Traffic projects benefitting cyclist, biking safety increase in Denver

At the intersection of the South Marion Street Parkway and Bayaud Avenue, just south of the Denver Country Club, a “ghost bike” spray-painted white stands chained to a shade tree in remembrance of Alexis Bounds, who was killed there while cycling in 2019. A few feet away, a blue street sign asks motorists to drive safely in her memory. Another memorial, faded now after four years, is painted on a nearby sidewalk.

The 37-year-old mother of two small boys was riding in a bike lane on Marion when she was struck by a dump truck. At the time, city planners wanted to improve the safety of the parkway’s bike lanes but were being met by neighborhood opposition.

“What made it horribly poignant is that we were having conversations with the community about the aesthetics, and the function, and the need for this bikeway,” said David Pulsipher, transportation planning manager for the city of Denver. “They were saying, ‘We don’t need it, it’s perfectly safe, I ride it all the time.’ And then that happened.”

There are protected bike lanes on the South Marion Street Parkway now, extending from that crash site south to where the parkway dead-ends at Washington Park. They consist of 4-inch-high concrete barriers separating cyclists from the motor vehicle lanes on both sides of the preexisting median, as well as three-foot flexible white posts that many people complain are unsightly.

“We know from national best practices what actually makes things safer,” Pulsipher said. “And that’s what we are going to pursue, even at the expense of aesthetics or people’s preferences for what the street looks like.”

A mile away, the city is adding control features to another bikeway on Seventh Avenue, from Little Cheesman Park to Grant Street, with intersection modifications and those same flexible white posts, usually called bollards. Some residents have complained about the aesthetics of the mile-long project, while others believe the changes actually will make the street less safe.

Projects like these have proliferated across Denver since 2018 when the city pledged to add 125 miles of bikes lanes in the city. Motorists may grumble when new lanes appear, and homeowners may grouse when they lose parking in their neighborhoods, but city and state officials are determined to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and commute under their own power. They are subsidizing sales of e-bikes, passing cyclist-friendly traffic bills such as last year’s “safe stop” law that made it legal for cyclists in Colorado to treat stop signs as yield signs when there is no oncoming traffic, and adopting “Vision Zero” plans that seek to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians with dedicated design improvements that can inconvenience motorists.

Vision Zero is an international campaign that originated in Sweden 30 years ago to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries. It was founded on the principle that, because motorists make mistakes that sometimes cause crashes — advocates prefer not to call them “accidents” — streets should be designed to prevent collisions with cyclists and pedestrians. Dozens of U.S. cities have made Vision Zero commitments including Denver and Boulder. The Denver Regional Council of Governments has signed on as well. DRCOG was one of the first metro planning organizations in the country to adopt a regional Vision Zero plan.

Former Mayor Michael Hancock embraced Vision Zero in his 2017 State of the City address, committing the city to zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030. In 2018, Denver set its five-year, 125-mile goal, and this past May officials announced they had met and surpassed that goal. Now the total of new bike lanes stands at 145 miles. Some are traditional bike lanes, while others are classified as “buffered” or “protected.”

Common bike lanes run parallel to curbs or parking lanes and are set apart from motor vehicle lanes by striped white lines painted on the pavement. They often include features at intersections that are designed to slow down traffic and make pedestrian crossings shorter.

“Buffered” bike lanes create additional separation from motor vehicle lanes through the use of double stripes of white paint with space in between. “Protected” bike lanes, like the ones on the South Marion Street Parkway, have horizontal and vertical buffers featuring concrete barriers or rubber curbs, along with bollards.

“If we don’t have to be out in traffic, we’re out of the drivers’ way,” said Rob Toftness, co-founder of the Denver Bicycle Lobby, which advocates for cycling safety on city streets. “It’s just better for both parties.”

Denver Councilman Paul Kashmann supports making streets safer for cyclists but concedes the thousands of flexible plastic posts that have sprouted like weeds on Denver streets in recent years are visually problematic.

“I don’t find them particularly aesthetically pleasing, either,” Kashmann said. “That’s one element that I think we need to figure out a better solution.”

Retrofitting city streets in a dense urban environment is a challenge that involves trade-offs that can ignite neighborhood opposition.

