CDOT Seeks High-Tech Safety Fix While Its Streets Remain Stuck in the 1950s

A woman trying to cross Colfax Avenue, one of Denver’s urban highways, waits in the center turn lane to get to the other side. Photo: David Sachs

So far this year, drivers have killed seven people walking and biking on Denver’s wide and fast urban highways, overseen in part by the Colorado Department of Transportation. Now CDOT is asking for help fix the problem with tech.

The agency launched a contest Friday that “calls on citizens to concept innovative solutions” to keep pedestrians and bike riders safe. CDOT will provide half a million dollars in seed money for “entrepreneurs, ideators, and communities to develop inventive technological solutions to protect bicyclists and pedestrians in Colorado.”

The thing is, we already know why these streets are so deadly for people walking and biking. They’re designed like highways, encouraging excessive motor vehicle speeds and careless driving. Streets like Federal Boulevard have lanes as wide as 16 feet! And we know how to fix streets like this: Narrower traffic lanes that induce drivers to travel at safer speeds (10 feet is sufficient in most cases), intersections that prioritize pedestrians with shorter crossings and median islands, and protected bike lanes.

CDOT has shown little enthusiasm for saving lives with modern street design techniques. Instead the agency emphasizes its “RoadX” initiative, which aims to make Colorado the best state for autonomous/connected vehicle infrastructure.

“So much of the technology that is evolving and changing right now as you move into this world of self-driving vehicles and the like is all incredibly exciting because we truly believe that they’ll start getting us to zero deaths,” said CDOT spokesperson Amy Ford. “What we’re seeing is that the focus is on the vehicles… so we’re bring it down to the human scale.”

It’s true that technology could play a role in safer streets. Since speed is such an important factor in the street safety, devices that limit vehicle speeds to the posted limit could save lives, for example.

Asked whether reducing speeds would be a component of the new contest, Ford said, “We’re not gonna predetermine that at this point in time. We’re gonna ask people how they would — and it’s a very broad category right now — protect bicyclists and pedestrians on our roads.”

As the Denver Vision Zero Coalition states in its recently-adopted core principles, to eliminate traffic deaths “we must correct poorly designed areas that invite speeding and other unsafe behaviors.”

Asked what design fixes CDOT has implemented on its urban highways, Ford pointed to one: a project on Federal Boulevard in north Denver that added a median with pedestrian refuges, a new crosswalk, and street lighting. These changes don’t grab headlines, but they do help people trying to cross the street. And CDOT isn’t implementing them fast enough.

“We’re happy to see CDOT taking the issue of pedestrian and bicycle safety seriously, and it will be interesting to see what ideas about technology come out of this challenge,” said WalkDenver Policy Director Jill Locantore. “It’s also clear that CDOT could be doing some very low-tech things that would dramatically improve pedestrian safety, such as providing more sidewalks, safe crossings, and traffic calming along state highways in Denver including Colfax, Federal, and Alameda.”

There isn’t an app for that. Just paint, concrete, and CDOT’s will to prioritize human life instead of motor vehicle throughput.