Colorado DOT’s “Road Health” Summit All About Car Tech, Not Safe Streets

A typical crosswalk on Colfax Avenue, which is controlled by Colorado DOT. Photo: David Sachs

How far has the Colorado Department of Transportation come since its days as the Colorado Department of Highways?

Not very far, judging by Denver’s high-speed, state-owned streets like Colfax and Federal. While Colorado DOT Director Shailen Bhatt talks a good game, the agency he runs has shown almost no inclination to create walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented streets in the city. (See: Widening I-70 and Federal Boulevard, or closing streets to pedestrians when it snows.)

CDOT held a conference last week in Keystone, the “Improving Colorado’s Road Health Summit.” The goal was to shape CDOT’s road safety plan [PDF], a big-picture overview the agency must produce to qualify for federal road safety funds. The discussions discouraged WalkDenver Policy Director Jill Locantore.

“Overall, the dispiriting part of the conference was that it was very heavily focused on cars, drivers, and non-urban situations,” Locantore said. “Bicyclists and pedestrians seem to be viewed as a problem or an afterthought, as opposed to equal users of the transportation system and more vulnerable users of the system, who therefore deserve probably some special consideration.”

An example: Peter Kozinski, a CDOT staffer in charge of developing the agency’s automated vehicle program, said walking while using a cell phone is the biggest threat to pedestrian safety. All of our high-speed urban streets designed to move cars at deadly speeds? To CDOT, they apparently don’t hold a candle to people on foot with their devices out.

This is all in keeping with CDOT’s priorities, even after the arrival of a purported reformer like Bhatt. The agency is spending millions to develop an automated vehicle network while largely ignoring low-tech, inexpensive street redesigns in Denver. The project is called “Road X” and Bhatt heralds it as a fix for everything from congestion to the state’s 500-plus annual traffic fatalities.

No one from CDOT could answer how walking, biking, and transit figure into the high-tech future, Locantore said. When asked, Kozinski pointed to futuristic signs on the highway that tell drivers in real-time how many parking spaces are available at park-and-rides. Handy.

At the conference, Locantore heard a lot about connected vehicle technology and the agency’s PR initiatives to increase seat belt use, she said, but little about protecting people outside of cars.

“They framed things very much from the behind-the-windshield perspective of what’s causing cars and drivers to crash, and sometimes bicycles and pedestrians are what are causing crashes, as opposed to being a more inclusive definition of what the traveling public is,” Locantore said. “There’s a lot of work to be done to improve these plans, so we’d like to be able to be at the table.”

Amidst the red flags, there was a bright spot. “The one thing that I did find encouraging is that multiple speakers repeatedly reaffirmed that zero [traffic deaths] is the right goal, as opposed to some of the comments at the city level, particularly from the police department, as disparaging zero as too aspirational and just setting ourselves up for failure,” Locantore said.

Zero deaths is a great goal. But CDOT won’t get there if it doesn’t make safe streets for walking and biking a priority.