Denver's latest traffic plan depends on getting you out of your car
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Just south of downtown, a fender bender on Speer Boulevard jams up a long line of cars, which spills into the intersections at 13th and 14th avenues.
A white van making a right turn on red from Alameda Avenue onto Colorado Boulevard lurches into the intersection, then abruptly stops, transfixed by a rare crossing of pedestrians.
A brightly attired eastbound bicyclist races through a changing light at Federal and West 23rd Avenue — on his way to REI, no doubt.
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If God is everywhere, then He sees all this and more, like that black Escalade cutting off a silver subcompact at Broadway and Sixth. I see it, too, because I happen to be a certain somewhere: the Transportation Management Center on the fifth floor of the Wellington E. Webb Building, operated by Denver's Department of Public Works. Surrounded by computers and facing a wall of video monitors, city employees quietly watch the surging traffic across the metro area, as the quirks and horrors of another afternoon rush hour get under way.
The city has 120 zoom cameras positioned at key intersections around town, and the TMC has enough video screens to present 64 different images of the traffic situation at once. But that's more stop-and-go than the human brain can possibly process, so the staff usually focuses on a few main corridors: Hampden, Evans, Alameda, Colfax, Speer, Colorado, Broadway and so on.
The top row of screens is reserved for views of I-25 and I-70 traffic; the Colorado Department of Transportation can deliver video to the city of highway conditions from Limon all the way to Hanging Lake, and from Pueblo to Northglenn. Denver operates its own cameras on the city's highway access ramps and sends the feeds to CDOT. On the rest of the screens, the images shift as staffers channel-surf, like couch potatoes hunting for the NASCAR Network.
The city's traffic managers do more than just watch, of course. Many of the traffic lights throughout the area can be controlled from the center. The team makes adjustments, reports malfunctions and outages to repair crews, types out traffic alerts that blaze on electronic billboards on major thoroughfares, warning motorists of trouble ahead. At more than a hundred intersections, the cameras have sensors that can detect when too many cars are waiting at a red light and alter the signal timing, a huge advance over the old sensors embedded in the pavement.
"We manage every big event from up here," says Matthew Wager, the TMC's overseer. The center has traffic plans in place for every Rockies and Broncos home game, every People's Fair and Taste of Colorado, as well as plans for morning and afternoon downtown commutes. During the Democratic National Convention last August, the control center was packed with officials from half a dozen state and federal agencies, who linked their technology with the city's array of cameras and tracked traffic and protesters in every direction.
For Wager, managing traffic is largely about managing information. He talks about the quest to get all of the traffic signals in the metro area coordinated and providing more timely reports about traffic disruptions to the traveling public. The city offers feeds from a few of its traffic cams online and highway advisories on the radio (at 870 AM), but Wager wants to get the word out more quickly to the individual driver — the busy mother with child and cocker spaniel, for example, heading toward that backup on Speer.
Other than the Speer slowdown, things are looking fairly calm on the video screens this afternoon. "In the big scheme of things, traffic in Denver is really good compared to a lot of other big cities," Wager says. "We're just starting the rush hour, and as you can see, we're in pretty good shape. It's not getting worse as fast as it could because we're doing better with the roadways that we've got. We fix problems faster."
Denver has, in fact, caught something of a break in its rush-hour follies of late. Completion of the T-Rex expansion and light-rail line on I-25 in 2006 brought a momentary reprieve for commuters in the southeast corridor, and the national recession appears to be slowing the pace of population growth in the region. But long-term projections call for the city's emerging congestion issues to get much, much worse. Planners expect the metro area to experience a 30 percent increase in population by 2030. That's more than a million additional people, which translates into a jump in daily "person trips," from 4 million on the city's roadways today to 5.4 million two decades from now.
A Denver Regional Council of Governments map shows current metro congestion as a series of neat, bright-red lines, designating a few corridors where significant delays can be expected for more than two hours of each day because demand exceeds capacity during peak travel times. The projected congestion for 2030 shows up as a startling mass of red welts. They're all over the place, oozing into each other, a mess of clogged arteries and blocked thoroughfares, like the battered heart of a morbidly obese chain-smoker, about to explode.
