CDOT Director Shailen Bhatt on Rising Traffic Deaths: Not Our Fault

According to data from Denver PD, 43 people died walking on Denver's streets in 2015 and 2016. Image: CDOT
According to data from Denver PD, 43 people died walking on Denver's streets in 2015 and 2016. Image: CDOT

Traffic fatalities in Colorado have spiked 24 percent in two years, and pedestrian and cyclist deaths have reached a 15-year high. The rising death toll is an indictment of transportation policies that generate car traffic and promote high-speed driving on urban streets, but at a press conference yesterday, Colorado DOT chief Shailen Bhatt deflected responsibility from his agency, blaming distracted driving and society at large.

“We can engineer the system as well as we can,” said Bhatt. “But the behavioral stuff is not something that we can move the needle on drastically, except for our education programs.”

A total of 605 people died on Colorado streets and highways last year, including 100 who were walking or biking.

Traffic deaths are now more prevalent in urban areas than rural areas, according to CDOT data. Earlier this month a driver killed someone walking at the intersection of 14th and Federal, a busy car-centric crossroads where 25 lanes of traffic meet a bus transfer station, a light rail station, and a noisy construction site that will soon house CDOT’s headquarters.

But apparently CDOT is out of ideas.

Image: CDOT
Between 2013 and 2016, drivers killed 52 cyclists in Colorado, including 11 on Denver streets, according to Denver PD data. Image: CDOT

Bhatt and Colorado State Patrol Chief Scott Hernandez did not offer any new solutions, save for the eventual deployment of unproven automated vehicle tech. They did “plead” with the public not to drive impaired, to wear seat belts, and to put down their phones while driving — good messages but nothing new at this point.

Bhatt acknowledged that driving speed is a top factor in traffic deaths. Yet when asked what CDOT would do to lower speeds on its urban arterial roads like Federal Boulevard, Colfax Avenue, and Colorado Boulevard — where 16 pedestrians and bicyclists lost their lives in the last two years — Bhatt said the agency has to “balance” safety with moving cars and trucks.

“I think the challenge is, we, as a society, have decided that we want to move a lot of cars on these arterials,” Bhatt said. “And if I went out unilaterally and said, ‘Every arterial that I just mentioned is gonna be 35 mph…’ we would see a reduction in some of those crashes. But we would create another problem set. So that’s why I believe we’re trying to find a balance between where we can do things to make the roads safer and move traffic.”

CDOT says dangerous intersections like this one at Sheridan and Hampden can’t change, because “balance” must be maintained. Photo: David Sachs

When Bhatt referred to potential street design changes, he said, “We’ve kind of seen the limit of taking dangerous intersections out and putting in grade-separated crossings or adding clear zones.” But Denver’s urban surface highways don’t need grade-separated crossings. They need standard urban street infrastructure like sidewalks and crossings that prioritize pedestrian safety. If that means car traffic doesn’t move as fast, so be it. People’s lives would be saved, and that’s more valuable than a few seconds of travel time.

Bhatt’s agency is actually undermining safety with its current projects in Denver. While people die on the city’s extra-wide, high-speed streets, CDOT and Denver Public Works are making Federal Boulevard even wider, encouraging more speeding and creating a more hostile environment for pedestrians. Both agencies ignored concerns about pedestrian safety to push the project through.

Instead of taking the initiative to change department policy and prevent the loss of life, Bhatt is sticking with billboards and marketing campaigns. Sure, they haven’t worked before, but hey, maybe this year will be different.

  • Brian Schroder

    So moving cars is more important than a few lives lost, huh? I’m not sure how these people sleep at night knowing that their actions will only increase the death toll and do nothing to decrease the carnage.

  • Roads_Wide_Open

    Sadly, you can’t fix stupid.

    • MT

      If you’re referring to CDOT’s attitude towards safety, I’d agree.

