Complete Streets Expert Rick Plenge on Transforming Denver’s Streets

Rick Plenge knows complete streets, and has some ideas about how Denver could build more. Photo: David Sachs

Rick Plenge is one of two people in Colorado certified by Smart Growth America to train local governments how to create complete streets, or streets that work well for walking, biking, and transit. He helps cities all over the country figure out how to reclaim streets for people. And he lives in Denver.

Before he moved here, Plenge worked in Chicago as a transportation engineer under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and then-DOT commissioner Gabe Klein, who put a premium on livable streets. Now an engineer in private practice, Plenge sat down with Streetsblog Denver to offer his perspective on the city.

“Challenging” is a go-to word for Plenge when describing Denver’s complete streets climate — whether he’s talking about the built environment, city politics, funding, or the public’s resistance to change.

Why do cities need complete streets trainers?

Some communities have gone on their own and really initiated the policy, and they’re having trouble implementing it or having trouble designing facilities, and they want support. So it’s a really good resource for them. I just worked on a project for the health department in Portsmouth, Virginia.

The health department cares about streets?

There are a lot of connections between public health and how the built environment influences that. And I think some communities are aware of that, and they’ve basically spearheaded that and want to get everyone in the same mindset. The more progressive cities realize that there is a tie, and it relates to how people choose which mode they use to get around. I think we’re getting there, but I think some communities need some support, and I think that’s what the program is all about.

So how do you help?

Some communities need a little hand holding. And I think when you get that buy-in at all levels, it’s pretty cool to see how quickly some things can really start transforming. Then you get the community involved and start asking for more and more of these facilities and types of designs. That’s where you really have that kind of tidal wave effect, when people are all on board — on the government side, on the public sector side. That’s where you see some of these communities like the New Yorks or the Seattles that are really pushing the envelope and getting things done quickly.

What’s the best climate in which to create complete streets? 

It takes support at all levels, from the upper city management side of things, to the council member side, to local advocacy, and all the engineers and planners. They all have to buy in. So you need the funding, you need the policies, and you need the implementation experience. Those are the kind of key mechanisms to get these things really done in a quick and efficient manner. Until those all happen at the same time, it’s a challenge.

How do those things happen?

In Chicago, when I first got there, they had more of a status quo type of approach to streets. There was progress, but as far as really adopting this innovative approach and getting things done quickly, it wasn’t happening. When Rahm Emmanuel came in and that administration brought in Gabe Klein, it was amazing to see the transformation. He had the support from the upper level, support from the city departments, and the staff had all the resources they needed to get these things done. That’s what it takes.

Denver’s complete streets policy is toothless, but in Chicago, the policy helped dictate these changes.

To have a policy is one thing, but to actually have the teeth behind it is another. What’s it going to take to change people’s mindset about how they design or plan things? Internally, we got it, and we were kind of doing our own thing, pushing the envelope, to really make the city more multimodal. Chicago hired a consultant that actually codified the complete streets policy and put some teeth behind it, some pretty strict guidelines about designing the public right of way moving forward.

They created sort of a modal hierarchy that identified the primary modes citywide. Obviously certain streets have certain focuses. But generally there’s a primary focus on pedestrians, then it goes down to transit, then cyclists, and cars are kind of the last tier. And having that document that supported the engineers, that was key.

What are some physical challenges Denver faces that other cities might not?

The neighborhoods built around the old streetcar that are in a three-mile radius of downtown. Those are pretty narrow streets to begin with, so there’s sort of that natural traffic calming which is a benefit. That’s good, but I don’t think Denver has that low-hanging fruit where you could easily start to take out travel lanes and not cause too much turbulence with people. Once FasTracks gets built out, people recognize its benefits, and the land use starts supporting developing around these facilities, I hope there’ll be more opportunities to take out lanes of traffic on streets that are right now maybe on the border line.

Do you think Denver’s decision makers want to do that?

I think there are people working for the city that would love to do that, but they know the residential community would be up in arms. I think the Millennials get it. They’re more a part of a sharing economy, and they understand they don’t need to have ownership of a car. There’s got to be that tipping point, and it takes a lot of political pressure to say, “We’re gonna change our mindset of how we design our infrastructure.” How will we push the envelope and and influence how we want people to treat the city and how we want people to experience the city? You need political support, you need public support. And people are wary of their jobs. They don’t want to tick people off, and it’s a challenge. It always comes down to parking and that’s unfortunate.

How do we change Denver’s car-oriented mindset?

The mindset right now is to design for the worst three or four hours of the day, typically. Anything you can do to make not driving more attractive has to happen — even making bus shelters better. I still think it’s too convenient to drive in our city. Now, besides maybe a three-hour window on both sides on I-70- and I-25, it’s pretty easy to drive. It’s too easy to park, it’s cheap, and it’s pretty abundant. So once you have that land use change that starts taking away parking and making parking meters reflect the actual true value of these spaces, that’ll be another important factor.

When the Arapahoe and Lawrence bike lanes go in, people are going to start seeing it, and they’ll start asking for more and more of these projects. Once people experience it and we have BRT on Colfax, and see the transformation that happens, the public will start asking for more and more of these things. So we need these initial catalytic projects that get people to say “There’s something cool going on here and we should really think about this differently.” It’s that old adage: If you build it they will come. But getting that momentum going is the big first step.