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."
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.
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."
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.
"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."
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.
"We need the infrastructure in place for people to feel comfortable using these bikes," says Gary Rossmiller, a BikeDenver member who's working on the connectivity issues with the city. "We want better through-routes, something like Logan-Grant going in and out of downtown. Striping on Martin Luther King Boulevard would help. But talk about huge gaps — Alameda and Santa Fe. What a nightmare. The Platte River has only a limited number of crossings, and none of them are very transit-oriented unless you're a car, a truck or a train."
Rossmiller and Halasinski know that high-dollar improvements that might help — more pedestrian bridges like the Highland connection to downtown, for example — aren't likely to happen anytime soon. And while some activists enthuse about them, Denver may not be ready for the "bike boulevards" found in Portland, quiet streets that run parallel to arterials and provide speedy bike routes without all the stop signs. (Cars are deterred from jumping over from the arterials because the boulevards force them to turn right every few blocks, while cut-throughs allow the bikes to proceed.) But the BikeDenver bunch is moving ahead with more modest changes in anticipation of the B-Cycle rollout: a push for more bike parking downtown, safety programs, better street markings and transit connections.
Other major battles are still looming. The video detection system that allows the city's cameras to sense when cars are waiting at major intersections doesn't work with bikes. In December, van Heuven recalls, she and 27 other hard-core riders went on a winter solstice ride. It was one of the coldest nights of the year, with subzero wind chill. There were plenty of cars on the street, but few bicycles.
The solstice riders shivered their way through City Park and up Franklin to Colfax, where they waited for the light to change.
And waited. And waited.
Two to four times a month, Monica Strobel makes a point of taking the bus to work. This puzzles some of her friends, who've pulled up next to her at bus stops and offered a ride, assuming her car must be in the shop. But as executive director of Transportation Solutions, a transportation management association in the Cherry Creek and Glendale areas, Strobel figures she should lead by example.
TMAs are private-public entities, made up of local businesses, government agencies and transit authorities (such as RTD) that have a stake in advocating for multi-modal travel. Along with the Downtown Denver Partnership, Strobel's group is one of the oldest and most visible TMAs in town. The city's new transportation plan calls for encouraging the formation of more TMAs as a way to achieve its goals.
Among other objectives, Transportation Solutions seeks ways to relieve the traffic and parking headaches faced by businesses in Cherry Creek and along Colorado Boulevard. The group runs a transportation center at the University of Denver, pushing discounted bus passes to students and staff, and developed the Cherry Creek Bike Rack, a free station where commuting cyclists can safely store their bikes. The group is now studying a car-sharing program, a step beyond carpooling; for a modest monthly fee, participants can rent a car for a few bucks an hour, gas included. The idea is to provide autos for essential trips while weaning locals off complete reliance on a personal vehicle.
"If people can get rid of a car, that's two to four hundred dollars a month they can spend locally," Strobel says. "It's a huge economic-development tool."
Several TMA programs target short, non-commuter trips, but better bike routes and pedestrian crossings will only take you so far. Many metro residents live too far from work for such alternatives to be practical, particularly in bad weather; after all, the average daily commute for downtown workers is 26 miles. So public transit, rapid or not, remains a key to Strobel's hopes for Cherry Creek and the city's overall plan.
People who aren't "transit-dependent" — that is, people who have a choice between driving or taking the bus — can be tough sells. Strobel says even minor improvements her group has embarked upon, such as making bus stops more visible and attractive, with better information about routes, can boost ridership. But other initiatives, such as trying to convince area workers to use buses along Colorado Boulevard at lunchtime, have been hampered by buses that don't run often enough. And she's alarmed by reports of anticipated service cutbacks at RTD as a result of sagging revenue.
"They're considering cutting service," Strobel says. "How counterintuitive is that? People need more service."
