Denver's funding for walking and biking infrastructure is meager compared to the budgets of peer cities. The Denver Streets Partnership is looking to shift the paradigm, with a big target of $800 million.
The City and County of Denver spent about $2.6 million on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in 2014.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas spent $42 million, Seattle spent $30 million and Oklahoma City spent $25 million, according to the Alliance for Biking & Walking's 2016 Benchmarking Report.
Funding has increased in Denver, but it remains pretty far down the list. In 2017, Denver will invest about $5 million in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Denver's sidewalks are crumbling. Here's the scene near 48th Avenue and Shoshone Street. Image provided by Walk Denver.
The same report found that about one in 14 commuters walk or bike to work in Denver, roughly half the rate seen in Portland, San Francisco and Seattle.
What would an annual investment of $40 million in public money do for that number? That's the big question the Denver Streets Partnership wants to answer, and not just theoretically. They're asking the city and state to come up with the cash.
The group is focused on both the big picture and the long term. Take that target number of $40 million a year, multiply it by 20 years for a total investment of $800 million and it could revolutionize the way Denverites travel in their city.
Launched in spring 2017, DSP is a collaborative effort of Bicycle Colorado, WalkDenver, Bike Denver, the Denver Cruiser Ride, Denver B-cycle and the Denver Vision Zero Coalition.
Piep van Heuven joined Bicycle Colorado as Denver director in May 2016 with a goal of bringing the city's bicycling infrastructure into the 21st century. She says the goal of the DSP is "to bring all the bike and ped groups together so we could speak with one voice."
"If we're going to change biking conditions in Colorado, we had to have our capital city leading the way," says van Heuven. "The issue is really the level of funding. That's the reason for our effort in Denver."
Many of Denver's trend lines are heading in a worrisome direction. "Driving alone is increasing, transit use is decreasing, walking is decreasing and biking is flat," says van Heuven.
A coalition of pedestrian and bike advocates wants the city to spend $40 million a year on safe passage ways.
Van Heuven points out that 73 percent of cars in Denver have a single occupant. "That's one of the highest rates in the country," she notes. "Our goal is 60 percent."
The route to reversing these trends involves a big boost in funding. The DSP's multi-pronged funding strategy involves asking city voters for help via an in-development General Obligation (GO) Bond proposal slated for the November 2017 ballot, as well as going after Denver City Council money, and state-level funding that could come from a future transportation bill.
"We're at a pivotal moment," says van Heuven. The annual $40 million is "a daunting number, but it's also achievable." The GO Bond, expected to put $7 million a year for the next decade towards walking and biking infrastructure, is "a good first step," she adds
Where the sidewalk ends
If the DSP succeeds, the lion's share of the increased funding will go to more and better sidewalks. "It really is a citywide problem," says Jill Locantore, associate director of WalkDenver. "It's remarkable how widespread it is. They have to function as a network. If there's a sidewalk on half of a block and not the other half of a block, it doesn't function as a sidewalk."
She points to Globeville and Elyria-Swansea in northeast Denver as neighborhoods where the pedestrian infrastructure is particularly lacking.
One problem is that the property owners are responsible to build and maintain adjacent sidewalks by a city ordinance that's rarely enforced. "People are shocked when they find out the city doesn't pay for this critical piece of infrastructure," says Locantore.
about a quarter of the city's streets have no sidewalks at all, and 40 percent of the existing sidewalks are not accessible to those with disabilities. It's estimated that about $600 million is needed to build out Denver's sidewalks, ongoing maintenance not included.
At the current rates of municipal spending, says Locantore, "It would take hundreds of years to build out a sidewalk network."
Jaime Lewis, transit advisor for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition and the Denver Regional Mobility and Access Council, says sidewalks are a good investment for the city.
"By investing in sidewalks, it's giving people a chance," he says. "Unfortunately, most of our sidewalks are more than 30 or 40 years old. Therefore, they're crumbling. That causes a lot of problems for me in a power chair."
A decade ago, the lack of curb cuts in the Golden Triangle made it difficult for Lewis to get to the grocery store in his wheelchair. "There were two or three times I fell out of my chair," he says.
That's no longer a problem for Lewis, as the city installed curb cuts on the intersections on his route, but more work is needed. "I've seen the changes," he says. "They're slow-coming, but they're coming. It's the old expression: Build it and they will come."
Lewis expects the GO Bond to fund sidewalks to the tune of about $29 million, not quite enough for one year on the DSP's envisioned 20-year buildout. He calls it "a drop in the bucket."
Bike paths to nowhere
Park Hill resident and English teacher Andy Sense commutes to Overland High School in Aurora by bicycle. "It's about a 10-mile commute every day," he says. "I don’t ever feel like I have to go to the gym."
