One of the city's newest installations — a traffic diverter that was put in at the intersection of East Seventh Avenue and Pennsylvania Street — has been a topic of both controversy and confusion for people navigating it.
Denver's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure installed the diverter earlier this summer with the hopes of making Seventh Avenue safer and more appealing for bicyclists and other non-car travelers. "The intent...is to reduce vehicle volumes and cut-through traffic on Seventh between Williams and Pennsylvania, where we have constructed a neighborhood bikeway," says Nancy Kuhn, marketing and communications director for DOTI.
"Neighborhood bikeways are streets that put people walking and bicycling first while still allowing vehicle access for residents and businesses along the corridor," she explains. "People driving eastbound on Seventh are now required to turn right at Pennsylvania."
Judging from video captured by Westword at the intersection and firsthand accounts from bike-safety advocates, many motorists don't seem to have gotten this memo.
The first issue that David Chen — a member of the Denver Bicycle Lobby who also served on Mayor Mike Johnston's DOTI transition committee — noticed with the new diverter when inspecting it was just how dangerous of a merge situation it created for eastbound cars and bike traffic.
As a bicyclist approaches the intersection, intending to pass through the diverter and continue east on Seventh, they must move from a bike lane on the right side of the road over to a newly established lane in the center of the road, which cars are not meant to pass through.
A motorist traveling east toward the intersection must move from a traffic lane on the left side of the old bike lane into a turn lane on the right of the new one that's now in the center. If a bike that is going straight approached the intersection at the same time as a car attempting to turn right — which vehicles are required to do at the intersection — their paths would cross, and one would have to yield for the other to avoid a collision.
Chen stopped near the intersection on the morning of September 11 to take a video of cars going through the diverter, intending to document that dangerous situation. He wound up capturing a car easily ignoring the diverter and proceeding straight through the intersection. The video, which Chen posted to Twitter, shows a white SUV going into the right turn lane and then passing the flex posts to the left before going back onto Seventh Avenue.
Westword visited the intersection on September 14 and took video of confused motorists between 3 p.m. and 3:20 p.m., with around a dozen cars using the diverter incorrectly or simply ignoring it to continue onto Seventh. Additional footage was captured on September 15 between 12:30 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. of more than twenty cars doing the same thing. In this same time frame, a little over forty cars obeyed the intersection.
My focus was to show the dangerous merge zone at 7th/Pennsylvania where @DenverDOTI asks cars and bikes to cross into each other, but this driver also wanted to demonstrate their disdain for the new infra. #BikeDen deserves better. /1 pic.twitter.com/LJkZZg8S34— David Chen 陳達威 (@ddchen) September 11, 2023
"There's one side of the street that can continue proceeding forward on," he says. "And so you can immediately see why that becomes an issue: As a driver, you're coming up, and you see another driver coming down, and they can proceed straight through. So in your mind, it doesn't click that it's a diverter." Chen is a passionate advocate of bike safety, but not because of the risk of what could happen to him each day that he rides his bike on Denver's streets. It's because of what he's already gone through.
In February, 2019, just a few blocks from the Seventh and Penn diverter — at Seventh and Sherman Street — Chen was "left-hooked by an inattentive pickup truck driver." The crash "destroyed my bike and sent me to the ER," he says.
In late May, near the end of Mayor Michael Hancock's third term, DOTI issued a statement celebrating its success in reaching a "major milestone in bike infrastructure" by building 137 miles of new bike lanes over the course of five years. But Chen believes there's still plenty to do.
"[DOTI] has designed both the diverters at Williams and at Pennsylvania as one-way diverters, and that is not in compliance with not only their guidelines — their own internal guidelines — but also NACTO guidelines," he says, referring to Denver's Complete Streets Design Guidelines released in 2020 and the guidelines of the National Association of City Traffic Officials.
"All of the diverters in the NACTO manual...are at least two-way diverters," Chen adds, noting how the same is true of the Denver Complete Streets guide.
