Detractors of Hickenlooper’s Bike Plan Want to Hold Colorado Back

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Governor John Hickenlooper announced his bike plan last week at Interbike in Las Vegas. Photo: Cyclingtips.com

Two camps emerged after Governor John Hickenlooper announced that the state will invest more than $100 million in making Colorado better for biking and walking: those who saw the bid as a way to expand travel choices while reducing traffic injuries and deaths, and those who viewed it as a threat to the idea that all transportation dollars should be spent on car infrastructure.

Hickenlooper’s pledge includes a commitment from the Colorado Department of Transportation to devote at least 2.5 percent of its $738 million budget to bike and pedestrian projects. That’s more than nothing, but also not a huge amount if you consider walking and biking to be fundamental parts of the state’s transportation system.

Still, the pledge sent a signal that change is afoot at CDOT. And any time there’s progress on funding for complete streets, the same stale arguments from the same stale thinkers come out of the woodwork.

Cue Randal O’Toole, a shill for the fossil fuel industry who thinks transit is a waste and sprawl is the natural order of the universe. “I don’t think you need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars here,” O’Toole told the Denver Post. “Just find out where bicyclists are going and provide safe facilities for them on roads they are already using. A lot of times, these projects are automobile-hostile improvements, like reducing the number of lanes in already-crowded roadways.”

“Automobile-hostile environments.” That’s how O’Toole describes road diets that include bike lanes, like the one on Folsom Street in Boulder, or the redesign proposed for South Broadway in Denver. These projects make streets safer for all users, spur economic activity, and give people additional choices about how to get around. Ironically, in Colorado O’Toole hangs his hat at an organization called the Independence Institute (one of several think-tanks with ties to the Koch brothers where he holds a title), but he promotes dependence on one form of transportation — the private automobile.

We already know what happens when we design streets where moving cars takes precedence over all other forms of travel — we get fatal crashes like the one this weekend on Sheridan Boulevard. It’s no coincidence that Sheridan is one of Denver’s CDOT-operated streets and also one of the city’s worst pedestrian environments. To use O’Toole’s word, it’s a hostile place to walk or bike.

The Denver Business Journal, whose editor has similarly anachronistic ideas about transportation, covered the governor’s announcement with this headline: “Not everyone cheering Hickenlooper’s $100 million, 4-year bicycle plan.” Randy Baumgardner, a state senator from Hot Sulphur Springs, told the paper: “I’d like to see the highway infrastructure fixed before we start spending money on lessor infrastructure projects.”

What makes bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects “lessor”? After all, a dollar for bike-ped improvements goes a lot farther than a dollar for highways. Consider that a single highway project, the widening of I-70, is projected to cost $1.8 billion. For a small fraction of that — $100 million — here’s what you could buy:

  • About 600 miles of protected bike lanes
  • One year’s worth of RTD passes for more than 100,000 people.
  • About 600 miles of badly needed sidewalks, or 20,408 high-visibility crosswalks.

And by enabling people to make more trips without getting in their cars, these projects help prevent wear and tear on roads. If we want our roads to be in good condition, making them accessible only to the heaviest vehicles and most damaging forms of travel isn’t the way to go.

Yet according to the Business Journal, Baumgardner wanted voters to renew the bond program that paid for T-REX, the highway project that widened I-25 to “improve congestion” — and promptly reached pre-construction congestion levels just four years later.

It’s almost as if the people agitating against the governor’s bike plan don’t actually care about goals like improving safety, reducing traffic, getting good value out of transportation spending, and giving people greater freedom to travel how they please. They just don’t want more people on bikes.

  • dufflepud

    I agree that Hickenlooper’s commitment to investing in bike infrastructure is fantastic–and I agree that O’Toole is misguided. But we (ped/bike advocates) do ourselves a disservice when we refer to folks like O’Toole as “shill[s] for the oil industry” and decry their ties to the Koch brothers. O’Toole himself is probably a lost cause, but the many who hold similar views offer opportunity for us to win people over with sound reasoning. Ad hominem might work when you’re preaching to the choir, but it’s no way to evangelize–and I don’t say that to concern troll. We have every reason to strive for better, more inclusive rhetoric.

