Well, maybe not every Downtown street. A few streets, like Glenarm and Wazee, are already just one lane in each direction. But the majority of streets in Downtown Denver have too many lanes. They have been designed to maximize peak hour automobile traffic volumes, at the expense of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit. The number of through lanes on Downtown Denver’s streets reflects the 20th Century mentality that the public realm—the space between the buildings—belongs to the automobile and that traffic engineers should have absolute authority over what to do with that space.
Most of Downtown’s streets have three through lanes and, at many intersections, bloat to four or five when counting right or left turn lanes. Yet the vast majority of the time, these lanes are virtually empty. When walking down the 16th Street Mall, think about all the intersections where you look down the cross street and don’t see an oncoming car for blocks. Even during rush hour, cars are stacked up at a red light usually only three or four deep per lane. Remove one of those lanes, and they’d be stacked up five or six deep. So what? Yes, there are those times during rush hour or when a big event lets out when cars stack up to where they could create gridlock. But do we really need, or want, to have our Downtown streets be designed for situations that, out of the 1,440 minutes in a day, last for perhaps only twenty or thirty of those minutes? Meanwhile, the remaining 99% of the time, pedestrians are forced to suffer an infrastructure not built for them.
Now, when I say eliminate a lane, you can do that in different ways. It could mean a literal removal of the lane, where we move the curb and gutter in and expand the sidewalk on one or both sides of the street. But it could also mean converting a through lane into a parking lane, if one doesn’t exist there already, or converting a through lane into a “transit-bicycle-right turn only” lane. There are plenty of options, and which ones to do would need to be evaluated on a block-by-block basis. But those double-right and double-left turn lanes–get rid of them! They have no place in a Downtown environment. They are an insult and a physical threat to the pedestrian.
Narrowing streets and widening sidewalks is an expensive effort. In some places Downtown, it’s what we need to do and we should commit city resources to doing just that. However, we can do many relatively inexpensive things like restriping streets to add bike lanes, building bulb-outs at intersections to shorten pedestrian crossings, etc. that will help improve Downtown Denver for the pedestrian in the near-term. It will take a long time to reverse a half-century of infrastructure that’s been designed around the automobile, but we’ve got to do it if we want our Downtown to thrive beyond the 16th Street Mall.