The challenge begins with a simple, yet provocative, question for the vehicle owners among us: What if you couldn’t drive? How might you get to work, run errands, pick up the kids, go grocery shopping, and generally live life in metro Denver without a set of wheels? Perhaps you’d start using the bus or light rail. Maybe you’d buy an e-bike. Or maybe you’d finally hit your 10,000 steps a day.
From October 2 to 8, a trio of advocacy organizations is inviting Denver drivers to turn this hypothetical scenario into a reality. Denver Streets Partnership, Pedestrian Dignity, and NOYS are asking mile-high motorists to put their cars, SUVs, and trucks in park for seven days to find out what it’s like to rely entirely on other modes of transport during a Week Without Driving.
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The weeklong experiment is meant to be an empathy-building, political-action-inspiring exercise that gives diehard drivers a look at the challenges—from inadequate sidewalks to unreliable public transportation to dangerous traffic corridors—that Denverites without motorized vehicles experience every day.
There are plenty of people in the metro area who don’t get behind the wheel on a regular basis. Some choose not to drive. Others can’t drive due to age-related or medical reasons. More still are unable to afford the expenses of car ownership. The city of Denver reports that 10 percent of its households don’t have a car—and 80 percent of those are lower income households. (On a national level, nearly a third of Americans don’t drive.)
“This week is a great way for folks to be able to experience their community in a different way,” says Molly McKinley, the policy director for Denver Streets Partnership. “And while there are many challenges for those who are getting around the city without a car, I think there are just as many good reasons to get out, experience the community, and be connected with your surroundings.”
In other words, taking the Week Without Driving pledge should, by design, highlight transportation hardships, but McKinley also believes there’s joy to be discovered when we move about the city in different ways.
The Inspiration Behind a Week Without Driving
The Week Without Driving may be new to Denver, but this is the third year that the challenge has taken place in the United States. In 2020, a nonprofit in Washington state called Disability Rights Washington began documenting the experiences of nondrivers. It launched Week Without Driving the following year, with one aim being to give elected officials a firsthand understanding of the accessibility and structural barriers that nondrivers routinely face. In both 2021 and 2022, the nonprofit was successful in getting local and state politicians to participate and share their thoughts. This year, the Washington organization decided to partner with the nationwide nonprofit America Walks to take the Week Without Driving beyond the Evergreen State’s borders. More than 50 advocacy groups from across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico have pledged to bring the action to their communities—including Denver.
“We feel the timing [of a Week Without Driving] is right with Denver getting a new mayor and City Council,” McKinley says. “It’s easy for me as a policy wonk to talk about what changes need to happen in our transportation system and the things that people are facing every day on our streets, but it’s a whole other thing to really experience it firsthand.”
One Denver City Council member—Chris Hinds of District 10—has already taken the pledge to go carless, McKinley says. She’s hopeful many more high-profile politicians—and regular community members—commit in the coming weeks.
Rules of The Challenge
The Denver Streets Partnership’s website has a complete rundown of the rules, but here are some of the most notable:
• Participants can get around however they want, including in others’ vehicles, so long as they don’t drive themselves.
• The commitment to not driving applies to all activities—not just work commuting.
• If you ask someone else for a ride, note how much you owe them for the ride. If it’s a rideshare like Lyft or Uber, record how much money you paid, and consider how that cost would impact your budget if it were regularly the only transportation option. If the ride is a favor from a friend or family member, consider whether you feel obligated to support them in other ways, like doing the dishes.
• This isn’t a disability simulation or a test to see how easily you can find alternatives, the website says. The goal is to provoke thought about how nondrivers would have coped in a similar situation.
How to Prepare and Participate
After filling out the pledge, organizers send participants information about events during the week, including a documentary screening about street safety at the Sie FilmCenter, as well as survey questions about how the week went. There will be a video webinar on September 28, in which Denverites who regularly navigate the city without a car will share transportation tips.
“We know that changing your day-to-day habits can be intimidating,” McKinley says. “So we’ll have community members on that webinar giving a presentation about how to use different transit map resources, tips for planning a bike route, what you might want to consider if you’re walking to your destination, and also how to have fun and feel community.”
Although the week is also meant to bring more attention to dangerous pedestrian conditions in Denver—which has led to record high traffic-related fatalities in the past few years—McKinley says participants aren’t expected to risk their own safety. “We certainly want people to follow what feels most safe to them, and don’t want them to put themselves in danger deliberately,” she says.
Hopefully, McKinley adds, one byproduct of going carless is rediscovering a feeling of connectedness to Denver that vehicles don’t as easily allow, such as serendipitous encounters with friends on bikes and friendly waves to fellow pedestrians. “We always try to center joy in our work,” McKinley says. “We want to hear about highlights and good things that happened during the week. And we also want to hear about challenges, so we’re definitely trying to balance both of those things in our work.”