Westergaard: The Key to Bike Progress in Denver Is to Give Up on Bike Lanes

This is what Neil Westergaard is so afraid of. Image: DPW

Neil Westergaard, editor of the Denver Business Journal, wants Denver to slow its roll and stop trying to make Broadway function like a safe city street instead of a surface highway.

Denver Public Works, backed by elected officials, will install a two-way, parking-protected bike lane on four blocks of Broadway next month — a temporary measure intended to lay the groundwork for a permanent bikeway between I-25 and Colfax. Broadway and its northbound counterpart, Lincoln, would both receive more effective bus lanes and safer pedestrian crossings as part of the project.

Westergaard is fresh off a trip to bike-forward Copenhagen, which is a case study in how cities can repurpose street space for biking. Copenhagen wasn’t born a great biking city — it took very deliberate steps over many years to convert traffic lanes and parking spaces into safe bikeways and pedestrian zones.

Evidently, Westergaard didn’t get the message, because he just wrote a column in which he calls the Broadway redesign “dead on arrival.” The piece is behind a pay wall, but here are some lowlights:

I’ve been skeptical of the Broadway bike lane idea. Broadway is a major vehicle route out of downtown Denver in the afternoon and one of the busiest streets in the city. More than 36,000 cars a day use that street. Where are all those cars going to go when up to two through lanes of traffic are taken away in favor of bike lanes and a dedicated transit lane? That’s one of the configurations in the city’s plans.

Politically, I think it’s going to be dead on arrival. Last summer, the city of Boulder was forced to abandon protected bike lanes on a section of Folsom Street because of outcry from Boulder motorists. If this idea can’t fly in Boulder, I doubt it can grow wings in Denver.

Broadway already has a dedicated transit lane during rush hours, so Westergaard can rest assured that no lane is being “taken away” for buses.

What he wants to know, then, is “where are all those cars going to go” when Public Works converts one driving lane into a two-way bike lane. But the question to ask is really, “Why does Broadway have so many lanes for cars in the first place?”

Public Works and its consultants have held several public meetings where they plainly demonstrated Broadway’s inefficiency. Planners compared Lincoln’s busiest hour to Broadway’s and found that Lincoln’s four lanes moved about 1,000 more cars than Broadway’s five. In other words, there’s too much space for cars on Broadway.

That makes the street dangerous, because it leads drivers to travel at high speeds.

On a spring Tuesday, Lincoln Street moved 3,213 cars with four lanes from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., while Broadway moved 2,380 cars with five lanes from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Image: DPW

Finally, Boulder was not “forced to abandon” the Folsom Street bike lane. Its City Council caved at the first hint of displeasure from motorists after a mere two months. Denver boosters should be out to prove that our city gets things done, not cite political cowardice in a neighboring government as a model for our own.

Westergaard continues, regaling readers with his thoughts about Copenhagen:

I came away impressed. Copenhagen is a truly remarkable place for cycling. Everyone bikes, rain or shine. All the major thoroughfares have bike lanes that are separated from the vehicle traffic lanes and have their own traffic signals. There are ample places to park bicycles at the ubiquitous transit stations around the city and they’re allowed on the metro and regional trains, too.

But unlike Denver, there is an absolutely slavish devotion to traffic laws. Cyclists in Copenhagen know the rules and obey them. There’s no running stoplights, riding on sidewalks or other reckless behavior the kind which we often see here. (Except maybe by tourists.)

People ride single file, signal when they are going to stop or turn and get out of the way quickly. It is not uncommon to see 30 to 50 bicycles lined up waiting for the light to change at an intersection.

Westergaard has it all backwards. Copenhagen doesn’t have an excellent bike network because cyclists follow the rules. Cyclists in Copenhagen follow the rules because the city has an excellent bike network.

It’s not a mystery why people on bikes break the law. A leading researcher on the subject is CU Denver’s own Wes Marshall. Denver’s cars-only street designs compel bike riders to adopt “scofflaw” behavior to stay safe. Marshall found that people on bikes often pedal through red lights to be more visible to drivers approaching from behind, for instance. (And for the record, bicyclists can legally ride two abreast.)

If Broadway was a safe place for people to bike, people on bikes would be less inclined to break laws — and more people would bike. That’s what happened after Public Works installed the 15th Street protected bike lane. Bicyclists might flock to Broadway — like they do in Westergaard’s lovely description of Copenhagen — if the street catered to them a little bit.

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Is this the street that business owners and the rest of the neighborhood deserve? Image: Google Maps

Continues Westergaard:

On Broadway, however, the plans call for maintaining parking lanes on both sides of the street. I’d view the Broadway bike plans a lot more favorably if the city would simply eliminate the parking lane on one side of Broadway, but I doubt merchants would go along with it. They understand that most of their customers are still driving automobiles.

Yes, as anyone who attended the public workshops for the redesign knows, the business owners with reservations about the redesign were concerned mostly with losing on-street parking, which is why no parking spaces will be repurposed. It sounds like Westergaard’s priority is to simply move car traffic — he prefers an extra express lane to I-25 for suburban commuters to a safe commercial street for the neighborhood. Why does the editor of the city’s leading business publication want something that local business owners don’t?

Westergaard saves his best trolling for the end of the column:

It’s laudable that Denver is looking at transportation alternatives. But it should be smarter about it. Forcing bike lanes onto a high traffic commuter corridor at the expense of cars to satisfy a minority of bike commuters and activists is a form of social engineering that is just going to enrage motorists.

And, just like they did in Boulder, opponents will exercise their superior political strength and get it scuttled, setting back the development of workable bike infrastructure development for years.

Yeah. What are these people thinking when they call for safe bike lanes on an important street? They should listen to Neil Westergaard’s expert advice about achieving change and just give up. That’s how Denver will make progress on bike infrastructure development.