Hey, fellow bike commuters in Denver: You have it so good here, and many of you don't even realize it. This past year I've noticed increased amounts of negative press coverage and complaints on social media about the lack of bike lanes, drivers parking in them (where they exist) and dangerous intersections in Denver.
Fine. I'm not saying those things aren't worth bringing attention to. And we're lucky to have dedicated organizations like BikeDenver, People for Bikes and Denver Cruisers advocating for investment in bicycle infrastructure to make pedaling through town easier and more enjoyable.
But for the serial complainers among us, only focusing on the bad runs the risk of creating a culture of fear around bike safety, and that isn't exactly helping the cause.
I bike-commute the 4.5 miles between my home in Sunnyside and Westword's office on Broadway at least half of the time, and was prompted to write this piece after reading a September 22 op-ed in the Denver Post written by a reporter who came to Denver for eight whole weeks on a fellowship from Munich, Germany. In his piece, “Denver is inconvenient, annoying, slow and unsafe for cyclists,” Thierry Backes chronicles his challenge of finding a route from “the Highlands” to the Post's office on Colfax Avenue.
First of all, comparing the bike infrastructure in Denver to Munich's is like comparing a flip phone to a smartphone in terms of their advancement. Backes also pooh-poohs lists in publications like Bicycle magazine that names us the 11th best Bike City in the U.S. Finally, he writes that, as he tried different routes to his work, his worst experience was along upper Speer Boulevard, which he called “a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.“
I spent two years cycling through 23 countries, navigating a touring bicycle through some of the world's densest and largest cities, like Paris, Istanbul, Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangkok, Hanoi, Chengdu, Shanghai and, yes, Munich. Here's some footage I shot of what it's like cycling in Calcutta, India:
Clearly, the experiences of riding a bike in an urban center are relative among cities. And what I can certainly tell you from my own once-in-a-lifetime adventure is that bicycle safety depends so much more on the awareness of the rider, and especially drivers on the road, than it does on the number of miles of dedicated bike lanes and paths.
After I returned from my trip abroad, I commuted twenty miles round-trip by bicycle in Los Angeles for a year. Holy shit. Now, that was unsafe! That year's worth of bike commuting, which I wrote about in LA Weekly , proved far scarier than almost anything I'd experienced abroad, because cyclists were essentially invisible to drivers in L.A.; there were so few of us on the roads that it never even occurred to most drivers to check their blind spots or check to see if a cyclist needed to pass them before they made a sudden right turn.
Since I moved to Denver in January 2015, I can say it's been a world of difference from Los Angeles in terms of drivers' awareness of cyclists, mostly because cyclists are far more common on the roads here and more Denverites are cyclists themselves, so they know to look for them on the occasions that they get behind the wheel.
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This, rather than the amount of bicycle infrastructure that Denver does or doesn't have, is the city's greatest asset for cyclists.
Plus, let's be honest: There are periods during winter where it's just not possible or comfortable for most people to commute by bicycle, so we have to acknowledge that investments in bike infrastructure don't always take top priority. (Public transportation, on the other hand, is another matter, and should be prioritized above catering to motorists.)
So is it important to continue advocating for investment in bike paths and bike lanes? Absolutely! But let's not do it in a way that ends up scaring away people who only need a little extra convincing to ditch their cars.
We should also focus on celebrating our bike culture, promoting things like bike-to-work days and working in a productive rather than antagonistic manner with our local elected officials on things like the new “Denver Moves” plan, for which you can provide feedback! No matter what, the critical thing is getting more cyclists out on the road, which will not only reduce the number of cars, but serve to make us more visible.