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Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths
Photo by Brandon Marshall
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The Denver Streets Partnership has issued a report card for 2018 in regard to Vision Zero, an action plan launched by Mayor Michael Hancock that aims to eliminate traffic deaths in the Mile High City by 2030. And while there are some bright spots, the overall mark of "C" is no one's idea of a triumph.

"We'd like to see progress that isn't variable," says Piep van Heuven, who's both co-chair of the partnership and policy director of Bicycle Colorado. "Denver's made very significant progress in a number of areas, but it's important to measure year-to-year to see where we're meeting expectations and where we haven't gotten traction yet."

"We're really pleased Mayor Hancock has committed to Vision Zero," adds Jill Locantore, van Heuven's fellow co-chair at Denver Streets Partnership and executive director of WalkDenver. "But the city needs to do a better job of implementing the plan in a timely manner."

Doing so is very much a life-and-death matter. Last June, Denver was on pace for one of its highest traffic-death totals this century, and that proved to be the case. The 59 people who died in Denver traffic accidents in 2018 was the second-most since 2005, topped during that time only by 61 fatalities in 2016.

The report card looks at eight major Vision Zero components and grades the city's progress toward its goals in four categories for each. The "Actions," "Quality" and "Completion" groupings are self-explanatory, while "Location" refers to where projects were based, with Denver typically downgraded if they were outside what's been designated as the "high-injury network" or a so-called "community of concern." The former consists of what van Heuven calls "the 5 percent of the street network where 50 percent of the fatalities happen." (Major arterials such as Colfax Avenue, Hampden Avenue, Alameda Avenue, Federal Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard are all on the list.) The latter are neighborhoods where a lack of infrastructure makes alternative forms of transportation such as walking or cycling difficult; they include Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and suburban areas in southeast and southwest Denver.

Below, van Heuven and Locantore break down each bracket, explaining what went right and what didn't.

Number 1: Bike Lanes

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths (2)
Denver Streets Partnership

Piep van Heuven: "The bike-lane progress in 2018 was very significant. Not only did the city basically hit its goal — it set out to build twenty miles of bike lanes and finished with nineteen — but the projects were built in places that needed them, and they were built well.

"Brighton Boulevard was a very significant project with major cycle tracks on both sides of the street. The city took two streets, 19th and 20th, that were one-way and converted them to two-way, then added bike facilities. I live in Park Hill, and this gives me another safe option to ride my bike into downtown and across Broadway safety. The Eastmoor and Ulster project in south Denver will provide better connectivity by the Denver Tech Center and between schools and light rail. And the new bike facility on Florida Avenue was built in an area of town that hasn't seen a lot of bike network built out there.

"What we see here is sort of a new normal. Denver's traditionally been building anywhere from ten to fifteen miles of bike lanes each year, but they've been what we would call easy projects. Now, they've increased the number of projects and they're building bike facilities with protection, with cycle tracks and so on. They're sort of bike lanes 2.0 or 3.0."

Number 2: Sidewalks

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths (3)
Denver Streets Partnership

Jill Locantore: "In terms of sidewalks, the city set out to build fourteen miles of them, but they only built 5.9 — less than half. And of those, none of them were on the high-injury network, and I believe less than half were in communities of concern, which are often the most dependent on walking and biking to get around. Older adults or children are more likely to be hit by cars and seriously injured or killed when there aren't adequate sidewalks or bike lanes.

"That explains the D- on location and the F on completion.

"We want to see the pace of the city building sidewalks in the network pick up. Really, the city has never been proactive about sidewalks until very recently. There was a longstanding practice of leaving it entirely up to private property owners to build sidewalks and maintain them over time. Now, there's a new understanding that the city has to be involved. But that requires getting a system in place and figuring out how the city goes about building sidewalks. There's been a lot of learning over the past year, and hopefully that will help accelerate the pace of the buildout."

Number 3: Traffic Calming

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths (4)
Denver Streets Partnership

Jill Locantore: "One of the main themes of the Vision Zero plan is speed management, because speed is one of the most important factors determining if a crash is going to happen and if it's going to end in a serious injury or a fatality. A number of streets in Denver actually encourage people to drive at high speeds — often higher than the posted speed limit. Take Federal. It's an extremely wide street, and it's actually very hard to go the speed limit, because the design invites you to speed up. You basically feel like you're on an open freeway, and it makes you want to go as fast as you possibly can.

"To improve traffic safety, we need to do corridor-level traffic calming on those streets. But the city didn't do any traffic calming on the high-injury network. What they did was traffic calming on a very small section of one street, Buchtel Boulevard.

"We liked what they did, which was implementing what we call a road diet: They reduced the number of lanes of traffic and the width of the street overall, and that shortened the pedestrian crossing distances. That's the kind of improvement we like to see, but we gave the quality a B because it was such a short section. It's hard to really claim it was corridor-level traffic calming, which is really important.

