After recent snowstorms in Denver, getting around town has become treacherous. Some sidewalks went unplowed by property owners, leading the snow to eventually turn into ice. Certain side streets still have significant amounts of ice and snow on them. And bike lanes along streets are just a hazardous mess.
Given that this is his last winter in office, the term-limited Denver mayor, Michael Hancock, likely won't be coming up with any innovative solutions to solve Denver's snow infrastructure issues. However, a new mayor will be sworn in come July, and there's already talk among mayoral candidates about the issue of snow removal.
Here are some ideas for the future Denver mayor to consider:
Figure Out a Sidewalk Fix
Snow removal on sidewalks typically falls to adjacent property owners. But that hasn't prevented parts of Denver's sidewalk network from having snow remain for days and ultimately turn into ice.
"I think it’s time to rethink Denver’s approach to snow removal overall. It’s kind of rooted in this 1950s thinking in that the purpose of snow removal is to allow white-collar workers to drive to work. And it should be about how do we get people where they need to go," says Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, pointing to walking, biking and rolling as other ways that people in Denver get around.
Locantore recently led the successful ballot measure effort to get a fee placed on properties to fund the buildout and maintenance of Denver's sidewalks. But she doesn't think the city needs some grand plan to figure out how to clear sidewalks. There's already a model to be followed.
"We do it here in Denver. We clear the sidewalks in parks. We’ve decided that’s a priority. We have machinery needed to clear sidewalks. If we do it in parks, we can do it in other parts of the city as well," Locantore says, praising the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation for its work clearing park sidewalks so quickly after snowstorms.
Plow Side Streets
Major automobile corridors in Denver usually get first dibs at snowplowing, but then side streets get neglected. Right now, there are side streets in Denver that look more like a battle-scarred Planet Hoth than they do actual streets.
"The wet, heavy snow we received got packed down pretty quickly, and for that, the residential plows, which are 4x4 pickup trucks, are not very helpful. They will not bring streets to bare pavement and do not carry deicer," says Nancy Kuhn, a spokesperson for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. "While snow-packed, the side streets are passable for the most part."
Chris Hansen, a Colorado state senator and current Denver mayoral candidate, has already realized that talking about plowing streets is a popular campaign topic. On January 3, Hansen tweeted, "Streets don’t plow themselves, and the city of Denver rarely plows them either. For days after every snowstorm, huge swaths of the city are left to fend for themselves: no plows, no deicing, no matter how much snow" before attaching a photo of an unplowed street with the caption "Priorities: He'll Plow the Damn Roads."
There's precedent for Hansen's focus on unplowed streets. After a massive Christmas Eve storm in 1982, the administration of Mayor Bill McNichols did a terrible job of clearing snow. Voters were mad in the run-up to the 1983 election that followed, which newcomer Federico Peña wound up winning.
Clear the Damn Bike Paths
Plowing side streets will help not only motorists, but also keep bikers safer, since the City of Denver considers quiet side streets to be part of its bike network. And it's clearly a goal of the city to get more people biking, with the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency set to release a new batch of e-bike rebates at the end of this month.
But even the actual bike paths on Denver streets are in terrible shape from the recent weather. And that's led to plenty of Denver bikers needing to bike in car lanes on streets that have bike paths.
"We have this thaw-freeze cycle, which causes these icebergs that you see in the bike lanes," notes Rob Toftness of the Denver Bicycle Lobby.
According to Kuhn from DOTI, the City of Denver is "now using big equipment, called graders or blades, to address requests for ice removal, including along on-street bike lanes."
Toftness points out that protected bike lanes in Denver — those with a barrier between the bike lane and car lanes — do actually get plowed by the city.
"We should build more protected bike lanes; then the [fact that they] will also be plowed is another benefit," he adds.
However, before those protected bike lanes get built across Denver, someone has got to plow the damn unprotected bike lanes.
Jonathon Stalls, a walking advocate who documents the obstacles and inequities that non-drivers face every day through his Pedestrian Dignity TikTok account, has been traversing Denver over the past few days and seen people struggle with the snow and ice as they walk or wait for buses.
"These bus stops turn into these huge ice jungle gyms," Stalls says, pointing out that snowplows traveling down streets send more snow into the front of bus stops, where it gets packed down and turns into ice.
And the sidewalks that connect people to these RTD stops are also too treacherous for some.
"So many people that I know that use mobility devices just aren’t out. It’s impossible. There’s just a deep distrust for any access in the system we have. The isolation is real, and it’s loud," Stalls says.
He'd like to see more of an emphasis on clearing snow and ice from bus stops and the sidewalks that connect people to these stops, especially along major public transit corridors, like Colorado Boulevard.
"You clear the interstates, you clear the major roads for cars. Do the same for these other modalities," Stalls says. "At some point, it really is about de-centering cars."