In June, Denver was awarded the Silver Level Bicycle Friendly Community Award – for the second time in four years – from the League of American Bicyclists, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The award recognizes cities that consistently strive to improve biking safety and conditions and that adopt forward-thinking two-wheel policies.
This year, the Denver Department of Public Works will build on that recognition, laying down nineteen more miles of bike lanes to the existing 117, adding bike lanes and removing some parking spaces in favor of bike racks; the improvements are part of a $119 million citywide bicycling-improvement plan called Denver Moves. “I think it reflects Denver’s commitment to health, to sustainability, and to providing choice in our infrastructure,” says Emily Snyder, Denver Public Works’ bike program manager.
But there is still room for improvement — a lot of improvement. On Thursday, outgoing Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher released a scathing report on Denver Moves, saying that despite its high-priority designation by Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver City Council, “the plan is taking a back seat in funding and implementation,” with only $2.8 million funded. The audit also cited “fragmented execution, a failure to fully fund the plan, and key goals not being met,” goals that “remain elusive some four years after the development of the plan.”
Still, things are changing. Here are five steps that we've identified that the city is taking in the right direction, along with five holes that still need filled as Denver’s roads crowd and its growth continues. To see the auditor's report, look below.
Protected bike lanes. In plans slated for the end of the summer, new protected bike lanes on Arapahoe and Lawrence streets are getting a set of armor that puts the existing candlestick-like bollards to shame: a whole row of parked cars dividing the bicyclists from traffic, plus a heap ton more of green paint. Separate bicycle signals will also indicate for cyclists when it’s safe to cross. “Protected bike lanes is the top priority to really impact bicyclists’ perceived safety and comfort,” says Snyder.
Bike detection technology. There’s nothing worse than being stuck at a red light—other than being stuck at a red light that never changes because it doesn’t know you’re there. That was the problem: Bicyclists were running red lights after their patience ran out because the traffic signal neglected them. New technology at seven Denver intersections changes that. All riders have to do is stop on the large, green detection symbol and wait — for much shorter times — for the light to change.
Bike parking. “Another barrier for getting people on bikes is, well, once you’re on a bike and you come to your destination, do you have a convenient place to lock your bike?” Snyder asks. To meet the demand, Denver Public Works will be installing bike corrals and individual “inverted U” racks in the busiest retail and employment areas.
Neighborhood bikeways. Aka “road diets”: The road narrows, a roundabout slows the cars down, the speed limits dip. These are roads that prioritize non-motorized travelers’ safety and slim down to make some more room for cyclists. Denver Public Works will install the first neighborhood bikeway at Knox Court, from Alameda/Morrison Streets to Kentucky Street, and three more will be finished by the end of the year on Garfield Street and East 12th and West 35th avenues.
Mayor’s Office’s Bicycle Safety Action Plan. Though it’s not yet a public document, according to Bike Denver Executive Director Molly North, the report was divided into two halves: What in Denver is causing biking to be unsafe, and what can the city do to change that? The plan will discuss ways to improve infrastructure and, more important, how to educate the public on the pros of bicycling. To North, education was the most valuable part.
Lack of connections. The 15th Street protected bike lane is a bit of a tease. You’re enjoying the ride, feeling safe within the city’s first-ever protected lane, and then suddenly, “it just dead-ends riders into nowhere,” says Brad Evans, a bike advocate and founder of the Denver Cruiser Ride. And now you’re crossing three lanes of traffic. Lack of connections along Denver’s bike lanes has been a common complaint within the cycling community. “For somebody’s who’s a professional bike rider or knows how to ride a bike,” Evans says, “it’s navigable. But on a B-cycle, they’re screwed. The average user doesn’t feel safe on the street until the city starts building infrastructure that’s connected.”
Car-oriented planning. “Multimodal” is becoming a buzzword. It’s like equal rights for transportation: Bikes and pedestrians deserve as much convenience as cars. But despite that value, cars still appear to be winning the game, with major bucks spent on road widenings all over. I-70, I-25 and Broadway, Quebec Street, etc… “There’s a big difference between words and passion,” Evans says. “They say we’re multimodal, but again and again, it’s not a connected system with the priorities. That would be the first thing I’d want different: re-prioritizing.”
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The push for Vision Zero. To North, roads in today’s society are, unfortunately, like businesses — and the everyday accidents that happen? Like everyday expenses. But that’s the problem. While the city has adopted the Toward Zero Deaths plan, North thinks it’s relying on age-old, now-clichéd advice like “wear a seatbelt” and “don't drink and drive.” Vision Zero, on the other hand, is a lot more focused on all those who share the road, whether on foot, two wheels or four, and it aggressively hammers home the idea that a single death is unacceptable. The idea is that traffic accidents aren’t necessarily, well, accidents, and that they could have been prevented with better street design and enforcement. For example: those neighborhood bikeways. “Having a Vision Zero policy would be incredibly important for the safety of our city,” North said. According to Snyder, the mayor is looking into the initiative.
Lowering the speed limits. Denver is one of hundreds of cities across America that has adopted the “Complete Streets” program. It has the same goals as that multimodal value: fairness, safety, and options for all travelers on the road. But with the car-oriented planning still prevailing, the program has yet to see a good yield. In fact, SmartGrowth America rated Denver’s Complete Streets program a 52 out of 100. “Complete streets is so much about who’s using [the streets] and who gets prioritized,” Evans says. “But every plan that comes out of Denver, it keeps going back to cars and trucks.” If Denver were to take steps toward evening the playing field among travelers by, for example, lowering the speed limits to make cycling safer, a big obstacle is that opposition would almost always side with the conventional. “That takes leadership, and you also have to fight tradition,” Evans says. “It’s a lot easier to go along with that than do anything about it.”
A Denver biking master plan. So back to education. If there’s a single thing that Denver does in the near future to improve biking conditions overall, North hopes it’s educate the public. While she’s looking forward to what the mayor’s bike-safety action plan will bring, that’s just scratching the surface. If the city wants to get serious, a five- to ten-year master plan would do the job. “The plan would ask what we are going to do for education, for engineering, encouragement, evaluation and for enforcement — all these things. How do we address all of the things that make our city bike-friendly?” North notes that, in winning the silver from the League of American Bicyclists, these five E’s were the main criteria. To win gold, North says, why not start measuring the city’s progress in each?