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Photo by Jay Bouchard

Does Denver Have What it Takes to Be a Great Bike City?

The local cycling community has a vision with energy—and some money—behind it. But Denver’s bike infrastructure remains inconsistent and unconnected. What would it take to make that change?

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To understand Denver’s bicycle infrastructure today, we should return to a year that—aside from a world-altering pandemic—was not completely unlike this one. 

Back in 2008, we were in a recession, Joe Biden was on the Democratic presidential ticket, and bikes were having a moment in Denver. In August, the Mile High City hosted the Democratic National Convention, which in an effort to be as green as possible, unveiled one of the most ambitious bike-sharing efforts in the country’s history.

The DNC planning committee provided 1,000 free bikes for convention-goers flocking to Denver, and it proved successful. So much so that less than two years later, on Earth Day in 2010, the city launched the nation’s most comprehensive bike-sharing program, Denver B-cycle. The program featured a fleet of 500 for-rent bikes at docking stations around the city. There was enthusiasm surrounding B-cycle’s launch (the Denver Post compared it to programs in Paris and Montreal), but Denver still lacked necessary infrastructure like bike lanes, as well as the staff and funding it would take to build them.  

“The reputation was that Denver is a good place to bike in recreationally, but a lousy place to bike in for transportation,” says Piep van Heuven, policy director for Bicycle Colorado, who at the time was Bike Denver’s executive director. “The city really had nothing. I feel like [2008] was the time the city really woke up to the possibilities.” 

In the years since, the city, with guidance from advocates like van Heuven, has seized on some of those possibilities. Denver built its first protected bike lanes. It designed a mobility action plan with vulnerable users at its core. Voters approved more funding for cycling projects. And the mayor made big promises for new infrastructure. The result? “We’re just beginning to see the on-street changes,” van Heuven says. “We’ve done a lot of planning…In the next two years, you’re going to see it.” 

Right now, though, Denver’s bike network remains unconnected. Drivers still kill cyclists. And B-cycle, the grand project people hoped would transform Denver into the country’s premier bike city shut down on January 30, 2020. It was a few months shy of its 10th birthday. The closure came after new mobility options took away part of B-cycle’s market share, and ultimately 700 rental bikes left the streets while alternatives like electric scooters seized the day. 

But Denver’s still not a bad place to ride. Depending on where you are in the city—the 35th Avenue Neighborhood Bikeway, for instance—it’s actually a pleasant place to spin your wheels. But with just shy of 200 miles of on-street painted and protected bike lanes, connectivity is a barrier.

Rob Toftness, a full-time software engineer and part-time bike advocate, has been commuting exclusively via bicycle in Denver for three years. “You realize how awesome [bike commuting] is. But as you keep going, you start to realize the failings around you,” says Toftness, who last summer helped form the Denver Bicycle Lobby. “And eventually, if you take a trip to a place like Copenhagen, you realize we’re just doing it wrong.” 

Toftness’ beef is one echoed by many local cyclists: The network of bike lanes is altogether inconsistent. “There are times when you get on a protected lane, like 14th [Street], and you just feel great. And then there [are] other times when you’re trying to cross Federal and you just want to kick someone in the teeth,” he says. “It’s piecemeal. In order to make this a legitimate and a viable option, it needs to be a connected, protected network.” 

Photo by Jay Bouchard

Toftness recognizes the city has made strides over the past decade and that the new Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI), led by Eulois Cleckley, is taking these issues seriously. And he concedes that while Denver looks pathetic compared to European bike meccas, we’re still doing better than many American cities. 

Arleigh Greenwald, owner of Bike Shop Girl Family Cyclery near Stapleton, agrees. “It is better than a lot of cities,” she says. “I’ve lived all over the East Coast and [Denver] is better than most, other than maybe D.C. We’re getting better. We’re heading in the right direction.”  