In fact, the financial problems at RTD have raised questions not only about short-term bus service, but the fate of FasTracks, a major component of the city's plan. When voters approved a four-cents-on-every-ten-dollars tax hike in 2004 to finance a buildout of the light-rail system, it was expected that the system would cost $4.7 billion and be completed by 2017. Rising construction costs and other factors have hiked the estimate to $7.9 billion, while shortfalls in sales-tax revenue have left the budget for the project more than $2 billion short of that figure. That's prompted a flurry of recent meetings between RTD leaders and metro-area mayors, who are unhappy at the prospect that their lines will be seriously shortened or delayed.
According to FasTracks spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas, the mayors' input and public-opinion surveys have strongly favored getting the lines built as scheduled — even if that means going back to voters for another tax hike. Vidal, who's been attending the mayoral meetings on Hickenlooper's behalf, says a full buildout is in the best interest of all the municipalities involved.
"If all the lines are shortened, the portions in Denver will probably still get built," he says. "But people might have to drive in to catch the train, and that would increase congestion on the periphery. Also, to not have a connection from downtown to DIA would really be a problem for Denver."
The Independence Institute's O'Toole expresses amazement at the degree of confidence Denver voters continue to have in the concept of light rail, when the reality often falls short of expectations. "One of the things they promised was better bus service while they were building the trains, and they clearly don't have enough money to do that," he says. "Every penny from that sales tax is going to go to pay the mortgage on the rail lines. This is typical of what we've seen of light rail elsewhere — the trains cost more than they expect, they end up cutting bus service rather than improving it, and the transit rider loses."
O'Toole has compiled a rich lode of data dealing with the astronomical costs and dubious benefits of light rail: the declining proportion of commuters who ride transit in Portland, the light-rail mecca (7.6 percent, down from 9.8 percent in 1980); the dismal predictions from DRCOG of how many cars FasTracks will actually take off the road (between a half of 1 percent and 1.5 percent of the total flow); the negligible effect on auto operating speeds during peak times (with FasTracks in operation, motorists can expect to average 30 miles an hour traveling from DIA to downtown in the year 2025; without FasTracks, they'll average 29 miles an hour); the vast amounts of electricity, generated by coal-fired, carbon-belching, global-warming power plants, devoured by this supposedly "clean" technology...and on and on.
"Efficiency doesn't count anymore," he says. "What counts is that we provide people with options, even if they don't use them. Well, helicoptering people to work is an option. Shooting them out of cannons is an option. Why pick light rail? It's an extremely high-cost transit system, and it's not significantly impacting people's travel habits; it's just wasting their money."
Many of the figures O'Toole cites don't provide a fair picture of what the FasTracks system will do, Vidal insists. He prefers to zero in on what transit can accomplish in major corridors during peak travel times, when it carries as much as 30 percent of the traffic. If light rail hadn't been part of the T-Rex project, Vidal says, I-25 would require another six lanes in the next few years. "Transit is a tool for peak periods," he adds. "And FasTracks is a critical piece for getting this done."
Denver's public works manager believes there are enough traffic improvement projects in the pipeline to keep current levels of congestion holding steady until around 2015. The decade or so after that, though, depends on many interconnected unknowns: whether light rail arrives on schedule, whether various efforts to get people out of their cars are moderately successful, future fuel prices, population growth — and the list continues. Solving traffic involves wheels within wheels.
There may be more draconian measures against "auto dependency" on the horizon. Some of the brainstorming among downtown interests for enhancing the pedestrian environment includes proposals for hiking parking costs and decreasing the time allowed on parking meters. Vidal prefers a gentler approach, declaring that downtown will become a more pedestrian-friendly place as it expands its retail and residential offerings and transit connections.
"More than anything, it has to be an interesting place, a place people want to go," he says. "A big challenge is to get people to commute as pedestrians, so they feel they can walk four blocks to the transit station."
Solving Denver's congestion could depend mightily on making the journey by bus, bike or on foot as hassle-free as driving. But it could also mean heaping hassles on the already beleaguered motorist — adding storm troopers to the parking patrol, stigmatizing lone drivers like a bunch of nicotine fiends. As Henry Barnes found out sixty years ago, you can't be a nice guy and beat the traffic in this town.
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