Will Hancock Accelerate Change on the Streets to Free Denver From the Car?

Gil Peñalosa’s advice for Denver? Change the streets for the betterment of the city, not a few individuals. Photo: David Sachs

Denver is nowhere near its goals for transit, walking, and biking, and the city is slipping further down the slope of car dependence.

Changing that trend is less about money than politics and prioritization, Gil Peñalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, told a room full of hundreds at the Denver Sustainability Summit on Monday. It will take political courage and the will to put the general public’s interest above the interest of a few vocal NIMBYs, he said.

“Change is not unanimous,” said Peñalosa, former commissioner of Bogotá’s parks and rec department. “If you want change to be unanimous, you have to water it down so much that it won’t be change any longer.”

Refitting public streets has to be about the public good, Peñalosa stressed, and the government has to be “the guardian angel of the gentle majority,” not a henchman of the vocal few. Mayor Michael Hancock’s Department of Public Works recently did exactly what Peñalosa warned against with the Stout Street bike lane. His administration has to be bolder, he said.

“Ultimately, it’s about leadership,” Hancock told Streetsblog. “Once you’ve heard everyone, and if there hasn’t been anything that changes your ideal or kind of debunks the justification that you’re moving forward with, then you have to be bold enough to move forward. So I think this conversation has been worthy to kind of have us step back and make sure we’re taking those necessary steps.”

More Denverites drive solo to work now than at the turn of the century, and fewer people take transit now than they did then. Meanwhile, the share of people walking and biking to work has barely changed. That’s why solo car commuting will have to drop 13 percent in just three years to reach Hancock’s goal of 60 percent by 2020. Biking and walking has to climb 9 percent to reach his mode share goal of 15 percent.

Asked about reaching those goals, Hancock said he would like to “accelerate it in a much bolder, grander fashion so we can be able to accomplish some of these goals.” Hancock said that “we need to really take a bolder step with regards to transportation mobility strategies,” but would not elaborate on specifics, saying that we can expect to hear something by the end of March.

Elected officials revel in national superlatives about Denver’s transportation system — something Peñalosa calls a dangerous “myth of excellence.” But numbers don’t lie. The Hancock administration and its predecessors have prioritized driving with money and political capital. Yet people won’t walk unless they have sidewalks, they won’t take transit unless it’s efficient and dignified, and they won’t bike if the city doesn’t fund its own planned bike network.

“Change is hard,” Peñalosa said. “Same is easier. That’s why we do more of the same. But not only do we have to do things right, but also we’ve gotta do the right things.”