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.