But what does that direction look like? According to van Heuven, there are several things on which city leadership needs to deliver. The first, no surprise, is more bike lanes. Mayor Michael Hancock committed to building 125 miles of new bike lanes before he leaves office in 2023, a promise that van Heuven says is imperative that he keep. She says the city must also stay creative with its Vision Zero Action Plan, which launched in 2018 with a goal to, among other things, use smarter street design to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries in Denver by 2030. 

Advocates are also pushing the city to reevaluate street space, design corridors with cyclists and pedestrians in mind, and continue to deemphasize car travel and parking. Last fall, the city created bus-only lanes on 15th and 17th streets downtown, which effectively gave more space for vulnerable users. And during the recent stay-at-home orders, the city closed off sections of some streets, including East 16th Avenue, to cars and created pedestrian- and cycling-only routes. 

Public support is behind the changes. A poll conducted by Keating Research in January—commissioned by the Denver Streets Partnership, a coalition of organizations advocating for safer streets—offered definitive results: Of the 500 registered Denver voters polled, 80 percent supported the city’s plan to build 125 miles of bike lanes and nearly the same margin supported the Vision Zero Action Plan. That’s why, van Heuven says, Denver is ready for the next era of infrastructure. “We are not starting the cultural shift,” she says. “We’ve already had it.” 

Cyclists travel west along Speer Boulevard. Photo by Jay Bouchard

Depending on where you ride, though, Denver’s bike culture might look different. Greenwald, for instance, says we have a very sport-driven culture. Anyone who has pedaled down the South Platte River Trail and been passed by a Spandex-clad peloton knows what she’s talking about. Denver has many active cyclists (including an estimated 8,000 bike commuters), but the culture here is intense, which might intimidate the next wave of riders. 

That’s part of the reason Greenwald opened her shop in 2018 near the Stanley Marketplace. “We didn’t have a bike shop that I could send my mom friends to, where they would feel welcome to buy something basic,” Greenwald says. “I would rate us a C- on how well we get new people excited about biking.”

However, what we might all have in common—and what might propel Denver in the future—is a basic desire to get around efficiently. “I think we are approaching a tipping point in the city, where more and more people really want a way of getting around other than driving everywhere they go,” says Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership (which operates in partnership with Bicycle Colorado). “There is a groundswell of interest, and the city is responding.” 

And now, advocates argue, might be the time to achieve Denver’s bike city goals. Plans are already in place to build bike lanes and design safer streets. And while the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted everything from basic commerce to large-scale funding  (a city spokesperson says DOTI is still striving to complete the 125 miles of lanes), it could also change the way Denverites think about cycling. “Despite all the negative that’s around us right now,” Toftness says, “There are some great things happening if you look for them.” 

Toftness points to the pedestrian and cycling corridors the city created: One along East 16th Avenue near City Park; one along East 11th Avenue in Capitol Hill; one along West Byron Place and Stuart Street near Sloan’s Lake. He’s optimistic city residents will see the value of these car-free streets, and that when the coronavirus pandemic ends, the city will continue this type of planning. “I hope people have that experience and they remember it,” he says. 

Greenwald has seen an uptick of people bringing bikes to her shop for tuneups and repairs, which she attributes to the stay-at-home orders. There’s been little else Denver residents have been allowed to do outside these days, so riding a bike has become a recreation alternative for folks who might otherwise be sitting in I-25 traffic. And who knows? Maybe once stay-at-home restrictions are relaxed, bike fever will remain. 

At least in the near term, commuters may be nervous about riding public transportation or using car-share services. “We don’t know what the world will look like when things ease up,” she says. “Maybe the people who would’ve been taking transit or Uber will get on the bicycle. It’s up to us bike folks to say: ‘OK, take that same bike you’ve been social distancing with and try commuting.’” 

Still, no one knows what next month—let alone next year—will bring. We don’t know when society will return to normal. We don’t know when this recession will end or who the president will be when it does. But just like it was in 2008, Denver is poised for change—and the bicycle will be part of the ride.

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