Bill Conklin will never forget the day they arrived. The five-decade-long resident of West Highland had already seen a lot of changes as his neighborhood became one of the hottest areas in Denver, a mecca for millennial couples with strollers and dogs and Subarus, bringing with them a slurry of hip bars and restaurants and also increased traffic. With all of the congestion and wear on the roads that’s caused, few neighborhood residents deny the need for road improvements.
But putting traffic circles along West 35th Avenue? When they appeared in late August, Conklin wondered if that could really be the right solution.
When he spotted a new circle, Conklin approached it the way you might approach a stranger in a saloon — with caution and curiosity. Moseying up to the intersection of 35th and Raleigh Street on foot, he noticed that a car behind him was also headed toward the traffic circle. So when he reached the intersection, Conklin waited until the car had entered the traffic circle before he started to walk from one side of 35th to the other.
He was just a few steps into his crossing when he realized that he was about to become fresh meat. Without warning, the driver had zipped a full 180 degrees around the traffic circle in a sharp U-turn and was now gunning toward Conklin.
“He almost killed me," Conklin recalls angrily. “Sooner or later, some pedestrian — probably a kid — is going to get killed when some guy flips around in a U-turn and comes back on them."
If Conklin’s story sounds melodramatic, he’s actually just one local among many who are not pleased — to put it mildly — about the traffic circles that the City of Denver installed along 35th at Raleigh, Newton and Julian streets this summer. Like Conklin, those neighbors are questioning why the city created traffic circles rather than just putting in more four-way stops, which are already common throughout the area.
But for all the Bill Conklins of West Highland, it seems that there are just as many residents who support the traffic circles. As a result, the neighborhood is caught in a vicious cycle of its own, flinging fighting words back and forth on NextDoor while a series of protest “art” installations involving a kiddie pool and smelly dog poop suddenly appeared at the spots in question.
How did these traffic circles — devices more commonly associated with Europe — come to be installed in north Denver?
According to Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Public Works, the traffic circles (which are often confused with, but are technically different from, roundabouts) are part of a larger plan to accommodate bicyclists throughout the Mile High City. As one of the stated objectives of the Denver Moves: Bicycles plan, released in 2011, the city is trying to ensure that every house in Denver is within a quarter-mile of some kind of bicycle infrastructure. In West Highland, 35th Avenue was designated a “Neighborhood Bikeway” in 2015, meaning that the road gives priority to non-motorized users.
“[Then] we heard from the community that they were concerned about vehicle speeds along the [35th Avenue] corridor and lack of stop sign compliance,” Kuhn explains in an email. “After taking those comments into consideration, DPW designed temporary traffic circles for the intersections of Raleigh, Newton and Julian to see if they will be effective at helping maintain neighborhood travel speeds and better operator behavior.”
The traffic circles may not even be permanent; they are part of a pilot project, Kuhn explains, and the city is collecting data through a variety of methods — neighborhood surveys, traffic counters, visual observations — through early 2019 to determine if they will be modified...or remain at all.
The city’s official line is that residents are supportive. “Feedback from our posts on social media have been overwhelmingly positive (140 likes on twitter and more positive than negative feedback on Facebook),” Kuhn writes. “My take is that there are some people who don’t like the circles, some people who are happy about them and others who don’t fully understand the purpose of them and what we’re aiming to accomplish, so we’ll be doing more education and outreach as our study continues.”
A slurry of residents’ posts on NextDoor, however, cast some doubt on feedback being "overwhelmingly positive."
“I just witnessed someone in a Tahoe who almost couldn't make a left turn at 35th and Raleigh — their turn radius was too large. How are others with large SUVs getting by?”
“I hate the darn things. What happened to speed bumps? Slowing down? Obeying the speed limit? Dang!!!!”
“I agree these circles look awful. Those streets where they put them are too narrow. It is sad that in a nice neighborhood like ours the city wants to put in such dysfunctional circles. Everyone pays a lot of taxes and we deserve better. What about the winter, the property owners on those corners better park far from the corners. Snow plow oh man another nightmare.”
