The five-member Transportation Advisory Board is calling on City of Boulder officials to reconsider their plan to reopen West Pearl Street to cars.
Board members said during a meeting on Monday, Sept. 12 that allowing cars back on the two-block stretch just west of the Pearl Street Mall contradicts the city’s goals of making streets safer and more accessible for people who don’t drive cars, including pedestrians and cyclists.
“It would be a huge step backwards,” Alex Weinheimer, board chair and transportation planner with the Texas-based firm Traffic Engineers, Inc., said. “I know that doing it right from an infrastructure perspective is going to take time and money. But we should use this time to experiment and learn how to make that permanent closure a success.”
Members of the Transportation Advisory Board, which advises the Boulder City Council on transportation policies, said they plan to send an official letter opposing the full reopening to the Boulder City Council, which will discuss the reopening on Thursday.
The city closed Pearl Street between 9th and 10th Streets in May 2020, through an emergency measure to allow restaurants to serve food outdoors during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the emergency measures lifted, city officials told Boulder Reporting Lab last week it is planning to reopen the street to vehicles as soon as this month.
News of the reopening prompted concerns from residents and transportation board members who view West Pearl as a critical opportunity to rethink streetscapes historically designed for automobiles. The city has received hundreds of emails from residents urging it to keep the street closed, according to city officials.
All members of the board spoke out against the complete reopening.
“To revert it completely back to what it was before is giving up unnecessary ground,” said board member Tila Duhaime, who used to work for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit New York-based organization advocating for cycling and pedestrian safety.
Some members suggested the city only reopen 10th Street to cars, keeping Pearl Street closed, to allow more accessible parking. They also said the city could put up temporary barriers to allow emergency vehicles in and out. They suggested there could also be scheduled delivery times during off-peak hours.
Rethinking ‘auto dominance’
City staff presented their plan to the Transportation Advisory Board to reopen West Pearl by Sept. 30. In making the city’s case, Cris Jones, the interim director for the Community Vitality Department, presented sales tax revenue data showing businesses on the West End lagging behind businesses in other areas of the city. He showed pictures of vacant storefronts, an unused bus stop, and ice building up on the sidewalk last winter. (The city has said it cannot plow the street due to the barriers closing it off.)
The city’s memo on its reopening plan quoted a policy statement by the Downtown Boulder Partnership, an organization advocating on behalf of downtown businesses and supporting the street reopening, that said “the criteria for success of repurposing any street in the public right-of-way within a commercial district, needs to be measured by the revenue of the impacted businesses. As obvious as that assertion might be, it cannot be overstated.”
Members of the Transportation Advisory Board disagreed.
“The number one criteria is safety,” said board member Rebecca Davies, the city ratings program director at the Boulder-based nonprofit cycling advocacy group PeopleForBikes. “It’s people staying alive on our streets and it’s people not getting hurt. And it’s equity between people traveling in different ways.”
All the board members are advocates for “multimodal transportation” — cycling, walking, taking the bus. And in December 2021, they penned a letter to the Boulder City Council that argued the Covid-19 pandemic has created an opportunity to reduce “auto dominance” by “creating a wildly popular and formerly unthinkable conversion of autocentric downtown blocks to new ‘streatery’ civic centers.” The board also spearheaded a new policy to redesign the city’s busiest streets, where a disproportionate number of traffic accidents happen, to make them safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, they were skeptical of the plan to bring cars back to West Pearl. They argued the city does not have sufficient data to show that the relatively slow rebound from the pandemic-induced recession among West End businesses was caused by the street closure. They also took issue with the city’s equity argument that the “West End closure has created an inconsistent playing field for different business types.”
Businesses built for fast-casual dining have struggled more than those designed for sit-down dining, the city memo states.
“It cannot just be about business equity,” Davies said. “It’s about equitable access for different [transportation] modes. And we know that that’s not the case. Our city was not built for equitable access for different modes. No city in the U.S. really was.”
Jones acknowledged the plan to allow cars back on West Pearl Street is an “unpopular decision.” But he said the city wants to lift the closure in order to begin studying a potential street redesign through a more “intentional, comprehensive process and conversation.”
As an initial step, city staff are seeking feedback from the board about whether to study repurposing more city streets — including West Pearl — to allow for more transportation options. The study could be used to come up with a plan in 2023.
Such a plan already exists, board members said. They pointed to the city’s 2019 Transportation Master Plan, which calls for a “safe, accessible and sustainable multimodal transportation system.”
“We have everything we need to justify street closures like this,” Duhaime said. “I’m just hoping now that we … keep the good parts of what we’ve done instead of going back to the drawing board.”
At the end of the hour-plus conversation, several board members were still left with questions.
“It’s something that we are already seeing that people love,” said board member and cyclist Triny Willerton, who was almost killed in May 2018 when she was struck by a driver while training on Nelson Road. She has since founded the cycling safety advocacy group, It Could Be Me.
“To go back,” she said, “just doesn’t make any sense.”
Ryan Schuchard, a board member and founder of More Mobility, an organization promoting multimodal transportation, said city officials should get feedback from the Boulder City Council before making the decisions to bring back cars to the street.
“It’s a transportation issue of major interest to community members far beyond the downtown core businesses,” Schuchard said.
According to a city staff memo, city officials are seeking feedback on a future study and taking questions about the reopening. The memo does not indicate city staff is seeking feedback on the planned reopening.
Construction crews were on West Pearl this week fixing a sidewalk and seemingly preparing the street for returning vehicles.