Mayor Hancock Still Doesn’t Get It — Widening Roads Hurts Denver

A $27 million project to widen 56th Avenue is currently on the shortlist for funds from November's transportation bond measure, but Mayor Hancock still has time to fix that.

For the cost of widening three miles of this road, 56th Avenue, the city could build 67 miles of protected bike lanes and 90 miles of sidewalks. Image: Google Maps.
For the cost of widening three miles of this road, 56th Avenue, the city could build 67 miles of protected bike lanes and 90 miles of sidewalks. Image: Google Maps.

Back in February, Michael Hancock told a room full of sustainable transportation advocates, “We need to absolutely transform our city from a car-focused, automobile-centric system, to a people-centric transportation and mobility network.”

Fast forward four months, and Hancock and the Denver City Council may do the exact opposite by spending $27 million to widen 56th Avenue through Montbello. The project, which would expand 56th to four lanes between Peoria Street and Peña Boulevard, is on the shortlist for funding from a bond measure that voters will consider in November [PDF].

Mayor Michael Hancock. Photo: David Sachs
Mayor Michael Hancock. Photo: David Sachs

It’s not too late for Hancock and the Council to adjust the list. However, the mayor seems bent on funding the project. At an event last Monday where the committee that generated the shortlist presented it to Hancock, the mayor singled out the 56th Avenue widening, calling it an economic development opportunity.

It’s hard to overstate just how backwards it would be to widen an urban street in this day and age. Decades of experience have shown that wider roads are a recipe for more traffic, dangerously high motor vehicle speeds, and an increase in injuries and deaths. But expanding 56th is an especially egregious affront to logic and the city’s efforts to build a modern transportation system.

There are smarter projects that deserve funding

The committee that recommended the final shortlist for Hancock’s consideration decided to slash funding for the city’s sidewalk and bike networks, as well as funding for better bus infrastructure on Alameda, MLK Boulevard, West Colfax, and the Speer-Leetsdale corridor. All those projects would be a better use of funds than widening 56th Avenue.

The stretch of 56th in question is three miles long. For the cost of this counterproductive road widening, the city could build 67 miles of protected bike lanes and 90 miles of sidewalks.

Widening 56th undercuts transit investments

Four RTD rail stations (A-Line and R-Line) are near this stretch of 56th Avenue. One of those stations is 61st and Peña, the future home of Hancock’s oft-touted “smart city,” a neighborhood defined by the ability to get around without having to own a car.

Fewer people will use those transit stations if the capacity of the road system is expanded. What if $27 million paid for faster and more frequent transit service to and from these stations instead?

When Hancock decides what projects to ultimately put up for a vote, he should take his own advice from February, when he compared the ballot measure to other touchstones in Denver’s transportation history, like the construction of the intercontinental railroad and FasTracks.

“I believe in 2017 we have the same opportunity,” Hancock said. “And all of us who are blessed to be able to serve as elected officials, and all of us who are blessed to live in this great city and region, now have a clear call to summon the moral courage once again be bold and be visionary.”

There’s already an autobahn there called I-70

According to Colorado DOT, which envisions 56th Avenue eventually as a six-lane road, the street needs more asphalt in order to “manage future congestion.” Because every decision should enable a future with more cars, of course.

But forget for a moment that widening this road would generate more traffic — just look at where the project is located. I-70 runs parallel to 56th, just 1.5 miles away, or a few minutes by car. CDOT and Hancock already want to add between two and four lanes to the section of freeway between Peoria and Peña. That’s as many as eight new car lanes in one corridor.

So much for the mayor’s bid to “transform” our “automobile-centric system.”

  • TakeFive

    I’m skeptical that the voters who live and work in NE Denver would agree with you. This still developing area is more suburban than urban. Methinks the Mayor (and his advisors) is both familiar with the area as well as knowing what is best.

    All you have to do is look at the map to know how much sense 56th Ave makes as an east-west arterial street. BTW, most arterial streets are separated by about one mile so it makes perfect sense from that perspective as well. North of I-70 there’s a lot of commercial/light industrial which will benefit from not having to always use I-70. Honestly, it’s a no-brainer.

