-Valmont corridor. Transportation staff is only collecting data about cars that turn off of right-sized corridors onto adjacent streets that connect with other neighborhood feeder streets, providing no information about increased vehicular traffic on main arteries from citizens who are no longer willing to take rightsized streets due to increased congestion or the perception thereof. This lack of data leaves a sizable gap in the knowledge the city has on how rightsizing is truly affecting traffic flow in Boulder. For instance, while the city is collecting data for the number of cars that may switch from Folsom to 20th/19th Street, it fails to take into consideration the number of drivers that swap their old Folsom route for the more logical alternative of 28th Street even though it is already heavily congested.

Right-sizing is by no means a new or Boulder-developed concept; cities across America — Seattle, Portland and Pasadena, to name a few — have implemented right-sizing on some of their streets. Sometimes called a “road diet” or a “complete street,” right-sizing removes lanes from a street and repurposes the space for other modes of travel, such as biking.

There are a number of ways roads can be configured to accommodate right-sizing, but in Boulder each corridor will shrink from four car lanes — two in each direction — to one lane in each direction with a shared center turn lane. The extra space created will be used to increase bike lanes to a width of 7 feet.

Boulder’s right-sizing plan was initially developed as a set of four pilot projects within Boulder’s Living Laboratory program (which seeks to improve cycling conditions around the city). Even prior to Council’s vote on the right-sizing project, community input was high: the July 16 public hearing before City Council had to be moved forward one day to accommodate a large volume of estimated testimonies.

After approximately 80 citizen statements on June 15, City Council voted 7-2 in favor of moving forward with the plan on three corridors — Folsom, Iris and 63rd — while holding off on implementing the project on 55th Street in East Boulder for the time being.

Folsom Street, between Arapahoe Avenue and Valmont Road, was chosen as the first pilot project, with installation beginning on July 13 and wrapping up the following week. Potholes were filled, roads were restriped and flexible bollards were installed to further differentiate the bike lane.

Initial plans called for installation to begin on Iris Avenue after a month of evaluating the results on Folsom, and, after a similar period of evaluation, work was to begin on 63rd Street in September. As of July 28, the final two pilot projects have been postponed due to hundreds of emails sent directly to Council complaining about the Folsom project.

Since June, public commentary hasn’t slowed, including harsh criticism from Steve Pomerance, a former Boulder City Council member. Prior to the delay of the next two pilot projects, Pomerance expressed disbelief at the short amount of time the city planned to spend evaluating the results on Folsom before moving forward with installations on Iris and 63rd, saying the evaluation period was “almost a year too short.”

Pomerance says from a process perspective “this project stinks — that neither the Council nor the public was provided sufficient information to make these decisions.”

“It’s been done so poorly,” Pomerance says. “It was a good idea, but ideas are a dime a dozen — good ones and bad ones. But you don’t just do things because they are good ideas. So what’s wrong with it? I have to sit here and make a list. They have insufficient data against which to make comparison, that’s one.”

And one glaring omission in the city’s data collection is how right-sizing will affect the remaining large thoroughfares in Boulder.

For north-south running Folsom, Broadway and 28th Street are the obvious larger alternatives for those who choose to avoid slower moving traffic on Folsom post-right-sizing. For Iris, which has the heaviest traffic volume of all three right-sized project corridors, there are few viable east-west alternative routes. But, a quick glance at a map shows that Violet Avenue to the north and the Balsam-Edgewood-Valmont corridor to the south are the next largest east-west running alternatives.

Regarding Folsom, Dave “DK” Kemp, senior transportation planner for the City of Boulder, says traffic would probably reroute to 28th Street during the “p.m. peak period,” which begins to build around 3 p.m., peaks at 5 p.m., and tapers off by 6 p.m. However, Kemp says transportation experts aren’t concerned about traffic diversion onto 28th (or similar large roads) because it’s the type of corridor “designed for more cars.”

“For Folsom we’re looking at [diversion onto] 20th Street, or 19th [Street], and we look at the daily [vehicle] counts. If the daily counts are the same after installation as before, then we can assume that no one’s diverting traffic and heading all the way up to 19th,” Kemp says. “But if it’s diverting to 28th, that’s not a problem for us because 28th is a corridor that’s meant to handle heavy traffic.”

Likewise, only streets that are closest to Iris will be evaluated. According to the Living Lab’s “Before” Data Summary from June, statistics have been collected on the number of right turns onto side streets along Iris: Broadway, 14th, 15th, 16th, Iris Court, 17th, 19th, Hermosa/22nd, 25th and Folsom.

Kemp says that since the “Before” data document was produced for the Transportation Advisory Board, vehicle counts have been done for turns off of Iris onto Glenwood Drive, Grape Avenue, Hawthorne Avenue, Kalmia Avenue, Linden Drive and Twin Lakes.

“Violet and Balsam didn’t rise to the necessity for collecting data from, being that I think it’s these streets (Glenwood, Grape, Hawthorne, Kalmia, Linden and Twin Lakes) that are immediately adjacent to [Iris],” Kemp says.

