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Denver Living Streets

Vincent Carroll and the Denver Post just don’t get it. In an October 15 editorial, the Post criticizes Denver Living Streets, the City and County of Denver’s new policy initiative based on Complete Streets principles that provides a balance in how we use our public rights-of-way throughout the city.

The editorial, which you can read here, agrees with most of the arguments in favor of the Living Streets initiative. The editorial correctly points out that “…much good could come from re-imagining how we structure our streets and roads, bike paths and transit systems to make them more pedestrian-friendly…” and that “…our reliance on the automobile has disadvantages aplenty. Though cars have become more fuel-efficient and cleaner, millions of vehicle trips per day have an enormous environmental and societal impact. The obesity epidemic and its mushrooming medical costs show us that our communities ought to be more walkable. Major roads lined with big-box stores, chain restaurants and parking lots aren’t pleasing to the eye.”

Nevertheless, the Post challenges the Living Streets initiative because it would allow for vehicle lanes to be reduced or converted to other transportation uses. Thus, according to the Post‘s reasoning, any pro-bike/ped/transit policy that could conceptually increase automobile traffic congestion or inconvenience motorists is an ill-conceived policy. Basically, the Post‘s editorial position boils down to: we’re all for fixing the problem as long as the solution doesn’t affect what’s causing the problem. The philosophy of “automobiles first, everything else second” is what has gotten us into this mess in the first place. We’ve spent the last six decades inconveniencing (to put it kindly) bikes, pedestrians, and transit within our public realm. If the city’s new policy of providing a balanced approach to the function and design of our streets occasionally results in an inconvenienced motorist, so be it. In fact, some inconvenience for motorists is exactly what we need to begin changing the dysfunctional behaviors that have resulted from the mindset that the only way to get around town is by private motorcar. Denver Living Streets doesn’t aim to just better organize our streets; it seeks to fundamentally alter our attitudes about our built environment and how we choose to transport ourselves within it. To do anything less than that is to maintain the status quo, and the automobile-fixated status quo is unhealthy, inefficient, inequitable, and unsustainable.

As part of its rationale, the Post states that “…Denver already has been constructed as a sprawling city over a large geographic area and that the overwhelming majority of us get around in cars.” Not only does the Post rely on faulty logic by citing automobile dependency as the reason for not solving automobile dependency, it doesn’t even get its premise right. Denver is sprawly in places except for the big chunk of the city that isn’t, such as the dozens of mixed-use, walkable, center city neighborhoods built originally around streetcar stops that are (not coincidentally) some of the most desirable places in the city to live. And, while a lot of people do use cars to get around, a full one-third of the population doesn’t even own a car and 20% of car owners don’t drive to work.

The Post editorial board says they can’t “see how Colorado Boulevard could ever become the kind of walkable LoDo environment that springs to mind when folks say they want to trade traffic lanes for bike paths and pedestrian malls.” Maybe Denverites in the 1930s didn’t envision that 40 years later their extensive streetcar system would be completely gone and that half of their Downtown would be demolished and replaced with parking lots, but that’s what happened. Maybe Denverites in the 1960s didn’t envision that 40 years later their blighted Lower Downtown skid row would be the city’s hippest entertainment district with million dollar lofts and a major league baseball stadium, but that’s what happened. Maybe the Post editorial board can’t envision streets like Colorado Boulevard as anything more than they are today, but many of us can envision such a thing. It won’t be easy and it may take 40 years, but there is no reason why the Colorado Boulevards and Hampden Avenues out there have to be condemned to a future that looks like the present. With Denver Living Streets, at least we increase the odds that those streets will someday become something better than they are now.

Last week, Denver Post opinion columnist Vincent Carroll posted an article that also questions the Denver Living Streets initiative. Like the editorial, he acknowledges the shortcomings of our current automobile-dominated environment and agrees with many of the goals of the initiative, but then warns that “Living Streets also seems determined to restrict our mobility, although it doesn’t put it that way, of course.” Mr. Carroll falsely accuses a policy initiative specifically designed to increase mobility of intending to do the exact opposite, and then criticizes it for being dishonest. Also, Mr. Carroll’s phrase “our mobility” tells us a lot about his remarkably narrow perspective: his “our” means only “those who drive cars” and his “mobility” means only “driving around by car.”