    • Roads_Wide_Open

      Have no fear, as if the author had his wish everyone would be riding their bike into a magical fairyland. This is what happens to people (and writers) when everything you need is within a 5 mile radius. You don’t get out into the real world and understand that roads are necessary for everything.

      • Devin Quince

        He is not saying roads are not necessary, just that they do not all need to be wide super highways and for high speed traffic only.

      • Anthony

        So, for those of us who have made the conscientious decision to not be beholden financially, nor physically, by 2,000 pound metal boxes, we are all just part of a video game or A.I. software of some kind? How is it our experiences are not of the “real world?”
        Just an FYI, as far as commerce is concerned if that’s what you’re referring to regarding the “real world,” across all highways in California (because it was the first state that came up in my search with truck and total vehicle counts), 7.1% of all highway traffic is truck traffic. Giving people the opportunity to walk, bike, or take transit is not the culprit in hindering commerce, it’s all the people in SOV’s taking up a disproportionate amount of road space.
        Furthermore, the biggest takeaway I’m getting from this GO Bond exercise is that it will cost $27 million to widen one street for three miles to add one extra lane in each direction. Using that money to fund 90 miles of sidewalks and 67 miles of separated bike lanes even on its surface makes fiscal sense from a return on investment standpoint. But digging even deeper, let’s take for example Portland. In 1990 Portland’s bike commute mode share was 1.8%. They invested $153 million in biking ($2.1 billion in transit and $4.2 billion in automobile infrastructure) and saw the bike mode split raise to 6.4%, while transit mode split increased from 11.4% to 13.4% and drive alone mode split decreased from 67.3% to 64.6%. Between 1990 and 2008 22% of new trips added were by bike, thereby reducing the impact on the automobile road network. This has got to be thought of as a complete transportation network, not a network that disproportionately favors one group over others.

        • Devin Quince

          Well said!

        • TakeFive

          You are presenting a false argument as if different needs are by definition mutually exclusive. They are not. I would also point out that the voters who feel differently from you are fully entitled to their opinion as well.

          Just as Portland’s Transit Chief is advocating for more highways I support :”all of the above.”

          • Anthony

            On the contrary. Different needs are hardly mutually exclusive, as each segment of the transportation network relies and reflects investments made in other parts of the network. For example, without Amtrak in the northeast, I-95 would be impassable. If all the folks who flew between Seattle and Portland each day drove, I-5 would similarly be a parking lot. And, staying with bike facilities since we’re talking intracity here, Portland could have spent hundreds of millions of dollars more widening, replacing, or building new bridges across the Willamette River to accommodate growth, but instead they invested in their transit and bike infrastructure and saw a 12% increase in total vehicles between 1991 and 2008 (including bicycles), but a 0.2% decrease in automobile traffic. A fraction of that $27 million dedicated to widening 56th Avenue could instead build out a complete bike network connecting Montbello to Northfield/Stapleton, four rail stations (64th, 40th, Peoria, Central Park), and Sand Creek Trail providing fast, safe, and efficient access to all points throughout the metro area.

            Ultimately, we can continue to prioritize automobile infrastructure and kick the can down the road on bike infrastructure, or we can use this opportunity to make a strong, decisive investment in bike infrastructure and actually make a dent. If Portland had failed to invest the $153 million in bike infrastructure, and instead all those new bicycle trips were taken by car, the city would have had to spend an additional $1.5 billion based on the cost of infrastructure spent to add each additional driver ($10,260 per new cyclist, $160,716 per new transit rider, and $114,225 per new motorist).

            Reducing the burden of the automobile infrastructure allows it to be utilized more efficiently. Shifting the mode split reduces the demand on the primary facilities (see I-70) and reduces the need to fund expensive automobile-oriented solutions.

            Besides, the area is already receiving a $1.8 billion influx of cash to widen I-70. If the purpose of both of these projects is to serve truck traffic, that seems like a redundant expenditure especially since the argument for widening 56th is it’s getting cut through traffic from people avoiding I-70.
            And lastly, “all of the above” isn’t a bad goal except our automobile infrastructure is already completely built out while the rest of our transportation network lags behind. If you truly support an “all of the above” policy position, you cannot continue to fund superficial improvements to an existing (and completed) network while other parts of the network are deficient. By saying you support “all of the above” as a rationale for widening an existing road over building out the most basic infrastructure network for more cost and space efficient modes, you’re really saying “all of the above as long as automobile infrastructure is funded first.” There are targeted opportunities to improve automobile circulation and access that shouldn’t be ignored. This project isn’t one of them.

