DPW Has a Federal Boulevard Widening It Would Like to Sell You as a Pedestrian Safety Project

Denver Public Works is parading basic necessities around as big safety fixes, but documents show that the project has always been about making it more convenient to drive.

Construction has started at 7th and Federal. Predictably, the sidewalk is closed with no temporary walkway and no signalized crosswalk for pedestrians. Photo: David Sachs
Construction has started at 7th and Federal. Predictably, the sidewalk is closed with no temporary walkway and no signalized crosswalk for pedestrians. Photo: David Sachs

The widening of Federal Boulevard between 7th Avenue and Holden Place has been on the books since 2009. That’s when traffic engineers with Denver Public Works began their quest to add a new travel lane and widen existing ones — two treatments known to increase vehicle speeds — in the name of whooshing more cars down Denver’s deadliest street.

It’s 10 years later and pedestrian safety is so hot right now.

Construction started this week, so the Hancock administration is spinning things. This decidedly 20th century approach to relieving congestion is now a $30 million Vision Zero investment to “enhance safety for people who walk, bike, take transit, and drive on Federal,” the streets department stated in a recent press release.

So what are pedestrians getting? Colored crosswalks and wider sidewalks that meet basic federal standards for people with disabilities. People walking and using wheelchairs will have a wider chasm to cross, too. That’s because motorists are getting more room to speed with extra northbound lane, while lanes old and new will be widened to 11 feet — a foot wider than necessary, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Some local news outlets have helped spread the feel-good pedestrian gospel. DPW Spokesperson Heather Burke-Bellile even asserted to Westword that this is the type of project Denver needs to “actually reach zero deaths.”

On its face, it’s easy to see that’s not the case. And a quick glance at city planning documents reveals a streets department more concerned with moving cars than with making this stretch of Federal walkable.

To widen Federal Boulevard, engineers shot down suggested safety improvements in the name of keeping traffic flowing. Image: DPW
To widen Federal Boulevard, engineers shot down suggested safety improvements in the name of keeping traffic flowing. Image: DPW

Speed is the main reason for traffic deaths, according to Denver’s own Vision Zero plan [PDF]. So it’s slower cars, not more and wider car lanes, that would actually help the city reach its Vision Zero goal.

Yet calming traffic is not a goal of this project. A crash analysis of the corridor doesn’t even identify high speeds as the problem [PDF]. The problem, according to DPW is low “level of service.” That’s an outdated metric that bases a street’s success on how many vehicles move through it, rather than how many people it safely moves — the mayor’s ostensible goal.

More places for people to cross safely — not longer crossings — would also help the city reach the mayor’s Vision Zero goal. But DPW and its partner, the Colorado Department of Transportation, officially rejected that idea in 2015 when concerned residents brought it to their attention [PDF]:

Every intersection of Federal Boulevard cannot be signalized to allow pedestrian crossing without creating increased congestion making safety worse for all modes travel (pedestrians, vehicles, bikes, and buses); this would not meet the Purpose and Need of the project.

Then there’s the “raised, landscaped median” that both CDOT and DPW tout as a safety feature. The verdict is still out on how much safer medians make streets. Meanwhile, this project’s environmental assessment was unequivocal: “Medians are not designed to provide safe refuge for pedestrians but are being implemented to control left turning movements,” it states.

More visible crosswalks and wider sidewalks are good. They’re also basic necessities. Parading them around won’t change the fact that widening Federal Boulevard is and always has been aimed at making it easier to drive.

  • iBikeCommute

    Thank you for calling out this absurdity. The media headlines last week were incredible. Just by including sidewalks and a median, this road widening project is suddenly vision zero nirvana.

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