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Are Boulder’s Downtown Streets Off-Limits To Bicyclists?


Sidewalk cycling on Broadway between Walnut and Pearl

What are the factors that induce people to bicycle?

Two of the most important are relatively short travel distances and relatively slow motor vehicle speeds.

Given this, the town center of a community should be one of the most welcoming places to ride a bicycle. And indeed, the town center is very often the most popular place in a city for bicycling in many communities across the U.S.

I have lived in the Mapleton Hill neighborhood in Boulder for five years now. The neighborhood is adjacent to the Boulder town center. Because I am a daily bicycle commuter, I am bicycling in the Boulder town center nearly every day.

Much to my surprise, given how often Boulder is recognized as a bicycle-friendly community at the national level, the Boulder town center is extremely inhospitable to bicycling.

I will discuss the factors that make this so, and end with a few recommendations about how the town center can be made much more safe, popular, and welcoming for bicyclists.

Some Important Obstacles to Bicycling in Boulder

As most all of us here in Boulder readily recognize, high-speed streets with more than three lanes are exceptionally hostile to safe, comfortable bicycling—especially when such streets lack bike lanes. Unfortunately for Boulder, the Colorado Department of Transportation, long ago, constructed two high-speed state highways that cut through the middle of the Boulder town center: Canyon Boulevard and Broadway. Due to the very high “speed differential” between motorists and bicyclists on these two highways (where motorists tend to drive at much higher speeds than bicyclists ride), both of these roads (what Charles Marohn would call “stroads”) are seemingly suicidal, nearly impossible corridors for even the most experienced, brave bicyclists to ride for more than 50 feet or so.

One-way/two-way intersection at 11th and Walnut

Another unfortunate town center street system decision made in Boulder long ago was to convert a great many two-way street segments into one-way operation. One-way streets create enormous problems for bicyclists. Because they reduce “friction” for motorists, they tend to strongly induce excessive levels of inattentiveness, higher speeds and impatience, and such factors can be a dangerous recipe that often produces unsafe motorist behavior. Healthy town centers depend on slower speeds, retail health, and “agglomeration economies,” and one-way streets substantially undercut each of these needed attributes.

An additional problem with one-way streets—particularly for bicyclists—is that they tend to induce frequent, dangerous “wrong-way” travel, as many people (especially bicyclists) decide it is just too inconvenient to travel blocks out of their way to get to a destination. Instead, many will simply ride the wrong way on a one-way street (at least for a short distance).

Because one-way streets, in recent decades, have very clearly been seen by many of us as detrimental to town center health, a growing number of cities are converting their one-way streets back to two-way operation.

An Inventory of Streets Off-Limits to Bicycling

In my five years of bicycling through the Boulder town center, it has become obvious to me how difficult it is to bicycle in the town center. Recently, I decided to prepare an inventory map of street segments in the Boulder town center that are, in effect, off-limits to bicycling. The attached map shows in red those town center street segments that are inhospitable to bicycling, either because they are high-speed state highways or one-way street segments.

Boulder town center streets hostile to bicycles (map courtesy Dom Nozzi)
Click to enlarge

As you can see, a rather large percentage of street mileage in the Boulder town center is off-limits to bicycling. Again, if any place should be comfortable and heavily used by bicyclists, it should be a lower-speed, compact town center. Yet, in a city that regularly is given recognition for being “bike-friendly,” town center bicycling in Boulder is shockingly very difficult and dangerous.

Interested But Concerned

Admirably, Boulder now strives to find ways to encourage the very large number of citizens who are “interested but concerned” about bicycling to become more regular bicyclists. Many experimental designs and policies are now being tested in Boulder as the city strives to create an environment where those citizens will be more likely to ride a bicycle. Indeed, as can be seen in many European cities, town centers tend to be the place where many of the “interested but concerned” bicyclists can be found.

This is not surprising, since town centers tend to offer the slower speeds and shorter travel distances that attract such bicyclists.

Unfortunately, the street segments in red on the map are strongly undercutting this worthy objective of encouraging the “interested but concerned” citizen to ride a bicycle.

A Lesson from Copenhagen

In the 1980s, Copenhagen’s bicycle planners observed that large numbers of bicyclists were using the same major streets that motorists were using. Planners convinced the city to build a high-quality bicycle route on a slower-speed, less-used parallel street.

To the surprise of planners, hardly any bicyclists used the parallel routes. The planners realized that bicyclists wanted to follow the same ‘desire lines’ as motorists—that is, choosing the most direct route. The result was a sea-change in modern bicycle planning, where efforts to direct bicyclists to parallel streets changed to efforts to accommodate bicyclists along the same major streets that motorists preferred.

