Boulder, Uber, Google and traffic

Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

I have a modest proposal for dealing with Boulder’s traffic mess: outsource the problem to Google and Uber.

Boulder’s traffic mess is bad; the worst I can recall since I’ve been here. Don’t take my word for it, just drive up and down 28th Street (aka Damnation Alley). And it’s going to get worse because:

• Industrial and commercial growth, which has never been controlled in Boulder, is accelerating because Boulder and Boulder County are a national magnet for computing, life sciences and other knowledge-based enterprises. More jobs means more commuting.

• The City Council, in the name of affordable housing and economic and social diversity, is encouraging multi-family residential growth and would like to densify Boulder’s residential neighborhoods by allowing additional living units in owner-occupied single family homes (essentially a back-door upzoning).

• The University of Colorado is expanding its enrollment (currently 30,000) by several hundred a year on the Boulder campus.

• Geography, geology and previous development mean Boulder’s ability to expand or meaningfully upgrade its street network is limited.

• Alternative transportation — buses, light rail, bikes, skateboards, camel caravans — isn’t a meaningful alternative to the automobile for most people.

So what are Boulder’s options?

One option is to do nothing and let the situation deteriorate. This option actually has a name, which was coined by the late Jane Jacobs, author of the book The Death and Life of the Great American Cities and one of the most influential urban planners of the 20th century.

It’s called “the attrition of the automobile.”

Briefly (and over-simplified), the concept amounts to “if you don’t build it, they’ll quit coming,” with “it” in this case being additional automotive infrastructure like parking and wider roads. In other words, if driving becomes a romping, stomping pain in the keister, a certain number of a town’s potential drivers and in-commuters will quit doing it and the traffic in the town will find a stable level.

The trouble with the approach is that the “stable level” of traffic is going to be so intense, noisy, smelly and congested that it will do real damage to a town’s environmental quality, overall quality of life and economy.

A better option for Boulder is to find ways to use the existing street network more efficiently and ways for its automobile fleet to operate more efficiently — to do more with less in other words.
Fortunately, some emerging disruptive technologies can help Boulder do this. Which is where Uber and Google come in.

One is the type of software used by companies like Uber, Lyft and others that allows private car owners to become for-hire trip providers — with the number of providers on the street at any given time determined by market forces instead of a government licensing authority. In principle at least, this allows some privately-owned vehicles to be used much more efficiently (those of the drivers), and obviates the need for others to be used at all (those of the passengers).

Boulder should aggressively partner with companies like Uber and Lyft to help get enough drivers on its streets for the services to become a real alternative to operating privately owned cars. It should also partner with other Boulder County cities and with Boulder County to make these ride services an alternative to single vehicle, (and often single passenger) intercity commuting.

Most of all, it should partner with the University of Colorado to encourage both student drivers and student use.

Doing these things does not require any new technology and could be implemented quickly, if the will is there to do them.

The other disruptive technology that could make a difference is Google’s self-driving cars. These could be a real game-changer in a host of different ways, ranging from using the city’s street network more efficiently to putting privately owned cars to work while their owners are at work instead of occupying parking places, for example.

To this end, Boulder should ask Google to make it an early test city for self-driving vehicle technology. Deploying vehicles that are completely autonomous is still probably several years away, but testing them with human back-up drivers could probably start immediately if the city chooses to allow it. And Boulder could make a real contribution to autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle operation by designing and installing a dedicated communications network that would allow self-driving vehicles to communicate with each other.

Partnering with Google, which is already a Boulder corporate citizen and is in the process of becoming a much bigger one, should be a no-brainer for both Boulder and Google. Given Google’s location — at the corner of Pearl and 30th — and given the amount of parking it is intending to provide (probably not enough), Google is going to need some innovative ways to get its employees to and from work. As for Boulder, it clearly needs some innovative ways of dealing with what is rapidly turning into a transportation crisis.

Will these approaches make a difference? We won’t know until we try them out. My guess is the most important factor for success is whether governments find reasons to make them succeed or reasons to make them fail (like bureaucratic foot-dragging, allowing itself to become entangled in its own red tape, and death by political process). Unfortunately, local government has become pretty good at the latter in recent years.

What is certain is that all the old strategies for moving traffic (and for managing growth and protecting the environment for that matter) are pretty played out and accomplished all that can be expected of them. And that without some fundamentally new strategies and approaches in government — starting with a can-do attitude to problem-solving instead of a can’t do, won’t do, don’t do one — the problem isn’t going to get solved and will only get worse.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


  • KeepBoulderBoulder

    63 thousand in-commuters is the problem. Self driving cars or Uber aren’t going to change the morning surge into town. What are they going to do while everybody is at work? Just drive around in circles until 5pm?

    *Google in Boulder is going to be an expansion of their payment division. Probably no self driving cars tested here.