Making Denver's streets consistent with these guidelines is one of the recommendations found in the DOTI Vibrant Denver transition report.
An example of a more effective, two-way diverter than the one at Seventh and Pennsylvania can be found at 35th Avenue and Irving Street, Chen says.
There, a curbed concrete barrier in the median of Irving Street blocks cars from going straight from both directions of travel. "If you've got something like at 35th and Irving, which is a proper full diverter, you see a concrete barrier and it's just a straight line — that's a design vernacular that drivers understand," Chen says. "It's a curb, you have a curb, a concrete raised island; you have to turn, you cannot go through that concrete island. But for some reason on Seventh, they decided to create a one-way diverter using paint and [flex] posts. Obviously we've heard all the aesthetic arguments against it and all that, but the real issue, in my mind, is that they created single-direction diverters."
Brad Evans, founder of both the Denver Cruiser Ride — a weekly summer time social bike ride event — and the Denver FUGLY Facebook group, which is dedicated to documenting and shaming Denver's "fugliest" new architecture, is right at the intersection of disliking the new infrastructure for both practical and aesthetic reasons.
"It's paint and plastic, and that's — for me — not real protection for people that ride bikes," he tells Westword about the Seventh and Pennsylvania update. "But then, more importantly, it's a beautiful parkway, and now it's just trashed up. ... It's ugly, and it's confusing."
Jason Wissner, who primarily drives, first encountered the Seventh and Penn diverter in early August before the flex posts were put in. He was confused when he first saw it, so he pulled over.
"When I got to Penn, there was a sign that said, 'Right turn only // Bicycles excepted,'" he remembers. "And I'm unusual; I read all the street signs, and my brain couldn't quite process what I was reading, because what I was seeing was: 'I can proceed straight.'"
Wissner pulled over and watched as multiple cars ignored the sign and went straight through the intersection. "Something is wrong here," he thought at the time. "The sign is saying, 'Unless you're on a bike, you have to take a right turn.' But the road clearly doesn't give any indication of that whatsoever."
Wissner thinks the flex posts are helping to mark the separation between the bike lane and the car lane, but it's still very confusing. "The way the yellow lines go for the cars — if I'm in a car and I'm not paying attention, which is 80 percent of the drivers, I'm going to get stuck in this bike lane," he says, referring to the idea that if a driver follows the yellow median line into the intersection, it will take them straight into the bike lane, which they are supposed to be diverted away from.
The current setup isn't necessarily the final version of the intersection, according to DOTI, but the city isn't planning to make changes any time soon.
"These treatments are new, and we’re planning on doing some post-install analysis after traffic patterns have normalized — usually at least six months after the install is complete," Kuhn says. "We will monitor the corridor to ensure volumes are appropriate with what we are trying to accomplish. If vehicle volumes remain too high, then we can always follow up afterward with additional treatments. The installation is too new to make any conclusions yet as to whether or not additional modifications are needed."
Seventh and Penn isn't the first intersection that has had problems lately.
At the other end of the Seventh Avenue bikeway, changes to the intersection with Williams Street caused a neighborhood group to hold an impromptu meeting to discuss their concerns over the aesthetics of the modified intersection. Bike-safety activists crashed that May 31 meeting, but the residents eventually got a virtual hearing with DOTI rep Nick Williams and City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer on July 20. Since then, the city has added signage to the intersection and removed some of the flex posts. However, residents have still reported accidents and mishaps at the intersection and other points along the bikeway.
Chen has already made his voice heard with the new mayoral administration through his work on the transition committee. He hopes Johnston and whoever he selects as DOTI's new director won't be afraid to take bold action when it comes to building out the city's bikeway network.
"As you see with this example, if you do it halfway, you just incur wrath," he concludes. "You make it harder for yourself with all the blowback that you generate, and you don't get the safety outcomes that you intended when you began the project."