"Basically, our roads are too wide. The analogy people often use is, 'If you're overweight, you don't just loosen your belt and say everything's good.' Right now, we've given almost too much space for cars in the city, and that's a fundamental part of the reason why we have so many traffic fatalities."

Number 4: Redesigning Intersections

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths (5)
Denver Streets Partnership

Jill Locantore: "The city committed to redesigning two intersections and they did eight, which is why they got an A+ for completion. And we liked the improvements. They added mini-traffic circles in four places that had previously had stop signs, and that's a very effective way to force drivers to slow down and proceed with caution through physical design. Stops signs, if you see them and you're being obedient, can be effective. A lot of times, though, people fail to see the stop sign. But if you have a traffic circle, it's physically impossible to speed through that intersection."

"The other thing the city did was add pedestrian refuge islands, which are really good for mid-block crossings. There are a lot of places in Denver where the signals or stop signs may be very far apart, and it's human nature to take the shortest distance.So by adding a pedestrian refuge island on a median in the middle of the street, it calms traffic and alerts people that pedestrians are going to be crossing — and that makes it safer to cross the street.

"They were really great designs, but they didn't do these types of improvements on the high-injury network, and only some in communities of concern. They did put one in Montbello that's kind of high-injury-network adjacent. They added an island on Albrook Drive, a block or so away from Peoria Street. There was a pedestrian fatality on Albrook that helped justify why they put it there, and we're glad to see they did it. But Peoria is a huge arterial road that can be terrifying if you're a pedestrian.

"That's why we gave them a D+ for location. They're making improvements, but they're not really making the improvements where they're needed the most."

Number 5: Installing or Upgrading Pedestrian Crossings

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths (6)
Denver Streets Partnership

Jill Locantore: "These pedestrian crossings are pedestrian-activated signals. So they're not full-blown traffic signals, but ones where a pedestrian can press a button and it will flash yellow to alert drivers that a pedestrian is there as they cross the street.

"And there are also HAWK signals [the letters stand for High-Intensity Activated crossWalK], which flashes yellow when a pedestrian presses the button but then turns to red, so the driver is required to stop as they would at any traffic signal.

"A HAWK signal was part of the Brighton Boulevard redesign; it was put at Brighton and 35th, which is a good location with all of the redevelopment happening in the area. But Brighton didn't pop up as a street in the high-injury network. And they did put a flashing beacon in the Montbello location. So we're allowing them to count something twice — but we still gave them a D for location."

Number 6: Improving ten intersections

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths (7)
Denver Streets Partnership

Jill Locantore: "This is something that's really quick and simple for the city to do — something we would expect them to excel at. That's why it's weighted a little less in coming up with the overall final grade.

"Basically, this improvement is adding what's called a leading pedestrian interval, where a pedestrian gets the walk signal a few seconds before the driver gets the green light. That allows the pedestrians to get a head start while all the cars are still stopped. It makes them more visible to drivers who might be turning left and not thinking to look if someone is in the crosswalk.

"That improves safety for the pedestrians, and it's pretty simple for the city to make the change. It's an operational improvement — reprogramming the traffic signals. So we're pleased the city is using these quick tools at its disposal, since it's very easy to do."

Number 7: Enhancing lighting

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths (8)
Denver Streets Partnership

Jill Locantore: "The city committed to enhance lighting on two corridors, and they were supposed to be on the high-injury network. But the city was looking at adding to Federal Boulevard, which did not happen. And they did add it to Brighton Boulevard, which, again, is not part of the high-injury network.

"The other improvements were at the Peña Boulevard light-rail station, which isn't part of the high-injury network, either.

"We're glad they're improving lighting around the city, but they're not focusing on the areas they should. And the commitment was lighting the whole corridor. Adding eight stations doesn't fulfill the commitment to corridor improvements."

Number 8: Installing "Smart City" technologies

Breaking Down Mediocre Report Card on Denver's Bid to Lower Traffic Deaths (9)
Denver Streets Partnership

Jill Locantore: "This is one of the most amorphous categories. The idea is basically to use technology in creative ways to improve safety. That could mean all kinds of things. There's no clear definition.

"What the city did was add some pedestrian signals at three intersections downtown where there are light-rail train crossings. They turn on when the light rail is present, alerting people to look out and not cross when it's coming.

"The thing that makes it smart, by my understanding, is that these signals actually detect what's happening in the intersection and will only give you a message based on the conditions at that moment in time. So that's good, and I'm glad the city is experimenting. But I don't know if it's the most exciting or innovative example of improving safety, which is why we gave them a C on quality. Also, it's on 14th Street downtown, which isn't on the high-injury network, and they were committed to ten. So we feel they didn't complete what they were committed to doing.

"Vision Zero is a very strong five-year plan with nearly seventy action items. It's not just building infrastructure, which we're focused on, but also enforcement and culture change and doing a better job of recording data and using it in informed decision-making. And it's got very strong, measurable benchmarks the city needs to hit in order to get to the goal of zero traffic fatalities. That's why we used the plan as a benchmark for our report card, and why we gave the grades we did."

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