When the COVID-19 pandemic first tightened its grip on Colorado in March, and residents were ordered to stay at home, the entire pulse of its capital city shifted—and with it, the possible future of its streets. With well under half the normal amount of traffic on the roads, and experts encouraging people to find safe reprieve and exercise outdoors, Coloradans were, not surprisingly, quick to do exactly that. Hitting the pavement and paths right outside their doors proved to be a welcome escape from the cabin fever of quarantine—except that, according to Rob Toftness, co-founding member of Denver Bicycle Lobby, it also illuminated Denver’s underlying infrastructure flaws that had been festering since long before social distancing efforts became a necessity.
“We came outside and realized that we were crammed on these thin little strips of concrete, and you’re sharing it with utility poles and sandwich boards and other people. Then you’d look, and the next street over was completely empty,” Toftness says. “It just was such a visual, shocking demonstration about how inequitable our division of street space is.” The strain was palpable elsewhere, too, as city parks and trails quickly became overrun with shack happy Denverites, turning those former respites into potential transmission zones.
“There was some talk about, ‘should we close the parks?’ And that just seemed like the absolute wrong response,” says Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, a coalition of various advocacy groups pushing for more people friendly streets. The group was quick to push out a survey to over 1,400 Denver residents in early April asking about their newfound mobility needs. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they were walking or biking more than before. And 95 percent of respondents, regardless of how much they were walking or biking, cited exercise as the main reason, with 44 percent walking or biking to pick up food, and 25 percent strolling or rolling for other essential services. Roughly 87 percent of all respondents said they supported opening up the streets for people. “What the community members were expressing was a desire for safe outdoor space where they could walk and bike,” Locantore says. “So rather than reduce the amount of space that’s available for that, let’s increase the amount of space.”
The city listened and, with the help of Denver Parks & Recreation, moved quickly to open 10.7 miles of open streets in and around parks that same month, and about 7.5 miles of shared streets in June. Shared streets are designed to be split between cars, cyclists, pedestrians, and everyone else. Open streets, on the other hand, are entirely blocked off from vehicle traffic to pave the way for pedestrians and other human-powered modes of transportation.
If you haven’t strolled, rolled, or ridden down one of these thoroughfares, you’ve probably at least noticed the demarcating orange-and-white barricades along 16th Avenue, Byron Place, Bayaud Avenue, and dozens of others streets in the city. “Both residential density and equity were factored into our analysis to identify where this space was needed most,” says Heather Burke, spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI). Burke adds that DOTI’s evaluations considered areas with adjacent parks that were reaching capacity, as well as areas of the city that don’t have immediate access to a park or a trail.
The push for shared and open street space certainly isn’t a new movement in Denver—or elsewhere, for that matter. Cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Paris have, to varying degrees, already installed the infrastructure Denver is only now trying to put in place. Prior to the pandemic, open streets have been attempted in Denver on an event basis—Larimer Square being a prime example—or for certain isolated initiatives, like car-free Sundays at Cheesman Park. There are, however, bigger ideas afoot. The city’s Blueprint Plan, which was first adopted in 2002 and later updated in April 2019, lists permanent shared streets as a goal the city will be identifying opportunities for in the future. Furthermore, the city’s Vision Zero Plan acknowledges safety as a critical motivation for similar changes to Denver’s streets. “Prior to COVID, the biggest hurdle is that people are just inherently, as part of human nature, fearful of change,” Locantore says. “When you talk about changing the way a street functions, the city traditionally has taken a very conservative approach. What changed with COVID is there was a clear and present emergency state that required the city to act quickly.”
So far, Denverites have seemed to like the newly accessible stretches of road. According to a second survey issued by the Denver Street Partnership in June, 85 percent of respondents said they had walked, biked, or rolled along one of the new shared or open streets. Even more striking, 86 percent said they felt they should remain in place after the pandemic ends. As Toftness puts it, it hasn’t just been the cyclists in their spandex who have benefitted from these newly carless corridors—it’s been people skateboarding, rollerblading, pushing strollers, and dining in the expanded outdoor seating areas of local restaurants. Still, the future of this novel infrastructure remains in question. The city of Denver has opted to extend the outdoor dining program through October 2021, but the fate of other shared and open streets is unclear. The city is currently only committed to keeping the spaces open through the end of December 2020. “I think the same justification should apply to both,” Locantore says. “They believe there’s going to continue to be a need and a demand for that [outdoor dining] space. Same applies to the shared streets.”
The difference, Locantore notes, lies in the price tag. The financial burden for outfitting the outdoor dining space falls on those businesses (they also pay the city for permits and/or licenses to use sidewalks and street areas), whereas shared and open streets come at a cost to the city. Burke says the current stretches of road that DOTI has closed to thru-traffic collectively cost $65,000 to $70,000 a month to maintain, but that the city will be assessing the program in the coming weeks to determine if the streets can be kept open beyond December.
Toftness and many others feel that this year, despite its chaos, tragedy, and uncertainty, might be presenting a rare opportunity to move beyond the city’s car-centric infrastructure. “The status quo, people don’t realize, is really expensive,” Toftness says. He laments what he considers a “willful ignorance” within the city to recognize the cost of creating and maintaining streets for cars—something that’s already guaranteed to feel the weight of a constrained DOTI budget that’s been slashed 14 percent for the coming year. That shift in mindset to prioritizing other forms of transit is something Mayor Michael Hancock has stated his commitment to with previous budgets—but it’s groundswell movements like these that Toftness says can open peoples’ eyes to just how much more they can be asking of their city to create a greener, better-connected transportation network that also prioritizes the communities that have long been underserved.
Toftness points to Denver’s old streetcar system, which operated from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, as an example for how the city can look to its roots for inspiration. The former grid promoted walkability and connectivity for a large expanse of the Mile High City’s proper footprint—two elements that remain largely untapped in Denver’s current infrastructure, but are certainly possible considering the city’s bones. “Cities change. So when people are speaking about historic preservation, it’s like, well, which history is it that you’re trying to preserve?” Toftness says. “We’ve carved up this city in so many different ways already. There’s nothing in my mind saying we can’t return some of the space back to people.”