Let’s Stop Pretending 15th St. Has a Protected Bike Lane. Fix It with Enforcement, Better Design.

Photo: Micah Gurard-Levin
Photo: Micah Gurard-Levin

A guest column from a Streetsblog Denver reader.

For about two years, I’ve been biking to and from work almost every day. I’m not a cyclist for sport. I simply commute by bike for the health benefits and convenience. It also doesn’t hurt that my trips add zero smog to Denver’s air, either.

And, while I pay attention to headlines related to pedestrian and bicycle safety, I am not part of any organized efforts or groups working on issues pertaining to bike lanes, safety, or sustainable transportation. I’m your ordinary B-Cycle loving bike commuter.

And yet I am appalled, angry, and frustrated by the complete absence of action from the people responsible for enforcing laws that keep us all safe, particularly the Denver Police Department and Right of Way Enforcement, a division of Denver Public Works.

I have not experienced a single commute in which all bike lanes, protected or otherwise, have been 100 percent free of dangerous obstacles. My morning commute on June 19, however, was probably the worst. On just a two-mile ride from Uptown to Union Station, I was forced to suddenly exit a bike lane and merge into three or four lanes of automobile traffic a total of five separate times.

I know everyone has a story like this, especially if you use 15th Street, but humor me.

My commute began down 16th Avenue, toward the 15th Street bikeway. A Denver police car was blocking my path, no officer in sight. I get it — police need to respond to emergencies, but this obstruction is so common, it’s hard to believe that they’re always endangering my safety for the greater good.

Once on 15th Street, I began traveling in the “protected” bike lane. Plastic sticks line the bikeway, signalling to drivers that they shouldn’t cross them. But, realistically, they offer no physical protection as evidenced by the visible damage caused by drivers running them over — where they still exist at all.

After just a few blocks, I encountered a private moving truck parked in the public’s bike path. I watched as the bike rider ahead of me was forced to merge into the travel lanes on a three-lane, one-way street with speeding cars, buses, and delivery trucks traveling at more than 30 mph. The drivers of these vehicles have grown accustomed to cyclists being in the bike lane, not in the general travel lane. Being forced to swerve into traffic causes unsafe conditions for everyone involved — except the moving truck of course.

Oh, and designated loading zone sat wide open no more than 25 feet from the truck. At least the driver put out warning triangles politely wishing cyclists good luck as they dangerously merge into traffic?

IMG_6119
Huh? Photo: Micah Gurard-Levin

After re-entering the bike lane, I traveled only one block before the next obstacles. The bike lane was blocked in two places by caution tape that threatened to clothesline anyone who didn’t see it. There was no discernible reason for this tape. “Caution” is right!

On the very next block, a delivery truck squatted in the lane. You know that spot just after Lawrence Street, where the bikeway ends and you’re expected to cross three lanes of traffic to get over to the right side of the street? This truck parked illegally right before that hectic stretch. So he forced me to merge prior to where drivers expect it.

Let me be clear: I appreciate the extensive efforts put forth by various departments, organizations, and activists to help create the bike infrastructure that we have. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to ensure that those who choose to travel via modes other than a motor vehicle can do so safely, consistently.

The 15th Street bikeway is designed for danger. Aside from the lacking physical protection and the death-defying merge after Lawrence Street, left-turn lanes for cars double as straight-ahead travel lanes for people on bikes, creating areas ripe for conflict. It all needs to be fixed.

Until then, I am calling on Denver PD and Denver Public Works’ enforcement division to enforce bike lane violations, and to stop making excuses when cars, trucks, and other objects block the bike lane. There is one bike lane. There are four vehicle lanes. Do you need to stop a truck and unload? Block a vehicle lane. Or, use the designated loading zone.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking Denver’s protected bike lanes are anything close to resembling what their name implies. Not until we actually make an effort to ensure they can serve their intended purpose.

  • MT

    Building a real protected lane on the right side of 15th with floating bus stops would be my preferred solution here.
    The current design is terrible.

    • MT

      Plus extending it further down instead of it turning into death sharrows.

  • David B

    The section of Wynkoop that is protected by concrete curbs has been consistently clear of cars–so those do work. That would help the non-turn lane portions of 15th, at least. But dumping a bike lane into a shared turn lane every other block is a cruel joke for a “protected” bike lane. The bike lane on 17th has similar problems, though recently, there have been fewer vehicles blocking it.

