Moving cars from A to B isn’t good enough.
The city of Boise wants its transportation system to give people easy, affordable connections for bikes, pedestrians, cars and public transportation to reach destinations all across the city. And it wants those travel corridors to be pleasant, with safe bus stops, shade for bike paths, etc.
That way, people can use any of the four travel modes when they want to. That doesn’t exist everywhere in the city.
“A choice isn’t a real choice if it’s unavailable, unaffordable, unsafe or inconvenient,” said Darren Fluke, Boise’s comprehensive planning manager.
These are the goals detailed in a new city document called the Transportation Action Plan, which outlines the city’s philosophy on the best ways to move people from place to place.
The Transportation Action Plan is a document outlining the city of Boise’s philosophy on how roads, bike lanes, pathways and other transportation infrastructure can help Boise become a better place to live by giving people a full range of transportation choices that offer safe, convenient, pleasant connections to the places they want to be.
The plan’s broader goal is making Boise a healthier and more prosperous place to live. It won’t be an easy transformation. On a physical level, it would take years, maybe decades to see through.
The bigger challenge, though, is getting people on board. Like most cities in the American West, Boise was built around the motor vehicle. Much of the public assumes roads are made for cars, and that all the other ways of travel need to work around them. The thought of taking away car lanes or parking spaces to make room for bicyclists is abhorrent to people who think traffic is already bad enough.
Then there’s Ada County Highway District, which controls public roads throughout the county. The city and highway district have butted heads over the years. You might ask why the city is putting effort and money into a document when it has no authority over most of its streets. The answer, city spokesman Mike Journee said, is that the district’s leaders wanted a better idea of what, exactly, Boise wants its streets to look like and accomplish.
Weirdly, the traditional and inevitable resistance to change is part of why Boise leaders want to rethink the transportation system. As the city grows, they argue, traffic will get worse and worse if people keep relying almost exclusively on cars to get around.
We’re really trying to create people places, more than just car spaces.
Darren Fluke, Boise comprehensive planning manager, on the philosophy behind the Transportation Action Plan
The transportation network needs to encourage people to ditch their vehicles in favor of walking, biking or riding mass transit, city leaders say. Besides health and livability, that’s a cheaper long-term strategy than building more and more car lanes, which are far more expensive to install and maintain. Besides, Boise transportation experts point out, a true multimodal system would be easier to install now than to retrofit our streets after they’re already choked with cars.
To accomplish this, the Transportation Action Plan proposes a framework for prioritizing street improvement projects. The city would score projects by analyzing how well each one meets the city’s transportation vision and its cost-effectiveness.
4th National rank for Boise’s percentage of people who commute by bike
“We’re not necessarily saying that every road needs a bike lane,” said Fluke, who’s helping write the Transportation Action Plan. “Just think of it as sort of an arterial system for bikes within the city. Everybody ought to live within a couple miles of a facility that gets them safely and conveniently to where they want to go.”
Nic Miller’s job is to sell Boise.
As Mayor David Bieter’s economic development director, Miller meets with companies interested in putting down roots in Boise. likes to highlight Boise’s many assets: the Foothills, Greenbelt, Downtown, accessibility of local government, low crime rate, etc.
One of the weak points in his sales pitch is Boise’s public transportation system. So far, the city and its neighbors haven’t put together a very impressive way to move large number of non-drivers from place to place. That’s a problem for some companies.
“More and more, as people evaluate us, it’s not just cost structure and talent pool. It’s one: ‘Do you have the type of lifestyle that’s conducive to the company brand that we have?’ and two: ‘Is it the right type of city that we can recruit to?’
Miller worries Boise’s lack of a good transit system is costing the city jobs.
“We’re competing with San Francisco. We’re competing with Austin and Chattanooga and cities across the country and, really, across the globe,” he said. “So if there’s a matrix and they look at it and public transportation is one of those and we’re marked off the list before we even get a shot to tell the company what a great opportunity Boise presents for them, that’s a loss for us.”
Miller said the Transportation Action Plan is a good start. He thinks the city’s transportation experts are laying necessary groundwork for a long-term transformation of Boise’s travel system. And it gives him something to tell potential new residents about the city’s philosophy on transportation.
