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.