Widening Streets Near the Broadway and I-25 Transit Station Makes No Sense

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 3.39.51 PM
A portion of South Broadway will have nine traffic lanes and space for street parking when the Broadway reconstruction is complete. Would you want to walk across this street? Image: City and County of Denver

At the same time that Denver seeks to become more walkable and transit-friendly, the city is pursuing road-widening projects that work directly against those goals. Sometimes the city even tries to do both things in the same place, and that’s what happening on South Broadway right now.

In 2008, Denver adopted a Strategic Transportation Plan beginning with this assurance from then-Mayor John Hickenlooper:

You asked for solutions that reduce our dependence on cars and our need to continue to widen our roadways, solutions that incorporate rapid transit, bicycles and walking as daily travel options. The Strategic Transportation Plan delivers these options for every part of our community.

That same year, the city began planning the South Broadway road widening. Now that project is on the verge of implementation.

In Baker and West Wash Park, the City Council recently secured the rights-of-way to widen South Broadway near I-25, as well as surrounding streets, with moving lanes and turning lanes for motor vehicle traffic. The project also includes wider sidewalks and a shared-use path for pedestrians and people on bikes.

But any benefit for walking and biking will be outweighed by all the road expansions:

  • Mississippi Avenue from Sherman to Acoma will go from five lanes to six.
  • Broadway from Mississippi to Arizona will go from five lanes to seven.
  • Parts of Broadway from Mississippi to Tennessee will go from six lanes to nine.

Why is this project going to add so much asphalt?

“That’s a fair question,” said Council Member Chris Nevitt. The lane expansions fall in his district. “Our goal has been to reconstruct that whole set of intersections in a way that works more efficiently and more safely for pedestrians and bicycles as well as cars,” he said. “Have we struck the right balance? I don’t know.”

This is a common way to think about streets — assuming that more space for every type of transportation will make everyone happy by “striking the right balance.” But that’s not how streets work in practice. By widening Broadway and Mississippi, crossing on foot becomes more difficult, dangerous, and intimidating. Car speeds accelerate, creating a more hostile environment for walking and biking.

“Walkability isn’t just about moving pedestrians along the street, it’s also getting them safely across the street,” said WalkDenver Policy Director Jill Lacontore. “Widening the road works against pedestrian safety… It also directly contradicts Denver’s Strategic Transportation Plan, which calls for maximizing the efficiency of existing roadway capacity by accommodating multiple travel modes, rather than catering to cars through road widening.”

Making the South Broadway road widenings even more illogical is that they surround the RTD station at I-25 and Broadway — a transit hub that’s supposed to anchor a whole walkable neighborhood. But will people want to take the train if they have to routinely cross nine lanes of traffic? Instead of “balance,” the city is on track to make streets worse for pedestrians and cyclists.

The justification for all this road widening is to ease “peak hour congestion which is expected to worsen,” according to the city’s needs analysis prepared seven years ago for the Colorado Department of Transportation. It’s a familiar refrain in Denver, which has made the mistake of planning for traffic instead of walkability before.

As CU-Denver civil engineer Wesley Marshall recently cautioned in a piece in the Journal of Urbanism, street design in Stapleton undermines the neighborhood’s urbanist intentions. Stapleton is supposed to be a model of walkable development, but with wide streets and poor connectivity for pedestrians, it falls short. Marshall explained to CityLab that vehicle speeds in Stapleton are now significantly “higher-than-desired” thanks to overly-wide streets.

The I-25 and Broadway bus and rail station is one of Denver’s most important transit hubs short of Union Station. It’s already one of the city’s busiest, and is slated to anchor a more walkable, bikeable neighborhood meant to expand bus and light rail use. The city is making it harder to achieve those goals by designing the streets near the station for traffic instead of people.