But going through neighborhoods on streets with multiple stop signs is likely slower than driving a short distance further to an alternative artery such as Violet or the Balsam corridor.

Councilman Sam Weaver, who voted yes on the right-sizing project, says determining whether right-sizing affects other main arteries such as Broadway and 28th would be difficult.

“If you saw something like Folsom traffic go down and an increase in traffic on Broadway or 19th … you can make educated guesses that that’s where the traffic is going, but it’s very hard to prove anything,” he says. “We do have good measurements of traffic volumes on the major arterials, but as far as anyway of proving that people have shifted over [because of right-sizing], I don’t think there’s any good way to do that.”

Such a lack of information is a tough reality considering 28th and Broadway are already heavily congested main arteries during peak usage. And if traffic is furthered slowed on these major corridors as a result of right-sizing, it could equate to an increase in carbon emissions as drive times slow for thousands of vehicles.

Weaver agrees that adding Violet and the Balsam-Edgewood-Valmont corridor to the list of evaluated thoroughfares could provide useful data.

“I don’t see any reason you fundamentally wouldn’t want to do just that. I think the bigger concern is, at least those, Balsam and Violet, they are intended as arterial streets, but you look at most of the others [being evaluated] and they are intended as neighborhood feeder streets. I think the real concern is unintentionally turning a neighborhood feeder street into a defacto arterial the neighborhoods certainly have that concern pretty high up on their list.”

But for drivers, turning an arterial road like Balsam or Violet into a daily traffic jam is of equal concern.

As to whether it was appropriate that Council moved forward with right-sizing despite not having data on possible impacts to the city’s few main arterial roads, Weaver says yes, because the project is an experiment.

He does, however, admit that Council could have had better data.

“What we could have done better would have been to have better baseline data on more of the side streets,” he says. “We have good baseline data on Folsom itself, but do we know everything we need to about 19th and maybe some other [streets]? A little bit better baseline data on the nearby side streets is something that’s fair to say we should do better.”

Weaver also says that while he’s since seen data that breaks accidents down by type — vehicular, pedestrian and cyclists — that breakdown wasn’t provided before the vote to move forward.

“Of the accidents that occur on these corridors, which and how many of them would we expect to change? So we got the kind of overall 30 percent reduction in crashes, but then there would be a further breakdown that we could have discussed at greater length,” he says.

Former Councilman Pomerance points to the fact that while city documentation states some general goals for right-sizing — decreasing traffic accidents and vehicle speeds, increasing bike use and improving pedestrian experiences — there are no specific, quantifiable goals that would allow the city to measure whether the project was truly successful.

“If you take the evaluation criteria that went to the council … fundamentally it said, ‘Here are some of the things we might look at, but fundamentally we’re going to come back and tell you whether it worked or not,’” Pomerance says. “That’s not evaluation criteria. But had they said, ‘Here are the five measurable quantities.’ Then the next question would be, ‘How good is your data on those things now?’”

Kemp says such specific goals aren’t fair in a project like this.

“Because while we are basing a lot of our rationale on these projects on best practices nationally in other cities, all cities will have their own results. So not until we do this for the first time can we see what those results will be. So to say, ‘Hey, we had a 25 percent reduction in crashes over the course of that year, but man, we said we were going to see a 32 percent reduction’ — does that mean it failed?” he says. “And there’s also the understanding that it’s really a combining of the results that determines success and failure. And so what constitutes success or failure needs to be looked at holistically and also needs to be examined by the community.”

While Councilman Weaver says he “isn’t settled” on whether the City Council should have adopted a set of metrics as “pass-fail criteria” for the right-sizing project, he does have personal metrics.

“Perhaps another thing we could do better is say, ‘OK we wanted to define these and agree on them ahead of time,’ but if it comes that we have twice as much travel time on the corridor, we only get a 10 percent reduction in crashes and the volumes go up on other streets, I’m willing to call something a failure and move on,” Weaver says.

After the July 28 decision to postpone installations on Iris and 63rd, Council decided to consider another public hearing in September. Until then, data from the Folsom Street installation will be regularly posted on the city’s Living Lab website.

Andy Schultheiss is the executive director of Open Boulder, a nonpartisan group that aims to engage more Boulder residents in civic conversations across a number of topics. Schultheiss says that while he hopes the right-sizing project is a success, he feels concern about a group of elected officials who don’t set measurable standards for what constitutes success in a project.

“If you’re going to experiment, you have to say what you would consider a success and what you would consider a failure. If you don’t, you can do all sorts of moving the goal posts down the line and the public doesn’t know how bad the traffic has to get before the city will decide to reverse the project,” Schultheiss says. “And we certainly hope it’s a success. And we think the experiment is a perfectly fine idea, but you have to be clear, in our opinion, for a better elected-official/voter relationship. You have to be clear about what your metric’s going to be to evaluate the experiment.”