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5 Big Ideas to Transform Denver’s Infrastructure

We spoke to transportation experts and mobility advocates about how we might create ideal infrastructure—you know, if money wasn't holding us back.

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If you get people talking about transportation, there’s a good chance that the conversation will include a bunch of ideas. Sure, there’s a lot of griping (raise your hand if you’ve complained about traffic), but experts and commuters also have a lot of opinions about ways to fix the system, fund infrastructure, and make roads safer for everyone.

So, as we set out to produce the Commuter Chronicles, a series of stories about Denver’s transportation network, we kept asking people to tell us more about those plans, with a few caveats: Assume that money isn’t an issue. Assume that we can make this happen quickly. And, lately, assume that we aren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. In other words, dream up a world where we could achieve what we want. We spoke with more than a dozen experts and advocates, and their answers featured occasionally far-fetched and often attainable ways to fix incredibly complicated issues. In no particular order, here are some of those big ideas.

Create More Car-Free Streets

At first blush, the idea of car-free streets might seem radical. After all, cars are almost everywhere in Denver. But stay-at-home orders have shed light on new opportunities: The city closed parts of streets like East 16th Avenue to vehicles and created dedicated cycling and walking corridors while fewer cars are on the road—and the results have been encouraging. Pre-pandemic, the city closed Bannock Street in front of the City and County Building to create a “public gathering space,” but that’s only one block. Could we be bolder? Should we? Oakland removed thru-traffic from 74 miles of city streets (about 10 percent) during stay-at-home orders and created dedicated recreation areas. Before the pandemic, San Francisco closed Market Street to vehicle traffic and New York City made 14th Street a dedicated busway. If Denver were to seize on this trend, a next step might be car-free streets going in and out of downtown. Even more extreme? Denver could charge drivers to enter the busiest parts of downtown like New York City did last year.

Get Real About Sidewalks

Denver’s sidewalks are a mess—and one that no one really wants to own. Voters approved nearly $50 million for sidewalk construction back in 2017, but homeowners were tasked with fixing sidewalks in front of their dwellings (the city is helping foot the bill), and it’s just not working (at least not quickly). But what if the city treated sidewalks like any other piece of city infrastructure and got real about funding—and implementing—the much-needed improvements? Oh, yeah, and while you’re at it, they could be a bit wider.

(Read more: Jealous Streak: The Transportation Ideas We Wish We’d Thought of First)

Reevaluate Speed Limits

There’s a trend happening: People in cars, on bikes, and on foot often have to die before we talk about speed limits. Last summer, after mounting traffic fatalities—including two cyclist deaths—Mayor Hancock announced the city would lower speed limits on certain streets from 35 to 30 mph, though two of the most perilous streets, Federal Boulevard and Colfax Avenue, were not part of that change. And despite urging from mobility advocates who stress “20 is plenty,” the default neighborhood speed limit in Denver remains 25 mph. The city could consider making that change, too. It could also install more speed humps and continue to sync traffic lights like it did on 16th Avenue in an effort to reduce vehicle speed and improve cycling flow.

Talk About Moving People Not Vehicles

There’s an us-versus-them aspect of transportation and infrastructure conversations that can be unproductive. What if we switched the discussion away from user groups and their modes of transportation to a discussion about individuals? In other words, what if we spend more time talking about how to help people move better and less time talking about the manner in which they move (by car, bus, skateboard, etc.)? Sure, it is just semantics, but words matter (here’s an example of why) and subtle changes in thinking can make a big difference.

Install Bus Rapid Transit On Colfax Avenue

Colfax Avenue is not just a historic road through the heart of the metro area, it’s one of the easiest ways to get across town (and that’s despite the near-constant construction projects). Which is why the corridor is an obvious candidate for a bus rapid transit test. The will, it seems, is there, but the funding is not. That continues to delay the project, which would include a dedicated bus lane in both directions, from getting beyond the talk phase. The 2017 Elevate Denver Bond Program did earmark $55 million for the project, but that’s not enough to make it happen and only includes Denver. There’s also an opportunity to connect the metro from east to west, across various municipalities, with a fast-moving public transit option (which will require even more funding and coordination). And if bus rapid transit works on the ’Fax, the option could be deployed on other thoroughfares.

Have a big idea of your own? Write us at digital@5280.com

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