Mr. Carroll concludes his column with the line: “Living streets? By all means. But not at the price of personal mobility.” Apparently Mr. Carroll doesn’t believe that pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders are pursuing personal mobility when they occupy the public right-of-way. Apparently Mr. Carroll doesn’t even recognize pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders as being members of the public for which our public rights-of-way exist to serve.

Fortunately, our leaders and policymakers at city hall have more vision and a more enlightened perspective than the Denver Post editorialists. For several generations, we have mistakenly advanced policies counter to the city-building principles that gave us the urban environments we treasure the most. Nationally, that trend is reversing and locally, the city of Denver is doing its part through the proposed form/context-based zoning code and initiatives like Denver Living Streets. While the motor vehicle remains an important and necessary component of our transportation system, we can no longer afford to allow its use to monopolize our public realm. Living Streets is a big step in the right direction.

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28 Comments

  1. Craig says:

    Hear, hear

  2. Anonymous says:

    Is there anything I can do to make sure the Living Streets Initiative is successful?

  3. pizzuti says:

    This issue seems to deal with a lot of theoreticals; one side taking the fairly logical but un-imaginative case that decreasing traffic lanes makes traffic worse, the other insisting that that is only true until a certain point, at which a fundamental change takes place and traffic congestion goes down.

    Personally, I'd definitely insist that cutting back on traffic lanes is a good thing. The number of lanes on the road is less important than the way they are used; shortening trip length, encouraging car pools and timing street lights better will certainly cut back on commute time more than adding lanes does.

    But maybe the real solution would be to do some kind of study, or make direct comparisons between one kind of neighborhood and another.

    How does traffic in Boulder compare to traffic in Highland's Ranch?

    How does traffic downtown compare to traffic in Littleton when you divide the number of people living in a square mile by the number of road miles (multiplied by the number of lanes on each road) in that square mile?

    My guess is that dense urban areas get by with a more efficient use of the road miles available, which is helped along by mass transit. But the numbers would make a big difference in making this case to the public.

  4. Anonymous says:

    here here!

  5. hIstorymystery says:

    When the Rocky closed, the Post hired Vincent Carroll, yet didn't bother with John Rebchook or Mary Voelz Chandler or Kevin Flynn, the three main reasons I'd read the Rocky. This is why I still don't subscribe to the Post–had it picked up those three, I would have plunked down cash every month the way I used to do when the Post was a semi-decent paper, before Singleton chopped it to the bone.

    That said, the Post has long been an advocate for the automobile. I've spent many hours looking at microfilms of old issues, and whenever, over the past 80 or 90 years, anything came up that had to do with automobiles, the Post was always very pro-car, pro-freeway, etc. It was a product of its times, then, however, and I fault those old (deceased, probably) editorial writers less because they didn't know any better. Carroll's views are more like the mainstream views of 40 years ago, when the Post was in favor of building the Skyline Freeway between Larimer and Market.

    I grew up near Colorado Blvd. It was a mess in the 1970s and it's even more of a mess now. It won't ever be LoDo-style walkable, because it will always be a very wide street. But there's no reason why it couldn't be redeveloped with better transit options, and more pedestrian-friendly mixed-use centers.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Ken, a very well written response. Hear, hear!

  7. Michael Malak says:

    Adding rail to Colorado Blvd. won't change it to be pedestrian friendly in the next two centuries. Yes it has some nice urban form, has a lot of potential, is getting a nice upgrade south of I-25, has some good transit with the zero bus, and certainly has room for rail especially north of I-25. But it was built out at the dawn of the automobile age, and a century later it's still struggling to slough off the car lots.

    The priorities for "complete streets" are rightly Broadway and Colfax. Then Speer and University. Colorado is way down the list.

  8. Niccolo Casewit says:

    It has to work, It's really
    sprawl which has induced the traffic in our corridors. A variety of roads
    needs to be considered, and it may be time to under-ground a few routes.
    I would recommend looking at the german system of paving side walks with one side green and one side red, allowing for peds and bikes to share enhanced connecting walk-ways.
    Every conceivable mode of transportation will be needed.
    Complete living streets contain good jobs and homes nearby so that people do not have to get into their cars in the first place.
    These amenities are all dependent on densities >20 d-units an acre.
    To focus on "bike-lanes" is only part of what brings life to the street. Jahn Gehl says it's the number of Doors which never belies the health of a street.

