“Right sizing” good in principle, but council process failed
By Andy Schultheiss
POSTED: 07/14/2015 06:34:49 PM MDT | UPDATED: ABOUT 8 HOURS AGO
This artist rendering shows what Folsom Street will look like after crews “right-size” the road, which includes removing two vehicle lanes, adding a shared turn lane and widening the bike lanes. (Courtesy / City of Boulder)
This is the week Boulder city government starts its “Living Lab” experiment on three major streets in the city: Folsom, Iris, and 63rd. City crews will begin repainting the lines, and making other changes, to “right-size” Folsom Avenue north of Arapahoe. After the controversy that this decision generated, we hope Boulder residents will continue to pay attention.
Open Boulder conditionally approved the experiment, but we’re concerned by the process the council followed to reach its decision. We believe the principle is correct: In order to make urban biking safer and more convenient, an experiment reducing the number of automobile traffic lanes is worth trying.
Here’s the problem though: When the council approved the experiment, neither its members nor staff were clear on what they would consider a success. How much of a reduction in traffic accidents is enough? How much of an increase in travel time for cars is too much? What are we expecting in terms of increased bicycle usage? Do we have enough data on bike use on these three roads to quantify changes in demand?
What happens when you conduct an experiment without a quantitative hypothesis to test is you never know when to stop and admit you’re wrong, or conclude you’re right. It’s the old gambler’s fallacy: Even though things don’t look great now, you could win on the next roll of the dice. So you keep going. It doesn’t help that in addition to a council decision, reversing the “right-sizing” would require re-repainting lines, repositioning medians and other potentially expensive items.
Several writers have expressed frustration with the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB), which looked at the project before council. This concern is misplaced, as TAB did discuss metrics and how to judge success. And “right-sizing” was identified as a pilot project last year in the context of the Transportation Master Plan update. But the council seemingly rushed to put this on its agenda before affected businesses and residents had an opportunity to understand the full impact of the project. The council makes the final call, and the issue was not thoroughly vetted prior to approval. As it stands, we have no way of knowing what city decision-makers will consider enough evidence to stop rolling the dice. The public’s frustration comes, in part, from this inadequate approach to governance.
Process — and good governance — matters. It is the connective tissue that ties the people to their governments, especially local ones. It is not simply the substance of the issue that concerns us, but how an elective body reaches a decision. When talking about process and good governance, what jumps out is the need to be open about expectations, and clear about a willingness to reverse course if facts on the ground require it. In other words, process needs to build trust, and that’s clearly lacking for too many on this issue.
We hope that Boulder citizens will pay close attention to the results of this Living Lab experiment. Open Boulder will.
Andy Schultheiss is executive director of Open Boulder