Westword got on the case after we heard from one particularly riled-up resident, Tony Cooper, who let us know that someone had installed some creative “art” at the Raleigh traffic circle in mid-September. The art was still there when we made a field trip to see it firsthand: a kiddie pool with a sign above it stating, “Your Tax $ at work! Welcome to the new Highlands Recreation Center. Now featuring the sensational Olympic pool tour!”
What Cooper hadn’t mentioned was that between the Raleigh and Netwon street intersections, half a dozen plastic baggies with dog poop in them had been very intentionally thrown into the middle of the traffic circles. (This reminded us of another recent episode in Baker, when a resident had used dog poop as a “homeless deterrent.” Seriously, what is it with cranky neighbors utilizing canine excrement as a means of protest?)
As we were taking pictures of the “olympic pool” sign at the Raleigh intersection, a retired neighbor named Jeanne Kreber, who’s lived in West Highland for 28 years, decided to throw in her two cents. “I find the signs very upsetting, how they’re worded," she said, almost shaking with anger. “I think there's better ways to protest something rather than do something so offensive."
Kreber is squarely in the pro-traffic circles camp. A former pediatric ICU nurse, she says she spent years treating children maimed in auto accidents, and she believe the traffic circles have slowed down drivers on 35th Avenue, thereby protecting children in the neighborhood. She also thinks the traffic circles are more effective than a four-way stop, since people weren’t obeying stop signs before.
"I back out of my driveway slowly, and I can't tell you how many times I've seen clear both ways but still almost get hit by somebody who suddenly runs the stop sign," she explains. "Most people I know feel the same way I do. Those who are opposed [to traffic circles] just don't like the inconvenience of it. The people I have heard complain about it are people with no kids and older people."
At Highlands Cork and Coffee on a recent Thursday morning, Conklin, Cooper and a third longtime resident, Roger Oram, certainly qualify as “older people,” but they bristle at the suggestion that they’re not concerned about children’s safety.
The traffic circles have become a favorite topic of conversation. For almost an hour, the three retirees hem and haw about traffic patterns, making numerous drawings that illustrate what they see as obvious flaws with the West 35th Avenue traffic circles: how each intersection only uses two stop signs rather than an ideal model with four “yield” signs, how there are no crosswalks, how there should be no U-turns allowed, how the intersections are too small to begin with.
"This was apparently done with cyclists in mind, but I just don't see how this is particularly favorable to cyclists," says Oram, drawing serious nods from Cooper and Conklin. “I just don't understand the need for these things in the first place. It's just stupid."
He adds (hypothetically) that if he was on a bicycle and wanted to turn left at one of the three intersections when no traffic was around, he would probably just cut a sharp left, against the direction of the traffic circle, rather than bother going all the way around it.
"You mean you would make an illegal turn!?" Cooper chimes in sarcastically.
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According to Cooper, there are plenty of people who are already making illegal left turns in the traffic circles, and most of them aren’t cyclists. "I've seen Denver Public Schools buses do that. They have to. They can't make those buses go around the circle," he says. “I've seen UPS trucks do it. My neighbor, who has a landscaping business and has a truck with a trailer, says he makes illegal turns because he can't drag his trailer around the circle."
There’s some history behind their frustration, they say: The traffic circles are just the latest insult in a string of road infrastructure problems in West Highland. Oram is actually behind another neighborhood campaign asking the city to install traffic lights to improve safety and traffic flow along heavily traveled West 32nd Avenue at the intersections of Perry and Tennyson streets. And all three residents have a thing or two to say about the poor state of pavement along 32nd. Cooper goes so far as to suggest there’s a conspiracy not to repave 32nd Avenue at all, so that it gets so bad that bicyclists will stop using it and will be forced three blocks north to 35th Avenue, where the traffic circles are. He adds, "Dentists are the only people who support the roughness of 32nd, because after you ride or drive it, you have to have your fillings put back in.”
Cooper vows to continue protesting the traffic circles at West Highland Neighborhood Association meetings, with Denver Public Works, on NextDoor, and with the councilman representing West Highland, Rafael Espinoza, whom Cooper aims to give a piece of his mind at a private meeting the two have set up in late October. "He's tired of me putting things on NextDoor," Cooper says of Espinoza.
Over the remaining duration of the test period, the city is certain to hear plenty more strong opinions, both for and against the traffic circles. In this foul fight, we’ll wager there will be more dog poop, too.