Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Denver's traffic-engineering staple, the Barnes Dance, gets national pub as it's set to end here

Loved by walkers, loathed by drivers, the Barnes Dance -- the diagonal crosswalk system embraced by downtown Denver six decades ago -- will come to an end next month. But it's still being introduced in other cities, including a recent pilot project in Washington, DC. Still, you don't have to go that far to do a Barnes Dance: Littleton has a dandy diagonal crosswalk at Main and South Prince streets.

The Barnes Dance was introduced in Denver by Henry Barnes, the traffic engineer hired to tame Denver's wild traffic problems back in the '50s. In Barnes' autobiography, The Man With the Red and Green Eyes, he acknowledged that other cities had tried the tactic (and he introduced it during stints as a traffic engineer in Baltimore and New York City). But it was in Denver that it got its most expansive test, and the technique was so successful that it was named for Barnes. The tactic stops all vehicular traffic for a certain amount of time, allowing pedestrians to cross in all directions -- including diagonally.

The Barnes Dance, and Barnes himself, have gotten plenty of attention since the Denver Department of Public Works revealed that next month, it will get rid of the forty-plus downtown crosswalks where it is used; the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio even weighed in last week. But that attention won't be enough to keep Denver from doing its last dance.

"We've hung on to it this long because of all the nostalgia," Brian Mitchell, Denver's current traffic engineer, told the Journal. "We knew the public would lament that we're losing a piece of Denver history. But we knew it would have to happen eventually. The time is now."

Not everywhere, though. Last fall, Durango added its own Barnes Dance, too.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "4/20: A day that will really live in infamy."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun