Engineers Blew Off Safety Concerns to Widen Federal. Will They Do It Again?

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To widen Federal Boulevard, engineers shot down suggested safety improvements in the name of keeping traffic flowing. Image: DPW

Engineers know that wide city streets with wide lanes are dangerous — those are the streets where people get killed by speeding drivers. But when people confronted Denver’s transportation agencies about the widening of Federal Boulevard, Colorado DOT and Denver Public Works blew off their safety concerns. Making the street safer for walking, they said, would ruin the whole point of the project: moving cars.

Now Public Works and the Department of Community Planning and Development are embarking on a study of all nine miles of Federal Boulevard to analyze “safety, aesthetics, and how this roadway operates from the perspectives of people who take transit, walk, bike, and drive.” This could be an opportunity to fix some of the mistakes of the past, or it could lead to even more widening and more dangerous conditions for everyone. Which one will it be?

The Hancock administration is supposedly getting serious about a Vision Zero commitment to ending traffic fatalities, and this would be a good place to start. Federal is one of the most dangerous streets in the city, and its future depends on the marching orders that planners get from City Hall. If they see effective transit and safer walking and biking as top priorities, good things can happen. But if they just want to pump more traffic through Federal, watch out.

Here’s a look at what happens when engineers see their job as moving traffic. This is an excerpt from CDOT’s responses to Denver residents concerned about the current Federal Boulevard widening project [PDF]. Locals’ concerns are in bold, followed by official responses (everything has been condensed from the original):

Maybe even adding a pedestrian only crossing with flashing lights and its own red light, like they have in Boulder, would be good.

Every intersection of Federal Boulevard cannot be signalized to allow pedestrian crossing without creating increased congestion making safety worse for all modes travel (pedestrians, vehicles, bikes, and buses); this would not meet the Purpose and Need of the project.

With the inevitable growth in people and available services, and a concomitant decline in the auto-dependent suburban model, this clearly is a time when we need to position and structure our neighborhoods for the future. Instead, with the proposed design efforts for Federal Boulevard, we are getting the products of highway department planning mired in the mindset of the 1950’s, a time of the destruction of many areas in America’s cities, including this one.

Comment noted.

The new median will seem to serve as a safety zone when crossing at these points—this is a safety illusion. The medians are not constructed specifically to enable pedestrian usage and there are also left-­­turn lanes funneling vehicles to 12th and 11th in conflict with crossing pedestrians.

Medians are not designed to provide safe refuge for pedestrians but are being implemented to control left turning movements.

It is common knowledge that, in spite of the claims of the traffic engineers, pedestrians will not typically walk a block out of their way to get to an intersection with a crossing, but will resort to mid-block crossing shortcuts to get to their destination. This design condition should not be moved forward, but should be redesigned.

As a principal, urban arterial and a state highway, Federal Boulevard is intended to carry high volumes of traffic in addition other modes of transportation including pedestrians and buses. Federal Boulevard carries over 42,000 vehicles a day so it is important that pedestrians cross the roadway at locations that are safe.

Very reminiscent of this classic animation by Strong Towns:

It doesn’t have to be this way. City Hall could change the mission from moving traffic to creating a safe street for everyone, and engineers will churn out better designs. We’ll be watching to see if the city turns things around this time.