Wes Marshall on How to Make Denver a Walkable City With Safe Streets

Wes Marshall
Wes Marshall sees what Denver can be, and has no shortage of ideas on how to achieve it.

When Steve Jobs built the iPod, he had his team design its remarkable look and intuitive function before asking them to cram the technology inside. That’s how CU Denver professor Wes Marshall thinks about Denver’s transition to becoming a 21st century transportation city — think big and then figure out the small stuff.

Marshall is an engineer who thinks like a planner: While he understands the minutiae of engineers’ jobs, he approaches problems with the whole city in mind. He teaches at CU Denver’s Department of Civil Engineering, where he admits to teaching students how to understand — and contend with — engineers in their language.

A prolific researcher with dozens of papers published in peer-reviewed journals, Marshall’s work on Denver’s streets and walkability has recently drawn the attention of the Atlantic’s CityLab. His newest project, scofflawbiking, is an attempt to understand why people break the letter of the law while riding bikes, and what it says about our streets.

Marshall has a lot of opinions on Denver’s transportation problems and opportunities, and recently shared them with Streetsblog. Below is our Q & A, lightly edited for length and clarity.

What big-picture things can Denver do that would influence positive urban planning?

The way engineers do it is say, “What’s the traffic demand going to be in 2040?” They don’t ask the question, “Do we really want 30,000 cars per day in this neighborhood?” And if the answer’s “No,” it’s not like that number is set in stone. We shouldn’t forecast how big we have to make the road. We need to ask what we want this final product to look like, and then make it fit.

How can Denver cut down on pedestrian deaths and serious injuries?

I think cities focus on doing better crossings and stuff like that, and I think a lot of problems are actually the roads themselves. We’re trying to put a Band-Aid on things, trying to put lipstick on a pig. And they’ll be a little bit safer, but if we want them to be fundamentally safer we need to change some of these roads. I mean, we don’t need cars going 50-plus miles an hour through parts of Denver. That’s sort of the mentality we need to have. We need to design these roads so people can’t go greater than 30 or 35. As is, we do the opposite. We put a sign up that says 35, but people end up going 50.

What about adopting the Vision Zero philosophy that crashes are not “accidents” but preventable incidents?

The biggest problem I think is that we keep deaths on our roads as part of the cost of doing business, and that’s just sad and mistaken. In reality these are preventable deaths. We see them on the news every night and no one really pays much mind to them. Like the Amtrak crash, that’s national news. Transit is still way safer than being on the roads, right, but it doesn’t seem that way because this is in the national news — precisely because it’s so rare. Unless it’s someone you know or it happened in your neighborhood, you don’t pay much attention because it’s ubiquitous. It’s happening all over the country.

If you look at it like a health statistic, it’s the number one cause of death for people ages 4 through 34 for Americans. But we don’t treat it like a health problem. In most cities it’s preventable. We know how to fix it. Let’s take a hypothetical: An easy solution is that everyone has to drive 20 miles an hour max all the time. That would cure the problem almost entirely, but, we’re not going to that, because we think of people dying as the cost of doing business. It’s fine on the highways to go fast but in a city like Denver, how much time are these people really saving? It’s a few minutes. You have these big arterials where you drive 50 miles per hour between red lights and then you sit there for two minutes. You’re not saving any time. So your overall travel speed is 12 miles an hour on average, but you’re going much faster at various spurts, and that’s a dangerous way to do it.

What about sidewalks? Property owners are responsible for their upkeep, resulting in a shoddy public right-of-way, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

I see some sidewalks in the city that might be technically sidewalks, but you can’t even get a baby stroller on  them, let alone a wheelchair. I have pictures of mothers with baby strollers in the street because the sidewalk isn’t wide enough for them to use. That’s like third-world country type stuff. Denver shouldn’t be doing that, and to put the onus on property owners, I think Denver’s missing the bigger picture. There’s a benefit to the city to have safe infrastructure. It’s a chicken and egg thing. If an engineer says we aren’t going to improve this place because there’s no demand there, well, maybe there’s no demand because there’s no infrastructure.

As Denver begins developing a better intra-city transit plan, what are some lessons we can learn from FasTracks?

You know, they sold FasTracks as a congestion relief thing. It doesn’t do that; that’s not what transit is for. Every spot you take off the road with transit is going to be taken by somebody else. It’s an induced demand issue. So if you look at it in terms of trying to solve congestion, you’re going to think transit is a failure, but that’s not true because that’s not what transit does. So if we can wrap our heads around what transit is supposed to be for — like community building and economic development — then I think we’re headed in the right direction.

Why is there such a backlash from drivers when the city prioritizes bikes, walking, and transit?

The last 50 years people have only had one choice. We’ve taken everything away except the driving. Now we’re actually giving people legitimate choices, and you don’t have to be a fearless guy in spandex to actually bike into downtown. I have three kids, my oldest is 10. If I can’t bring my kids on a bike facility, it’s not really doing its job yet. So the reality is we’ve been limiting choices for the last 50 years to just driving, and now we’re giving people real choices.

And the ironic thing is it doesn’t punish drivers at all. If you look at all the cities that have taken away road space from cars, congestion’s going down. It’s not punishing cars at all. A lot of things in transportation are very counterintuitive. I think if you take lanes away from cars it will either decrease demand or people will use it more efficiently. Fifty years ago we treated traffic like water — it goes through the pipe and if we shut the pipe off it has to go somewhere. Traffic is really more like gas. The more space you give it, it will fill up that space. If you take away space, it will fill up whatever space you give it. In reality people are going to make different choices about how they get around.

My bus driver opened the door at a stop the other day to tell people there was standing room only. Some left. That attitude exemplifies a cultural hump to get over, not just an infrastructure hump, when it comes to more mass transit use.

When there’s a couple people standing on a Denver train, you say, “That’s a full train.” In Japan, that train is empty. Changing the culture I think does a better job than focusing on some of the other stuff that engineers tend to focus on. I think it’s an evolution. One thing cities need to realize is that it’s not going to happen overnight. Look at Portland with bikes. They’ve been doing this for 20 years. Zurich’s been doing transit stuff for 30 years. You need to put in the foundation that Denver is doing, but I think that’s something that will take time.

There’s a tension between transit-oriented development and affordable housing. Transit is supposed to be for everybody. So how do we ensure people can afford to live near their only means of transportation?

We did a survey a couple years ago looking at TODs on the southeast and southwest lines. A lot of people make the argument that a big reason they’re gentrifying is that lower-income people or minorities don’t want to live in these type of places — that the amenities are the kinds of things that more wealthy and generally more white people want. What we found out is that both income levels had the same preferences, but the rich people are the only ones that can realize those preferences because the cost to live there is going up because of how the market works. It’s difficult. We’re forcing people that need transit most away from it. I think you have to have walkability and bikeability to help. The bones of these stations have to be set up so the neighborhoods around them can get to them easily without a car.