Copenhagen realized that you can’t tell bicyclists (or pedestrians) where to go. Rather, bicyclists (and pedestrians) will show you where they want to go and you should listen to them and plan accordingly. Unfortunately, Boulder has not yet fully adopted this approach, as can be seen by city efforts to use the parallel 13th and 9th streets as places for bicyclists to ride, instead of Broadway.

Some Suggestions for Making the Boulder Town Center More Bicycle-Friendly

  1. I am often the first person to point out that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to successfully mix bicyclists with pedestrians on a sidewalk or a path. In general, we should not try to mix bicyclists with pedestrians. However, I believe it was a mistake for Boulder to outlaw bicycling on sidewalks along commercial streets where the sidewalk is not designed or designated for bicycling. On each of the street segments shown in red on the attached map (where bicycling is relatively dangerous), it is incumbent on a community that wishes to promote bicycle travel (especially for those who are “interested but concerned”) to allow slow-speed bicycling on sidewalks. Repealing this counterproductive law would be TEMPORARY, as I would recommend that the prohibition be re-instated when or if the “red segments” shown on my map are redesigned as I recommend below. In addition, during this temporary period where bicyclists would be allowed on sidewalks until the street is re-designed, city rules would require that bicyclists ride responsibly, courteously, and relatively slowly on the sidewalk (preferably, bicyclists would ride at pedestrian speeds). By not allowing bicyclists on sidewalks, the “off-limits” streets create a tremendous amount of inconvenience for bicyclists, as it can mean that the bicyclist must ride one to three blocks out of her or his way to reach a destination.
  2. Town center health depends on slower speeds, agglomeration economies, and human-scale design. Canyon Boulevard and Broadway, as high-speed state highways, dramatically undermine these necessary attributes and make bicycling a dangerous, impractical form of travel on those corridors. A low-cost, effective treatment for improving the health, safety, aesthetics, and pleasure of the Boulder town center is to re-purpose each of these highways to be three-lane streets. Doing this would slow motor vehicle speeds to speeds more conducive to both bicycling and a healthy town center, and would create needed space for such beneficial treatments as on-street parking and bike lanes.
  3. Boulder should join the growing revolution in which cities throughout the nation are converting their one-way streets back to two-way operation. Doing so is a quick, effective, low-cost way to dramatically improve town center health, comfort, and safety. Motorists would drive more slowly, more attentively, and more patiently.
  4. Intersection controls should convenience bicyclists, not motorists—particularly in the town center. Stop lights and stop signs, even in relatively bicycle-friendly Boulder, are surprisingly inconvenient for bicycling. I have noticed that signal lights in the town center are timed for motorist speeds. In a community seeking to promote transit and bicycling, signal lights should rather be timed for buses and bicyclists. In addition, Idaho has revised its state laws so that bicyclists are allowed to treat red signal lights as stop signs, and stop signs as yield signs. Doing this would make bicycling much more advantageous (an important way to encourage more bicycling). Boulder should seek state authorization to apply the Idaho law here (if not statewide).

In sum, Boulder’s town center is shockingly off-limits to bicycling. Fortunately, there are ways for the city to correct that—particularly as a way to encourage the large number of “interested but concerned” citizens to become regular bicyclists, and to substantially grow the overall number of bicyclists in Boulder.

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Reader Feedback

7 Responses to “Are Boulder’s Downtown Streets Off-Limits To Bicyclists?”

  1. Lee Rozaklis says:

    As a long-time bicycle and car commuter, I don’t see a problem with downtown. I never ride on Broadway or Canyon and don’t need to, as the remaining downtown grid is bike-friendly and convenient, including the one-way streets. I agree that Canyon and Broadway are relatively high speed and car-oriented, but they don’t get in the way of my bike-commuting.

  2. I couldn’t disagree more with the concept of lifting the ban of bicycles riding on sidewalks in areas zoned commercial.

    There will always, always be inconsiderate bicycle riders just as there are inconsiderate pedestrians and auto drivers. Being on the sidewalk on a bicycle in a commercial area is just asking for trouble. Examples of the risk are presented often enough with the restriction, no need to exacerbate the existing law breaking problem by legalizing. Not convinced? Just walking your bicycle on the sidewalk presents a problem of blockage and passage for all users.

    I agree with Lee Rozaklis finding a relatively safe route downtown is much easier than the author implies.

    What? No mention of alleys?