Sense advocates for "rethinking how streets work” citywide. "I would like to see a lot of roads get smaller," he explains. "Our streets are way too wide."
Montview Boulevard is a prime example. "It's such an open road," says Sense. "Cars go really fast on it." A parking-protected bike lane would make Montview considerably safer, he adds. "It doesn't involve any construction, it just involves rethinking it."
Sense bicycled in New York City before he moved to Denver. "I never felt I was going to get mowed down by a car going 50 miles per hour," he says, "because a dense city doesn't work like that."
Bicycle Colorado's van Heuven says a citywide network of protected bike lanes would "flip the switch and get people out of their cars. That's what gets your grandma out on a bike."
There are currently five protected bike lanes in Denver, a tally that includes the pilot lane on Broadway that "doesn't connect to anything," says van Heuven.
There are protected bike lanes now in Cherry Creek and along Broadway. The hope is that paths will be connected into a network.
That's maybe five miles in all. The Denver Moves plan includes 25 miles of protected lanes, and the DSP advocates for $200 million to fund bicycling infrastructure, primarily bike lanes and traffic-calming bulb-outs and curb extensions, over 20 years.
"With current levels of funding, it's going to take 40 to 80 years build out the Denver Moves bicycle plan," says van Heuven. "I won't see it in my lifetime. We'll miss a generation, maybe two."
The expansion of the protected lane on Broadway is "a fantastic opportunity," she adds. "It's a street where we can see everything playing out at once. . . . It's basically a one-way racetrack for two hours a day. We can do better."
Van Heuven says Nashville Mayor Megan Barry was inspired by Denver's ideas. Barry is now taking action. She has embraced a multimodal future and proposed $30 million for sidewalks in Music City's budget, while doubling bikeway funding to $2 million.
"I joke a little that Denver does a good job comparing itself to Denver," says James Waddell, executive director of Bike Denver. "You're a bike city? Prove it. The easiest way to prove it is to show us your budget." The $2.2 million line item on the city's 2017 budget doesn't cut it, he says. "The mayor said, 'It's the year of mobility.' I'm not sure exactly what he meant by that."
"We have a network that has no business being called a network," says Waddell. "To connect the disparate hodgepodge of bike lanes we have now would go a long way making it more accessible for more people to ride."
He points to Bicycle Colorado research that found about two-thirds of Denver residents own a bicycle. "We're not a minority of people. We're a majority."
Waddell says he gauges a street's bicycle safety through the willingness of his eight-year-old son and 80-year-old parent to ride. If both of them are comfortable, he says, "That's a safe street."
"Every time you put in a protected bike lane, more people will ride," he adds. "You've got to separate cars and bikes. You put them together and it causes a lot of anxiety -- and it's flat-out dangerous."
"If it were up to me, I'd have an unlimited can of white paint and just paint [bike lanes] on every street that makes sense," says Waddell. "We've got to claim the space. The first thing you do is claim the space, and then you make it better and safer."
Waddell says Portland is a model for bicycling infrastructure. There's no line item in the city budget for bicycling infrastructure because it is "baked into everything they do. It's part of their DNA."
The sidewalk simply disappears on 46th Avenue near Pecos Street. Image provided by Walk Denver.
Back in Denver, "We are a strong recreational biking city, there's no doubt about that, but we are behind a lot of cities you wouldn't think," says Waddell, citing Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York. "Either by design or desire, they had to figure out how to get more people around on their bikes."
Bike lanes, cruisers and bears
"I'm known as a bit of a bear poker," says Brad K. Evans, founder of the Denver Cruiser Ride, of his role with the DSP. "Doing the Cruiser Ride, I became a bit of an activist."
Evans offers a familiar refrain: "There's no connected system and nobody's protected."
Case in point: "There's a bike lane on Welton. It just dies after 18th," says Evans. "If we built roads the same way we built bike lanes, we'd have millions of angry drivers."
The reconstruction of Broadway at Mississippi Avenue offers another example. At 12 lanes at its widest point just south of I-25, Evans says it's an example of a project going in the wrong direction, he says. "There's very little bike and pedestrian consideration there. They say it's there, but it's not."
Evans says Seattle, Portland and Vancouver offer good models, but adds, "Nobody in the U.S. is doing anything like Copenhagen or Amsterdam." But Denver's lack of spending is notably conspicuous, he adds. "Oklahoma City is spending more.
Evans is quick to critique Mayor Michael Hancock as "all talk and no action," but Bicycle Colorado's van Heuven is more diplomatic. "I think the mayor is very serious about mobility, but we haven't seen the dollars to back it up yet," she says.
"We've been doing a lot of talking and planning, but we haven't done a lot of funding or doing," adds van Heuven. "We've got to flip the switch."
Adds WalkDenver's Locantore: "It's just political will that's required."