      • Roads_Wide_Open

        My eyes are glazing over…we are not Portland. Regardless of the stats you provide, you still can’t just fix/add bike infrastructure only. Everyone who thinks that ignores 95% of the way citizens get around.

        • Anthony

          “People in Denver need their cars because everybody goes to the mountains on weekends.” – Portland is a one hour drive from the beach and a one hour drive from hiking, windsurfing, skiing, and two hours from whitewater rafting/kayaking. Anecdotally, they also own as many Subarus as Coloradans do, though they typically wear Columbia jackets instead of Patagonia, so there’s one difference.

          “Denver is a city built around the automobile, and everyone here drives and everyone will drive.” – Denver is 24th in the country in freeway lane miles per capita, Portland is 29th (http://www.publicpurpose.com/hwy-tti99ratio.htm). In 2000 (before Portland bike investments were completed) Denver had 13.8% of households reported as car free, Portland had 14% car free households. (https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=DEC_00_SF3_H045&prodType=table)

          “It snows in Denver, people won’t ride in the winter.” – Average high in December for Portland is 45.6, 42.8 in Denver. Average annual hours of sunshine in Denver 3,106, 2,340 in Portland. Average number of days with precipitation in December: Denver 4.1, 18.6 in Portland; May it’s 9.4 in Denver, 13.6 in Portland. Yes, Denver gets 54″ of snow compared to 4″ of snow in Portland, but that snow melts within a couple days. Plus, snow is fun to ride in. Minneapolis is much colder than Denver and receives the same amount of snowfall each year (54″), yet has the second highest bike commute mode split in the country. Interested in actually paying attention to what could be when investments in cycling are made? Check out Edmonton (yes, that’s in Canada where their average *high* in December is 24 degrees (and average low is negative 17) and they get nearly as much snow as us at 49 inches, spread over twice as many days of snowfall as we get). They just opened a basic Downtown separated bike grid, and as a transportation professional I will be paying close attention to the success or problems with that network as it relates to mode split and safety. Actually, here, I’ll save you a reply: “But we’re not Edmonton or Minneapolis, so stop trying to compare us to other cities…………..”

          Your argument is that we’re not Portland. What are we, then? We’re not Portland, we’re not Phoenix, we’re not Minneapolis, we’re not San Francisco, we’re not Atlanta, we’re not Sioux Falls, we’re not Albuquerque, we’re not Telluride, we’re not Memphis, we’re not Charlotte….. I’d venture to say your response is we’re Denver and we’re unique. I hate to break it to you, but we’re not unique. We’ve implemented the same city-building techniques as Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, and we’re getting the same results. “Build more roads, widen roads… why is traffic getting so bad? Build more roads, widen roads… Seriously, how is traffic not better? Build more roads, widen roads… Traffic wouldn’t be so bad if people didn’t move here. Build more roads, widen roads… Traffic still stinks, we’re not building fast enough! Build more roads, widen roads…” Repeat ad nauseam.

          No, we’re not Portland. Of course we’re not, we can’t physically be Portland because they’re their own city, unless there are multiple dimensions in which case they could be a parallel dimension of Denver, but that’s purely a theoretical possibility and not one I’ve seriously entertained. Your argument is a red herring, and dismisses an argument that evaluates a results-based analysis in favor of an unsubstantiated belief that because we’re not someplace else means evaluating the results they’ve experienced is a pointless exercise. The best way we as humans can predict the future is to evaluate past results, and attempt to isolate independent variables. Ultimately we have no idea how things will turn out until they do. What we do know is over the past 60 years Denver’s response to the slightest traffic problem or mobility issue is to widen or add new roads, and from what I can tell, the number and volume of people complaining about traffic has never been higher despite the T-Rex project, despite building E-470, despite building Pena Blvd to the airport, despite widening Quebec, despite converting Downtown streets to one-way couplets, despite express lanes on I-25 and US36, despite grade separating Santa Fe…

