Broadway Lights: Why Not Change the Timing of Traffic Signals to Increase Safety Right Now?
On Broadway, one of Denver’s busiest pedestrian areas has become a zone frequented by emergency vehicles attending to severe injuries because the city allows drivers to speed wantonly — and isn’t moving fast enough to fix a problem it has already identified.
Which raises a question: Should Denver time red lights to slow the flow of cars?
“That’s an obvious yes,” says Jill Locantore, executive director WalkDenver. “It’s so quick and inexpensive to implement it, why not?”
Broadway’s sidewalks bustle with people going to a growing number of restaurants, bars and shops. But just a few feet away, traffic can approach speeds of 50 mph, dramatically higher than the speed limit of 30 mph. Since 2013, traffic collisions have injured 33 people and killed one person just on the stretch between Speer and Alameda, according to data from the police department.
The city is currently designing a significant upgrade to the corridor. Known as Denver Moves Broadway, it will add a bike lane and other pedestrian safety enhancements. But construction, which won’t start until late next year, could take years to complete and neighbors don’t want to wait for safer streets.
“I’d like to see them react in whatever way they reasonably can,” says Sean Workman, owner of the Hornet, the restaurant on Broadway that three drivers crashed cars into last year. More than a decade ago the city talked about changing traffic signal timing to help slow traffic, he says, but nothing happened. However, Denver has already used signal timing to enhance safety elsewhere.
In 2017 the Denver introduced more frequent red lights on Federal Boulevard as part of a plan to reduce high-speed drag racing and crashes at night. The city’s Traffic Management Center, which controls nearly all of Denver’s roughly 1,300 traffic lights, changed the signal phases remotely.
“We made a couple of planned stops along that corridor, so it wasn’t a big tarmac that people were street racing on,” says David DiGiacomo, the city’s senior transportation safety engineer and point person for the Vision Zero program.
The police department also stepped up enforcement along Federal, and the city says early results from the two efforts look like they are reducing crashes in a meaningful way.
So why not do the same on Broadway right now?
Officials in the Department of Public Works say that slowing down one corridor can have consequences that ripple across side streets and other parts of the city, which is why they need to study potential changes first, a process they say will start this spring and could take several months.
“We want to make sure we don’t introduce any new conflicts,” says DiGiacomo. “We certainly could cause more harm than good if we’re not careful about it.”
But given the growing number of people injured and killed on Denver’s streets, why can’t his team move faster?
“I take it very personally when I look at those crash reports, DiGiacomo says. “On our end, it’s a resource issue right now.”
Before Public Works completes its signal timing analysis, the city says it will make other changes at First and Broadway near the Hornet, including putting up more signs, increasing police enforcement, and changing the walk signals to give pedestrians a head start before traffic starts to move. But these measures don’t address the deeper problem: People drive at highway speeds because they feel like they’re on a highway.
“The design of Broadway today invites you to go at a speed that’s higher than the speed limit,” says Locantore. “On a lot of Denver roads, you really have to concentrate if you want to go the speed limit because without even thinking about it, the road inherently encourages you to go very fast.”
Other temporary traffic calming measures may be more effective than those the city plans to install, like using paint and plastic posts create pedestrian refuges. But ultimately the city needs to ensure its long-term updates to the street will create a safer place for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders.
“Let’s get it right for this pedestrian thoroughfare,” says Workman. “There are so many options to keep pedestrians safe, let’s make sure we’re including all of them.”