Will Hancock Accelerate Change on the Streets to Free Denver From the Car?

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Gil Peñalosa’s advice for Denver? Change the streets for the betterment of the city, not a few individuals. Photo: David Sachs

Denver is nowhere near its goals for transit, walking, and biking, and the city is slipping further down the slope of car dependence.

Changing that trend is less about money than politics and prioritization, Gil Peñalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, told a room full of hundreds at the Denver Sustainability Summit on Monday. It will take political courage and the will to put the general public’s interest above the interest of a few vocal NIMBYs, he said.

“Change is not unanimous,” said Peñalosa, former commissioner of Bogotá’s parks and rec department. “If you want change to be unanimous, you have to water it down so much that it won’t be change any longer.”

Refitting public streets has to be about the public good, Peñalosa stressed, and the government has to be “the guardian angel of the gentle majority,” not a henchman of the vocal few. Mayor Michael Hancock’s Department of Public Works recently did exactly what Peñalosa warned against with the Stout Street bike lane. His administration has to be bolder, he said.

“Ultimately, it’s about leadership,” Hancock told Streetsblog. “Once you’ve heard everyone, and if there hasn’t been anything that changes your ideal or kind of debunks the justification that you’re moving forward with, then you have to be bold enough to move forward. So I think this conversation has been worthy to kind of have us step back and make sure we’re taking those necessary steps.”

More Denverites drive solo to work now than at the turn of the century, and fewer people take transit now than they did then. Meanwhile, the share of people walking and biking to work has barely changed. That’s why solo car commuting will have to drop 13 percent in just three years to reach Hancock’s goal of 60 percent by 2020. Biking and walking has to climb 9 percent to reach his mode share goal of 15 percent.

Asked about reaching those goals, Hancock said he would like to “accelerate it in a much bolder, grander fashion so we can be able to accomplish some of these goals.” Hancock said that “we need to really take a bolder step with regards to transportation mobility strategies,” but would not elaborate on specifics, saying that we can expect to hear something by the end of March.

Elected officials revel in national superlatives about Denver’s transportation system — something Peñalosa calls a dangerous “myth of excellence.” But numbers don’t lie. The Hancock administration and its predecessors have prioritized driving with money and political capital. Yet people won’t walk unless they have sidewalks, they won’t take transit unless it’s efficient and dignified, and they won’t bike if the city doesn’t fund its own planned bike network.

“Change is hard,” Peñalosa said. “Same is easier. That’s why we do more of the same. But not only do we have to do things right, but also we’ve gotta do the right things.”

  • Dan

    My opine;
    About prioritizing:
    (Yet) “people won’t walk unless they have sidewalks, they won’t take transit unless it’s efficient and dignified, and they won’t bike if the city doesn’t fund its own planned bike network”.
    Here are just a few more reasons.
    People also won’t walk, bike or take transit if:
    They’re going across town carrying anything more than a backpacks worth.
    The weather is not favorable.
    People in their party are not capable.
    – I’m sure there are more reasons…
    Biking is definitely great for recreation and for the cross section of people that are willing and able to enjoy the luxury of having predictable amounts of time to get things accomplished.
    Many of the arguments used in this blog assume the majority of the population are healthy, 25 year olds with no heath problems, aren’t on a tight schedule, are traveling alone or in very small groups and aren’t carrying loads.
    Regarding the general public’s interest, I think it is with the motor vehicle drivers, not the vocal few bikers.

    • Brian Schroder

      Sadly, people’s priorities are only to themselves even if they care about climate change they still get in their car and pollute the earth thinking it’s not my problem to address.

    • Jden

      Try telling that to the thousands of people in Denver who don’t own a car, or the thousands more families who split one car for their household. Go on the bus, and you’ll see people with groceries, mothers with multiple children (and strollers), people in wheelchairs, and people with suitcases. Walk around Denver’s neighborhoods, and you’ll see people choosing to bike and walk to the store, to school, to work, and to the bus. Just because some have the privilege to choose to drive everywhere, (and, often, the privilege to choose to live in a home that necessitates driving,) does not mean that the city should plan around those choices. Take a look at the many cities in the U.S. where transit, biking and walking are embedded in the city’s culture, and you’ll see a whole lot more people choosing to get away from cars. (I did, for six years, and was happier, healthier, and richer). Seattle, New York City, and Minneapolis don’t let ‘not favorable’ weather get in the way, because their city builds and plans for non-car modes. You don’t know that the public would choose cars (and their frankly terrible, unhealthy consequences) if given real, quality, dignified choices they could use to get around their city. We haven’t tried that. Because of attitudes like this.

    • MT

      Bikes are perfectly capable of carrying cargo. The majority of trips do not require a truck’s worth of hauling.
      Raincoats and umbrellas exist. 300 days of sunshine.
      Good sidewalks and safe bike paths are useable by almost anyone, and are most important for those who are less “capable.” Strong 25 year-olds are the only ones who can use the current system where you have to fight with vehicle traffic.
      The long distances we travel that make us need a car for trips are our own creation. We’ve separated land uses so much that daily needs are many miles apart. This is something that needs to be addressed just as much as good walking, biking, and transit infrastructure.

    • Anthony

      In that case I guess I didn’t take my luggage and golf clubs on the 6 bus then the 153 and A line when I went on vacation earlier this year. Oh wait…
      The vast majority of trips for which our current transportation network is built out, SOV commuting, can be replaced by transit or bike. That would leave capacity for other trips where a car may actually be the most appropriate.
      Another option would be for drivers to always have passengers. If automobiles were utilized efficiently (i.e. full), we’d be able to reduce traffic by 2/3 almost instantly.

    • Randy Fox

      Dan, I’m 61 years old. I have a crippling illness that has restricted the use of my legs somewhat from age 6 onward. And I have lived fully car-free for the past 12 years. My bike trailer easily holds $125.00 worth of weekly groceries, my eBike gets me across town at 28mph, and on those few, rare days that the roads are impassable or I need to be highly polished (I’ve got over a year’s worth of riding in a suit and tie, so I’m talking tux here) I’ve got light rail. My point is that, even though you might be unwilling to consider alternatives to your current lifestyle and it’s effects on society and the environment, many of us think and act differently and will continue the push for change that we feel improves the human experience…

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