The City of Trees is more like the City of Cranes, with the construction of a new transit center, convention center, several condominium/apartment complexes and three new hotels—all in or near downtown. While there has been plenty of conversation regarding the rapidly transforming face of Boise, the equally dramatic change of how people will soon be moving around the downtown area has been garnering far less dialogue. That's about to change.
"Right now, we have about 33,000 people working downtown and about 4,000-5,000 who live downtown," said Daren Fluke, comprehensive planning manager for the city of Boise. "In 20 years, we expect 55,000 people working downtown and about 20,000 people living downtown."
That in turn, said Fluke, will put added pressure on parking.
"We've got about 17,000 parking places in the downtown core but only about 5,000 are public places on the street and in garages," he added. "We fully expect many of the private parking spaces to gradually go away as those parking lots become more valuable real estate."
Do the math: more people and fewer places to park usually triggers an increased need for alternative transportation.
Earlier this month, Boise Weekly reported a steering committee's preferred route for a possible downtown circulator—a T-shaped loop running east/west on Main and Idaho streets and north/south on Capitol and Ninth streets. Bundle all that with the city's long-held hope that more employees and visitors will make their way around downtown via bus or bicycle. However, getting people to use alternatives to their automobiles is dependent on safety and ease.
"For the past 100 years, we've really designed our road systems to accommodate one mode of transportation: driving. But when it gets too difficult to drive around, people will do three things. No. 1, they'll start looking for another route; No. 2, they may change the hours of when they drive downtown, or No. 3, they'll go for another mode of transportation, if it's available," said Fluke. "But to be a real choice, that option needs to be as safe, convenient, affordable and as available as driving is today."
This knowledge is why the city of Boise and the Capital City Development Corporation are so anxious to get people talking about Main and Idaho streets, the transportation lifelines to Boise's downtown core. While Front and Myrtle streets have become high-speed thoroughfares, traveled by thousands of motorists each day, city officials say Main and Idaho are more of Boise's fabric, used by people moving around downtown instead of serving as corridors into and away from the city.
"There's not any more real estate, yet this city is growing," said Mike Journee, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. "Quite simply, we need more options, not just for six months or a year from now, but for the next 20 years. Downtown is already a hive of activity. If we don't have options, think of how much worse things can be."
That's why the city and the CCDC are advocating for the introduction of "parking-protected" bike lanes on Main and Idaho in order to "improve the downtown environment." The concept would move on-street parking on Main and Idaho streets away from the curb and create a new bike lane between parked cars and the sidewalk (see illustration above). As a result, one vehicle lane each would be eliminated from Main and Idaho.
"In our estimation, it would cost us about 35 on-street parking places," said Karen Gallagher, a comprehensive planner for the city of Boise. "But the alternatives would be a bit more severe. For example, if the Ada County Highway District would move forward with its plans to push the bike lanes over to Jefferson Street when it changes that street from one-way to two-way this summer, it would result in the loss of 105 on-street parking spots."
While city officials told Boise Weekly they support the Jefferson conversion from one- to two-way, they've asked ACHD to hold off painting bike lanes on Jefferson until the Main and Idaho question is resolved.
"Another option would have been to simply eliminate all on-street parking on Main and Idaho streets and replace them with bike lanes, but that would cost us 240 parking spaces," said Fluke. "That's absolutely a non-starter with the city. Nobody at the city supports the elimination of that many parking spaces."
Fluke and Gallagher said there are several benefits to installing parking-protected bike lanes on Main and Idaho, including improvement to property values and access to downtown businesses, but the best argument would be safer sidewalks.
"You may remember the trial period when ACHD temporarily introduced bike lanes to Main and Idaho," said Gallagher, referring to the two-month test in spring 2014 when a lane of traffic between Broadway and 16th streets was replaced with a bike lane. "The most important thing we learned was that taking a lane of traffic away didn't result in any appreciable delay to downtown traffic. People got used to it. But equally important, was that it relieved congestion on the sidewalks by putting bikes into those protected lanes."
Gallagher said studies indicated a 97 percent increase in the total number of bikes using the bike lane system during the trial period and a 22 percent decrease of bicyclists riding on sidewalks.
"Better sidewalks is our No. 1 objective," she said, adding that protected bike lanes reduce injury rates for pedestrians. "It increases walk-friendliness downtown."
The ACHD will continue to take public comment on the Main and Idaho alternatives at www.achdidaho.org until Wednesday, March 30, and highway district commissioners are expected to make a final decision by the end of April on which option they'll endorse.
"But we're not being shy about which options the city endorses: the parking-protected bike lanes," said Fluke. "We think it's the right thing to do. That's why we're pounding the pavement and talking to anybody and everybody we can. A lot is at stake here."