  9. Michael Malak says:

    If anything should be undergrounded, it's the rail. At-grade rail is dangerous, and rail that parallels Interstates is worthless (except for the parking it saves downtown).

    Far-flung Fastracks is misguided — even to the airport.

    Broadway and Colfax should have underground rail.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Preach it! Every word you said was right.

  11. Anonymous says:

    broadway and lincoln already have a lane marked off from traffic during rush hour for buses. why not make this permanent and add a protected bike lane along the way? this would make crossing speer and I25 by bike less of a nightmare.

  12. Paul says:

    Thanks for a well-thought response to the Denver Post editorial. *fistpumps*

  13. BeyondDC says:

    It sounds like the Post is suffering from the misconception that the built environment "just happens", that our current way of things is "just how things are", and that any alternatives are unrealistic.

    Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Our cities look the way they do because of careful planning, regulation and tax structuring that makes one type of built form advantageous to construct. Our car-dependent cities would never have happened without 60 years of management aimed specifically at making them happen.

    The fact is, we can make our cities into anything we want them to be. In fact, we can't help it. We *have* to have a tax structure. We *have* to have building regulations. We *have* to spend money on infrastructure. How we make those decisions shapes the city we live in. It just takes time to do it.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Carroll purposely picked red herring streets like Colorado and Hampden to stir up opponents of Living Streets. Mike Rosen on 850 KOA also tried to corner Hickenlooper on Living Streets several weeks ago and used Hampden as his example. Rosen went so far as saying that a traffic lane would be removed to accomodate bicycles. Obviously there's a trade off – automobiles are not going to simply disappear; however, Living Streets is the right choice.

  15. Anonymous says:

    In addition to Broadway, Colfax, and Speer, the city should also focus its attention on the Boulevard (Federal). Get the core right, and the rest will follow… in time. University, 38th Ave., Colorado, Alameda, etc.

  16. organic says:

    Very well written, Ken, and I completely agree. Let's do it!!!

  17. Anonymous says:

    Amen, brother Ken, you nailed it. Somehow I missed this in the Post but I'll be writing a letter to the Editor. There are few things that make we want to spring into action as much as this does. Our auto focused policies over the decades have really put us in a spot of bother… an unsustainable road network to far flung exurbs with many first ring suburbs no longer the darlings struggling to maintain their infrastructure, auto optimized core (roads with as many possible lanes, one ways, parking lots), bad health, etc.

    I agree that Mr. Carroll picked the streets he did to inflame the driving public… "hey, I drive on CO Blvd!!!"

    And this is really disingenuous, "It's difficult to see how Colorado Boulevard could ever become the kind of walkable LoDo environment"… you think? Why not pick on I25 or I70? For sure, they won't ever be walkable like LoDo. Let's get real. Even if Living Streets is enthusiastically embraced, it won't make all streets the same. For as long as I can foresee, we'll have some streets that are auto dominated. Some will be transformed in favor of non auto use, others will simply be (slightly) improved. The changes will be gradual and hard to put a finger on for some streets, but one day we'll look back and say that Living Streets (or something like it) was major factor in progress.

  18. Matthew says:

    The heart of the Post's bleakly short-sighted logic only considers the obvious difficulties of improvements to major outlying routes-Colorado, Hampden, University. With their main offices across from blighted Civic Center Park, shouldn't the Post support an initiative to help their staff cross Colfax, Broadway, Lincoln?!

    Making Denver into a great city will take something like execution of Living Streets. The Post's column reminds me of angry Dad scoffing at visionary (and liberal) thinking, citing the inevitability of "Progress."

    I have lived on Capitol Hill for seven years in which time I have commuted on foot alternately to LoDo and Golden Triangle. Maybe Angry Denver Post Dad should try crossing Broadway or Lincoln twice daily…or try negotiating the intermittent sidewalk at the jog on 11th between Grant and Logan. That might help angry Dads thinking.

