A few months after Barnes arrived, state highway officials broke ground on a long-delayed north-south freeway through the heart of the South Platte River Valley. The project took ten years and $33 million. When it was over, motorists had a nifty two-lane highway in each direction, from West 52nd Avenue all the way to East Evans — "at the extreme southeast edge of Denver," as a commemorative brochure noted. Several underpasses flooded after every heavy rain or snowstorm, but on sunny days drivers loved cruising from one end of town to the other in sixteen minutes.

By the end of its first year, the Valley Highway was already operating at 75 percent of its capacity, averaging 44,000 cars a day. The road builders would return again and again over the next fifty years to add lanes to the highway, which was soon swallowed by the interstate system and became Denver's portion of I-25.

Bill Vidal knows the lessons of the Valley Highway all too well. He spent 23 years at CDOT, five as the agency's executive director. "A lot of those years were spent building roads in the metropolitan area," he says. "We're out of room."

Street smarts: Denver Department of Public Works manager Bill Vidal wants to change the way traffic flows through Denver's "travel sheds."
Street smarts: Denver Department of Public Works manager Bill Vidal wants to change the way traffic flows through Denver's "travel sheds."
Policy analyst Randal O'Toole  doubts the city's plan will relieve congestion.
Policy analyst Randal O'Toole doubts the city's plan will relieve congestion.

The new traffic plan credits a host of public agencies and community groups for their input, but Vidal calls the STP his "brainchild." The city has had an avalanche of white papers, blueprints and greenprints addressing future needs, often little more than grand declarations and wish lists; Vidal wanted something that dug a little deeper into actual traffic patterns and practical approaches to the problem.

The resulting document reflects an engineer's fascination with nuts-and-bolts stuff. It also represents a shift in how the city deals with traffic capacity. In the past, planners have generally built or widened roads to increase capacity, only to see those roads rapidly filled with single-occupant vehicles; at present, almost three-fourths of the people employed in Denver drive alone to work. Given that many arterials are reaching or exceeding capacity at peak hours and that ripping out houses and businesses to add more lanes isn't an option, how else can you reconfigure the road? Can you remove a certain percentage of those single-occupant cars by providing better bike lanes, transit connections and pedestrian routes?

"This is not anti-car," Vidal says. "It's just that there's room to use the system differently. We overuse capacity on the car side and underuse it on the pedestrian, bike and transit side."

Instead of charting the number of vehicle miles traveled on each major thoroughfare, the plan divides the city into twelve "travel sheds" and estimates the increase in population and "person trips" (a single person moving from point A to point B) in each area. It then lays out a series of recommendations, from basic street maintenance to signal upgrades, new bike paths and transit stations, to address the increase in trips — and encourage a change in the mode of travel.

For example, the Northwest Travel Shed, which stretches from 52nd and Sheridan to Colfax and I-25, is expected to have a 10 percent increase in population but a 20 percent increase in trips by 2030. Most of that traffic involves trips to and from downtown. Some of the changes called for in the plan are mundane — building some "missing" sidewalks on Sheridan, improving pedestrian amenities along the Tennyson retail district. But others represent major investments, including complete multi-modal reconstruction of Federal Boulevard and 38th Avenue to accommodate more buses and bikes.

"The question is, 'Will people behave differently?'" Vidal asks. "When the gasoline prices were going up, this seemed like groundbreaking stuff. I think it still makes sense."

Still, he acknowledges, coaxing people out of their cars is going to require attention to the many "gaps in service" confronting people who might walk, bike or take buses but don't find the current routes safe or convenient. "In Portland, bikes are 5 percent of the people who commute — and the weather in Portland sucks," he notes. "But they have built the facilities and have the connections to make it easy to ride your bike. If you want those things to happen, then you have to invest in the facilities."

It sounds easy, perhaps too easy. Policy analyst O'Toole thinks the plan oversimplifies traffic by calculating person trips, as if all trips were equal. They're not, he insists — not as long as it's possible to travel by car faster than by other means.

"We know that if we increase the average speed of travel, it gives people access to more stuff, including more jobs," O'Toole says. "Research shows that a 10 percent increase in the speed of travel results in a 3 percent increase in personal income. If we focus on trips — including pedestrian and transit trips, which are slow — we're biasing the analysis toward a system that's going to reduce personal income. Focusing on passenger miles rather than trips is a much better measure of transportation."

The city would do better to invest in better traffic-signal coordination to decrease congestion, he says, "but they don't want to reduce traffic congestion, because that would lead people to drive more. The fact is, four out of five Americans would rather live in a low-density neighborhood than live close to shops, transit and jobs. It's more important for them to have a yard for their children and pets. Planners are turning that around. They want people close to shops, jobs and transit and driving less.

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