    I think moving the bike lane to the right, with full concrete protection, extended all the way to where it turns into 29th Ave would make bicycling viable for a lot more people. That would almost certainly mean eliminating one car lane from Blake street westwards, but honestly, it’s been bottlenecked down to one lane near the river for nearly a year now anyway

  • Camera_Shy

    THAT, a protected bike lane is not!

  • TakeFive

    I suspect the pending ‘ground breaking’ of USAA’s 30-story office tour on Block 162 won’t help anything.

    FWIW, Thursday I saw a biker go flying by one intersection where it was clearly a bit confused… might have been Blake or next street over. In any case I was impressed to see this guy passing cars like they were standing still. 🙂

  • Brian Schroder

    Sometimes I just take the lane and pedal vigorously to avoid death. When traveling down 15th in a vehicle I noticed that it is difficult to drive over 25 mph. If you are on a bicycle the best action is to get in front of traffic go over 25 mph and be ready to brake, avoid cars and other obstacles and hope to hell that you will make every light. Oh yeah and good luck once you reach railroad underpass after Delgany St. I measured the lane width and they are 12ft so there is room for adding a bicycle lane after Larimer St.

    In reality you are best to wrap yourself in bubble wrap and wear protective gear. The Downtown Denver Partnership should allow bicycles at all times on 16th St and even add a bicycle lane. Wouldn’t that be a safer alternative then 15th St West bound and the sharrowed 17th St East bound?

    • TakeFive

      While I appreciate travel by pedal enthusiasts I don’t want bikes on the 16th street mall. Sorry.

      • Brian Schroder

        Many times my son and I, he is two and rides in a Yepp bike seat would love to go to Chipotle, Noodles, or Panera on the 16th St mall, but don’t because it’s ridiculous that we have to find a dangerous roundabout way to get to our desired destination by bike. It would be wonderful and welcoming to have that type of accommodation available. A bike friendly city Denver is not!

        • TakeFive

          If I could count on you and your extended family of family-friendly clones than I would change my mind. 🙂

          Srsly though Denver (downtown) needs to promote any way it can to be more family-friendly… but on the 16th Street Mall I prefer it be reserved for pedestrians and mall buses.

          • David B

            I can see both sides of this. It is ridiculous that bike access to business on the 16th street mall is so limited. But it also seems like mixing cyclists in with the wide range of types of pedestrians on the mall is an invitation to collisions. To a lesser extent, the bike lane on the west side of Wynkoop has the same challenge. Maybe there’s a better design that would reduce how often pedestrians suddenly step in front of bikes? Part of the appeal to the mall is that it’s the only extended space downtown where pedestrians actually get their right of way. If there were a fully protected bike lane on both 15th and 17th, that would at least get cyclists within a block of any point on the mall, whether they chose to walk that last block, or ride it on the cross streets (which tend to have calmer traffic than the numbered streets).

    • David B

      Until a few years ago, when they started adding bike lanes, that was my normal commute strategy. I don’t think I ride crazy fast, but it was reasonably easy to keep the same speed as vehicles on downtown streets. Not a relaxing experience, mind you, but it did work. What I noticed as soon as the bike path was finished on 17th is that I could make all of the lights without being slowed down by traffic–so I could cover the same stretch of road faster, simply because I didn’t get gummed up in traffic. Pretty nice upgrade, and mostly less risky as well, with the exception of some of the turn lanes, and the occasional car parked in the bike lane. I still ride the underpass–I just shift all the way up, and take advantage of the downslope, hitting 30ish at the bottom, and trying to keep momentum going up the other side. I take the whole lane, and have encountered only one car in years that took issue with that. But I also understand that many cyclists aren’t comfortable doing that. A full bike lane all the way out to the 29th Ave bike path would really open up NW denver to biking into downtown, and it would also connect with the Speer/Platte trail systems.

  • Patrick94GSR .

    People who complain about vehicles blocking bike lanes are basically whiny babies. Seriously. So you want the truck to block a general use lane, and the loading and unloading has to cross back and forth across the bike lane? So instead of just going around an obstruction you’d rather play Russian Roulette with someone continually crossing back and forth across the lane. Some people need to find something more worthwhile to complain about.

    • Camera_Shy

      Given the constraints of the solution space, asking the delivery guy to cross the bike lane is the safest solution for all involved. True, cars would have to negotiate their way around the truck parked in the general use lane, but the car drivers are all shielded from each other inside protective steel safety cages. Asking the bikes to go around the delivery truck means the bikes have to negotiate with people in 2000lb steel cages – not good for the cyclist. The resulting conflict between cyclist and delivery guy is the least dangerous since those two modes are effectively pedestrian based – neither one is in a 2000lb steel cage than can do serious damage.

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