Denver Business Journal: Bike Lanes Are a Conspiracy Against Drivers

Broadway has plenty of room for people on bikes, but not according to the Denver Business Journal. Image: Google Maps
According to the Denver Business Journal, there’s just not enough room on Broadway for bike lanes. Image: Google Maps

Denver Business Journal Editor Neil Westergaard went old timey in a piece last Friday with the headline “Bikes are OK, but Denver plan goes too far.” The article was behind a pay wall for subscribers, but there are some excerpts below that give readers the gist.

Westergaard frames the city’s efforts to improve conditions for bicycling as a duel between drivers and bike riders. Carving out a small fraction of street space for safe biking infrastructure, he claims, is part of a conspiracy to antagonize drivers. To him, Denver’s bike mobility plans aren’t improvements that will let people get around safely and conveniently on two wheels, but “deceptive” tactics to force people out of their cars. As if the status quo doesn’t compel people to shun bicycling.

It’s hard to count all the antiquated concepts that came out of this piece and a prequel Westergaard wrote in April, but let’s focus on his core claims:

But when the city talks about taking out two traffic lanes on Broadway from Colfax to I­25 to build bike lanes, which is in the city’s bicycle mobility plan, it’s not about accommodating bikes, but about penalizing drivers. Put the bike lanes on Acoma Street or Bannock or Sherman Street if you want a new bike route, not down the most heavily traveled surface street out of downtown Denver.

It’s curious that a business publication favors getting people in cars in and out of the city as fast as possible, instead of the bike-friendly tactics local merchants view as advantageous to them. And arguing that the city is consumed by the goals of “penalizing drivers” doesn’t pass the laugh test — we’re talking about the same city that wants to widen Broadway and other streets around I-25.

But more to the point: Westergaard’s notion that side streets are better for bike lanes implies that people on bikes — often the residents and patrons of Baker and Golden Triangle — don’t deserve any of the prime public street space allocated to drivers speeding out of the city. Converting car lanes to bike lanes is about making it just as easy for Denverites to get around the city on bikes as it is for suburbanites to get in and out of it in cars.

Broadway is the most heavily traveled surface street out of downtown because it’s the most efficient north-south connection. Acoma, Bannock, and Sherman are tight, two-way streets with kinks, stop signs, parking, and other barriers that make them inefficient bike routes. Meanwhile, Broadway is roomy — cutting one car lane can create protected bike lanes in both directions, making it accessible to a much wider variety of travelers.

If Westergaard truly is concerned about freedom of choice, he probably recognizes that bike riders heading to Baker from, say, River North, don’t have one. There’s no safe and direct option — especially not for the typical person who doesn’t feel comfortable biking next to fast-moving traffic. That’s what happens after several decades of engineering streets to move a single mode — private automobiles.

Here’s another off-base assertion:

Nothing is stopping people from riding bikes in Denver. There are lots of quiet streets you can ride on. You can even put your bike on an RTD bus or carry it onto the light rail (with a permit) if there’s no bike path where you need to go.

There are a number of barriers to biking, and many of them boil down to one thing: fear of getting killed. Cities around the world — including American cities — have been retrofitting their streets for years not because biking is trendy, but because street designs that work for bikes save lives.

People in cars benefit too: streets that are safe for bicycling tend to have less speeding and other dangerous behavior that jeopardizes motor vehicle occupants. The urgency to take action is especially acute in Denver, where the traffic death rate is twice Seattle’s. In that city, the streets have been getting progressively safer as leaders turn to designs like protected bike lanes.

As for the apparently amazing convenience afforded to bike riders by RTD, Westergaard’s right about one thing: buses have racks with room for two bikes. Which is great as long as two people haven’t already claimed those racks.

And finally:

They believe the automobile is the chief culprit behind global climate change, and while reducing auto use in Denver won’t make a dent in world carbon emissions, they want to do their part anyway. Others naturally enjoy riding bikes and want to share the joy with everyone. Still others don’t own cars, have structured their lives around the fact they don’t drive and want people to be more like them.

Do you know anyone whose main reason for biking is that it’s good for the environment? Me neither. People bike because it’s convenient, affordable, and yes, enjoyable. Adding bike infrastructure is not a matter of compelling people to opt for this cheap and speedy way to get around town — it’s a means to enable people to feel comfortable biking who are currently discouraged by the traffic whipping by at 40 mph or faster.

The utopian bike planners of Westergaard’s imagination are actually pragmatists. They are acknowledging the geometric reality of built-up cities like Denver: There’s no way to accommodate a growing population by cramming more cars and car lanes onto our streets. Bikeable streets are crucial because they allow more people to move around a given street network.

Westergaard seems to know a lot about bikes (he has three!), but the simple fact that bicycling is a more efficient use of street space than driving has somehow eluded him.

  • mckillio

    Excellent rebuttal, thank you. In regards to Westergaard’s point about “penalizing drivers”, I look at it as not incentivizing them, a small but important difference, and giving people a safe alternative to driving. A driver’s convenience should not be more important than my safety.

    One thing that I have noticed with these debates is that most people (on both sides) only think about the here and now. But these plans are really about the long term. Denver is only going to get more and more dense, increasing traffic and the cost of owning a car (primarily the cost of parking and the eventual increase of the price of gas)

  • Pardon my ignorance due in part to my no longer living in Denver, but isn’t this just a repurposing of the bus lanes that were made redundant by the shift of most Broadway/Lincoln bus routes riders (and therefore actual buses, save the 0) on to light rail?

    • JerryG

      No, the bus lanes are still there. There are two parts to the proposal. The first would convert the current peak-only bus/transit lanes to all-the-time bus/transit lanes on Broadway and Lincoln. The second part would take away one general traffic lane on Broadway and convert it to a two-way bike lanes. This would still leave three general traffic lanes on Broadway, the same that is currently on Lincoln.

  • ANM

    It’s SO easy to take a bike on the train – you just a need a permit! Except it’s even easier. In fact, you don’t need a permit. That permit program Neil references hasn’t been in place since … 2008 maybe? Anyone have the timeline handy? Makes it difficult to trust a guy who says it’s so easy to bike around Denver already who references a policy that has not been in place for years. http://www.rtd-denver.com/Bike_n_Ride.shtml

  • bicyclerelated

    So, in a city in which it is becoming increasingly hard to pay for rent, let alone a car/car payment. Bicycles will become more popular. They’re less expensive, more logical for the working professional who resides in a densely populated area. Taking into consideration the density of Denver, this is inevitable. So if you want to waste your breath and try to argue that bike lanes are a conspiracy, be my guest. I am going to ride my bike and smile while you hunch over your computer typing your idiotic manifesto.

  • Andy in Denver

    He’s also totally out of date. The RTD Light Rail “permit” for bikes hasn’t been in use in years. This is the suburbanites view that the only reason that roads exist in Denver is so they can get in and out as fast as possible. They don’t give a damn about the people that actually live there.

  • Carolyne

    Is there a way to get Neil Westergaard to let me write a rebuttal? I’m his age (our kids went through school together) and I’ve been commuting by bicycle since 1993.

  • Greg H.

    I’m getting a little tired of this whole “drivers vs. cyclist” dichotomy espoused by Neil Westergaard in his editorial. Doesn’t he realize that most people who ride bicycles in Denver are ALSO drivers, and thus they have a desire to accommodate both bicycles and cars as efficiently as possible?

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