          The entire thesis of my argument, and while it generally does apply broadly is specifically targeted toward the 56th Avenue project, that the cost-benefit analysis of widening 56th Avenue at the expense of a built-out bike and walking network is a lesser value than committing that $27 million to building out a basic separated bike network that has shown throughout the country and world to almost immediately increase cycling mode split (during peak periods when the transportation system is at its capacity) and safety. Widening 56th Avenue is a redundant, unnecessary expenditure that is more expensive and less effective than an alternative distribution of those same funds.

  • Rudy

    “Decades of experience have shown that wider roads are a recipe for more traffic…”
    Nonsense… decades of immigration and people having babies is the recipe for more traffic. I-25 handles tons more traffic since T-rex was completed, but you just don’t notice it due to the increased population. The traffic studies in the links are just manipulated data trying to back up a nonsensical theory.
    56th would handle a lot more traffic if it is widened. If Denver residents don’t want higher traffic volumes, quit encouraging companies to build here! Stop encouraging population growth!

  • deadindenver

    When it comes to highways and roads, nothing is truer than “build it and they will come” If that’s what you want, that is what you will get.

  • FNE Dude

    Its obvious the writer most likely doesn’t live or travel this area of 56th ave at all. It is and has been well over congested for years, and the vast majority of people living in the area leave to go to work along this or the I70 corridor. In addition, 56th ave is the designated emergency route to I70 should there be a major issue that closes I70 and has no where near the capacity to handle it. Having a smart transit oriented city doesn’t mean you shut off all road construction or expansion, there is a balance that has to be maintained, and this article is very one sided, anti road/car.

    • Anthony

      Because the $1.8 billion being spent to add capacity through the I-70 corridor isn’t enough?

      • FNE Dude

        As a matter of fact, yes, I have ridden my bike from GVR, and Montbello across I-70 into downtown via multiple routes. Not the point nor is the I-70 expansion, these are totally different infrastructure issues and projects that just happen to be cover the same general area of the city. Pretty sure if you couldn’t bike your way and you had to spend 20 minutes in a car to go an 1/8th of a mile to try and exit your neighborhood to go to a store or work you might have a different perspective. The neighborhood and surrounding infrastructure design and planning was inadequate and needs to be addressed or it puts any type of future development at potential risk including expansion of the various multi-mode, mass transit options already in place and planned for the region. It’s nice for folks to sit back and judge who don’t live out hear and endure the issues day in and out to say something shouldn’t be done just because their neighborhood works for their lifestyle.

        • Anthony

          I’m genuinely curious, what route works for you? I generally consider myself a strong and confident rider, but I won’t cross at Tower, Airport, Chambers, Peoria, or Havana. My wife would never ride on any of those roads, nor 47th, 40th, or Green Valley Ranch Blvd which are pretty much the only east/west routes that actually go anywhere once you get out of the Montbello neighborhood. When I have kids, I definitely won’t be taking them on any of those roads, so if you’ve got a secret shortcut that would be really helpful!

          • rockerred

            I take roads like that all the time. Key: visibility. And that takes two things. 1. Must be more bikes out there. Portland research shows that each additional bike increases the incremental visibility of all bikes in an exponential way. 2. Motorist education. bikes belong. Many motorists believe it is illegal for cyclists to use arterials. “Use the sidewalk — that’s the law!” One told me.

          • Devin Quince

            I agree, but the average C rider who is interested, but concerned would not ride on a lot of our infrastructure. This means we need to make it so all riders are comfortable and feel safe.

        • Anthony

          I slept on it last night and realized I owe you an apology. I guess I just never took the time to really, truly understand your quandary. See, my life experience is limited. The worst traffic I’ve ever been a part of was in San Francisco when it took me about an hour to go from the Presidio to SoMa, since that’s 5 miles, or about 1.5 minutes per 1/8 of a mile. I just couldn’t imagine making that drive in 13 hours! Truly horrific stuff you have to survive through out there.

