After decades of suburbanization, cities are cool again. But even though Denver’s population grew between 2010 and 2017, the Mile High City failed to keep pace with other cities that have found better ways to move more people through their streets.
So we went on a global search for some of the biggest, coolest, and just plain smart ideas out there. Turns out there are plenty of inspirational ideas that make us a tad jealous. But, hey, imitation can be flattering. Which of these ideas should Denver adopt?
The idea: Fix sidewalks. In 2015, disability rights advocates sued the city to repair crumbling sidewalks. The resulting $1.4 billion settlement is helping fix cracked, broken, and upheaved walkways.
Why we like it: Getting to a bus stop shouldn’t be a death-defying feat. Many of Denver’s 3,145 miles of sidewalks are terribly narrow and dangerously close to fast-moving traffic, and more than 500 miles of the city’s streets have no sidewalks at all. That means people are often forced to walk or roll on muddy dirt paths or mix with traffic on the road.
Likelihood: It’s happening—but slowly. When Denverites approved the 2017 “GO Bond,” it set aside $47.4 million to install sidewalks where they didn’t already exist (think: parks and greenways). And Denver’s Neighborhood Sidewalk Repair Program plans to notify homeowners, who are responsible for installing and maintaining paths on their properties, that they must make repairs (there is an assistance fund from the city). But with just one inspector, City Council member Paul Kashmann estimates all of the reviews will take 156 years to complete.
The idea: Make it safe and comfortable to bike anywhere in Denver. In Copenhagen, where dedicated bicycle tracks and “superhighways” result in roads with no vehicle traffic, the city is poised to make 50 percent of all trips happen on bikes by 2025 (or sooner).
Why we like it: With the exception of stand-alone bike lanes like the Platte River and Cherry Creek trails, the city’s bike lanes often aren’t much more than paint, which puts bicyclists dangerously close to vehicles. Denver’s few “protected” bike lanes can end abruptly, dumping people into fast-moving traffic that can rattle even the most committed bicyclists. But Northern European countries, like Denmark, have proven that building a complete network of high-quality bicycle infrastructure can make getting to work by bike feel as relaxed as a ride in the park—and following their lead might convince the masses to leave behind their cars.
Likelihood: Not in our lifetime. Denver is building more bike lanes than ever, but the 125 miles planned for the next few years count both directions of a street, effectively halving the total. Many planned lanes are short segments that won’t connect to a larger network for years—maybe decades—at the current pace.
New York City
The idea: Install better bus shelters. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority hired a globally respected architecture firm, Grimshaw, to create a shelter design distinctive for its handsome simplicity—and installed them throughout the city. Paris, too, offers dignified bus stops, most with simple electronic signs indicating how many minutes before the next bus will arrive.
Why we like it: Denver has an enormous shortage of bus shelters, which forces riders to wait without protection from the sun, wind, or rain. And most shelters are ugly, dirty, poorly maintained, or downright goofy. The West Colfax Business Improvement District, for example, just installed new, brightly illuminated bus shelters that look like a Jetsons-era brothel.
Likelihood: Slim. Look at any given bus shelter in Denver and it’s difficult to know who is responsible for it. RTD provides some. The city owns others. And many are controlled by business improvement districts and advertising companies. It would make sense for RTD to own and manage them all, but the idea of the agency installing thousands of needed shelters—with high-quality design—seems unlikely due to its chronic underfunding (and that was before COVID-19 devastated its budget).
The idea: Pay for more. Seattle doles out cash to its regional transit agency—its version of RTD—to provide additional service within city limits. Now, two-thirds of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a transit option that arrives every 10 minutes or less.
Why we like it: RTD’s sweet spot is regional service, allowing it to whisk people between downtown and places like Lone Tree, Littleton, and Boulder. But within Denver, a 15-minute trip by car often takes longer than an hour by bus. By following Seattle’s example, RTD could do both short- and long-term trips well. Last year, voters approved a measure that allowed the city to create its own public transit system (the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, or DOTI), which can buy additional service from RTD.
Likelihood: It’s doable (Boulder has already). Mayor Michael Hancock has started discussions with leaders in nearby cities to create additional transit service. But, like many things in Colorado, thanks to TABOR, funding such a program will require voters to approve any new taxes. And cobbling together extra funding is going to be tricky as the economy recovers from the pandemic.
The idea: Allow passengers to get on the bus from any door. After San Francisco started such a program in 2012, it sped up the entire network.
Why we like it: When passengers don’t have to line up at the front of the bus, vehicles spend less time “dwelling” at each stop. Shaving a few seconds here and there may not sound like a big deal. But if you multiply that time across RTD’s 9,000 bus stops, it easily adds up to thousands of “service hours” per month. In addition to reducing delays, all of those hours amount to putting more buses on the road without spending a dime.
Likelihood: It’s almost here. To protect its drivers from COVID-19, RTD stopped collecting fares on April 5 and asked riders to board using the back door. If RTD wants to continue doing that once fares return, however, it would need to drastically improve electronic payments. When most fares are electronic, they can be collected at each door with a tap-to-pay system. RTD’s My Ride allows such payments today, but just one percent of riders use it.
The idea: Build up, when it’s smart. About 650 high-rise buildings give Vancouver an impressive skyline, especially for a city with 100,000 fewer people than Denver, where there are only about 37 buildings with 20 floors or more. Vancouver’s density supports extensive public transit, which contributes to a quality of life ranking that is consistently among the highest in the world.
Why we like it: When people live, work, shop, and dine in dense neighborhoods like LoDo, they can get by without a car. While some blame such density for the spread of COVID-19, Vancouver and even more tightly packed cities in South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore endured less severe outbreaks than many cities. Plus, high-rises aren’t needed everywhere. In Barcelona, Prague, and Paris, most buildings are four- to six-stories, more than enough to fill buses and trains.
Likelihood: Unknown. Last year, Denver updated Blueprint Denver, its citywide land use and transportation plan. But specific plans for each neighborhood must now be created, discussed, and implemented in a multi-step approval process that involves the city and citizens.