      If you are referring to driver behavior you are wrong. Streets designed for lower speeds will slow drivers down and drastically increase safety.

      You can also take stupid’s driver’s license away.

      • Roads_Wide_Open

        ok, let’s assume for a second that every street in the state is perfectly designed and engineered for all users. Does anyone really think that will eliminate crashes/deaths that are caused by distracted drivers, weather, drunk/impaired drivers, unlicensed drivers, speeding cyclists, etc?

        • MT


          • Roads_Wide_Open

            haha! ok, have fun with that thought. May sure you check every vehicle to see if they are wearing a seat belt on your way home tonight!

          • MT
        • c2check

          Maybe not completely, but we can reduce speeds in urban areas using street design and speed limits/enforcement, and/or provide robust walking and biking infrastructure to reduce the risk of crashes as well as their severity.

        • mckillio

          Nothing is 100% effective but yes, that would drastically make things safer.

  • mckillio

    “We can engineer the system as well as we can,” – But you haven’t.

    “So that’s why I believe we’re trying to find a balance between where we can do things to make the roads safer and move traffic.” – What balance have you found because you sure don’t seem to have done so.

    How much of a negative impact would dropping the speed limit by 5mph on all surface streets in denser areas have on traffic? How does that compare to how many fewer lives would be lost and injuries avoided?

  • Ken Schroeppel

    “I think the challenge is, we, as a society, have decided that we want to move a lot of cars on these arterials,” Bhatt said.

    He blames “society” for his “there’s not much we can do about it” attitude and yet CDOT and DOTs in general have been at the vanguard of institutionalizing the very automobile-centric society he blames. Look in the mirror, CDOT, for who to blame here.

  • TakeFive

    Instead of constant complaining and finger pointing, I actually tried to come up with a fix. For grins, you you are welocome to read a short summary Here:

    There’s too many moving parts to detail but let’s take Federal Blvd. as an example or test case. With a dedicated revenue stream for DRCOG (not unlike MAG in Phoenix) they could offer matching funds to CDOT seeking matching Federal $’s for Green Street style improvements – let’s say between U.S. 40 (Colfax) and I-70. In conjunction, RTD could solicit Federal (FTA) matching funds for a BRT Line with DEDICATED lanes for that segment of Federal Blvd.

    In any case, if you had a $billion or three to spend, I wouldn’t put it in new/better streets; rather I’d invest it in better transit. They can ofc go hand in hand in examples like Federal Blvd. above.

    Given CDOT’s paucity of funding they can’t even meet the needs of their out-of-urban constituents. Expecting much help from them is a fool’s errand.

    • MT

      I like the direction you’re going there.
      Things like dedicating a lane to transit don’t really cost much. A lot can be done with paint.

      I think the real challenge is the attitude from CDOT. Would they be willing to give up a lane for transit use? Seems unlikely. They think their mission in life is to move a lot of cars. Transit and safety come far behind that on the priority list.

      • TakeFive

        If you’re going to do BRT/enhanced bus service you want to do it right. You can’t just spread some lipstick around. About the minimum you would want to do is what Los Angeles did with their enhanced Express routes. The bullet points:

        According to City Council President Albus Brooks they have the bids in for a reimagined East Colfax/BRT but they haven’t been made pubic yet. The original estimates would suggest that Federal Blvd would cost in the $15 million per mile range.

        • MT

          Yes, real BRT does take real investment. But a lot of good can be done just giving a dedicated lane, maybe signal priority. The Broadway /Lincoln corridor bus lanes make a huge difference.

          • TakeFive

            Actually, Federal would presumably be enhanced local service as opposed to real BRT. For example, L.A. uses three fourths of a mile between stops as their guideline. But I understand; what’s in a name anywho?

          • MT

            I do think the name BRT should be reserved for real BRT.
            Upgrades like dedicated lanes or off-bus ticketing are fantastic improvements to local bus service, but should not be supplemented for real BRT if that’s what is needed.


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