In September, Walk2Connect, Boulder Walks and GO Boulder collaborated to conduct two walk audits of the Folsom Street Living Lab, where the city has narrowed auto traffic lanes to enhance travel safety for bicyclists and pedestrians ("right-sizing"). While the changes produced much controversy that ultimately led to a partial rollback of the experimental lanes, particularly because of the impacts on drivers, the organizations involved wanted to understand how right-sizing traffic lanes has affected the pedestrian environment, as well. How does it actually feel to walk from Canyon Boulevard to Valmont Road along Folsom Street?
During the first walk audit, on September 4, eight participants assessed six basic aspects of Folsom Street's walkability: sidewalks, street crossings, driver behavior, safety, comfort and appeal, and pedestrian behavior. The second walk audit, on September 22, asked participants to "Walk a Mile in Another's Shoes" by adopting different physical challenges, from walking with limited sight to carrying heavy bags of groceries and pushing a stroller. I documented what we discovered along the way as a participant, photographing the groups as we walked.
Read on to discover what the first two walk audits revealed about the importance of sidewalks and street crossings, how pedestrians' sense of safety and comfort vary along the corridor, and what practicing empathy for people with special needs teaches us about the streetscape.
Planners and urban designers can specify different types of buffers to help protect pedestrians from vehicle traffic. Buffers are built or natural features, and their placement provides an important physical and psychological sense of safety. The walk audit participants felt most comfortable walking on the sidewalks along the east side of Folsom Street and along Canyon Boulevard where buffers are built into wide pavements or provided between the sidewalk and the bike lane.
On most of Folsom Street, we enjoyed wide sidewalks where two people could walk side-by-side and have a conversation, as illustrated in the photos above. In some places, however, the sidewalk narrows around built or natural obstacles, such as the tree below.
And in one block on the west side of the street, the sidewalk disappears altogether in front of a small shopping center, forcing pedestrians to walk through a parking lot.
The changes made to the street design through right-sizing did not particularly affect our pedestrian experience where the sidewalks are already wide and well-buffered, but where they are narrow, the addition of the widened bike lane provided a clear benefit by allowing us to step out onto the street without worrying about getting to close to cars, as illustrated below. The bike lane in effect became the buffer.
For those trying out a physical limitation in the second walk audit, the significance of wide, well-buffered sidewalks became even more clear. Below, Sarah is walking with a visual impairment (wearing glasses that simulate 85% loss of vision) and Morgan is helping her, but has limitations of her own with the stroller and the encroaching weeds.
Sidewalks can be considered an essential democratizing element: where they are smooth, wide, even and protected, people of all abilities can use them comfortably.
Sensible street crossings
Several pedestrian crossings along Folsom have been improved with flashing signal lights and signage. The "Heads Up Boulder" campaign has helped both pedestrians and drivers pay more attention in major crossings, but it can still be difficult to get across the street when bicyclists don't heed the signal, even if drivers stop. Here, we were just about to cross as several bicyclists whizzed past.
In other parts of the corridor, the sheer size of the street and the location of crosswalks, turn lanes and signals make it challenging for pedestrians to negotiate. At the busy, wide intersection of Folsom and Valmont, for example, we had to walk past the curb cut to get to the walk signal button and come back again while waiting for the light to change.
Dancing with drivers
From a pedestrian point of view, the buffer created by the widened bike lanes and decreased auto traffic lanes (right-sizing) enhanced our experience. At the intersection of Spruce and Folsom, however, added crosswalks and changes to the traffic flow have created some confusion for bicyclists and drivers. Although pedestrians are well protected from the street, they have to take extra care to coordinate crossing movements with approaching drivers and bicyclists here.
Problems also arise when traffic backs up behind buses stopping on cross streets, and cars stop in the crosswalk.
How would it feel to walk along Folsom Street at night? We discovered a few forbidding areas, particularly on the west side of the street between Valmont Road and Mapleton Avenue, where ultra-wide intersections and high fences create blocks that can feel inhospitable to walkers. Lack of light on the sidewalks here and dense trees behind the fences gave us the sense that it would be dark and unwelcoming at night.
Creating a sense of comfort
Safety and pedestrian comfort can both be created by similar elements: human-scaled built features (i.e., storefronts, not tall, blank walls), well-maintained natural features, and sittable spaces. Along Folsom, particularly on the east side between Arapahoe Avenue and Canyon Boulevard, pedestrian comfort comes in the form of attractive plantings, natural buffers, and plenty of shady street trees.
One feature Folsom lacks is places to sit down and rest. We found only one public bench, and that was at a bus stop on the west side.
Along this fast-moving corridor, pedestrians don't have many easy opportunities to take refuge from weather or traffic. Though it doesn't offer much in the way of places to sit down, Folsom Street does feature public art from The Big Picture project on the west side of the street, between Walnut and South, which makes the walk more interesting.
Streets for everyone
For most people, getting across the street in the time allotted by a walk signal isn't difficult. But for elderly people and those with mobility impairments, crossing a wide, busy intersection can be terrifying. In our second walk audit, we had participants experience walking with difficulty by wearing an ankle band that forced them to hobble.
Participants also tried walking while wearing glasses that simulated an 85% vision loss, carrying heavy grocery bags, wearing earplugs to simulate hearing loss, and pushing a large jogging stroller with a toddler in it (not all at once). Reflecting on their experiences, participants said any loss of sensory input drastically changes one's experience of the street, and limited mobility makes the corridor much more challenging and disorienting. The "Walk a Mile in Another's Shoes" walk audit was designed as an exercise in empathy, not an attempt to actually mimic what people living with disabilities experience. For those who live with sight and mobility impairments every day, additional or different challenges may come up along Folsom.
Walking the Folsom Street corridor gave us a sense of how already in-place features such as wide sidewalks buffered from the street by built or natural elements and improved crosswalks make it manageable for pedestrians. But the varied quality and availability of those features along the corridor and the lack of places to sit and rest make it less appealing from a pedestrian point of view.
The third and final walk audit on October 10 offers the chance for Boulderites to tell their own stories of Folsom and capture what walking in central Boulder is like for them. Join me and other passionate pedestrians for this 2-hour "walk and talk" by signing up here and tell the city what works for walkers!