Lehigh Street in Boulder, Colo., is an important roadway for vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles as it connects to two elementary schools as well as residential areas. Therefore, when Lehigh Street became due for repaving the city and Boulder Valley School District teamed up to see what other improvements could be made to help students, parents and the community as a whole using the Safe Routes to School grant, which focuses on giving schools options to get students safely to school.
Teaming up with the school district was integral to the project. The city had monthly meetings with the school district to identify transportation needs. Landon Hilliard, Boulder Valley School District Safe Routes program coordinator, commented, “Staff of the Boulder Valley School District and city of Boulder maintain two-way communications for exchanging ideas and generating joint initiatives for student transportation. As part of ongoing discussions, together we identified the need for path and crossing improvements on Lehigh Street related to students of Mesa Elementary School.”
According to Melanie Sloan, Boulder, Colo., transportation and mobility principal project manager, the Boulder Valley School District is “innovative with transportation measures.” The schools count how many bikes are at the rack each month and give students surveys asking how they get to school. It discovered that over 300 students bike and approximately 26% walk, take a scooter, etc.
“We think that so-called active transportation is important,” Hilliard emphasized. “Because of its positive effects to build community, curb emissions and promote health.”
Following the completion of the city’s transportation master plan, a low-stress bike network plan was made. The level of stress while biking or walking city roadways was surveyed and suggestions made. Lehigh Street was confirmed as needing attention.
As the city began plans for repaving Lehigh Street, the traffic operation group also looked at speeds, travel times and lines on the road. Good improvement ideas were discussed and a tally of issues taken to prepare for application for funding from the Safe Routes to School grant. One idea was for a multiuse path through the park, which was previously a dirt path and unsuitable for walking in all seasons. It received various letters of support for grant funding.
The Safe Routes to School grant, titled Mesa Elementary Walking and Biking Safety Improvements, was applied for in November 2018. However, the grant got put on hold for a couple years due to COVID-19, stated Sloan. The city asked for $500,000 for the grant and received slightly less than requested a year later. However, they could use city funds for the restriping and paving changes. Engineering plans were completed and construction began in 2021 and finished in spring 2022.
The goal of this Safe Routes to School project was to make the route to school and along Lehigh Street “more comfortable, more accessible and safer to give people space, protection and lower speeds,” stated Sloan.
“We all agree that the safety and well-being of children is paramount,” Hilliard observed. “With this understanding, city and school district staff were motivated to go to work together with a simple goal of improving conditions for walking and bicycling to school.”
Thankfully, the road was not considered dangerous, and there was no history of crashes; it was primarily about increasing comfort and accessibility.
Hilliard commented, “This effort dovetails with the Vision Zero initiative taken up by the city in 2014 to outfit streets for the safety of all, particularly ‘vulnerable users’ such as youth.” Along the street, there are trails, trailheads, parks, schools and more, which made the project’s improvements better for the community as a whole.
The roadway was repaved and restriped, and a center turn lane was removed, allowing more distance and protection between vehicles and the bicycles in the bicycle lane. The speed limit on the road was also reduced. Pedestrian crossing improvements were put in at four intersections, including medians acting as pedestrian refuge islands. A multiuse path was constructed in Bear Creek Park to connect Lehigh Street and elementary schools.
Hilliard stressed, “From start to finish, the city of Boulder transportation and communications staff provided clear forecasts and timelines with follow-up messages to the school community that kept parents informed and ready for the typical disruptions that occur during a street construction and repaving project.”
After the completion of the project, the city and school district combined a celebration of the Safe Routes to School project completion with bicycle education and the school district’s Walk and Roll to School Day in October 2022. Sloan mentioned how encouraging it was to see the school superintendent, principals, city administration and families come together to support the partnership and project. While Safe Routes to School grants are typically smaller budget project, Sloan described them as “small but mighty.”
Since 2006, Boulder has been awarded over $2.3 million from the Safe Routes to School program toward pedestrian and bike infrastructure improvement projects involving approximately 18 of the 25 schools in the city. “In addition to addressing transportation safety,” Hilliard stated, “the ‘town and gown’ partnership continues to be a catalyst for projects, for example, in environmental sustainability, diversity and equity, and workforce development.”