  19. RTD Watch says:

    Let's also realize that not all parts of all streets are the same. North Colorado Boulevard (I'm thinking between City Park and 1st Ave or so) is really a quite urban boulevard with lots of apartments and urban style businesses lining the street and great, walkable streetscaping on both sides. If you squint you can almost imagine it being a street in San Francisco or Seattle. The traffic on north Colorado isn't great, but it moves along nicely especially compared to other parts of the street. And once the former University Hospital site is redeveloped, the stretch of Colorado can really be a quite nice urban street.

    It's south Colorado where the strip malls begin and where walking along side the road is a nightmare and biking on the street a death wish. It has horrible traffic, no streetscaping at all, and just an ugly, suburban style density that does nothing to distinguish the area at all.

    Do a Google maps view of 1800 S. Colorado Boulevard and 900 N. Colorado Boulevard and just look at the difference between the two areas. It's not just that one has more density than the other (though that is the case as well). But
    north Colorado has a median, streetscaping, an actual bus stop structure (instead of a lonely bench) and just a ton more walkability. The streets define the area a lot and I think almost everyone can agree that north Colorado, though not perfect, is much more desirable than the southern parts of the street.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Yes! I remember reading that editorial and being so peeved. The use of Colorado Blvd as an example is just the kind of red herring argument that anti-smart design pundits use to spike any type of good urban planning initiatives.

    Where o' where in any of the Living Streets proposals does Denver ever talk about imposing the type of policies that Carroll is talking about? Nowhere. They don't. Why? Because it would be stupid to try to turn Colorado Blvd into a Larimer Square. So why is he even talking about it?

    I usually like the even-headed arguments Carroll sometimes brings to issues. But on this one he was completely off-base and disingenuous. –Jared Jacang Maher

  21. Anonymous says:

    Bravo, Ken, bravo!

  22. BeyondDC says:

    All this talk about how Colorado Blvd is a terrible example because it's so suburban is quite discouraging. Redeveloping aging suburban commercial strips is the next great frontier in planning. It is definitely possible. Denver isn't quite there yet, since downtown is only now filling in. But once land downtown starts to become scarce, you will see places like Colorado Boulevard redevelop to become more urban (especially if they have good transit).

    Here are some links to examples of planning to do just that at locations around the DC area (just because I'm familiar with them). All are suburban corridors planning to become more urban. Maryland Route 355 in particular is remarkably similar to Colorado Blvd around where it meets I-25. Tysons Corner is, if anything, worse.

    White Flint Plan, Twinbrook Commons Plan, and Rockville Pike Plan for Maryland Route 355.

    Tysons Corner Plan and Summary of Falls Church Development for Virginia Route 7.

    Fairfax Boulevard Plan for US Route 50 (the same 50 that goes through Pueblo).

    Columbia Pike Plan for Virginia Route 244.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Yes. Make our streets/neighborhoods safer and more "liveable."
    They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

  24. Mark says:

    Screw them. If it were up to me I would level Colorado Blvd and start over.

  25. Simone says:

    Well said, Ken. Denver is my hometown, but the whole 'car-first' thing is one of the primary reasons we will have difficulty moving back. Here in Brussels, we have one nice car…which I have never driven in the almost-two-years we've lived here. :)

  26. Anonymous says:

    Vincent Carroll is a right-wing hack and a voice of "the establishment" to boot. I'm no fan of the Denver Post nor it's right-wing editorial staffers. I'll rejoice when the Post joins the Rocky Mountain News and the "town-criers" of years and years and years past and whale oil lamps… Embrace the future, kiss the past (and the Post) goodbye.

  27. Jeanne Robb says:

    I wish I had written this! Bravo! Did you copy the Denver Post?

  28. Daren says:

    Anonymous asked, "Is there anything I can do to make sure the Living Streets Initiative is successful?" Yes, there are a wide array of alternatives one can adopt to ensure "initiatives" such as living street become successful. For one, stop driving as often and opt for walking and riding alternatives. Also become engaged in you neighborhood's goings on. For more immediate action, go to the denver living streets.org website and complete there monkey survey, someone will be most gratified, I am sure.