A Low-Tech Suggestion for Transportation Safety: Stop Widening City Streets

At yesterday’s Transportation Matters summit, CDOT Director Shailen Bhatt spoke about how cutting edge technology can enhance safety, but the agency still isn’t using the proven low-tech safety strategies at its disposal. Photo: David Sachs

Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shailen Bhatt on Wednesday announced a $20 million initiative to outfit the state’s roads with cutting edge technology. His goal: Eliminate roadway deaths and congestion by asking tech ventures to step in and help solve problems.

The initiative, dubbed “RoadX,” will contract out the development of high-tech solutions to road troubles. Semi-autonomous vehicles, for example, could make up for human errors, and a web-based platform to communicate dangers in real-time, like bad weather and wrong-way drivers, might make roads safer.

Bhatt announced the initiative at CDOT’s Transportation Matters Summit, where U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Governor John Hickenlooper, and Mayor Michael Hancock hailed it as a paradigm shift that will inject innovation back into transportation planning. It was exciting stuff that might make freeways safer and less congested — eventually. But it’s jarring to hear Bhatt hype technological approaches to safety while CDOT is still doing a lot of old-fashioned things to make streets more dangerous.

Yes, Bhatt has said all the right things since taking over at CDOT in the spring, and has even committed 2.5 percent of the agency’s budget to biking and walking improvements throughout the state. In Denver, however, where CDOT is in charge of the city’s most deadly streets, the agency remains committed to the failed paradigm of moving more cars at any cost.

Despite telling yesterday’s crowd that “we can’t build ourselves out of congestion,” Bhatt’s agency plans to do things like widen Federal Boulevard between 7th Avenue and Howard Place in the name of safety. Crashes on that segment are higher than the statewide average, and CDOT’s plan is to change the design in a way that’s proven to increase the risk of collisions and serious injuries.

In other words, CDOT is prepared to spend $20 million to make Federal more dangerous at the same time that it dangles $20 million for high-tech safety fixes for highways. While CDOT is reinventing things, how about taking that $20 million for road widening and spend it reinventing Federal for effective transit.

In urban settings like Denver, we don’t need to wait for autonomous vehicles to reduce the loss of life on our streets — we just need better-designed streets. Adding bulb-outs, crosswalks, medians, protected bike lanes, and pedestrian islands doesn’t require the development of new tech platforms. It just takes will from decision makers. CDOT has been missing in action on that front.

On Colfax, for example, it was advocates and merchants, not CDOT, who took the lead on transforming the street for safety.

There’s nothing wrong with planning for the future, but this latest announcement from CDOT amounts to speculation on highway safety while the agency neglects low-tech approaches that are proven to save lives on urban streets.

  • Dan

    Can you cite your reference for your “proven increase” statement please, – I’m interested.

    Crashes on that segment are higher than the statewide average, and CDOT’s plan is to change the design in a way that’s proven to increase the risk of collisions and serious injuries.


    • David Sachs

      Sure Dan. From the needs assessment:


      “Vehicle-crash data for the Project Area from January 2009 to December
      2013 was compared to the Statewide average for similar transportation
      facilities over the same five years. During this timeframe, there were
      300 reported crashes on Federal Boulevard between West 7th Avenue
      and West Howard Place, that is higher than the Statewide average.”

      • Dan

        I just finished reading a small parts of the report, – you’re right as far as your quote, [During this timeframe, there were 300 reported crashes on Federal Boulevard between West 7th Avenue and West Howard Place, that is higher than the Statewide average.”]
        – But the report says that is WHY they’re doing the improvements!
        I’ll read more when I have more time.
        I agree the design isn’t going to be perfect but I haven’t seen anything yet that IS.

    • neroden

      Wider roads have been proven repeatedly to induce higher driver speeds; you can look this up in numerous places. Higher speeds are known to cause a higher risk of collisions and serious injuries; you can look this up in numerous places, too.

      Direct correlations between wider roads and higher rates of collisions and injuries are a little thinner on the ground, but there are a few and they’re not that hard to find either.

      Streetsblog probably should have a reference section containing a list of some of these studies. I’ve stopped keeping copies of the references, because it’s so bloody obvious, but since we keep getting questions about this, it would be good to have a FAQ.

      • Dan

        You lost me, what does “a little thinner on the ground” mean?

  • Joe Linton

    The city of Los Angeles Mobility Plan goes on at length about how unsafe widening roads is… and takes some steps to scale back some widening… but keeps widening intact mostly. It’s one of my pet peeves. After pressing this for quite a while in L.A., I’ve found that (beyond the choir) the safety argument isn’t quite as persuasive as the maintenance argument (thanks Chuck Marohn Strong Towns). Why keep widening streets when we can’t afford to keep the streets we have maintained? Why did ourselves deeper into the hole we’re in? (L.A. has a multi-billion backlog on street repaving.)