Denver Can Grow Without Getting Overrun By Traffic, If We Act Now

Denver is at a crossroads, like L.A. was when officials decided to build a massive freeway system that's responsible for choking the city. Photo: Flickr via Thomas Lin
Denver is at a crossroads, like L.A. was when officials decided to build a massive freeway system that’s responsible for choking the city. Photo: Flickr via Thomas Lin

Westword commentator Bree Davies sometimes writes fierce, nostalgic critiques of how Denver is growing, and what it means when your hometown’s identity is changing from an intimate, small city to a fast-developing one attracting young professionals from across the country.

Sometimes she loathes change, like the squeezes Denver’s growing population puts on city streets. But after a trip to Los Angeles, Davies recently challenged the prevailing narrative, peddled by local media, that more people mean more congestion and more congestion means Denver is going the way of Los Angeles.

Writes Davies:

Being in a bigger city always comes at a price, which makes me think: Maybe Denver is that bigger city now to some people. We’ve always been a small town at heart… Denver has always felt small to me, but lately, it’s clear that we’re growing and not looking back.

If anything, my short trip to Los Angeles reminded me why Denver is so great. Beyond our traffic and skyrocketing rents, beyond the crushing development that seems to be filling our city with temporary luxury housing, beyond the myriad issues involved with how our city government is or isn’t handling this growth, we are still doing okay. There’s a lot of room for improvement, especially in our own civic duty as residents of Denver. As voters, we can make decisions about roads, highways and mass transit. As people, we can protest changes to our neighborhoods that we disagree with complain when we see a change in the city that we don’t like. It took me visiting another big city to see the potential that Denver has to stay great: We just have to make sure that as citizens, we make our voices heard. If you want to move to Los Angeles, you should! But don’t do it because Denver feels like it sucks right now. Instead, I encourage you to stay and try to ride it out.  Denver can be be great, I swear. It’s why I’m convincing myself to stay in this city even as I type this.

Davies’ column rubbed some people the wrong way, but the point wasn’t to make an outlandish comparison to L.A. — it was to provide perspective. L.A.’s traffic is perennially the worst (or close to the worst) in the nation. That’s because of decisions made many decades ago to handle growth by building a mammoth freeway system.

Denver is booming, and has some decisions of its own to make. It’s 2015, and with the benefit of hindsight, we should know to avoid the path L.A. chose. We know that building more space for motor vehicles leads to more people driving — and more traffic overwhelming our streets. The L.A. City Council just adopted a sweeping mobility plan that’s in pointed opposition to the 1950s-era transportation system that has choked the city with automobiles. How? By investing in infrastructure for walking, biking, and transit.

The idea that the Mile High City is destined to become traffic-choked is fatalistic — and wrong. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The decision is up to us and our elected officials.

If Mayor Michael Hancock, the City Council, and transportation agencies realize now that the best use of scarce transportation resources is to invest in walkable neighborhoods, effective transit, and bikeable streets, they will avoid a massive, citywide retrofit later.