Denver trails behind in the race for people-powered transportation

Here’s why more people aren’t walking and cycling in the Mile High City.

Colorado’s abundant sunshine, outdoor recreation and so-called “green rush” of cannabis fans may continue to lure tourists and transplants to the Centennial State.

But some newcomers are disappointed when they try to venture beyond downtown Denver without a car.

Consider that in 2017, Curbed magazine skipped Denver when it ranked its “Top 10 U.S. Cities pushing biking forward,” and that outdoors-friendly Denver came up No. 11 when Bicycling magazine ranked “The 50 Best Bike Cities of 2016.”

Walking and biking advocates lament the danger of streets without adequate sidewalks and bike lanes. In 2016, 84 pedestrians and 16 bicyclists died on Colorado roads, according to The Denver Post. All photos by Elana Jefferson.

Denver was built for driving, say the city’s “active transportation” advocates. The idea that residents citywide should be able to commute to work, school or the grocery store simply by walking, biking or using public transportation, is just beginning to blossom in the Mile High City, particularly when comparing Denver to such pedestrian-friendly destinations as New York City or San Francisco.

Playing catchup

“When we look at sister cities like Minneapolis or Austin, Denver is a little bit behind,” says Piep van Heuven, Denver Director for Bicycle Colorado. “Denver is a great place to ride a bike — if you’re on the trail system. Where we’re behind is on our city street infrastructure.”

Now twenty-five years old, Bicycle Colorado was among the first local organizations to give voice to cyclists, and by extension, people who want to commute without a car. Its early work revolved around creating safe routes for recreational cyclists. Today, van Heuven and her colleagues work to raise awareness, further policy, and champion for funding to create bike lanes, highways overpasses and other infrastructure solutions that facilitate safe, easy, two-wheeled transportation.

Bikes lanes have been shown to bring 50 percent more foot traffic into neighborhood businesses.

“We’ve evolved well,” van Heuven says. “But we are still really not on pace to be what I would consider to be a bike-friendly city.”
Why become more bike- and pedestrian-friendly?

First, van Heuvan says, there are the obvious health benefits. Colorado’s obesity rate has steadily increased in recent years, coming in at 22.3 percent in 2016, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bicycle transportation also cuts household expenditures, as owning an automobile costs about $10,000 a year, according to AAA.

Research also indicates that walking and biking spur economic growth, as “folks are more likely to stop and patronize a local business than if they’re going by in a car,” van Heuven says.

More than an urban problem

The barriers to active transportation in Colorado’s capital city mirror similar but distinct challenges faced by suburban and rural communities, says LiveWell Colorado Policy Director Julie George.

The Denver-area suburban neighborhoods that failed to plan for pedestrians and cyclists often have skinny sidewalks, while Colorado’s rural communities must contend with highway traffic passing directly through town.

According to Walk Denver, 2017 was the first year the City of Denver budget included $2.5 million for constructing new sidewalks adjacent to public properties.

“People should be active, and should feel safe doing it,” says George, a Denver native who returned to her hometown after going to college in New  York City, and was immediately struck by the need for a car to get around. She helped found LiveWell Colorado’s HEAL Cities & Towns Campaign, which encourages local leaders to adopt policies and designate dollars for healthy living initiatives.

The social justice connection

Facilitating active transportation becomes about race, class and privilege when walking and biking advocates look at the map of where Denver’s worst streets tend to be located: Low-income neighborhoods. “It’s not hard to see how low-income communities just haven’t gotten the same improvements as more affluent parts of the Denver metro area,” George says.

While Denver’s newly-built or redeveloped neighborhoods such as Stapleton or the lower Highlands boast fresh sidewalks, wide bike lanes and easy access to city trails, in other, older neighborhoods, many of which also are among the city’s poorest, some streets don’t even have a sidewalk, much less a bike lane.

Roughly 40 percent of Denver’s city streets have no sidewalk or poorly maintained sidewalks, according to the 2017 “Denver Moves Pedestrians & Trails” draft plan, a study initiated by Mayor Michael Hancock’s Denveright planning initiative, but which faces massive funding hurdles in order to meet the city’s active transportation needs.

Walk Denver Executive Director Jill Locantore breaks down the numbers even further.

“Ten percent of the streets don’t have sidewalks at all, and an additional 30 percent of our streets have substandard sidewalks, meaning they’re too narrow for a person in a wheelchair or a parent in a stroller or even for two people to walk side-by-side,” she says. “That forces people to walk in the street with the cars, and oftentimes the design of the street encourages cars to go very fast.”

Globeville, pictured here, has long been a community that lacks completed sidewalks. The neighborhoods is now slated for several bond projects.

“Unfortunately,” she adds, “dozens of pedestrians are killed just trying to walk around Denver every year.”
A problem also lies in the fact that historically, Denver property owners were responsible for keeping up sidewalks.

“So wealthy neighborhoods have beautiful, well-maintained sidewalks, and low-income neighborhoods have missing or substandard sidewalks that are in serious disrepair,” Locantore says. “That, in turn, has led to a situation where the highest numbers of pedestrian fatalities are in low-income neighborhoods.”

Lower-income neighborhoods, where residents wrestle with barriers to walking and biking, also tend to have higher obesity and disease rates.

Montbello’s squeaky wheel

What can residents do when their sidewalks and streets are in dangerous disrepair?

Locantore urges citizen to advocate for themselves by talking with their city council officials, and logging problems directly via Denver 311, where residents can access city services or report problems online or by telephone. (Dial “311” within the city, or (720) 913-1311 from outside of Denver.)

“Unfortunately in Denver,” she says, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Longtime Montbello resident Pam Jiner started “squeaking” to neighbors and city leaders when she learned that the Colorado Department of Transportation’s plans to redevelop Interstate 70 from Brighton Boulevard to Chambers Road, beginning later this year, will result in major construction along Peoria Street.

“We only have one street in and out of the Montbello community, and that’s Peoria,” Jiner says. “But for some reason, they have never, ever installed sidewalks within a quarter of a mile on either side of I-70.”

Montbello is among the “Communities of Concern” in which city planners identified the links between poor streets and sidewalks, lower incomes, and disturbing health indicators.

Bike lanes can calm traffic while discouraging cyclists from riding on the sidewalks, which also can be a recipe for pedestrian disaster.

Nearly a quarter of the households in Montbello are at or below the poverty level, according to The Piton Foundation, and 60 percent are Latino, and 24 percent are African-American.

“The sidewalks here are too small and they’re old,” says Jiner, 61, who walks the neighborhood daily and organizes community walk events. “No one has ever done any repairs of these sidewalks, so you’ve got tree roots and bushes and shrubbery and all kinds of weeds in the cracks.”

After roughly a year of calling her city council representative and CDOT, and organizing in her community, Jiner recently led a group of more than two dozen city leaders on a walk along Peoria to highlight the neighborhood infrastructure problems.

“We’ve got handicapped people in our community, and people in wheelchairs, who are driving in the street just to get to public transportation,” says Jiner, a longtime foster parent who also raised children of her own. “Can you imagine the stress and strain that is put on a caregiver who cannot get outside with those kids, or cannot walk with their seniors within their own neighborhood?!”

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime freelance journalist.

This is part one of a collaborative editorial project between Confluence Denver and LiveWell Colorado. The six-part series will examine barriers to healthy living in Colorado, and how communities are finding solutions.

Read more articles by Elana Ashanti Jefferson.

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime cultural affairs journalist. Her work has appeared in House Beautiful, Lucky, Popular Mechanics, The Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
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