Redesigning Broadway and Lincoln: Just the Latest Version of Evolving Streets

A streetcar shares Broadway with cars and a horse-drawn carriage between 1915 and 1925. Photo: Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library
A streetcar shares Broadway with cars and a horse-drawn carriage between 1915 and 1925. Photo: Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library

Denver’s streets are changing. City planners are converting one-way speedways into two-way neighborhood streets, prioritizing transit with more dedicated bus lanes, and installing more protected bike lanes. Meanwhile, City Council members seem to be taking people’s demands for sidewalks citywide seriously.

These changes don’t make everyone happy. The public’s limited street space “belongs” to cars, many argue. That’s just the way it’s always been. Except it’s not.

Take Broadway and Lincoln streets, where the Hancock administration wants to create more efficient dedicated bus lanes, reclaim a car lane to add a protected bikeway, and make crossings safer for pedestrians. These changes are just the latest iteration of streets that have changed, constantly, since the 1800s. The redesign is an evolutionary response to a growing city that will strangle itself with car traffic if it doesn’t prepare.

The redesign is also a return to Denver’s roots. There was a time, in the early-to-mid 1900s, when cars were the new mode on the block, and streetcars and bicyclists had to make room for them on South Broadway. Before the automobile, two north-south cable car lines clanged alongside horsecars on the street, until they rendered animal-powered transit obsolete in 1891.

17th-Welcom Arch
Seventeenth Street, like a lot of major Denver streets, once had streetcars alongside private automobiles. Planners redesigned them solely for cars last century — and now it’s time for them to change again. (If you’re wondering where the Mizpah Arch went, former mayor Benjamin Stapleton removed it to make more room for cars in 1931.) Photo: Shorpy

It was actually bike advocates who started the push for paved roads in the Mile High City at the turn of the 20th century. “More than 25,000 of the city’s 133,859 residents were members of a local bicyclists’ organization, the Denver Wheelmen,” writes Owen Gutfreund, author of “Twentieth-Century Sprawl, Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape.” “Bicyclists convened a Good Roads Convention in October 1900, rallying for state and federal funding for roads” before nascent automobile organizations joined them and “quickly made their presence known.”

In the 1930s state and federal policies began heavily subsidizing infrastructure for the private automobile, incentivizing car-first planning from Denver’s city planners, “even through two-thirds of Denverites did not drive cars,” Gutfreund writes. “They relied on mass transit, which never received the same government support as private cars.” The extinct Denver Tramway Company once moved 36 million passengers a year, or about 250 trips per person.

In 1932 a planning document called for the removal of trolley tracks on major Denver streetcar routes because of “interference” with cars. The Denver Tramway Company gradually became a bus operator to take advantage of the publicly funded infrastructure for rubber-tire vehicles. Car-focused funding and planning finally ended Denver’s streetcar service in 1950. The South Broadway route was one of the last to go, according to a city document.

How road-crazy were Denver’s decision makers in the automobile era? Gutfreund found this hysterical, anonymous quote on the cover of a 1966 Denver Office of Planning document that gives you an idea:

Roads rule the world — not kings, nor courts, nor constables; not ships, nor soldiers. The road is the only legislature that never changes, the only court that never sleeps, the only army that never quits, the first aid to the redemption of any nation, the exodus from stagnation in any society, the call from savagery from any tribe… The road is umpire in every war and when the map is made it simply pushes on its great campaign of help, hope, brotherhood, efficiency, and peace.

Broadway's future. Image: Denver Public Works
Broadway’s future. Image: Denver Public Works

Decisions about streets made back then came in response to a growing, changing city, just as they do today. Back then, “Denver was changing from an Old West mining town into a city of national importance,” writes Gutfreund. The result was an investment in much wider streets at the expense of fixed-track transit, sidewalks, space for bikes, and even front yards. Now the city is changing again — the population swelled by 83,000 between 2010 and 2015, according to the U.S. Census — but street space is finite.

Which brings us back to streets like Lincoln and Broadway. The question is not who the street is for, because it’s a public space — it’s for everyone. The question is, how can planners reorganize it to move everyone? For now, that means a bikeway, transit-only lanes, and bulb-outs to shorten crossings for people walking. For now.

  • Aaron

    Bring back the Mizpah Arch!

    • mckillio

      I have never seen that before, very cool. It was at 7th and Broadway?

      • Aaron

        Exactly! The northern side said Welcome, greeting newly arrived passengers to Denver, and the southern side said Mizpah, a (hebrew?) word for the bond formed between two people, or the bond created when visiting Denver. There was a brief effort to bring back the arch during the Union Station redevelopment, but developers said that it was too late in the planning process and was torn down for impeding traffic, which is exactly why it would make the perfect re-addition for the proposed woonerf on in front of Union Station (dare I say, Wynkoop Woonerf or simply Mizpah Plaza?)

  • iBikeCommute

    I don’t think the broadway plan actually includes any transit improvements?

    • JerryG

      Yes and no. In addition to the bulb outs, the plan includes bus bulbs so that busses will not have to leave the lane to pick up transit riders. However, the last iteration of the plan that I saw showed just a peak period transit only lane, which is in contrast to what was recommended in the Golden Triangle Neighborhood Plan (transit only 24/7) and what will be implemented on Lincoln. There is still time to ensure that Broadway gets a transit only lane 24/7 and people should be pushing for it.

      • iBikeCommute

        I have never understood the reason for peak only bus lanes. At every colfax corridor meeting I have asked what would be the downside of having dedicated bus lanes 24/7 and have never gotten a satisfactory answer.

        • neroden

          If you make them “peak only” it makes it much more likely for cars to drive in them. That makes them useless so it makes them more likely to be removed entirely.

          In short, the campaign for “peak only” lanes is an attempt to make sure cars control everything and there are no bus lanes.

    • David Sachs

      A 23-hour bus only lane on Lincoln is also in the cards, but there’s talk of making both Broadway and Lincoln bus lanes 24/7. During the study that includes the bike lane, planners will probably test various transit setups.

  • Brian Schroder

    Great article. When one thinks about the automobile it went from something that improved lives to something that drew us father apart isolating neighborhoods and people as well as our understanding of one another.

  • garbanzito

    i’m glad to see a broader historical view of changes on Broadway; there are a couple of important details missing from that “city document” you cite (which was prepared 2006-2008 for the study leading to the “South Broadway Widening”) — the tramway strike and the conversion to one-way

    a major turning point for Denver transit was the 1920 Denver Tramway Strike, the centerpiece of a complex struggle about fares and workers’ wages; just as the automobile was on the rise, the strike bankrupted Denver Tramway Company and it never fully recovered; during the ensuing years streetcars were more run-down and got a bad reputation; this reputation carried over to the buses that began to replace the streetcars; meanwhile, as if to punch transit while it was down, the automobile was insurgent; Broadway became the Miracle Mile, a major area for automobile sales and service in the city (Model T trucks were also built on Broadway from 1919 to 1932)

    Broadway’s submission to the automobile may have seemed complete with the demise of streetcars, but it was cemented in 1955 when the city converted Broadway and Lincoln to one-way streets over the course of a weekend, without informing the surrounding residents; this was when white middle-class residents had started moving to the suburbs, and Broadway quickly became more of a commuter route than a “main street”; even from the start merchants felt the faster one-way traffic led to a decline in patronage

    most would say reconversion to two-way is simply unthinkable because of the proportion of commuter traffic on Broadway; i would say we should look at whether the current level of commuter traffic is sustainable at all

  • Ken Schroeppel

    Excellent! Thank you, Dave.

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