One More Time Around

Tired of traveling in circles, Boulder residents head straight for the voters.

The driver of a black Ford Bronco heads west toward a traffic circle on 15th and Pine Streets in Boulder. Visibly confused, he fails to slow down to the suggested fifteen-mile-per-hour speed limit, swings around the circle, which has replaced what would be a four-way stop, and heads back east. Two blocks later, he comes upon another traffic circle and jerks his Bronco to the right, opting to take another road instead.

Warren Hultquist, who lives in Whittier, an upscale neighborhood in central Boulder, witnesses the commotion caused by traffic circles and other "traffic-calming devices" every day. The city installed them five years ago to deter speeders, but the people who live around the intersections where these devices are used in lieu of stop signs say they have to listen to constant shouting, honking and tire-screeching as drivers try to figure them out.

Then there are the speed humps (not to be confused with speed bumps, the much smaller protrusions found in parking lots) -- like the one in front of Hultquist's house on Mapleton Avenue. "Every time a utility vehicle goes over it, all the equipment in the truck rattles," he says. "It sounds like gunshots."

Back where he started: David Wagner resigned from the Boulder transportation board over traffic circles.
Jonathan Castner
Back where he started: David Wagner resigned from the Boulder transportation board over traffic circles.

Even worse, the hump has been the culprit in at least three auto accidents. When one woman drove an early-model Subaru wagon over it, the spare tire mounted beneath her car popped off, thrusting the back end of her wagon into air. When her rear tires slammed back onto the ground, the rear window shattered. Another time, a man lost the trailer he was towing when he hit the hump; the chains securing the hitch broke, and the trailer skidded down the street. And on a wintry day, a cautious driver pumped his brakes on the icy road just before approaching the hump, but when he hit it, he lost control, and his car smacked into a truck parked in front of Hultquist's home.

Hultquist and many of his neighbors have been trying to rid the streets of the pesky circles and humps for five years, and now they've found a new reason: Their streets, they say, have become obstacle courses for emergency vehicles. Whittier residents claim that the few-second delay these devices cause can mean the difference between life and death for a heart-attack victim waiting for an ambulance. "We don't claim speeding cars aren't dangerous, but most pedestrian/auto altercations happen on major arterials, not on neighborhood streets," he says. "A delay from an emergency vehicle is far more risky than speeding -- they're harming us more than they're helping us."

After making its case at hundreds of city council meetings -- without any luck -- the group has decided to take matters into its own hands: It has drafted a ballot initiative that would eliminate the impediments.

In November, voters will decide the fate of Boulder's five raised intersections, 26 speed humps and 28 raised pedestrian crossings, as well as five of its nine traffic circles (the ones that are under fifty feet in diameter). Known as the Seconds Count initiative, the ballot measure would also prevent any further humps and circles from being built.

"Our only recourse was to take it to the voters," says Hultquist, who wrote the initiative. Last summer, he and other residents collected the signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot. The plan was to put it on the 1999 ballot, but because of the way the initiative was worded, it could have been interpreted to mean that any hindrance to fire trucks, police cars and ambulances -- including the Pearl Street Mall and all traffic lights and stop signs -- would have to be removed. So the group rewrote it and has convinced 5,000 voters to sign its petition.

But Boulder Mayor Will Toor isn't convinced that the Seconds Count committee is genuinely concerned about safety. "They're selling themselves around claims of emergency response, but their initiative clearly has nothing to do with that," he says. "The Seconds Count initiative goes far beyond the emergency-response issue. It would require almost all circles, humps and raised crossings in Boulder to be removed, many of which are in places where there have been no complaints. I think what it really goes back to is a desire on the part of certain people to speed on neighborhood streets."

If the initiative passes, taxpayers will have to pay $690,000 to have the devices removed, Toor adds. "It's hard for me to understand how people would become concerned enough about this issue to write a ballot initiative."

"It's not that Seconds Count is a one-issue group," counters Hultquist. "Emergency response is our principal concern, but, yes, it's frustrating and stressful to always have to play 'let's make a deal' every time we drive or bike through these things. We have a whole host of reasons why the devices are bad. For instance, people with disabilities experience discomfort when buses go over these devices."

Hultquist and his fellow committee members are upset not only about the presence of the humps and circles, but about what they say is councilmembers' blatant disregard for the opinions of their own staff.

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