“It’s always a challenging discussion when we’re trying to rebuild or fit something into an already built environment,” Kashmann said. “I understand when people get upset because they’ve had parking in front of their house for 20 years, and now that parking is stripped away. I’m not going to minimize that. It is the challenge in squeezing a new use into an infrastructure that’s already at least visibly built out with other uses. We need to make concessions, and we need to hear all voices as we build out these policies.”

On the Seventh Avenue project, traffic circles will be installed this month at six cross streets — Pearl, Emerson, Ogden, Marion, Humboldt and Gilpin — according to Nancy Kuhn, a spokeswoman for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

But neighborhood resident Natalia Ballinger believes they will make those intersections more dangerous for pedestrians, especially older people.    

“This isn’t safety versus aesthetics,” Ballinger said. “We think responsible city planning can be and should be both. You can protect cyclists, and we hope you do everything to protect cyclists, but while not endangering pedestrians and ruining the integrity of the neighborhood.”

But the new North Galapago Street Neighborhood Bikeway between Third Avenue and 13th Avenue is working out great, according to neighborhood resident Lindsay Brown.

“I think it’s fabulous,” Brown said. “I’m not a super cyclist myself, but I’m a runner, so I run through the neighborhood, and I feel like it’s made cars more aware of pedestrian traffic and cyclists. I think the biggest difference is when you’re crossing the crosswalks, (motorists) used to cut the corner when they turned. Now they actually have to turn properly, give it a wider berth. There’s this little bumper zone where, as a pedestrian, you’ve got a little space.”

Other improvement projects have been built recently in the downtown core, including major improvements to Blake Street, which now has a protected bike lane for several blocks.

DRCOG projects the population of metro Denver will grow by another million by 2050, with impacts on traffic congestion and air quality. Its Metro Vision Regional Transportation Plan is designed to promote “a connected and multi-modal transportation system,” said Emily Kleinfelter, DRCOG’s regional Vision Zero planner. That includes bicycle safety projects.

“It is a challenge when you get into some of those dense environments that are a little more residential, where parking can be a challenge,” said Kleinfelter, a cyclist who lives in Capitol Hill, “but that is something that comes with re-prioritizing all modes and understanding that creating protected space for more vulnerable users is something that we have to shift towards doing.”

Sacrificing parking lanes in residential areas to provide safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians is widespread. Sometimes a few parking spots are removed for pedestrian safety at intersections, but when whole parking lanes are lost, that’s usually for design changes intended to enhance the safety of cyclists. Pulsipher estimates there have been more than 30 of those.

“There are trade-offs,” Pulsipher said. “We understand, people have patterns, and it’s very personal. The road that they live on, people take ownership of, and we totally get that. It’s just that there are competing needs for the public right of way, and in some instances, the need for bicyclists’ safety is more important than parking.”

Toftness said residents who complain about lost parking ignore the fact that their street is owned and managed by the city. “When they do these projects, people will talk about, ‘I can’t park in my spot anymore.’ Well, it sounds harsh, but it was never your spot to begin with,” Toftness said. “That’s public space that we reconfigure and make safer for more folks. I’d love for that sentiment to be more widely known.”

Neighborhood bikeways, like the new one on Galapago Street, are usually built on low-volume, low-speed residential streets that prioritize the needs of cyclists, scooter users and pedestrians through the use of signs, pavement markings and traffic-calming features. Traffic lanes are often marked with painted pavement symbols called “sharrows,” depicting a bicycle with two V-shaped arrow marks, which are meant to alert motorists that they must share the travel lane with cyclists because the street doesn’t have a separate bike lane. They also are an aid to cyclists, providing visual continuity through intersections and directing them on a line of travel that keeps them distanced from parked cars where drivers could open doors and endanger them.

Denver transportation planners ultimately want to create a network in which every Denver resident lives within a quarter of a mile of a bikeway where they feel safe and comfortable and to link those bikeways into an interconnected network.

“We need to make them wide enough,” Kashmann said. “We need to make them safe enough. And you need to be able to get from point A to point B. Our bike network, under the Hancock administration, did a good job in moving forward with a whole lot of miles, but we’re still not near connected. And not all of those bike lanes are what I would consider as safe as they need to be, as protective as they need to be.”

The city has set a goal of increasing the number of Denverites who commute to work by bike or on foot from 8% to 15% by 2030.

“We are taking Vision Zero really seriously,” Pulsipher said. “We are trying to do projects that have documented impacts on making it safer for people in their cars, as well as riding their bikes and walking.”

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Adventurist, to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.

Source: Read Full Article