The Key to a Successful 16th Street Mall Makeover: Busways on 15th and 17th

Photo: Jesse Bell/Flickr

Hoping to create a better gathering place, city planners are seriously considering moving RTD’s free shuttle off the 16th Street Mall to create a pedestrian-only street. The concept has drawn all kinds of reactions, some of which pit transit against walking. But it’s not that simple.

If the city plays its cards right, three major streets could prioritize people and transit in a downtown that currently prioritizes cars.

As RTD General Manager David Genova wrote in the Denver Business Journal, maintaining the shuttle’s convenient service has to be part of any solution. That implies that pedestrianizing the mall would mean running the shuttle in a loop on 15th and 17th streets. And to maintain the shuttle’s 90-second frequencies on those streets, the city would have to truly prioritize buses.

Imagine physically separate transit lanes on 15th and 17th that help not only the shuttle but other bus routes bypass traffic congestion.

“I think one of the biggest impediments to this process is that folks want to simplify this question as ‘shuttles or no shuttles,’ and it’s just so not that,” Denver Planning Director Brad Buchanan told Streetsblog. “Shuttles fulfill a really important piece of mobility downtown. We can’t damage that.”

Buchanan said the project is the most complex he’s ever worked on because the mall means so many different things to so many different people.

For many, it’s a transit route. The shuttle handles 45,000 boardings every weekday. It links Civic Center Station and Union Station, connecting to other transit routes and workplaces along the way, making it a vital service for commuters.

For business owners, the mall is a livelihood. The more time people spend there, the more money they’ll spend too. But a study by Gehl Architects says just 1 percent of people “linger” on the mall. That’s a big missed opportunity for local merchants. According to Gehl, merchants would benefit if buses weren’t shuttling people past stores and restaurants.

Gehl, the Downtown Denver Partnership, and Community Planning and Development tested that theory for five Sundays last summer. During “Meet in the Street” days, RTD operated its buses on 15th and 17th (with weekend headways between 3 and 15 minutes). The demos opened up the street, which became a vibrant place for people: More lingering, more families, and more retail sales.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 8.46.51 AM
Image: Gehl Studios

While those were successful temporary events, to replicate those changes permanently, planners will have to figure out a way to operate the shuttle on other streets. Buchanan said the city will dive deeper into those questions when it launches its new Downtown Multimodal Access Plan this summer.

Another wrinkle: RTD’s new rail lines will bring more passengers to the shuttle, but the exact number remains to be seen. The A Line between Union Station to DIA opens next month, and three other lines open this year. According to RTD, by 2017, 80,000 more people will pass through Union Station on a given weekday.

“That’s part of the discussion and that’s why this evolutionary approach to city building and planning is so important,” said John Desmond, executive vice president of the Downtown Denver Partnership. “We’re seeing things change not only with the RTD commuter rail lines but with other things on an ongoing basis.”

More Meet in the Street events are planned for this summer. Piloting dedicated bus lanes and testing shuttles on 15th and 17th during weekdays could be in the cards too, according to the Gehl study.

  • TonesOfLife

    What if they ran north bound on 16th and south bound 17th. That would open one whole lane on 16th, but still keep one shuttle lane.

    • Trinkar

      Except that 16th and 17th are east/west streets, not north/south

      • AlCum

        He’s referring to 16th and 17th STREETS, not the E-W avenues. The numbered streets in the downtown grid run north-south, traditionally (although they’re all true 45-degree diagonal, the numbered streets run into and out of North Denver while the names streets run east-west into and out of East Denver and West Denver,).

      • TonesOfLife

        To clarify: 15th runs NW and 17th SE. So take your pick on cardinal directions. Sorry that was so confusing for you.

  • JZ71

    The history of urban pedestrian-only malls is not good – see: . . and: . . Transit, especially frequent, free, transit is what makes the 16th Street Mall both special and a success.

    • mckillio

      But the point is that there are issues with the street, meaning it’s not as successful as it could be.

    • JerryG

      Those cities with more problems have low downtown populations. In fact, that article from mentions Denver’s as a success. The shuttle was likely essential for the success in Denver in the early days. The question is: does the shuttle still need to be on 16th for the mall to be successful? It may not be. As Denver’s downtown population begins to grow, then there will likely be more conflicts with the shuttle. Now is the time to explore the options.

    • Walter Crunch

      Yep. Allow bikes all days.

  • spr8364

    This would be like taking the 15 off of Colfax and moving it to 16th and 14th. Just doesn’t make sense to me. If they’re going to test it, they should test it on weekdays when it matters.

  • Walter Crunch

    Hmmm…what’s missing here? Oh yeah…bikes. No bikes in a pro bike town? Why is that?

    Stupid, stupid. …stupid. If you want real dollars for the businesses, you want bikes.

    Why don’t they want bikes? Because they don’t want the people to see what a real street could be. So…we bam bikes except for weekends (for now). So…deadly buses are ok….but bikes are too dangerous. Right?

    • mckillio

      Why would you want bikes on a pedestrian street?

      • Walter Crunch

        Did you read my post all the way through?

        • mckillio


          • Walter Crunch

            Try to be a little less clueless.

    • Dan

      Because too many bike riders don’t follow the rules and piss everybody else off!

      Well that’s why I don’t want bikes, I can’t speak for “them”.
      – And just because there are bikes in town doesn’t “make it” a bike town.

      • Walter Crunch

        Again, try to be a little less clueless. But…I will humor you. I agree, we need to get these killing machines off the road. How do we even let them next to parks or schools? We let children ride them without a permit?

        It’s pretty east to understand. Bikes are the only for of transit that can move people major miles and contribute zero to pollution.

