Denver’s Big 20-Year Plan for Federal Boulevard Aims Low

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Federal Boulevard and West Jewell Avenue. Image: Google Maps

Back in May, Denver Public Works set out to redesign Federal Boulevard. Last week the agency came out with a draft plan for Federal, and anyone hoping for a 21st century design that truly prioritizes transit and safe walking and biking will be disappointed.

Federal needs serious help. It’s one of the most dangerous streets in the city for walking. Last year, drivers struck 28 people walking on Federal Boulevard and killed four of them, according to city data. The street is notorious for drag-racing and some sections lack sidewalks. It’s so dangerous, officials don’t even want people biking on it.

At the same time, Federal is an important transit street with significant pedestrian activity. With 13,600 bus boardings each weekday, only Colfax Avenue has higher bus ridership. The street connects dense residential areas, office districts, commercial strips, industrial zones, two universities, two high schools, two RTD stations, and Mile High Stadium. But buses slog along in traffic at 6.3 mph during afternoon rush hour.

Unless the city starts getting more ambitious about its plans to overhaul the street, Federal will get marginally safer but will fall short of transforming into the walkable transit boulevard it could become. Here’s a look at the draft plan Public Works released last week, which covers the nine miles from Floyd Avenue to Columbine Road.

Half-measures to prioritize transit.

The convenience and speed of 24/7 bus-only lanes would be a huge improvement for transit riders, and would attract new ones looking to ditch the slow drive. But that’s not what planners propose.

The plan calls for piloting bus-only lanes, just during rush hour, and only where street space is easiest to claim from general traffic. Buses would mix with general traffic unless there happens to be some extra room, like the .7-mile stretch between Louisiana and Jewell avenues, for example.

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Federal Boulevard may get dedicated bus lanes, in some places, at certain times of the day. Image: Denver Public Works

Partial, part-time bus lanes won’t be enough to enable transit riders to bypass car congestion. If Denver wants to avoid choking on its rapid growth, Federal needs real bus rapid transit, with continuous bus lanes, not half-measures.

Mayor Michael Hancock says he wants cut the share of solo car commuters from 73 percent to 60 percent by 2020. He might get closer if his administration plans to improve streets for bus service more aggressively — not tiptoe around drivers’ feelings.

Walking should get safer, but there’s “no silver bullet” for the cloverleaf.

At 14 “primary” intersections, planners envision safety improvements like corner sidewalk expansions to slow down turning drivers and shorten crossing distances (think 17th and Wynkoop). A few mid-block crossings could also be in the cards so pedestrians don’t have to walk so far just to cross the street safely. The plan lists 23 “secondary” intersections as well, which are lower priority. Planners also recommend re-timing traffic signals so people have more time to cross the street, and most basically, completing the sidewalk network.

These pedestrian safety measures are the strongest part of the plan, but the city could be doing much more.

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The cloverleaf at Colfax and Federal destroys walkability. Image: Google Maps

DPW frames the addition of taller medians as a safety measure. They might stop drag racers from weaving into other lanes, but those medians will make some drivers more comfortable speeding, since they won’t have to worry about oncoming traffic. The medians will also take up a lot of street space that could otherwise be devoted to bus lanes or bike lanes.

The giant cloverleaf interchange at Federal and Colfax, meanwhile, will remain a monstrosity dividing neighborhoods from one another. The only long-term solution for a truly walkable and bikeable city is to restore the street grid here, but DPW isn’t considering that.

The Federal blueprint has “no silver bullet” for the grade-separated interchange, project manager Karen Good said. DPW makes only a vague recommendation to “ensure the Colfax/Federal interchange has a more urban design friendly solution for pedestrians and bikes.”

“We’ve done a number of studies looking at… the possibilities for the future of this interchange that makes it more pedestrian-friendly, that makes it safer,” said Good. “Maybe not [a design] that makes at a neighborhood street, but something that is more of a comfortable crossing and connection to the major [Decatur-Federal RTD] station.”

Still no bikes on Federal, but crossing should get easier.

Federal is the most direct north-south route west of downtown, but if you’re on a bike, it’s deadly. That’s why, before the plan’s release, the Vision Zero Coalition made this request of city planners:

Emphasize the importance of creating low-stress bicycle routes that parallel Federal Boulevard. While limited public right-of-way may prevent the addition of protected bicycle lanes to Federal Boulevard itself, failure to provide parallel routes will force bicyclists to ride on the sidewalk or in busy travel lanes to reach destinations on Federal Boulevard, creating hazardous conditions for everyone.

“It’s a multi-modal planning effort and what we’re looking at for the bike piece is providing amenities once people get to Federal, making sure there are opportunities for people safely cross Federal,” Good said. “But we don’t have a significant vision for bikes on Federal, north to south.”

Good said there’s already a “strong network” of parallel bike routes, but that’s not true of the entire Federal Boulevard corridor. The South Platte River Trail runs from 6th to 23rd to the east, but it’s circuitous — almost double the mileage of the same segment on Federal. To the West, Knox Court is slated to become a “neighborhood bikeway,” but not for the length of Federal.

Still, the redesign could improve eight of the bike routes that cross Federal with protected intersections, bike signals, or more visible bike markings. Paths that allow both cyclists and pedestrians could connect people to RTD stations, too, if all goes according to plan.

Still time to get it right.

So far, the city hasn’t identified funds for the Federal project. Public Works will look to next year’s bond initiative, federal grants, CDOT, and RTD to pay for it.

The funding uncertainty could be a blessing in disguise. Federal should be a great transit boulevard, and this design falls short. The time it takes to cobble together funds can also be spent putting together a bolder vision for the future of the street.