City officials have neither the budget nor the inclination to widen existing streets and build new expressways to ease the crunch. Such a move would be environmentally, culturally and economically foolish, they insist. "It isn't just a fuel issue or a greening issue," says Department of Public Works manager Bill Vidal. "It's a space issue. We could all be driving hybrid or electric cars, and we'd still run into the same congestion. And if we keep widening the footprint, we'll wreck the identity of our community."

In October, the city unveiled a glossy Strategic Transportation Plan to meet the congestion challenge. Developed by Vidal's office and championed by Mayor John Hickenlooper, the STP proposes to solve the problem by making major traffic corridors multi-modal — more accessible to transit, bicycles and pedestrians, often at the expense of auto lanes. A key component of the plan involves what it calls "strategies for behavioral change," which means persuading Denverites to forsake the traditional Western love affair with the automobile and find other ways to get around, especially for the 50 percent of daily trips that involve distances of three miles or less.

Transit advocates, bike activists and other minions of the multi-modal have generally cheered the plan, seeing it as an overdue effort to reclaim a modest portion of Denver's streets from a car-crazy culture. "People think the road is only for cars," notes Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado. "But it's a publicly owned right-of-way, and a third of the people in Colorado don't drive. That road needs to serve everybody."

Zoom patrol: Denver traffic operations manager Matthew Wager can study rush hour from 64 angles.
Zoom patrol: Denver traffic operations manager Matthew Wager can study rush hour from 64 angles.

For some transit-oriented groups, the automobile's demise can't come soon enough. "Putting Our Best Foot Forward," a recent video released by the Downtown Denver Partnership, has the ring of a manifesto. It declares that the group is "determined to make Denver the most pedestrian-oriented community in the nation by enhancing experiences and changing cultural mindsets such that pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit take priority over vehicular transportation."

But in other quarters, the STP has been greeted with suspicion and even derision. "This plan falls into what I call the behavioral school of transportation planning," says Randal O'Toole, an Oregon-based policy analyst who's affiliated with the Independence Institute, the conservative Golden think tank known for cranky defenses of personal freedoms — especially those involving guns, cars and fossil fuels. "It is social engineering, and the sad part is, it doesn't even work."

An avid cyclist and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, O'Toole believes that Denver's strategy will only make congestion worse. That may be by design, he suggests, part of a perverse effort by planners across the country to compel people out of their cars and into less efficient and more costly forms of travel, such as light rail. "I would like to see a plan that says, 'This is how people travel, and we're going to meet their needs,'" he says. "Instead, this is a manipulative plan that says, 'We think bicycling and transit are more moral than driving.'"

Vidal responds that the STP is not about morality, but practicality. It's about keeping Denver livable, saving it from becoming a pass-through zone for motorists heading from one sprawling suburb to the next. (Sixty percent of all daily trips in Denver begin or end outside the city.) The plan has its share of odd features and uncertainties — much depends, for example, on the timely buildout of the Regional Transportation District's FasTracks light-rail corridors, a program that's now facing the prospect of serious budget cuts and delays — but the STP's backers insist it's not a plot to ban the automobile.

"I like my car just as much as the next person," says Vidal, who drives an Audi TT with the top down in the summertime. "But if that's all we're going to do forever, that isn't going to work. We're going to be one people, one city, one giant slab of pavement."

The era of modern traffic management in Denver began in the final weeks of 1947, with the arrival in town of a new city traffic engineer, Henry A. Barnes. A former assembly-line worker at a Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan, who'd been lured west by the promise of a $7,000 annual salary, Barnes inherited a snarl of cars and trolleys that was squeezing the life out of the city center, the result of decades of rapid growth and poor planning.

The traffic-signal system was outdated and couldn't be adjusted for light or heavy traffic, Barnes discovered. A single worker in a forlorn shop painted all the traffic signs. Pedestrians took their lives in their hands trying to navigate some of the confusing intersections downtown, where diagonals met grids and traffic careened in up to five directions.

Barnes went to work. He reconfigured intersections, created miles of one-way streets, restricted parking and invested heavily in synchronized signal systems and improved lighting and signage. Although he didn't originate the concept, he popularized the practice of stopping traffic in all directions for a decent interval so that pedestrians could cross the street, diagonally if they liked — a maneuver soon known as the "Barnes Dance." He changed Denver (and later Baltimore and New York City) and was widely celebrated and scorned. "You can't be a nice guy and solve traffic," he once said.

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