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#3: Eliminate One Lane (at Least) from Every Downtown Street

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.

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24 Comments

  1. pizzuti says:

    I'm really behind this idea.

    People from the suburbs thinking that this would lead to a nightmare when it comes to traffic should remember that most of the streets downtown are 1-ways, so you're only eliminating 1/3 to 1/4 of the driving space in one direction. A 4-lane road Downtown is essentially half of an 8-lane road where the other half has been moved a block away. If you're picturing traditional 2-way roads then of course eliminating a lane in each direction would seem like an extremely complicated idea to you.

    This idea also provides room and the potential, I might add, to increase the number of trees downtown, an issue addressed in an earlier post.

    I envision replacing a lane on many streets with a shuttle-only lane similar to the shuttle lane for the 16th Street shuttle. It would be worth looking into if that's much cheaper than the streetcar idea (I'm sure it could be put in place faster), and it would lighten the load on traffic by actually replacing that trafic with another form of transportation.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree in principle. Bulb-outs on the curbs help a lot. However, just restriping a little and marking "transit only" doesn't really cut it. There are tons of those in San Francisco and everyone just ignores them. You would need police out there enforcing daily. I think a physical curb, while expensive, would be much better for separating cars from bikes and/or transit.

  3. BruceQ says:

    YES! Reclaim downtown for the pedestrian (and the bike, and the bus, and the streetcar…)

    100% on-board with this one, Ken! And I think you're right, we could start tomorrow with very little investment.

    What about Larimer Square? Any reason that couldn't be pedestrian only?

  4. joeindt says:

    I like this one. I also agree in principle, but there are so many things wrong with the way traffic is handled right now. There should be more done to help buses, not peds or cars. Besides riding your bike, if you take transit downtown, it just sucks. For one thing, Transit is a slave to those "ped friendly" 4-way cross walks. They are a waste of f%cking time. The small good they do does not offset how everything else must compensate for it. And they are very overused in such a small space. That time could be reallocated to the trams and buses so they can be given ROW above traffic and so transport just doesnt have to sit for eternity. For anyone who would like to seriously depend on transit (beyond commuting to work), transfering via downtown is complete bullsh!t. It so maddening and pathetic that our public transit basically shuts down anytime there is a critical mass downtown, the very times a 'real' city needs and uses it. This basic unfunctional part of our city makes our downtown more of an overblown office park.

  5. dwilson says:

    I agree with joeindt. I used to take a bus from the Civic Center Station to I-25, but found during rush hours it was faster to take the mall shuttle across the whole of downtown to the Market Street Station for a different bus. I don't think it is fair that the buses have to sit in the rush hour gridlock. We are packed in like sardines and uncomfortable, let those people sitting in a car all by their lonesome sit in the traffic.
    I think a lane should be given to buses (a la Broadway) on either 20th, 18th, or 15th for the Westbound, and 17th or 19th for the Eastbound. It shouldn't ever take a bus 20 minutes to cross the CBD.

  6. Anonymous says:

    yes yes yes! thank you ken…

    our streets are WAY too wide…even outside of the center. many of thse superwide neighborhood streets are because of former tram routes…lets bring some of those back!

    additional street parkign DT would be a huge benefit. not just for the sake of parking, but street parking ADDS to the pedestrian experience believe it or not. sidewalks, trees and parked cars create a buffer for pedestrians reducing noise and adding safety.

    let's just make sure we leave room on some streets for circulators (and future trams)

  7. Anonymous says:

    while we're on the topic of the circulator…

    my god – put it on 20th street creating a loop that severs ALL people from 14th to 22nd (all within 2 blocks) – this way we are planning for the future as well and have much greater balance and incentive for private development.

    that said – WHY do we have to have stops EVERY block on the shuttle? it's too much…every two blocks will not kill anybody or put anybody out of business.

  8. Anonymous says:

    this was done on broadway in new york last summer-
    http://gothamist.com/2008/08/05/get_ready_for_the_broadway_boulevar.php

  9. Anonymous says:

    All of this is right….the post and the comments.

