Understanding the Denver Bikelash

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This guest commentary is by David Chen, a biking and safe streets advocate in Denver, CO. He was named a 2020 Asian American Hero of Colorado for his advocacy work. Follow him on Twitter @ddchen.


As a parent who tries to bike as much as possible with my kids, I welcome the new bikeways that the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) is now delivering. I used to find it daunting to bike with my daughter the three miles to our local library’s Book Babies. Now, thanks to finding the right paths and the veritable godsend that are electric bikes, we routinely ride 40 miles for our daily commute. The prospect of a connected city-wide multimodal network opens up many more possibilities for us as a family and as residents of the city. Why isn’t this sentiment shared more broadly? Why have we seen a backlash against bike lanes, especially lately? To get some answers, I hit the books as well as the streets.

Multiple studies have shown that rebalancing street space has little impact on drivers, yet their reflexive backlash is as predictable as wildfires in the summer. In Vancouver, British Columbia, the central business association vehemently opposed the city’s new bike lanes until they polled 11,000 of their members and patrons. According to Melissa and Chris Bruntlett in Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, 

“[T]he results challenged many of their core assumptions and beliefs, with a clear majority desiring a more walkable, bikeable, people-oriented downtown, and with just 6 percent of respondents saying they wanted more space for cars.”(emphasis added) 

The initial reflex of a vocal minority is the sound and fury Denverites have in store as DOTI implements its long-deliberated designs for a connected biking network. It’s already underway in my neighborhood, as legitimate concerns are mixed with half-truths and neighbors argue over scarce public space. 

In Northwest Denver, one side of one block is losing curbside parking to connect a new bike lane from a major park to downtown. This caught the ire of one young man who lives on the street, inspiring him to launch a campaign against the project. Arguing on behalf of seniors and the infirm seemed altruistic. That is, until one realized that every house on the block has a garage and unused parking space on side streets. Presenting himself as a grassroots organizer, this ‘astroturf agitator’ omitted the fact that his family owned five properties along the proposed route, three of them apartments. The fear of losing tenants was the true motivation behind his “movement,” but his hyperbolic language still stirred up unwarranted anxieties among some neighbors. Contrast this with the 1,500+ people who expressed their support for balanced streets by signing the Denver Bicycle Lobby’s petition for Shared Streets.

In the city’s southeast, one city council member is actively egging on this kind of “bikelash,” even after a freshly painted bike lane was installed on a street with low parking occupancy. On a recent ride through the area, I observed that one resident had stored four vehicles in their driveway, plus one more parked squarely in the new bike lane, a petulant—and potentially costly—form of protest. The new bike lane should be seen as a community amenity, connecting two local schools to the Cherry Creek multi-use path and the wider trail network. Instead, it has become a flashpoint thanks primarily to a single resident, who purchased dozens of lawn signs and went door-to-door planting them in neighbors’ yards. His signs spread debunked myths, such as “bike lanes lower property values”, while the opposite is true. Relying on the “truthiness” of false assumptions is too common among the bikelash set.

car in bike lane

A disgruntled resident stores a vehicle in the bike lane. (Courtesy of the author)

Now, what about concerns from adjacent commercial properties? Business owners accustomed to cars parked at their curb fret about whether customers will still walk through their doors or if bike lanes will lead to traffic jams. Although these assumptions seem reasonable, studies from cities in the United States and across the world reach the opposite conclusion.

“[R]eplacing on-street parking with a bike lane has little to no impact on local business, and in some cases might even increase business. While cyclists tend to spend less per shopping trip than drivers, they also tend to make more trips, pumping more total money into the local economy over time.”

Similarly, former NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan notes in her book Streetfight that: 

“New evidence worldwide shows that pedestrians are the predominant customers for ground-floor retail stores. … Merchants consistently overestimate [drivers’] value and undervalue those who walk, bike, or take public transportation.”

And as for traffic delays, studies performed by the New York City Department of Transportation found that bike lane projects often introduced smarter design elements that actually improved travel times for drivers. Yet, small business owners are some of the hardest to convince.

One quirk of Denver’s transportation past helps explain why these fights occur around small retailers. These shops, nestled within residential neighborhoods, are often the only remaining evidence of what once was Denver’s extensive streetcar network

These commercial nodes capitalized on the foot traffic generated by the streetcar to succeed. As a result, every neighborhood in the city had a vibrant commercial center and nearly every household in the city was within walking distance of most of their daily needs.

Bringing human-scaled traffic back to these local commercial hubs is actually restoring the conditions that helped them thrive in the first place. 70 years after the last streetcar ran, these streets are now often the best candidates to complete a low-stress biking network. Business owners who can imagine this better reality, like the ones who have extended tables into patios and sidewalks this summer, know that increased multimodal access is an opportunity to be embraced, not shunned. 

As our streets become safer, more people will take to cheaper, more efficient, and more joyful forms of transportation. For residents and businesses alike, the ability to think beyond received wisdom will help create a more vibrant and healthy community, not just for my family, but for everyone.

Streetcar

Denver’s streetcar lines helped create neighborhood commercial hubs across the city. (Courtesy DenverUrbanism)


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