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."
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.
In March 1999, when the Boulder City Council was reviewing its Neighborhood Traffic Mitigation Program (NTMP), the 1995 plan that created the traffic circles and speed humps in 42 neighborhoods, the city's transportation, fire and police departments all recommended against installing any more humps or circles on roads that they deemed critical emergency-response routes. The council decided to consider future traffic devices on a case-by-case basis.
"We can only give city council so much information; they are the policy-makers," says Boulder Deputy Fire Chief Steve Stolz. "But we're into this five years now, and I'm hoping for some mitigation device that will slow traffic and not have a negative impact on our response time."
Stolz knows of no instances in which delays from a traffic circle or speed hump caused someone's death. But he says it could happen. "When there's a traffic mitigation device on every other block, it can change the quality of life for someone who's having a heart attack. If we can get there in four minutes or less, someone [suffering from cardiac arrest] can have a normal life; after four minutes, your quality of life deteriorates because you're getting less oxygen to the brain."
David Wagner, a two-year member of the city's Transportation Advisory Board, resigned earlier this month in frustration over the way the city has handled the issue. "It's the religion of fighting the car," he says. "The city will do anything it can to make it harder for cars to get around." Wagner says that during the March 1999 review of the NTMP, the council "behaved as though they'd never seen this issue before, asking questions that long ago had been put to rest. This issue had already dragged on through three city councils. Things went far afield, and council began nibbling away [at the recommendation] piece by piece. By the time they were done, the staff recommendation was unrecognizable. They came up with all sorts of new ideas -- they even suggested parking a fake police car on streets to slow down drivers."
That idea didn't fly, but others did. Instead of scaling back on the number of traffic-calming devices, the city council decided to experiment with new kinds of circles -- smaller ones that would be easier for fire trucks to drive around, and "slotted circles" through which emergency vehicles could pass.
In addition, the council has decided to poll residents this summer about whether they want the four experimental traffic circles to stay; they'll also poll residents anytime they want to add a device.
Wagner and Hultquist aren't satisfied with this, however, because the city plans to poll only those people living within 400 feet of the circles and humps. "There's no doubt that there are people who want these devices, but the city council is not willing to assess whether a majority of people want them," Hultquist says. "Four hundred feet is about a city block in Boulder. If you figure there are six houses per block, that's less than fifty people who can dictate what happens to people living downstream, so to speak."
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Traffic devices such as those in Boulder haven't gone over well in other nearby cities, either. After the city of Golden voted to install four traffic circles on South Golden Road in December, merchants along the commercial strip complained, and fire department officials said the circles would decrease emergency response times.
In Nederland, skiers and hikers passing through the little town often have near-collisions as a result of confusion about who goes when. Drivers in Vail seem to have had better luck maneuvering the circles off I-70, however.
The reaction at the former Lowry Air Force Base -- the only place in Denver that currently has such devices -- has been mostly positive, says Lowry Redevelopment Authority spokeswoman Hilarie Portell. But Lowry, which now houses several businesses and schools and will eventually have more than 3,200 new homes, has roundabouts rather than traffic circles. The difference, Portell explains, is that roundabouts are much larger -- the four at Lowry are 184 feet wide, compared to the 25-foot-wide circles in Boulder -- and are designed not simply to slow traffic, but to keep it flowing, like the ones in European cities (think of the enormous road circling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris).
"People here aren't accustomed to roundabouts, and learning how to drive through them is important. When I do get complaints, I ask if they yielded to traffic in the circle, and most often, people answer no," Portell says. "People just have to read the signs."