“It’s an answer,” he said. “I wish I had a much better answer to say, ‘Well, if you go down the street, we’re breaking ground on more bike lanes or a commuter rail or whatever it is. But having a plan is better than not having a plan.”
Several themes emerged from conversations with city of Boise leaders that illustrate City Hall’s consensus philosophy on transportation. Here are six key themes.
1-Destinations: Better access to special places make Boise a better place to live.
The Foothills. Ann Morrison and Julia Davis parks. Downtown. The Boise River. Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve (above). These are just a few of the places Boiseans like to be. The connections between them aren’t always convenient or conducive to a variety of vehicles. Nic Miller, Boise’s economic development director, said improving those connections will improve what his boss, Mayor David Bieter, consistently says is his overarching goal in office: to make Boise the most livable city in the country.
Boise’s transportation experts envision a long-term shift that puts all of Boise within walking or biking distance of activity centers, such as stores, or transit stops.
2-Growth: Boise is going to keep getting bigger.
Millennials and baby boomers will be the two biggest players in the Treasure Valley’s demographics shift. A lot of new jobs will go to millennials — people born between the 1980s and 2000. Retiring baby boomers are likely to account for the biggest slice of population growth.
Both generations have demonstrated a strong affinity for the same type of living space: dense communities within walking distance of a variety of destinations — jobs, recreation, eschools — and public transportation access. Today, Boise just doesn’t have enough of that product to meet a sustained demand.
“To meet these challenges, Boise must re-prioritize the mobility options that future residents will want and need, modernize its transportation system and expand the range of transportation options,” the plan reads.
3-Connections: Sometimes, the connection is a destination, too.
The Boise River Greenbelt, which snakes its way along the river from Lucky Peak Reservoir to Eagle is a top-notch east-west transportation corridor for commuters on foot and bicycle. It’s safe (relatively few conflicts with motor vehicles) and efficient (connections to most of Ada County’s population centers).
It’s also a destination for cyclists, runners and pedestrians — a pleasant bubble of nature in Idaho’s densest urban area. The city can’t replicate the Greenbelt in all the places it wants non-car transportation connections, but the plan shows clearly that Boise leaders want bike lanes, walkways, transit stops and other non-car corridors to serve two masters. They should be safer, more pleasant and offer easy access to interesting activities and sights. This is a way of offering real choices.
4-Bikes: Better choices will increase non-car traffic.
Besides being healthier, traveling by bike, foot or public transportation decreases car congestion. The people writing Boise’s plan believe better choices for non-car mobility will take cars off the road.
A large-scale transformation might take decades to realize. Drivers won’t like giving up lanes or parking spaces for protected bike lanes.
Nevertheless, Boise’s transportation team believes the city is primed to adopt a multi-mode system. Between 2008 and 2012, among cities with a population of 200,000 or greater, Boise ranked 4th in the nation for percentage of commuters who travel by bike, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Of course, car commuters still account for the vast majority of commuters, but Boise’s transportation experts believe better non-car travel options will cause that number to fall.
5-Cars: Focusing exclusively on vehicles is unhealthy.
Health is the most important component of a good life. The plan’s architects think Boise’s transportation system has a big role to play in this area.
“Streets that do not offer real mobility choices impair public health,” the document reads. “Residents of low-density, car-oriented communities similar to Boise’s suburbs have higher rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, asthma and other chronic medical conditions than residents in compact, walkable communities.”
Seniors in low-density neighborhoods probably don’t live within walking distance of parks, grocery stores or any kind of gathering place. If they don’t drive, they can become cut off from the world. That may be why baby boomers are flocking to urban areas. They sacrifice backyards for short walks to street-side cafes, museums and other shared spaces that facilitate social interaction.
6-Roads: Wider lanes won’t get rid of car traffic.
You have car congestion along a major road. What’s the best way to relieve it? Build another lane or two, right?
In the short term, yes, that will help. But long-term, Boise’s transportation experts believe making roads wider will simply encourage more people to drive, just as adding more bike lanes and better public transportation options will reduce car trips. If you build it, they will drive.
And at what cost? Roads cost more than $1 million per lane-mile to build. That’s more than twice as much as a protected urban bike lane.
Besides, many Boise roads, especially Downtown, can’t get much bigger.