Boulder Biketopia at the ULI Salon

Boulder’s newly minted chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) hosted its second salon on December 6th, entitled Biketopia: Dramatically Increasing Boulder’s Bike Mode Share.  Martha Roskowski — the former head of GO Boulder, who now works on protected on-street bike facilities nationwide with Bikes Belong — outlined a plan for pushing Boulder beyond it’s status as a leading bike community in North America, and toward taking a place amongst the world’s best cities for cycling.

Why should we choose to do this?  Getting more people on bikes benefits both individuals and the community. Bikes provide inexpensive mobility for short trips, help address health issues, and reduce congestion. New studies are showing that getting more people on bikes increases the economic vitality of cities in many ways, including attracting “choice” employers and supporting local businesses. Boulder’s status as a leader in climate change can also be reinforced by a visionary approach.

While Boulder’s bike mode share is one of the best in the nation, it trails well behind leading European cities. And Boulder’s growth in bicycling has been stagnant over the past several years, by a number of measures. Boulder is no longer a national leader in its commitment and vision to increase the number of people on bikes. Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia and others are taking far more bold steps to intentionally and systematically make their communities better for bicycling.

Boulder has a choice: we can continue the current pace of slow but steady improvements in infrastructure and rely on external forces like the price of gas and personal concerns about climate change to increase bike mode share. Or, Boulder could become a new national model for a bicycle-friendly community. Boulder has the potential to dramatically increase its bike mode share, perhaps more so than any other community in the country. It has “good bones” in its off-street pathway system, its compact size, growth boundaries, culture of cycling and already large bicycling population.

Martha gave eleven suggestions for taking cycling in Boulder beyond being an “alternative” mode and toward normalizing it to the point where it’s a vital, indispensable part of our transportation system. It can be made accessible to just about anyone as it is already in much of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, where many cities have between a quarter and half of their daily trips being made by bike.  Here’s a short summary of what she had to say, hopelessly intermingled with my own musings, since my notes are now a month old.

1. Establish measurable goals and develop a strategy to attain them.

The 2013 update of the Transportation Master Plan (TMP) is the perfect opportunity to identify concrete goals in three areas:

  • Safety: Adopt a goal of reducing by half the number of serious injury accidents involving people on bikes. Time period TBD, maybe 2010 to 2020.
  • Perceived safety: Adopt a goal of 80% of Boulder riders saying they feel safe on Boulder’s system.
  • Mode share: A bike mode share by Boulder residents of 25% by 2020 is totally achievable in Boulder.  Several other U.S. cities have adopted similar goals.

Once new goals are adopted, it is essential to identify how the goals will be reached. What mix of investments and policies are necessary, what people are most likely to ride, what network and programs will be most effective? San Francisco has done excellent work in this area.

These goals would be adopted within the TMP; achieving them would require improvements in infrastructure, programs and policy, necessitating buy-in from many city departments. Police, Fire, Housing, Community Planning, Development Review, Parks and Recreation and Open Space all have roles to play in achieving the goals.  Getting that kind of city-wide coordination would probably take clear leadership from City Council.

2. Create a low-stress network that connects people to their destinations.

Studies have shown that a significant fraction (60 to 70%) of the U.S. population are interested in biking more, but they are concerned about safety. They say they don’t feel safe riding a bike on our current system. Marketing, outreach and promotion alone will not make them feel safe. Changing how our streets work is key.  Boulder should identify and implement a network of places where people can ride without being stressed by traffic. Many of the core elements are already in place, thanks to Boulder’s foresight and long-term commitment to building a robust multi-use pathway system. However, additional work is still needed.


There are four key elements to a low-stress network:

