Denver traffic-engineering innovation known as the Barnes Dance hits a dead-end

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

It's been rumored for years, and the front page of today's Denver Post makes it official: Denver is doing away with the "Barnes Dance," the diagonal crosswalks that were invented in this city sixty years ago by traffic engineer Henry Barnes. What's next? The elimination of the Denver Boot?

Loved by walkers, loathed by drivers, the diagonal crosswalks confused visitors -- which is why, in advance of the Democratic National Convention coming to town in 2008, the city installed wider, longer lines made of super-bright 3M plastic tape. When we reported that, we offered this history of the Barnes Dance:

In the late 1940s, Denver had such a terrible "corpuscular clotting of automobile traffic in its downtown arteries" that only one vehicle per green light could make a turn at each intersection because of the flood of pesky pedestrians, according to a 1953 Time magazine article. To remedy this catastrophic clusterfuck, the city hired a "graying, bucktoothed police captain from Flint, MI" named Henry "Hank" Barnes to be its traffic commissioner and ease the perpetual pain.

With an initial budget of $400,000, Barnes's first project was the creation of one-way streets, a move met with much irritation from drivers, who intentionally drove the wrong way before falling in line. He then installed 30,000 traffic-direction signs and 350 new traffic signals and invented the system of sensors beneath streets that inspires millions of drivers to this day to roll back and forth at major intersections in an effort to trigger lights to change.

His highest achievement, however, was a scheme known today as a pedestrian "scramble" or the "Barnes Dance" -- the implementation of a complete interval in traffic-signal cycles dedicated solely to pedestrians. Such a cycle allows walkers to cross directly or diagonally with less fear of being clipped by turning automobiles. Similar systems were already in place in Kansas City and Vancouver, but Barnes is widely credited with its installation in Denver, New York City and other cities. And although Denver citizens and local newspapers at first predicted a total downtown meltdown, Denver Post reporter John Buchanan eventually came around: "Barnes has made the people so happy," he wrote after the project was completed. "They're dancing in the streets."

But next month, Denver will have its last dance. The diagonal crosswalks will disappear on May 14.

Sadly, the Denver Boot will remain.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Remembering Karle Seydel on opening day at Coors Field -- in the heart of his neighborhood."

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.