  3. Jud Valeski says:

    great post. it’s indeed funny that we consider ourselves so bicycle friendly when in fact we’re simply not.

    I’m not with you on the suggestion of opening up bicycling to commercial zone sidewalks. too dangerous a mix. dazed tourists mixing with commuting locals on bikes is a bad recipe. Boulder just needs to get serious about supporting bicycles on the main roads you outline.

    the other thing I’d add is that there is horrible support for bike parking in Boulder. we used to be able to chain bikes to parking meters, but those were torn out for the new system, and never replaced. there have been feeble attempts to replace that old method of parking, but they don’t come close to the volume that used to be supported. bike parking is almost as bad as car parking downtown.

    • Lee Rozaklis says:

      I agree with Jud that the opportunities for parking and locking bikes downtown need some serious upgrading. This need not require major new facilities or conversion of parking spaces (although converting a few car parking spaces into bicycle and <50cc scooter parking is not a bad idea). The newly installed black wrought iron tree guards serve a great multi-purpose function: protecting the trees and providing easy-to-use and dispersed places to lock bikes.

  4. Kurt Nordback says:

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to penalize pedestrians for poor biking conditions. However, I agree with most of the rest of what Dom says.

    I tried several years ago to get Downtown Boulder Inc. interested in the idea of returning the one-way streets to two-way. They weren’t opposed to the idea, but they weren’t willing to push for it either. Nonetheless I believe two-way streets would benefit businesses, making it much easier for cars to navigate to storefronts — as well as better for bikes and pedestrians. I recently had a discussion with a consultant on land use economics, who said (apropos another situation) he felt that one-way streets are nearly always detrimental to businesses.

    Note that Denver just converted a section of 18th St. to two-way, in the interest of pedestrian safety and friendliness:

    • Dom Nozzi says:

      Great comments, Kurt. Thanks for reading my essay and your observations about converting one-ways in the Boulder town center to two-way. It has become such a common no-brainer nationally that I’m somewhat shocked that Boulder continues to retain the one-ways despite lip service about wanting to improve conditions for bicyclists, pedestrians, and businesses. As for penalizing peds, 99.99 percent of the time I would be in full agreement w/ you. Pedestrians, after all, should be the design imperative for a town center. I regretfully make an exception in this case, though, because Canyon & Broadway are EXTREMELY hostile to cycling, and it is unfair, naive, and somewhat cynical to retain the bike prohibition on those corridors. Copenhagen bike planners tried it, and it failed because (surprise!), commuter cyclists want to travel on the same routes that are most popular for motorists (due to convenience & speed). I think that a lot of cyclists are conscientious enough to ride on sidewalks at about the same speed as peds. The City should allocate dollars to enforcing rules that force cyclists to behave themselves on those sidewalks. It is the price the City should pay for allowing Canyon and Broadway to remain so inappropriately hostile in the town center. For the record, there are a lot of “interested but concerned” cyclists who do not cycle because Canyon & Broadway are so hostile.

  5. Ben Harding says:

    (Better late than never.)

    I’m sorry, Lee, but I have to disagree–Broadway gets in my way. But, I live north and get to much of what I want to get to by going south, whereas you go east. It makes a big difference.

    When I head south on Broadway I have to make a choice at Iris. Cycling on Broadway south of Iris is not an option any more, though it was in my 20’s and 30’s. So, if I’m going downtown west of Broadway, I’ll jump over to 9th, and that works pretty well. But, if I’m going downtown east of Broadway, it’s not so great. I usually make a left off Broadway (that’s a challenge), weave through the County Hospital parking lot, and then turn left onto Iris (another challenge) to get to the bike path that takes me to 13th. (I do all that to avoid mixing with the frantic left turn traffic off Broadway.) Once across Iris, it’s pretty pleasant.

    But, either way, things get all goofy again when I get to Arapahoe.

    I agree with Dom, and the folks in Copenhagen: I am going to the same places the cars go. I’d love to just ride along Broadway, and live.

    I remember when 9th did not go through between Pearl and Spruce. Have any of you ever wondered why the Fina was at 8th and Pearl and not 9th and pearl? That’s why. You would jog over to 8th and jog back (I think we’d also jog over to 10th, but the neurons are fogging a bit.) It seems fantastic now, even to me, but it’s true. That jog was considered a sufficient annoyance that houses were bought and leveled, and 9th was pushed through. I kinda see Broadway the same way on my bike.

    Oh, and Al, I ride the alleys north and south of Pearl all the time. They are very useful routes. Lights on Broadway “seal” those blocks, so you can get across Broadway easily at either alley.

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