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Traffic Engineering Rules Must Be Followed Off the Bat (Opinion)

A review of existing demand in Colorado reveals too many cars to move efficiently on a two-lane road.

by Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo. / July 3, 2017

(TNS) -- We were gratified, if a little perplexed, to learn that local and state transportation planners apparently awoke from a deep sleep to discover congestion on Arapahoe Avenue east of the city and a bottleneck on U.S. 36 could be improved by — gasp — adding lanes to accommodate the traffic volume.

It is an article of ideological dogma in the governments of Boulder and Boulder County that building new roads or lanes doesn't relieve congestion — a concept known as "induced demand." In the minds of some officials, this conviction appears to have morphed into the notion that no infrastructure improvements for auto travel are ever appropriate. But a basic rule of traffic engineering still applies: Capacity must be sufficient for the smooth flow of existing demand (unless, of course, you are trying purposefully to inconvenience motorists for other political purposes).

A review of existing demand on Arapahoe between Lafayette and Boulder reveals too many cars to move efficiently on a two-lane road. With population growth and housing development certain to continue in the east county, basic traffic engineering requires the infrastructure to keep up.

This goes against the ideological position of many local officials, who continue to believe that starving motorists of space will convince them to switch to bikes or buses. Unfortunately, actual human behavior indicates this is not true. Despite all sorts of well-meaning public pressure to do just that, the percentage of commuters that drive into Boulder — roughly four out of five —- hasn't changed in 25 years.

As we have observed before, this is not because motorists want to confound the ideological objectives of Boulder progressives. This is because cycling is not practical for many commuters and mass transit in these parts still presents enormous first-mile, last-mile problems that extend commute times dramatically.

Having finally acknowledged the problem, some local officials remain determined to steer commuters into the behaviors those officials prefer. Hence the enthusiasm to revamp Arapahoe not to accommodate the cars already there but to create dedicated lanes for a bus rapid transit system that does not yet exist.

Boulder City Councilman Aaron Brockett had the temerity some months ago to ask how often such buses would run. Nobody knows, of course. In part, that's because it would be up to the Regional Transportation District. In part, it's because nobody knows what the market demand might be. But it would not be surprising if ideologically-driven county officials devoted large portions of the roadway to a mode few people use at the expense of the mode most people use in yet another attempt at forced behavior modification.

Officials will respond that they are fighting climate change by trying to reduce auto emissions, a laudable goal. But it is far more likely that goal will be achieved by improvements in transportation technology — electrification of the automobile fleet, for example — than coercion. Political progressives have every right to try to persuade their constituents to behave differently, but purposefully making them miserable to force them to come around goes against the basic concept of public service.

The ramp from Foothills Parkway onto eastbound U.S. 36 was an even more egregious example, if that's possible. When U.S. 36 was rebuilt to add an express lane in each direction, the eastbound express lane made its initial appearance tantalizingly close to the Foothills ramp, but not close enough. That left two lanes of eastbound U.S. 36 and two lanes of Foothills Parkway to merge into . . . two lanes. Naturally, it became a bottleneck, with two lanes of cars backing up on each roadway and producing more emissions, not less.

The state Department of Transportation patted itself on the back for its innovative solution last week — restriping the merge area to make room for three lanes — which could have been the original configuration if the express lane had started a little earlier.

"This shows how, by thinking a little differently, we can improve operations despite constrained resources and constrained funding," CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt said. "This relatively low-cost project will save 200 to 700 vehicle hours per day, according to our study."

We don't want to seem ungrateful, but anyone who works in transportation for a living and was surprised that the original configuration produced a daily traffic jam might be better off choosing another line of work.

The suspicion of many commuters — whose views don't seem to matter much to Boulder transportation planners — is that these apparent signs of incompetence are actually intentional coercive measures intended to change commuter behavior.

But they didn't. Traveling by car remains the fastest way for most commuters to get where they're going, even accounting for increasing congestion and some poor traffic engineering along the way. Until that changes, all the lectures in the world from well-meaning officials won't change the basic calculus for people trying to get to and from work as quickly as they can.

Given that fact of human behavior, it's probably best to go back to basic traffic engineering rules and make the system operate as efficiently as possible. That reduces emissions, too.

©2017 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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