Voice of Denver: It's Time to Become a Walkable City

WalkDenver Chair Gideon Berger argues that Denver needs to invest in a more pedestrian-friendly future.
In 1903, Vermont physician Horatio Nelson Jackson was visiting San Francisco when he got into a debate about the future of the automobile. His hosts at the University Club thought it was a passing fad, an amusement for those wealthy enough to afford such a contraption. Indeed there were only a few thousand automobiles in the nation at that time.

Jackson, however, was sure enough about the future of the automobile that he bet $50 (about $1,300 in today's dollars) to prove that he could drive across the country in one. There were few paved roads and no state or federal Departments of Transportation at that time, so perhaps it's no surprise that the trip took 65 days and included numerous breakdowns and mishaps. Yes, he won the bet. But more significantly, history bore out his foresight: the rate of car ownership in the US changed from one in 9,500 in 1900 to one in seven in 1924 when there were more than 17 million on the road.

If we were around in 1900, how many of us could have imagined that in 25 years such a fundamental change in transportation would also have enormous impacts on the way we lived, how we built our communities, and our economic opportunities -- let alone its negative externalities on the natural environment and public health?

Denver today is facing a similar time of change. Although centered less on the impacts of a single technological innovation, we face the challenge of how to create sustainable neighborhoods with the quality of life we desire as more people choose (or need) to live in the economic engines of 21st century America -- our cities. WalkDenver, our only pedestrian advocacy organization (and whose board I chair), thinks one of the keys to meeting that challenge is by allowing Denver to be a city where walking is the easiest and best way to get around for many of our trips.

We all can see that our city is booming: Forbes ranks Denver as the sixth-fastest growing city in population in the nation and second-best to launch a startup business (I am helping my life partner, one of those new entrepreneurs, to open a retail business this spring on Colfax near our condo). But as an example of how transportation in our city is changing, Denver B-Cycle has grown from startup in 2010 with 40 stations to 84 stations with 700 bikes today.

In support of the program, the city has added 168 new miles of shared, striped and protected bike lanes since 2008, with more projects planned. The full value of our bike infrastructure will become apparent well before 2025, when Millennials (those born between 1981 and 2000) become the majority of our workforce. Think about how much it would have cost and how many homes and businesses would have been destroyed to add the space for 168 miles of additional vehicular lanes in the past eight years.

It's also important to remember that one third of us don't -- or can't -- drive an automobile, including all children under the legal driving age, people with disabilities, about 20 percent of seniors. Here in Denver, U.S. Census data says that 12 percent of households do not have a motor vehicle, and in low-income neighborhoods that figure reaches as high as 40 percent.

But walking is not just about infrastructure: people also need destinations to walk to. There's a reason why many of Denver's most beloved neighborhoods (like those centered around 32nd Avenue Lowell Street, South Pearl Street, South Gaylord Street, etc.) are so sought out: They have destinations (remnants of the streetcar era) embedded among their homes. Mixed-use creates places for people to walk to just as more households provide a critical mass of customers to support neighborhood-oriented businesses. Numerous studies show that improving pedestrian and bike access increases the visibility, sales amounts, and numbers of customers of neighborhood-based businesses. The Denver Office of Economic Development understood this when it made enhancing neighborhood retail a priority in its Strategic Retail Plan.

As others have observed, this spring's elections offer an opportunity for Denver voters to weigh in on how our city will grow at a crucial time. I encourage you to keep the following in mind as you consider your choices:
  • Following in the footsteps of New York, San Francisco and Seattle, isn't it time Denver embraced the Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and adopting specific goals and strategies for increasing safety for the most vulnerable people (pedestrians and bicyclists) in the highest risk areas (busy arterials and lower-income neighborhoods)?
  • Shouldn't the city should place a higher budgetary priority on creating safe pedestrian access to schools, parks, transit, recreation and cultural centers, and commercial districts to support an active, healthy population? According to a 2014 report funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and AARP, Denver spends 70 percent less of our federal transportation funding on bike and pedestrian infrastructure than the average among large U.S. cities.
  • The responsibility for maintaining sidewalks in Denver lies with private property owners. While this system works relatively well for new or redevelopment projects, it does nothing to address large portions of the city that were originally built without adequate sidewalks. It also can create a difficult financial burden for low- and fixed-income homeowners like seniors if they are cited for repairs. Isn't it time city leaders identify more effective and equitable funding solutions for building and maintaining a full network of pedestrian infrastructure throughout Denver?
Some have suggested that the technologically-driven trends of bike-, car- and ride-sharing -- along with recent evidence of active transportation (walking, biking) and transit ridership growing faster than vehicle miles traveled -- are a passing fad. But if Denver is going to continue to be a great place for people to live and start families, find good jobs and create businesses, we should hope those voices are as wrong about the future today as the University Club members who lost their bet to Jackson were in 1903.

Gideon Berger, an urban planner and former political journalist, is the chair of WalkDenver. He is not a Denver native, but hopes to have children here one day and that enough new housing is built by then so that, if they want to, they can afford to own a home here when they grow up.

Voice of Denver is a featured post from Denver's entrepreneurs, experts and raconteurs. Contact us if you'd like to stand on our soapbox.
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