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Boulder council questions cycling on sidewalk rules and signage

City further restricting left turns in some intersections

Lorenzo Lujan, of Boulder, rides his bicycle across the intersection of 38th Street and Arapahoe Avenue on Monday in Boulder.
Lorenzo Lujan, of Boulder, rides his bicycle across the intersection of 38th Street and Arapahoe Avenue on Monday in Boulder.

Boulder City Council members have demanded clarity on the city’s rules on where cyclists can and cannot ride on sidewalks.

Questions raised by Councilmen Sam Weaver and Aaron Brockett followed Boulder police finding a cyclist at fault for a crash earlier this month in which the woman became trapped under an SUV at the intersection of Arapahoe Avenue and 38th Street, just north of University of Colorado’s East Campus. Police declined to cite the cyclist.

Police when announcing their finding of the cyclist’s fault in the crash explained bicycles are not allowed to be ridden on the sidewalk in areas designated as a business district because of reduced sight lines for drivers, and also provided a map that caught Weaver’s attention. Weaver frequently cycles, and he said he had never seen the map before.

Boulder transportation officials will be on hand at Tuesday’s city council meeting to provide answers to questions raised by the councilmen, City Manager Jane Brautigam said.

“As long as I have been cycling in Boulder, and as long as I have been on council, the rules for biking on sidewalks have always been expressed to me as ‘biking on sidewalks is allowed everywhere in Boulder except the downtown business district,’” Weaver said. “In this downtown district, I encounter ‘dismount’ instructions on the sidewalks approaching the central business district, so the rules are clear.”

Weaver said he has not noticed any signage asking cyclists to dismount while riding on the north and south sides of Arapahoe between Folsom and 38th streets since the crash.

Cycling is allowed on the multi-use path on the north side of Arapahoe in the area, and all multi-use paths in the city, according to the map.

“I do see that the multi-use paths are called out on this map, but am very puzzled about the sidewalk designations,” Weaver said. “The discontinuities in the legal cycling sidewalk designations on the south side of Arapahoe are seriously confusing, and signage there is totally absent.”

While University of Colorado-Boulder East Campus employees who bike to work have implored city officials to install a green arrow for vehicles making left turns at all four points of the intersection, Boulder has so far declined to do so, citing crashes involving left turns there as rare over the last 10 years, and short of the criteria for restricting the cross-traffic maneuver.

The city in coming weeks will, however, install a sign in the southeast portion of the intersection that will illuminate when pedestrians hit the crosswalk button to go north across Arapahoe in the east crosswalk. The city hopes it will provide a harder-to-miss notification than the current static sign posted on the signal mast instructing motorists to yield to crosswalk users when the left turn light is blinking yellow.

“The biggest offenders are the ones that are driving south and turning east onto Arapahoe,” said Marwan Shaher, an IT manager who works at East Campus. “Most of us that work here, we refuse to cross on that side of the street. There have been too many close calls.”

Boulder chooses intersections to boost restrictions on left turns based on a criteria of three or more crashes in three years that could have been prevented by a higher level of protection. That threshold is more vigilant than a common national standard of four or more such crashes in a year or six in two years, city Transportation Engineer Joe Paulson said.

The city has used crash data from 2015 through 2017 in analyzing which intersections to apply stronger limits on left turns.

“In 2017, as part of the signal reconstruction (at Arapahoe and 38th), we converted all of the left turn displays to the flashing yellow display,” Paulson said. “A lot of national data has shown, and what our own local experience has seemed to echo, switching from the circular green to flashing yellow arrow reduces left turn crashes.”

That isn’t the only traffic signal in Boulder that has been reconfigured based on recent left-turn crashes.

“We’ve decided to be much more progressive about moving into more restrictive forms of control,” Paulson said. “… The way we implement that now is if frequency isn’t focused on time of day, the first action we might do is go to yellow arrows. If we don’t already have flashing yellow arrows, that’s the first thing we do.”

Within the last several weeks, Paulson said, at Pearl and Foothills parkways, at both the east and west ramps for turning onto Foothills, the city upgraded the signal from a “protected-permitted,” in which a green arrow gives motorists the absolute right of way before going back to a flashing yellow or circular green during which drivers must yield to oncoming traffic and pedestrians, to a “protected only,” in which vehicles can only turn during the green arrow.

The left turn signal for southbound 28th Street drivers attempting to head eastbound on Jay Road has also been boosted from “protected-permitted” to “protected only” for the midday and evening traffic peak periods, and from “permitted only,” in which a motorist has the right to turn as long as there are no oncoming vehicles or crosswalk traffic, to a “protected-permitted” for the morning.

And for motorists heading southbound on Broadway trying to turn east onto Table Mesa Drive, the city for the morning, midday and evening hours moved from “protected-permitted” to the most restrictive “protected only.”

“Ninth and Canyon (Boulevard) is one of those we did that we activated the green arrows (for all four intersection points),” Paulson said. ” It didn’t meet crash thresholds there, but our observations during peak operation led us to not wait. … There will be a lot more of this to come. More locations where we’ll be going to more restrictive left turn operations.”

City spokeswoman Meghan Wilson noted Boulder takes into account the tradeoffs that could occur with tougher left turn traffic signal restrictions, with the goal of not creating safety concerns elsewhere on the city’s transportation network.

“We still want to go through a viable approach so we’re not inadvertently frustrating drivers in a way that doesn’t make sense,” Wilson said.