  • Separated multi-use pathway systems: Boulder’s greenway system is one of the best in the country, with its 78 underpasses and routes along most of the waterways. The City should complete the system. Missing links still exist along Fourmile, Wonderland and Skunk Creek. Boulder Creek Path should be re-examined and possibly widened in high-congestion areas in order to provide separate spaces for people on foot and people on bikes.
  • Slow-speed side streets: At least Âľ of Boulder’s streets are quiet residential streets where bikes and cars can share the street. We can make them function better by reducing the speed of cars on these streets to 20mph and reducing the number of through-trips by cars, instead encouraging drivers to move to the larger streets as quickly as possible. Portland is a national leader in creating these “neighborhood greenways” which have numerous other benefits. New York City has recently launched a very popular program that allows neighborhoods to request 20mph zones. Rather than being viewed as low-priority “quality of life” projects, these neighborhood improvements are important safety and mobility strategies.  Maintaining the connectivity of the on-street bikeway network even when there’s snow on the ground would help make winter riding a more practical option for more people.
  • Separated spaces on busy streets: On streets with speeds higher than 30 mph and with more than one lane of traffic, a separated, protected space should be provided for people on bikes. Bicycling should not require being fit, brave and aggressive. A simple striped bike lane on a busy road, such as Boulder has on many arterials, including 30th, Iris, Folsom, North Broadway and elsewhere, is not enough to make most people feel comfortable riding a bike. Improved bike lanes, that are protected from traffic by posts, curbs or parked cars are appearing in cities across the country. Some are painted green. Chicago, Washington D.C., Austin and Portland have all installed protected lane projects in the past year, including several that removed parking or travel lanes.
  • Safe crossing of busy streets: A number of our big busy streets are barriers to comfortable biking (and walking). There are long distances between comfortable crossings on Table Mesa, Broadway (especially north of Alpine), Canyon, Iris, Arapahoe and many other busy streets.

3. Increase support for programs.

Given that Boulder has a good system of pathways already in place, there are many short trips that could be made by bike at a low level of stress. Marketing, outreach and programs can be very effective in getting more people to hop on their bikes for short trips. Funding should be increased for Walk & Bike Month, Green Streets, Safe Routes to School efforts and other marketing and promotion.  Marketing specifically aimed at normalizing cycling, and appealing to potential riders outside of the bike enthusiast subculture may be particularly productive.

4. Build out bike share.

The bike share system has a strong role to play in providing bikes for short trips in town, and for providing the “last mile” piece of transit trips.  However, it can only really fulfill this promise if the large “interested but concerned” segment of the population feels that cycling is accessible.

5. Improve bike access downtown.

With the exception of 13th Street, bike accommodations downtown are mediocre at best. This includes access to and through downtown and bike parking.  Many potential cyclists simply aren’t going to be comfortable sharing travel lanes with cars on Spruce and Walnut.  Direct, safe connections from downtown to the East are needed.

6. Encourage e-bikes.

Electric-assist bicycles can make Boulder’s hills far less daunting for a big swath of our population, including older people, women and parents hauling kids. Electric-assist bikes should be allowed on our pathway system, with appropriate controls. Subsidies and pilot programs could encourage the use of electric-assist cargo bikes.  At the same time, it will be necessary to ensure that these bikes don’t negatively impact the safety and comfort of shared multi-use paths.

7. Align land use codes with our transportation goals.

This is a big conversation, and it’s time to discuss how land use, development codes and community planning can better support bicycling in Boulder.  Transportation and land use are intimately connected, and our planning in the two domains needs to be integrated if either is to achieve their goals.  We can potentially become another kind of city — still small, but dense and mixed, with the attention to human-scale detail required to create vibrant, safe, walkable neighborhoods — one of Jan Gehl’s Cities for People.

8. Talk about parking.

Boulder should talk rationally and thoughtfully about how we use our public spaces for the storage of private vehicles.  Parking policy is politically challenging, but the North American norm of plentiful free parking at the end of virtually every trip creates large distortions in our perceptions of the relative cost and convenience of driving, especially for short trips.

9. Measure everything!

Without good usage data and constant tracking of our progress, it’s impossible to know whether our efforts are working. The League of American Bicyclists is promoting the use of a biannual bicycling survey by cities in the top tier of US cycling, along the lines of the Copenhagen Bicycling Account.

10. Embrace the bike.

The great cities for bicycling embrace the bicycle as a part of their identity and their culture. Valmont Bike Park is a great example.

11. Be bold and be brave!

Leading the way is never comfortable or easy, but if cycling is to be normalized as a form of everyday urban transportation in America, we’ve got to continue innovating and adopting the best practices being developed worldwide.


It was a friendly crowd, and the room was buzzing with energy after the presentation.  There’s clearly a desire amongst the Boulder bike community to regain the city’s leadership position in the US.  I think this is partly fed by an increased awareness of just how good cities can be for cycling — not just for those of us who are already enthusiastic about it, but for everyone, including people who might never self-identify as “cyclists”.  This may be uncomfortable for city staff and our political leaders, who are rightly proud of our last 30 years worth of investments and commitment to cycling in Boulder.  I don’t think these suggestions should come across as criticisms.  To me they seem more like optimistic statements about how far we’ve come.  We wouldn’t be able to even have this conversation today if we hadn’t been working on this stuff for decades.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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