As trails, parks stay crowded and other cities lead the way, pressure mounts on Boulder to close streets to cars

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Image via Shutterstock

Friday, April 10, 2020

Oakland: 74 miles — 10% of all roadways closed to thru traffic
Minneapolis: 18 miles, mostly along the riverfront
Denver: 16 miles along four key stretches
Louisville, Kentucky: 11 miles through a popular park system

Those are some of the measures American cities have taken to give cyclists and pedestrians more room to roam on streets that are mostly devoid of cars in the wake of stay-at-home orders and mass unemployment. New York-based urban planner Mike Lydon has created a spreadsheet to track COVID-related road closures.

There are more than two dozen cities on it, from across the globe (including a second list of those who have eliminated “beg buttons” that pedestrian need to push in order to get a crosswalk signal). You won’t find Boulder on it.

The notoriously recreation-friendly city has been strangely hesitant to close any roadways to cars. Staff cited the high cost and time involvement, and council members felt other projects should take priority.

That may change as pressure mounts, both externally — Nonprofit Community Cycles this week sent a public email to council requesting key conversions dispersed throughout the city — and internally, as Boulder’s open space and parks systems buckle under overcrowding and calls mount for their closure.

Two attempts, one semi-concession

Councilman Aaron Brockett first broached the subject of closing select streets to cars at the March 31 meeting. Such temporary measures could “provide a way for folks to get around town more healthfully” in a time of social distancing by giving them an entire road (or at least vehicle lane) to walk and bike in rather than narrow sidewalks and paths, Brockett argued.

“The intention of this, and other cities are doing it, is to repurpose some space for cars for pedestrians and bicyclists … while auto traffic is way, way down in the city,” Brockett said.

His peers weren’t persuaded. Wouldn’t that instead draw people outside and potentially create crowds? councilwoman Mary Young asked. Those other cities pursuing closures “may not have our path network or bike lanes,” Mayor Sam Weaver added.

Read a play-by-play of the March 31 discussion here.

It was City Manager Jane Brautigam that put the nail in the coffin at that meeting. Shutting streets to non-local or emergent traffic would district staff and resources from other, more important projects, she declared, such as the 20 is Plenty campaign to lower speed limits on residential roads, and the Vision Zero project to eliminate traffic-related serious injuries and fatalities.

“It is more time-consuming than putting up a few barricades,” Brautigam said. A similar attempt years ago was abandoned “because of all the effort it took to make it successful — a lot of time of staff time, and it was expensive.

“This is less easy than it sounds, by far.”

But as other cities kept closing lanes and entire thoroughfares, some began to question why Boulder was being left behind. In a letter sent to council and the Transportation Advisory Board — portions of which were later printed in the Daily Camera — Community Cycles Executive Director Sue Prant argued that if Denver and New York could figure out solutions, so could Boulder.

“New York City closed a lane on 3rd Ave in Manhattan using traffic barrels,” Prant wrote. “Is the Transportation Division really saying Boulder streets require a more complex solution than a major avenue in Manhattan?”

Community Cycles, in the same letter, proposed conversions of six stretches:

  • 4th Street north of Mapleton (portions of which have no sidewalk)

  • 13th Street, north of Pine

  • 30th Street outer lanes, which would remain open to buses and turning vehicles

  • Sections of Cascade or Aurora Avenues on University Hill

  • Ithaca Drive in South Boulder

  • Twin Lakes Road in Gunbarrel, to alleviate crowding on LoBo Trail

“We’re not wedded to those,” Prant said in a followup interview — “except for 30th Street” but the group wants to see some forward momentum.

“Our city seems to think that everything is a gigantic deal,” she said. “As much as they’ve disappointed me in the past, they’re disappointing me even more now.”

Even before Prant’s letter, the city was being pushed to revisit “street rebalancing.” This time it was councilwoman Rachel Friend leading the charge, at Tuesday’s council meeting.

In response to Friend’s inquiry, interim Transportation Director Bill Cowern pledged to use Denver’s criteria to evaluate which streets may meet conditions for closures. But, he said, “I think that is unlikely” the two cities will compare favorably.

“What they’re experiencing with their density and the lack of recreational space compared to our situation, which is almost the opposite,” Cowern said. “I think they probably needed to do the things that they did.”

Plenty of open space — for now

Yet despite its abundance of open space — 65 square miles of it, more than twice as much land as the city itself — trails have become dangerously crowded, OSMP Director Dan Burke said Tuesday night.

Social distancing is not being observed, and fewer than a third of trail users are wearing masks, according to ranger observations. The department was pursuing a number of measures aimed at increasing compliance, which on Friday included “suggesting” one-way travel on Flatirons Vista North/South, South Boulder Creek, Springbook Loop, Eagle and Sage trails.

OSMP staff has also contacted 3,500 people and put in a collective 89 hours of education in an attempt to improve user behavior. Rangers and others intend to spend the April 11-12 weekend at “popular locations,” according to department spokesman Phillip Yates, such as Chautauqua and Wonderland Lake, educating the public on the need for masks and proper distancing.

If those mitigation efforts fail, Burke said, “there’s not many more tools in our toolbox that we could look at that would have a big effect” aside from total system closure.

“We are putting together plans for how that would work.”

Authorities worldwide are closing parks and other public spaces in response to crowds. That has, in turn, sparked concerns about mental health during what is likely to be a long period of restricted movement.

“It’s a very stressful time,” said councilwoman Friend. “I think we need plans that are sustainable if social distancing is more long-term.”

Read a play-by-play of Tuesday’s discussion here.

There are also equity considerations at play, as Friend noted. Residents most likely to have access to private outdoor space are also the wealthiest. The Atlantic suggested that governments encourage those with yards to stay in them, leaving parks for those without.

Boulder has done a better job than most at ensuring access to the outdoors. Developments have strict open space requirements, tied to the size, height and/or land area of the project.

But a peruse through the city’s land use code reveals that balconies, patios and even uncovered parking areas qualify. If parks and open space were to close and streets remain reserved for cars, options for outdoor recreation would be slim to nonexistent for those in more dense housing.

“I’m very sensitive to taking that away from people,” Friend said. “There would be physical and mental health ramifications and ripple effects.”

Open space and transportation issues are expected to be addressed at council’s upcoming meeting, along with discussions on planning department operations and a discussion on citizen-led initiative petition efforts.

6 p.m. Tuesday, April 14. Meeting streamed live online and on Channel 8

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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