    While we're at it, and maybe this is planned for another posting of the top 10 things to fix downtown, but I think it's related to this discussion: when myopic and behind-the-times city planners were putting together the blueprints for the Skyline Urban Renewal District in the 1960s, they decided that pedestrians would be so unimportant in the future downtown (thanks to all those wonderful sky bridges that would connect all of the "wonderful" new buildings) that they made the sidewalks in Skyline (roughly Curtis to the alley between Market and Larimer and Speer to 20th) much narrower than sidewalks elsewhere downtown, and this allowed them to create additional lanes. We're all familiar with this, the way 17th goes from three lanes to four between Market and Larimer, the way we suddenly feel crowded on empty sidewalks when we transition from the non-Skyline parts of downtown. Bring back sidewalks that are at least as wide as those in the rest of downtown, and then use up one of those extra traffic lanes by creating a zone for trees, trash cans, recycling bins, etc.

    On a historical note: it was even worse in the past. When the city and Denver Tramway Company (the private predecessor of RTD) ripped up the old trolley lines on 16th Street in 1940, they initially painted the street (after repaving) with SIX lanes! I think they later went to "just" five, but at the beginning there were more lanes on 16th than there are today on Broadway, a much wider street.
    –historymystery

  10. Jane Goodall says:

    Have you seen the plans for 14th street? I saw them posted on the section of Denver's website talking about the new Theatre District. That is exactly what they plan to do on that side of town. They are eliminating a lane and extending the sidewalk for cafes and restaurants as well as trees and walking space. Hopefully this great idea will carry through the rest of downtown.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Yes! Please!

    I would say we could start be moving the shuttle off the 16th Street Mall… and designating a lane for them on 15th and 17th (thus creating a loop).

    Then let us create lanes where they put all those wonderful bike lane arrows for the DNC, but didn't bother making it an ACTUAL lane. Random bike arrows in the middle of a traffic lane do …nothing.

    Wider sidewalk… with bigger tree boxes so the tree has a chance at surviving. Let alone growing taller than five feet.

    Thanks for that link anon 2:39… Denver should learn from that!

    Does the mayor read this page?

    - Holygrail

  12. Anonymous says:

    Uhhh… I hate to pick at a detail, but 24 hours in a day timex 60 minutes in an hour equals 1440 minutes in a day, not the 3600 mentioned….

  13. Sacha Durand says:

    Totally agreed on all points, but I also think that unless there's some physical infrastructural work done (extend the curbs/add a bike/other median, something) it won't really amount to much. Painting fresh stripes will just get the sullen people that are actually driving their cars downtown pissed off that it's less "convenient" for them to drive on their big, open road. And then they'll ignore it.

    I can picture the traffic jam headaches already as public transit tries to use their "special lane" that's full of …cars. À la the parade of lights over the holidays – it took me 45 minutes to get from Market St. Station to 12th and Pennsylvania! And all but about ten minutes of it was traffic in the CBD.

    Agreed with Anonymous on the circulator, too, it REALLY needs to serve all of downtown. Perhaps a couple, to serve each subsection of downtown. Let's not abandon Arapahoe Square any further by putting it on 18th.

  14. Ken says:

    How the heck did I come up with 3600? My calculator must have malfunctioned. :) I'll fix it.

  15. Bob says:

    How about just making the downtown streets two-way again. That has slowed down traffic on Glenarm and Wazee and made the pedestrian experience more pleasant.

  16. binford says:

    Reducing the number of lanes downtown will be an important first step…one of three.

    However, simply removing lanes will just slow productivity and annoy downtown employers unless we provide an alternative to commuting downtown…that means supporting our express bus system (quit cutting frequency) and welcoming our ultimate solution–Fastracks.

    The final step is to reverse the parking policies Denver has that have resulted in large garages attached to all of our offices, residential towers, and shopping areas. We shouldn't be requiring developers to spend all these resources on parking (and passing those costs on to tenants and buyers, reducing affordability) unless we're trying to encourage driving. Ostensibly, we're not.

  17. Chris from Downtown says:

    Another great post in a great series. The safety issue is a serious one for pedestrians crossing these wide streets. With fewer lanes, there are some small measures that the city could take to mitigate added congestion.