  • I take the view that currently only 3% of roadway users are bicycle riders, and note that recent studies in other cities show that only about 40% of would-be bicycle riders feel safe-enough to ride on-street in heavy traffic. Precisely because many would-be bicycle riders are loathe to ride on streets Seattle recently has changed the focus of their bicycle infrastructure construction away from roadways to off-street paths.

    I am currently involved in preliminary planning for another Denver neighborhood bicycle route, but as a 30-year transportation industry professional, I have some misgivings about having to take away 50% of the available street parking on an RTD bus route just to create two 5-foot wide bike paths. My younger colleagues are all for reducing the roadway width by 25% to meet the desires of the 3% crowd but I also have to plan for other roadway users who aren’t able to ride bicycles to fill most or all of their transportation need.

    The route in-question is already marked as a “sharrow” route, with daily traffic of over 6,000 vehicles and 300-350 individual bicycle riders. The southern end of the proposed route is parked full on both sides of the street for three solid blocks, and is mainly either parking for small businesses or extra parking for condo owners or renters who don’t get enough on-site parking to meet their needs.

    To be certain there are studies which say that increased use by bicycles can benefit small businesses but older established businesses and their aged clientele for the most part wont benefit from a 50% reduction in available street parking either. However, if we want our own children to continue to have a viable planet to live their lives out on we must rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels, within the next 15-20 years to be on the safe side.

    Certainly over the available time frame to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we can re-engineer cars, buses, and trucks to either hydrogen hybrid or EV technology which will still need roads to operate on. Twenty years from now many of the millennials currently pushing bike lane construction so hard will likely be living in our suburbs in their 40s and 50s raising teenage children, the thrill of living in the city replaced by the facts of aging.

    Even if the City of Denver was able to reach a 10% bicycle share 90% of roadway users will still be driving powered vehicles, and I personally can’t see giving even 10% of roadway users more than 10% of roadway funding nor roadway space either. How much can you do with a 40-foot wide road when RTD mandates 10-foot width operating lanes and 10-foot width bus stops, as well as a 35-foot minimum intersection radius too?

    One more constraint that I learned about just last week concerns the special equipment necessary to provide service to separated bike paths, service such as snow-plowing, paving, striping, sealing, and other roadway and bike lane maintenance. DPW has bought some specialized equipment that is 7 feet wide just for use on segregated bike paths, which also means that segregated bike paths must be 7 feet wide at a minimum.

    DPW also informed me that previous snow-removal policy has left piled snow in parking lanes until it can later be removed, and if that policy continues, I am afraid that bike riders may have to wait for the snow to melt, either that or haul it off at a rate of $200 per truckload including using city crews to load it, just to reopen bike lanes after a major snowfall.

    I am leaning toward leaving at least several blocks of this route as a sharrow route and leaving parking on both sides just because there isn’t enough room to accommodate the current or mid-term future needs of all users. I am afraid that we are largely stuck with the fact that many of Denver’s roads are narrower than similar roads in many big cities and in order to meet all needs we are just going to have to learn to share.

    How about we change the law to allow electric golf carts on our local streets, which would immediately give those of us who are not able or inclined to ride bicycles an emission-free vehicle to drive to local destinations? Today there are several golf cart manufacturers that build EV street-legal golf carts that will run about 30 mph and travel several hours between charges. Perhaps if we had a golf-cart lane in each direction on our narrow roads there would be enough room left over to squeeze a narrow bike lane in too.

    One thing that I dislike immensely about Denver transportation planning lately is how Denver-centric it seems to be, as metro-Denver is a growing urban area of 3 million people, not just a central city that seemingly couldn’t care less about suburban commuters who must drive to meet their needs. In-fact, my opinion says that increasingly the City of Denver would prefer than suburbanites spend their extra money in the suburbs rather than driving downtown and clogging-up streets.

    What should we do, kill all the street parking for 14 blocks just so that the 3% crowd won’t have to share the road with cars, which will force the bus to stop in the road rather than out of the travel lanes, kill only half of the street parking which will force the bus to stop in the road rather than out of the travel lanes on just one side, just so that the 3% crowd doesn’t have to share the road with other roadway users, or leave it the way that it is, a road to be shared by all users including the 97% that don’t ride bicycles too?

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