          I’m also privileged to live on a quiet residential street where I have sidewalks and other quiet residential streets on which I can safely ride my bike or walk to the grocery store, dinner, drinks, and even Downtown, and when I have kids our home is within easy Wallin distance to elementary, middle, and high schools with great test scores and excellent Great Schools reviews. While I’m privileged in those areas, it has come at a cost in which I do not own my own car and I have to live in a camped condo building with 36 other families with whom I have to share pot lucks, casual conversation, and holiday parties with. I completely understand your connundrum that your only option is to drive, and that it’s more convenient to travel 1/8 mile in 20 minutes by car than 2.5 minutes on foot, but to be honest I really wish I had that freedom that you have by being able to own my own car! And I understand that the only sensible reality to overcome that horrible nightmare is to widen 56th Avenue by one lane in each direction for the same cost the city could build out an entire separated bike network and sidewalks throughout, and connecting, Green Valley Ranch and Montbello.

          This conversation really has been a lesson in humility for me, and for that I’m thankful! You’ve inspired me to better my lot in life so I can have the car loving freedoms you find so rewarding.

          • FNE Dude

            No apology necessary we all come from different perspectives and vantage points based on our surroundings and backgrounds. I am in full support of the multi-mode transportation options and making the city more accessible through a variety of methods. I’m a transplant from the east coast with a rich mass transit infrastructure. I also truly believe that the City and State need to fix the long overdue infrastructure inadequacies with the roads in these areas to avoid further compounding of the current issues as growth continues. Combination planning to cover all methods and options and make them all accessible within the funding available will be key to the long term development and success of the area.

      • TakeFive

        What is reference for your $1.8 billion figure. Not specifically aware of any one project that adds up to that number?

        • Anthony

          Sorry, $1.7 billion for the I-70 widening project. I haven’t referred to that in a while and was off by a mere $100 million. http://denver.streetsblog.org/2016/10/27/a-highway-divides-it-delay-in-i-70-expansion-gives-pause-to-ponder-options/

          • TakeFive

            ‘K, I found what you’re talking about, https://www.codot.gov/projects/i70east

            Phase 1 of Central 70 which is to start next year is much less. I assume that years of delay have no doubt increased the cost – presumably about 3-4 percent per year – but I didn’t think Phase 1 had grown that expensive. It is certainly unfortunate that the dang thing wasn’t completed 5 years ago when it would have cost much less. Central 70 ofc has nothing to do with the Denver 2017 bond issue.

          • Anthony

            It impacts the “need” to widen 56th because 56th is primarily “over capacity” because it’s handling overflow from I-70. So yes, it has an impact on the GO Bond issue.

  • Anthony

    This is my last comment on the subject, then I’m moving on. If the folks on this board are so interested in widening roads, adding new roads, etc., then I strongly suggest you reach out to your state legislators and lobby to raise the gas tax, raise the vehicle registration fees, and expand rolling. CDOT alone says they need billions of dollars of funding to catch up to the backlog of deferred maintenance, and that’s not even touching city streets or expanding capacity. Those increase of funds need to be used to pay for expansion and maintenance of the existing system, and cover the cost to pay for health issues related to automobile exhaust, pay for uninsured motorist claims, and pay for safety improvements that don’t make those of us who walk and bike most places collateral damage in your quest to go places as quickly as you possibly can. Because motorists are killing over 50 people per year in our city, they need to be held financially responsible for fully implementing and achieving our vision zero goals.

    • TakeFive

      Maybe step back from the edge and get out your wide-angle lens. Expansion means different things to different people. Make sense?

      For me, expansion means the under construction 22-mile bypass for I-10 that will open in 2020 as a new 8-lane freeway. Adding an extra lane in a couple of places amounts to peanuts in the big scheme of things. https://www.azdot.gov/projects/central-district-projects/loop-202-(south-mountain-freeway)/project-info

      • Anthony

        The South Mountain Freeway is a new facility. Widening I-10 is an expansion of the existing facility. There’s really no feasible way to consider the widening of an existing facility to be a new highway.

        • TakeFive

          so the “network” and “existing capacity” aren’t related? Interesting

          • Anthony

            *facepalm*

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