    1. Get the ironically named "right-of-way enforcement" officers — the people who issue parking tickets — on their feet and out of their vehicles. This would free up a lane wherever they go.

    2. Allow municipal and commercial construction projects to close only as many lanes as they need, and only when work is happening. The Spire project is doing a great job of this. The Four Seasons (and related work by XCel) is an opposite extreme. They actually closed an entire block of 14th Street last Sunday while absolutely no work was taking place.

    3. Stop allowing valet parking attendants to break the law by parking in traffic lanes at peak times. (Visit Oceannaire on a Friday evening to see what I mean.)

    4. Allow horse-drawn carriages only on streets where they won't cause a bottleneck.

  18. Fly Agaric says:

    I am all for this idea. Dense urban areas like downtown should be for pedestrians and cyclists. I have no doubt that this will make driving more difficult for motorists during peak hours. And I'm hoping this prompts them into using transit.

  19. Dori says:

    Hold on there, Sparky!

    Obviously, many bloggers live in the city which is cool but you're forgetting that many businesses would close up shop in a heartbeat if the drones who come to the hive from the suburbs have to put up with more inconvenience than now exists for them.

    We can criticize the drivers until the end of time but try and take a client out to lunch and get to the tech center on RTD and back into town in less than two hours. Let's get a little real here.

    Downtown is not just for those who live downtown. Lots of suburban bucks keep the downtown shops and cafes open during the week not to mention the sporting venues which are usually full of those awful car drivers.

    Let's not make the commuter's trip into our great city anymore difficult than it already is.

    Death to diagonal crosswalks! Talk about grid makers!

    Let's keep the traffic moving and start to triple fine double parked trucks especially because we are so blessed to have alleys. (I'm convinced that truckers developed their truck driving skills in NYC and then moved to Denver).

  20. Anonymous says:

    "We shouldn't be requiring developers to spend all these resources on parking (and passing those costs on to tenants and buyers, reducing affordability) unless we're trying to encourage driving."

    There are no parking requirements in the B-5 zone, which is most of Downtown Denver. Unfortunately, it is market forces (the lenders) that require developers to building parking with their developments because they believe the properties won't be competitive (and profitable) if they don't offer parkiing…

  21. Beth Partin says:

    Regarding what Dori said, I don't think businesses would close up shop if suburbanites were inconvenienced. It's hard to break the habit of driving, just like any other habit, but it can be done, especially with good public education.

    There would have to be a LOT of educating done about this idea, but I think people would learn to live with it.

  22. Anonymous says:

    My two cents,

    I think downtown Denver has a long ways to go before the traffic is so bad that people won't go down there. As long as downtown continues to have something to offer that you can't get other places (e.i. major sporting venues, cultural centers… etc.) people will continue to come into downtown – and probably continue to do so by driving.

    I love that Ken pointed out how many of the traffic lanes downtown are virtually empty – I've been arguing this for a long time now, yet my friends from the suburbs insist the traffic is terrible downtown compared to the sprawling suburbs. Personally, I would rather be on 17th at 5pm than out on Parker, Orchard, Arapahoe… you name it.

    The wide roads and lack of cars hurts the overall vitality of downtown Denver, and is something that needs to be addressed. If traffic gets "bad" — stop driving! And please don't complain about double parking (you have 4 other lanes to choose from). Not to mention if we took a few traffic lanes away there would be MORE places to park. Not to mention… double parking, horse trolleys, people, taxis… are all part of the downtown environment, and are all reasons to LIKE downtown.

    - Holygrail

  23. Anonymous says:

    public education? is that a joke? if people come downtown and parkign is too tight then there are options:

    a) park further away and walk – there are lots near park ave for $2 per day

    b) take the train or bus

    c) carpool

    d) don't come if you expect parkign in the center to be ample. no GREAT city in the world has ample parking in the center (note, denver is not quite 'great'…yet)

    if we need public money wasted on some kind of education system for this very basic urban concept, then god help us all.

  24. kerb says:

    Fantastic idea. Let's get some "humanity" back into the streets again!