Denver is on the verge of failure in building out a high comfort bike lane network
Allen Cowgill is a Denver advocate focused on safer streets and sustainable transportation. He is a member of the Denver Bicycle Lobby and is on Twitter at @AllenCowgill.
Did you ever walk through Commons Park about 5 or 10 years ago before they put up the fence to keep people from walking on the grass? The architect who designed the park made the paths that go through the park in the shape of a giant oval. It’s aesthetically gorgeous but impractical as Commons Park is the busiest pedestrian connection between downtown Denver and Highland. Humans by nature tend to take the most direct route, and a well worn dirt path through the pristine grass was evidence of this as people cut directly across the park through the grass instead of taking the roundabout walk path to either side of the park. Today, the city of Denver is in a process of designing their own version of a path that users don’t find appealing with our bike network.
The City of Denver and the Denver Department of Transportation (DOTI) are verging on failure on their goal to build out a network of 125 miles of high comfort bike lanes. The city embarked on this mission of building out bike lanes to be more attractive to people on bikes of all abilities. 59% of people in Denver have said they would bike if there were more high comfort facilities for them to bike on. This has the potential to make a massive mode shift in goals towards mitigating climate change, and also the city’s goal of Vision Zero, or zero traffic deaths by 2030.
The problem is that many of the bike lanes that the city is proposing building are not high comfort bike lanes. The city is relying on a strategy of building many neighborhood bikeways, which are not even dedicated bike lanes, but lanes where people on bikes share the lane with drivers. A recent survey by Denver Bicycle Lobby shows that only 25% of people find these neighborhood bikeways to be “very comfortable”. Compare that to protected bike lanes that 75% of respondents find to be “very comfortable”. If we are going to motivate the 59% of Denverites to bike that don’t feel safe doing it today, we must offer them truly comfortable bike facilities.
Denver Public Works (the predecessor to DOTI) invented the concept of “sharrows” in the 1990s. The inventor James Mackay cited the agency’s culture “one that resisted any risks to improve conditions for cycling- was a factor in the design”. The design was later adopted as a national standard to encourage more people to bike on certain streets. If you’re not familiar, it’s essentially a painted sketch of a bike on pavement with chevrons underneath it to encourage people to bike in the same lane that cars use without offering any protection or dedicated space. The design has largely been a failure insofar as safety as our own CU Denver has shown in research that putting sharrows on streets may be more dangerous than putting nothing on the street at all.
The problem about neighborhood bikeways as currently implemented by Denver is that they are essentially Sharrows 2.0. The current design does not make a street safe and comfortable for people on bikes, it is merely the least inconvenient option for drivers. The design offers little more than paint on the street, traffic circles that have shown to be more dangerous for people that bike, and flimsy plastic flex posts bulb outs that slow drivers down by only 4%. The bikeways often force people on bikes to bike in the door zone, and offer very little protection or comfort. The bike advocacy community has been asking for more diverters, but very few of the proposed bikeways have them. I get the feeling the hands of mobility planners are being tied by DOTI and city leaders, and that they are unable to enact the meaningful treatments that would make these neighborhood bikeways more comfortable. We’ve heard the Denver Fire Department cited as the reason we can’t have diverters, yet cities like Portland and Vancouver use diverters and have managed to not to burn to the ground. Closer to home, Lakewood and Wheatridge use speed bumps and bulb outs for traffic calming, and their West Metro FD has the same top level ISO rating as Denver. Questions remain on whether Denver will use speed bumps.
I’ve sat in on probably over 20 neighborhood meetings about the bike lane network over the last few years. Although the planners from DOTI handle them with great professionalism, the system itself is a failure. The premise of the meetings is to get feedback from neighborhoods. The reality is that a loud group tend to show up at these meetings that is not representative of the entire city. Typically it’s the people that live on the street where the bike lane is to be installed, and not the 80% of Denverites that want the bike lane network to be built out.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health articulates this quite well saying “in the public participation process often only a few individuals attend the evening hearings, and they include adjacent residents who are opponents of changes to the street and bicyclists who prefer the road as opposed to large numbers of potential bicyclists, including women, children, and seniors. The design is, therefore, often biased toward leaving the road virtually unchanged. As a result of these and many other historical reasons, the default bicycle facility in the United States remains a bike lane painted on a road ,66 in which many bicyclists do not feel comfortable 67 or safe.68”
I’ve witnessed this in Denver, where people that don’t live on the street show up at meetings, are considered outsiders, even if they have a valid reason to want to ride on the proposed bike lane in that part of town. During a recent online public meeting for a bike lane in Inspiration Point, one resident that lived on the street (who happened to be a Fire Chief at a Denver fire station using his work account), said that the bike lanes weren’t needed if there were no injuries, implying that someone would have to die on the street for people that bike to deserve a bike lane.
Yet in Denver, we can’t even get safe bike lanes built quickly when people do die. Alexis Bounds died on Marion St. when the driver of a truck ran over her in a painted bike lane in 2019. The Marion St bike lane was supposed to be installed last summer. Delays have pushed the installation from 2020 to 2021.
In North Denver, David Martinez was hit by a driver in an unsolved hit and run on Zuni St in 2018, and later died of his injuries. Along with David Chen, I helped organize a memorial ride to remember Dave Martinez, and call for safer bike lanes in North Denver. I promised myself that day I would work towards getting a safe bike lane installed, so that people like Dave Martinez, (who could not afford a car, and only had his bicycle to get home from work that night), would have safe passage in North Denver. Over two years later, North Denver still has no safe or comfortable North/South bike lanes.
Just a few blocks from Zuni St., a new protected bike lane proposed on Tejon St. would be the perfect solution to save lives. Tejon is already the busiest route used by people on bikes according to Strava data. But because it calls for removing parking, people and businesses that live on that street have been loud and the city has already delayed the implementation of the bike lane from 2021 until 2022. This despite the preponderance of studies showing that new bike lanes have neutral if not positive impacts on local businesses and DOTI coming up with options for accessible parking for people with disabilities. The invitees to the “stakeholder” meeting for the Tejon Bike lane were 80% opposed to bike lane, stacking the deck against a chance of success. The group was far from representative of the 80% of the city that is in favor of expanding the bike lane network.
City leadership caved to this loud group and has asked DOTI planners to study putting a neighborhood bikeway on a roundabout route on Shoshone and Quivas St instead of Tejon despite industry best practices that people on bikes should get the most direct route. Remember that indirect path through Commons Park? And this isn’t the only one. City leadership has eliminated protected bike lanes all over the city on Washington, Clarkson, Virginia, and Franklin, and potentially Lowell, in favor of the less safe and less comfortable neighborhood bikeways. Let’s be clear here. The fault is not on the mobility planners at DOTI who originally designed this network of protected bike lanes that are being vetoed one by one, and are not being allowed to use the tools they need to make these bike lanes safe and comfortable. The fault is in a lack of leadership in the Mayor’s office and high up in DOTI leadership. The number one reason cited is parking concerns. Denver can be a city that fights climate change, or a city that accommodates cars. We can not do both.
Paris created 450 miles of bike lanes in a matter of months last year. Their Mayor Anne Hidalgo understands what climate emergency is, and how important bikes are to reduce CO2 emissions from cars. It appears that not much has changed since the 1990s when Denver invented the sharrow. Mayor Hancock and the top leadership at DOTI don’t want to risk anything to improve conditions for people on bikes.