Denver bicylists pedaling to work in greater numbers, city trying to keep up

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Editor's note: This is the first in a series of reports about biking and bike safety in Denver and beyond.

Denver has dramatically increased its spending on bike lanes and other bike-related projects over the last six years, and for good reason. The advocacy group BikeDenver reports a major increase in commuters biking to work.

"The ridership numbers in Denver are exploding right now," says Piep van Heuven, executive director of BikeDenver. "The number of people who are biking in Denver has risen significantly [in recent years]."

The group's most recent report, which takes numbers from the U.S. Census American Community Survey, reveals that since 2005, there has been a 57 percent rise in Denver commuters biking to work. That's a 132 percent increase over the last twelve years.

While that increase is clearly very rapid, don't get too excited by the numbers. The group reports that only 2.2 percent of Denver commuters bike to work. That is, however, a major jump over the last several years, and nationally, bikers make up only .5 percent of commuters. That means Denver cyclists are riding to work at a rate four times the national average.

"More and more people are choosing to bike out of convenience," van Heuven says. "Biking is something that enhances all of our communities."

The Downtown Denver Partnership also has some useful localized statistics on increased cycling in the city. According to the June 2012 trends report from the organization, approximately 6 percent of employees working downtown bike to work. Their average one-way commute is 3.57 miles.

These figures come from a Downtown Denver Commuter Survey from 2011, which estimates that around 7,000 employees ride bikes to downtown everyday.

These trends are visibly obvious to the average pedestrian or motorist, who can see the increase in cyclists everyday on the road -- especially during the summer.

Page down to see what the city is doing to increase its bike infrastructure. So what's the city doing in response to the local growth of cycling? Or put another way, how is the expansion of the city's bike transportation network encouraging more folks to ditch their cars for their morning commute? Emily Snyder, a senior city planner with Denver's Public Works Department, who oversees bicycle and pedestrian issues, offers details.

First, it's useful to look at how the city has increased spending on bike-related projects.

In 2011, according to Public Works, the city spent $10.5 million on what the department calls "bike-pedestrian projects," a category that includes bicycle pavement markings, new trails and trail maintenance and other major projects, like bridges and underpasses.

For comparison, note that in 2006, the city was only spending $2.1 million in this area. The budget for these kinds of projects has steadily increased over the last six years, jumping from $4.5 million in 2007 to $6 million in 2008 to $7.7 million in 2009 and 2010, all the way to the latest available record of $10.5 million for last year.

"My focus and goal is to get more bicycling infrastructure out there -- more bike lanes and sharrows," Snyder says. (Sharrows, by the way, are bike markings indicating that cyclists have room to share the road.) Part of the challenge, she adds, "is recognizing that there's a bunch of different users out there -- people that are experienced bicyclists...novices...you've got families.... It's making sure you have facilities out there for all those different types of riders."

Snyder says that over the past five years, the city has more than doubled bike infrastructure from sixty miles of lanes and sharrows to 137 miles of lanes and sharrows today. That's about an average of a twenty to 25 mile increase in pavement markings each year.

For additional perspective: In 2011, the city added two miles of sharrows and sixteen miles of bike lanes, while Public Works has already added eight miles of sharrows and seventeen miles of bike lanes in 2012 to date.

"From the Public Works standpoint, I would say we are extremely committed," Snyder says. In terms of the larger vision of increasing cycling infrastructure, in 2012, the city is particularly focused on expanding the bike network on the west side of the city, she notes.

If you're into ranking stuff, the Downtown Denver Partnership has collected info that puts Denver and Colorado into a larger context across the country. The Alliance for Biking and Walking ranks Colorado twelfth in the nation for "bicycle friendliness," and Denver is also ranked a "silver level" city by the League of American Bicyclists' Bicycle Friendly Communities (whose categories range from bronze through platinum). Bicycling Magazine also lists Denver as the twelfth best bicycling city in the nation. Finally, based on U.S. Census data, Colorado finishes fourth in the country for those who bike to work, and Denver is sixth in that category.

Future installments of our series will look at thefts, collisions, enforcement, ticketing and more.

More from our Politics archive: "John Hickenlooper: Winter Olympics 2022 bid could bring Colorado together"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. Email the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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