Mary Beth Susman Gets It: Denver Needs More Livable Streets

Councilwoman Susman spoke last night at the Inter-Neighborhood Connection meeting, making some pretty refreshing claims about Denver's complete streets and lack thereof.
Council Member Susman spoke last night at the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation meeting, making some pretty refreshing claims about Denver’s complete streets, or lack thereof.

Before Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver City Council members made transit infrastructure a top budget priority for 2016, Council Member Mary Beth Susman was on a mission to bridge the gaps in the city’s Swiss cheese transit system. The 67-year-old made the case for better bus service in the Denver Post editorial pages last year, then got scolded for suggesting that Denver should scale down its excessive car infrastructure.

Susman recounted her battles at the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation transportation committee meeting last night, and vowed to continue to fight — not a war against cars, but for streets that work for pedestrians and people on bikes.

She’s trying to bring Bridj, the on-demand bus service, to Denver as well. Perhaps she should have asked for forgiveness instead of permission — a la Lyft or Uber — because when she first floated the idea, the Public Utilities Commission said Bridj would need, at the least, RTD’s blessing, which RTD wouldn’t give. Susman and Bridj founder Matt George thought RTD would love the idea given its cost to the capital-poor organization: Nothing.

George told the Denver Post last year:

“We were stunned. We have tons of cities trying to do this. We have never gotten a roadblock. We couldn’t really understand it.”

Susman is in conversations with the PUC, which is seeking the legal advice of the Colorado Attorney General. If Susman had it her way, Denver would start its own transit authority — a small office that liaises with the private sector.

“That way we don’t need a subsidy, and could just say, ‘Come on in and give us your best shot,’” Susman said.

If CDOT can fund a massive lane-widening project with a public-private partnership, certainly RTD can play nice with a company like Bridj. The city government and RTD creatively funded the Union Station project through public-private partnerships, so why is filling transit gaps different?

“[RTD] depends on our taxes, and they have to have riders before they have routes,” Susman said. “There’s no investment capital to produce routes that encourage riders. As good as they are and the hard work that they’re doing, if we could depend upon private investment to have rides before there are riders…”

Bridj won’t solve Denver’s transit woes in every neighborhood, but until Denver improves intra-city transit, it could fill a gap for Susman’s district, which includes the transit desert east of Colorado Boulevard.

Given Susman’s keen insight into transportation issues on display last night, she may be the livable streets champion Denver needs — if she can parlay talk into action. Here are some other highlights:

  • “We are not a pedestrian friendly city. We are a city built for cars.”
  • “We can’t widen our roads… We don’t have the space, and besides, if you widen the lanes you get more cars. The more space you make for cars, the more cars you get.”
  • “Our roads belong to everybody. Everyone pays our taxes to roads no matter what modes we use.”
  • “One of the things is we have a generational divide… There are people of my generation — I’m probably an outcast — where getting your first car at 16 was the joy of your life. Not anymore.”
  • “All of us are trying to figure out what to do with an enormous growth in population… and how can we not destroy the reason people are coming to Denver. We have opportunities to make good decisions now before we become a New York or a Chicago.”