Gabe Klein on What It Will Take to Transform Denver’s Streets

Here’s part two of Streetsblog Denver’s interview with Gabe Klein, author of Startup City and former DOT chief of Chicago and Washington, DC. Klein is one of the keynote speakers at today’s Live.Ride.Share conference on shared mobility.

In part one of the interview, Klein discussed the potential impact of new vehicle technologies on city streets. Here he delves into how to make Denver’s streets work for better for walking, biking, and transit.

Gabe Klein, left with former D.C. Mayor Adrien Fenty.

What’s your impression of Denver’s transportation network?

You see a lot of cities taking a long view and doing the heavy lifting to create transit-oriented development and to get the funding together for the capital investments for high-quality transit. So this is wonderful. Where I think a lot of cities are actually not following through much is all the connective tissue on the smaller stuff, on the bike facilities, making sure there’s a connected sidewalk network… and I think Denver falls in that category. There are bike lanes, but I think there’s more connectivity needed. I give Governor Hickenlooper credit for this being something he takes seriously, and Shailen Bhatt, the Colorado DOT director, I think he’s a really good guy, I think he gets it. I like that they have dedicated some funding. But now it’s time to act.

I’ve seen some of your very wide, one-way streets in Denver. I don’t see a rush hour really. I’m not saying you don’t have a rush hour coming out of the central core, but it’s nothing like other cities. I don’t think you need these massive, one-way pairs. I think conversions of some of these streets to two-ways, to the actual people-oriented, retail-oriented streets, would be a great first step.

A lot of the money that Hickenlooper dedicated to bikes is to build recreational bike trails and tourism. What about biking as transportation?

I haven’t been out there in eight months but when I was there last time I think there was a real opportunity to focus on active transportation and create a really safe “8 to 80” protected bike lane network. They should be looking to Chicago, they should be looking to Portland. I would love to see that, because that would be a much smaller investment. They’ve done the heavy lifting. It can seem harder politically to get behind the basics — the active transportation networks — but it’s absolutely crucial.

And you have a governor and I think a mayor that recognizes biking is a big thing in Colorado. As I understand it, biking is a big drive for tourism. But we gotta get people thinking about biking as a basic, fundamental part of the transportation system. Denver should be a national leader in active transportation. And it can be, and I think you can do it in one year to two years.

That’s not a very long time. I’ve read your book, and you talk about getting shit done. How do you get the decision makers to think big in terms of biking and walking as transportation?

We make things too hard. It’s not hard. Calgary put in a protected bike lane network in one year — the basic network. It starts with publicly proclaiming that you’re gonna do something. It starts with leadership. It starts with breaking from the status quo. We came out publicly in Chicago when we put out our complete street guidelines and we said, “The pedestrian is number one. That’s who we’re designing streets for first and foremost. And then the transit user and then the cyclist. Then the auto user is last. You gotta be bold, and you have to decide what you want to do, and you have let people know internally, in the organization, and externally, that this is what you plan to do.

Chicago’s Streets for Cycling 2020 plan calls for 645 miles of bike facilities in Chicago and 100 miles of next-generation facilities — protected bike lanes, buffered bike lanes. We went corner-to-corner throughout the city and had task forces and really worked on it with the public in their neighborhoods. I think that was important. And if you really spend time, like six or eight months, public support, if you do that properly then you can spend your next 16 months just running and getting it done.

Denver decision makers plan a lot of things around its relationship to the region. The transit authority has to be regional by definition, and the city doesn’t have its own transportation department. Is this sustainable as the city’s population booms?

I think Denver is of the size that it needs a department of transportation. There are a lot of cities that are growing, and transportation has sort of been buried in public works. In DC it got broken out in 2000. Chattanooga is breaking it now into its own agency. Oakland is breaking it out now. Once you start to grow at a rapid pace, transportation needs its own place in the city. And it can be a rejuvenating process to break it out and make it its own thing.

Regionalism is a double-edged sword. It’s really positive in terms of getting mayors to work together, addressing the regional transportation problems — you have to do that. Having said that, you can’t do it at the expense of focusing on the city. In the 1950s, 60s, 70s, with urban renewal and people fleeing the city and heading to the suburbs, the cities lost their confidence. They became work places and not living places for a lot of people. Now that more people are living downtown — and we want people to live downtown — we have a problem with people living too far away from their work and their school and their doctor and their shopping. Look at other cities that are prioritizing the quality of life of the residents in the city, and they’re exploding.

This idea that we have to focus on the city at the expense of the suburbs and focus on regionalism at the expense of the city is false. We can do both. Our roads are so inefficient. If we put a little more effort into it, we can move everyone around the city. We can move them on rail, we can move them more efficiently in cars, we can use shared-use mobility, we can use buses. But we also have to be willing to slim down roads that people want to live on. On the major roads, the arterials and collector streets, it’s about segregating the different modes so that there’s space. The peds, the bikes, the bus, the cars. And then on the local streets, the smaller streets, we want to merge everyone together at very low speeds.