        But hey, keep your fantasy that people should ride deadly buses and cars so they can walk on a road sized mall…..but keep those killer bikes out.

        • Dan

          Exactly right!, keep those killer bikes out!
          I never said anything like that.
          Talk about needing a clue. Where did you get the idea for MY fantasy? I certainly didn’t clue you in.
          And yeah, you are definitely humoring me!
          I’d like to see you get anything larger than your head any of those miles with your bike!
          That would be a sight!

          • Walter Crunch

            I ride 10 to 20 miles all the time.

      • TonesOfLife

        Scoff law cycling is an effect of poor infrastructure. While I was in the Nederlands it was an observation of mine that nearly everyone on bikes followed the rules. I brought this to my pals attention and he said, well I think due to the respect bikes have here and numbers of riders. If people didn’t follow the rules, it wouldn’t work and since everyone rides, since there is a public place for it, they scorn on those that are un-safe and abuse it.

        Right now, scoff law is the norm in the US with cyclists because:

        1) They don’t feel respected or even feel threatened by motorists
        – For example, running a red will save a cyclist from a motorist stamped running it down. (Much safer to face 1 or 2 crossing motorists than 100 behind you.

        2) Inadequate infrastructure
        – This cause car/cyclist confrontation which feeds into number 1 as well.

        These first two feed into the last:

        3) We don’t have enough cyclists in mass yet on the streets. They are still a small minority. We will hopefully reach critical mass slowly. Once this occurs I think you will begin to see less of this. Until then we need to improve what we can, which is number 2. With that number 1 comes with it!

        Currently the status quo is ‘cars and highways’ thus cyclists are waging an up hill battle. There is a grown demand for equal representation and I think its deserved.

    • AlCum

      The Mall was built to function as a busway. That’s why buses are there and bikes are not.

      • Walter Crunch

        What in the world is a busway?

        • AlCum

          A carriageway for buses?

          This is not a new term in the world of alternative modes of transport.

          • Walter Crunch

            Yeah….thought you might attempt that. If that were the case, the lights would be prioritized for buses. They aren’t and the road would be setup for hight consistent speed. Also, by the way, bikes are allowed on the weekends.

          • AlCum

            I know that bikes are allowed on the weekends. You do realize that’s when the shuttle buses run with less frequency because there is no commuter AM and PM peak, nor a lunchtime peak.

            And no, the signals (not lights) don’t have to be timed for bus priority for the lanes to be called a busway. That’s entirely unnecessary. You seem to be confusing busway with Bus Rapid Transit. Perhaps you ought to research the 16th Street Transitway and how it came to be. It was your initial comment that the “deadly buses are OK” that prompted me to acquaint you with what the 16th Street Mall actually is. It was built with a federal transit grant to act as a bus circulator between Civic Center and Market Street so that RTD commuter buses would not all have to circulate through downtown streets.

          • Walter Crunch

            Psssst.. the design is flawed. It’s no busway, it’s a road with limited use. The buses are speciality use and the people don’t want to go there.

            The original idea that one would only use buses is a flawed 1950s idea.

            Wake up, people on bikes puts people in places after hours. Your Orwellian idea that somehow bikes will kill whIle a rolling death machine somehow will make 16th Street mall a happy place us quite amusing.

            The cerator of this bad idea are holding on so tight to their bus birthchild, they will scorch the earth before letting something totally natural happen.

            The bikes will come on week days. It will happend

            All without massive tax dollars. People want to be free. Not caged in shirt buses.

          • AlCum

            You need to go down and spend time on the mall. You’re arguing from false premises. It is of course a busway, there is no way that it is not. The tens of thousands of people who ARE there would be surprised by your claim that they’re not there.

            Where did I ever say that bikes would kill? They’re not allowed on the busway during the week because THEIR safety is at risk.

            If you want to kick the buses off the busway, give s back the $75 million federal busway grant that was used to build it.

            You know, not everyone rides a bike. The people on the buses are not going to bring their bikes.

          • Walter Crunch

            Yep, same old defense “not everyone rides a bike”. I don’t care if the worthless buses stay. There is plenty of room to get around them.

            Yep, been on the mall and did a little survey of my own. Car culture is killing the mall. Denver could have a little bit of Amsterdam for free…but they gotta hang on to the same bullshit lies “it’s for the safety of the rider”. Yeah, sure. If that was the case, none of should drive…ever.

          • AlCum

            The buses are not “worthless.” They are in fact worth exponentially more than the bikes. Even if bikes were permitted during the work week, they will not ever transport anywhere close to as many people who will be carried by the buses.

            The mall busway was built for buses, Walter. Car culture has nothing to do with the mall. 16th Street used to be the cruising street for kids in their cars. The busway replaced it precisely as an alternative to car culture. People on regional and express commuter buses needed the shuttle buses as their last-mile connection to work.

            You’re not gonna kick 100,000 people off the mall shuttles, not diminish the value of the shuttles in moving tons of people, for a dozen bicyclists. This is a city. You’re not alone in it.

  • AlCum

    The solution needs to include keeping the shuttle on the mall. It was built as a transit mall, not a pedestrian mall, but it’s the number one attraction in Denver, at least downtown, and that’s because of the mobility.

  • tom36

    Wow, judging from these comments below, this needs to happen. Denverites are WAYYYY too attached to driving their cars through the city. If you wanna drive, screw you. You’re in a city. It’s not small anymore. Great cities don’t let cars into their downtowns unless you actually want to sit in traffic. There’s no room for cars. Give buses and bicycles the priority for mobility. Grow up, Denver.

  • Walter Crunch

    What if we trashed those shitty specialized buses with a shitty seating that are incredibly noisy at every long light?