"But it doesn't work. People living in high-density areas in Portland are just as likely to drive as people anywhere else. The main factor in how much you drive is household size. If you have kids, you drive more."

And don't get O'Toole started on some of the vaguer, trendier aspects of Vidal's brainchild. For example, for years there's been talk of introducing a streetcar system along East Colfax ("A Streetcar Named Desire," July 20, 2006), and the plan mentions a similar possibility for the Speer/Leetsdale Travel Shed. But no serious effort to relieve congestion, O'Toole contends, would include such a congestion-builder.

"Streetcars are crummy transportation," he says. "They go seven miles an hour and don't carry many people. Planners don't know how a city works, so they follow fads."

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.

Vidal says the streetcar proposal is still under study and may not be appropriate for high-volume corridors. "There are forty or fifty thousand cars a day on Colfax," he sighs. "Where the streetcars have worked were on streets with ten or twenty thousand, so it would be a challenge."

Speed isn't everything, of course, and the traffic plan pushes the merits of multi-modal person trips. Repackaging a bus line as a streetcar route may not get you to your destination any faster, but it could lure folks, including tourists, who might balk at the idea of boarding the Number 15 bus. Persuading a tubby urbanite to run a short errand by bike rather than car won't change the world, but it does launch a humble assault on America's obesity epidemic and the climate-change problem at the same time. Yet Vidal knows that if his strategy is going anywhere, he has to make the alternatives to the single-occupant car more convenient, too.

"Tarzan never let go of one vine until he'd grabbed the next one," he says. "People will wait to let go of their cars until they see how they can do it another way."

Piep van Heuven got a glimpse of a brave new world during the Democratic National Convention last summer. Freewheelin, a partnership between Humana and Boulder-based Bikes Belong, made a thousand bicycles available free of charge during the DNC ("Free and Easy," April 24, 2008), and van Heuven pedaled around to all the stations to see how the program was working.

"I saw so many people on bicycles," recalls van Heuven, the interim executive director of BikeDenver. "Locals were on them because that was the easiest way to get around, but so were all kinds of visitors, too. Guys in five-hundred-dollar power suits. A 21-year-old in a prison jumpsuit going to his protest march. I saw somebody on stilettos taking out a bike, and it worked."

Freewheelin racked up more than 5,000 person trips during the convention, totaling 26,582 miles. The excitement generated by the program nudged the city into unveiling its own bicycle-sharing program last month, Denver B-Cycle. A pilot phase, offering bikes to city employees, is already under way, and a public program providing 500 bikes for a small fee at dozens of stations throughout the city will be launched this summer. Backed by a mix of private sponsors and public funds, the program will be the largest of its kind anywhere in the country — which has local bike activists feeling that their moment has finally arrived.

"The convention was huge," says Tracy Halasinski, a BikeDenver member who serves on the mayor's bike advisory committee. "Ten years ago, Denver was consistently rated among the top American cities for cycling. Then we were downgraded by the League of American Bicyclists, and you saw more progress being made in Portland and Chicago, of all places. We've got significant ground to make up, but we have some momentum now, and the public is clamoring for it."

With its relatively flat topography, dry climate and absence of major rivers and other barriers, Denver would seem to be an ideal biker's town. But it hasn't worked out that way. Advocates say the city has a shortage of bike lanes and coherent surface street routes, as well as a largely unfulfilled master plan that needs to be revisited. Some say traffic "calming" measures taken in recent years to appease various neighborhoods, including turning one-ways back into two-way streets and inserting speed bumps and stop signs, have added to the hazards posed by bike-oblivious drivers and narrow, congested lanes. When bike commuters emerge from the relative safety of the Cherry Creek, High Line or Platte River paths and merge onto the mean streets, it's usually with gritted teeth.

Mayor Hickenlooper has expressed an interest in seeing bicycling account for 10 percent of all trips in the city by 2018. Downtown businesses have made significant progress by making bike facilities more available to employees; a survey conducted by the Downtown Denver Partnership last fall shows that the percentage of commuters using bikes to get to work downtown had doubled, from 3 to 6 percent, over the previous year. But that's a far cry from a 10 percent usage rate metrowide. To get there, "it's going to take some committed resources from the private sector as well as the city," says Grunig.

It's also going to take lanes. So right now, the cycling advocates are focusing on getting more bike lanes, or at least "sharrows" — markings on the street that allow a share-the-road approach, rather than a formally designated bike lane — in the downtown area. They are finding a receptive audience at Vidal's department, they say, and hope to eventually extend their efforts to claiming more of the roadway in and out of the city's core. Concern about safe routes appears to be a major challenge in getting people to use the new bikeshare program.

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