Denver Deserves a Stand-Alone Agency Devoted Entirely to City Streets

Denver is growing faster than most cities in the country, and its streets need to catch up. Without rapid changes to make walking, biking, and transit more appealing, the city is going to get overrun by car traffic.

By the time Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue protected bike lane is finished, it will have taken about five years. City leaders think a stand-alone transportation department is a path to faster implementation. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog SF

Under Mayor Hancock, Denver’s streets aren’t adapting fast enough. The bike lane and sidewalk networks are stunted. Adding bus lanes to a single street is expected to take at least half a decade.

Part of the problem is that the same city agency in charge of collecting trash and recycling — Denver Public Works — is also the agency that redesigns streets.

What if Denver had a separate city agency in charge of city streets — an agency that can focus entirely on improving walking, biking, and transit?

That’s what Oakland, a city with about 250,000 fewer people than Denver, is doing. Mayor Libby Schaaf just created a city department of transportation, breaking it out of the public works department — an acknowledgment that transportation policy has to be about city-building, not just paving roads.

Reports Jen Kinney for Next City:

Among the questions [Interim Oakland DOT Director Jeff Tumlin] thinks a new DOT will play a role in answering: How can a mobility system be designed around inclusivity? How can cities accommodate the many who are now demanding better bike infrastructure, knowing it means some drivers will feel they are being made to give up their privileges? How does a city grow its economy while ensuring opportunities also proliferate for those who have historically been bypassed by economic growth?

Renee Rivera, executive director of nonprofit Bike East Bay, says as interim director Tumlin is bringing what Oakland needs: vision. “That’s what Oakland lacks right now, and that’s one of the challenges when you put transportation under public works,” she says. “Transportation is very different from other kinds of city infrastructure.” The public interacts more directly with transportation infrastructure than they do with, say, storm drains. And streets have a more obvious connection to the economy than do sewers. When it all falls under the purview of the same department, Rivera thinks innovating in transportation can take a backseat to just keeping the city operating.

The change comes as the Oakland City Council mulls a complementary ballot measure to fund transportation to the tune of $350 million.

Other cities of similar size to Denver have separate departments in charge of streets. Seattle, Portland, and D.C. all have DOTs that focus entirely on the design and management of streets.

Establishing a Denver DOT is something current city officials have at least begun to contemplate. Councilman Albus Brooks floated the option after returning from Seattle on a fact-finding trip, but he hasn’t made any official proposal.

The Hancock administration is formulating a lot of transportation plans right now: A Vision Zero plan to end traffic deaths, an intra-city transit blueprint, a pedestrian master plan, and a plan for transit-oriented growth. All these plans won’t be worth much if they just sit on a shelf, however. To implement its vision for streets and transportation, Denver could use a city agency devoted to streets and transportation.