Planning Downtown: Creating a Walkable City

To establish Denver's downtown area as a walkable district, business and city leaders focus on developing not just pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, but train, bus and bike traffic for first- and last-mile connectivity.
Our "Walkable City" headline might seem like a misnomer. As it pertains to the downtown landscape, walkability is about giving commuters and visitors options that will allow them to walk from a rail station, bus stop, bike rack or parking spot to their final destination.

Beyond advancing an infrastructure that supports walking, stakeholders have developed a pedestrian-friendly experience rooted in design and efficiency, enhancing the "last-mile" pathways -- those used during the final mile of a commute -- that entice passersby to linger and engage in social behavior that bolsters the hyper-local economy.

About 41 percent of downtown commuters use transit to get to work, another 6.5 percent bike and roughly 5.6 percent walk. "This explains why it's so important to invest in a multimodal downtown," says Aylene McCallum, the Downtown Denver Partnership's director of downtown environment. "Every person is a pedestrian downtown at some point."

Heightened walkability begins with the redevelopment of the district's bookends: Union Station and Civic Center Station.

Union StationThe 2007 Downtown Area Plan identified a need to "reinforce Union Station as a regional transit hub."

The 2007 Downtown Area Plan identified a need to "reinforce Union Station as a regional transit hub." That element of the plan can be checked off as an unqualified success.

With the multi-billion-dollar FasTracks transit expansion as its catalyst, Union Station was overhauled in phases, starting with the relocation of the rail station in in 2012. A new underground bus facility opened in 2014, replacing the soon-to-be-redeveloped station at 16th and Market streets.

The $500 million project culminated in summer 2015 with the grand opening of the site's refurbished historic building, which now houses independent restaurants, bars and markets, along with The Crawford Hotel, fronted by the impressive Wynkoop Plaza. The Downtown Denver Business Improvement District maintains Wynkoop Plaza, and the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) manages it for their client, RTD, the property owner.

As for transportation, the project cemented Union Station as a multimodal regional hub, says interim RTD General Manager and CEO Dave Genova, spouting off the various lines that come through, including light rail, commuter rail, Amtrak and two free shuttles. "If we're talking mobility and even walkability, it's important to really acknowledge how all of the systems come together," he says.

Genova calls the Free MallRide -- the shuttle that cruises 16th Street Mall -- "a backbone." "It's the mall shuttle that brings everyone through downtown -- all the way to Civic Center," Genova says, noting that it does a whopping 45,000 passenger trips daily, making it a critical part of the transportation infrastructure.

RTD added the Free MetroRide on 18th and 19th streets when it opened Union Station's bus facility. "We were concerned about capacity," explains Genova, likening MetroRide's mission to MallRide's, though it runs between Union Station and Civic Center only during peak morning and afternoon commuter times. "It's all an integrated network, and all of the elements link together to provide mobility options for people to get around."

The introduction of car-sharing services as an alternative to private vehicles is mentioned in the Downtown Area Plan, too, and fulfillment of that vision element has been accomplished by the private sector, with companies such as Car2Go. "With the insurgence of Lyft and Uber, within the transit industry we talk a lot about mobility on demand and how to integrate that," Genova says, adding, "These services can fill a gap during the last mile, and we embrace it as an industry of an integrated approach."

Civic Center Station

With Union Station redevelopment complete, developers and city planners have shifted gears to the prong of the Downtown Area Plan seeking to reinforce Civic Center Station as a local hub.

Civic Center Station opened with the 16th Street Mall in the early 1980s, and was part of the mall project. Explains Genova: "The original mall stretched from Civic Center to the Market Street Station; when we opened Union Station, we mothballed Market Street."

"A lot of people don't understand that the [16th Street Mall] was a transit investment, and it still serves as a transit corridor," he continues. When it first opened, the mall took about 500 local bus trips off the street.

Over 30 years, though, Civic Center Station's original structure has become outdated, and needs "reinvestment and modernization," says DDP Executive Vice President John Desmond. "Termination at Civic Center Station is very important," he notes. "It's one of those last-mile things."

The DDP is currently working with RTD and the city on a revitalization project, with construction slated for this summer and a reopening envisioned for the summer of 2017. When finished, Civic Center Station will be "open and somewhat similar to Union Station," says Genova. The site's elevated bus plaza, for example, is being brought to grade. That's a change that will allow for a mid-block crossing for buses that had to go around the block, Desmond adds.

"One of the major challenges for walkability around the Civic Center transit plan is the Broadway and Colfax [Avenue] intersection," he continues. Pedestrian-vehicular accidents have occurred here, and redevelopment plans will recommend options to enhance basic pedestrian safety.

"For example, do you limit the turning movements of cars at Broadway and Colfax?" asks Desmond. "How do you demarcate the intersections, the crosswalks?" There's been talk about enhancing the median on Colfax with an island for pedestrians, and developers are also looking at sightlines and signalization.

About 41 percent of downtown commuters use transit to get to work, another 6.5 percent bike and roughly 5.6 percent walk. Bike City

"A lot of people feel that the only way they can move around downtown safely is by vehicle," says Crissy Fanganello, transportation director for the Denver Department of Public Works. "Because we're growing so quickly, we're looking at ways to increase capacity without widening roads."

The plan includes bike, mainly providing clearer networks and incorporating services and facilities that address the whole trip. "We have the regional trail system with the Cherry Creek and South Platte River trails. Making the connections into downtown as legible and seamless as possible has been a priority," says Fanganello.

In 2011, the city installed a bike lane on 14th Avenue, which connects the Cherry Creek Trail to Bannock Street. The city subsequently converted the bike lane on 15th Street to a protected lane separated from auto traffic by a physical barrier in 2014, and then installed protected lanes on Arapahoe and Lawrence streets in 2015 with additional funding from the private sector and the DDP. Another key piece of the puzzle was the existing bicycle lane on East 16th Avenue.

Over the past year, city staffers analyzed "timing along the corridor," Fanganello says, and subsequently implemented a "green wave" system. "If you're riding your bike at about 10 to 12 miles per hour, you'll hit downtown without any red lights." The move is catalyzing the network's usage. Active counters indicate 300 to 400 bicyclists use the 16th Avenue lane daily, and the counts for 15th Street are consistently between 800 and 900 bikes between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

While 12th Avenue was another candidate for a bike lane, and is discussed in the 2007 plan, it was stymied by a bus route. Based on community outreach, the city placed a bike lane on 11th Avenue instead. Completed last summer, the new lane provides a "parallel network," as Fanganello puts it, for getting folks to locations along busy Colfax.

The city has also converted downtown streets from one-way to two-way travel, beginning with 18th. Now, it's working on the conversions of 19th and 20th avenues, at the points where they come out of downtown. "Some feel a two-way street is friendlier for people and bikers," says Fanganello. "One-way streets tend to see higher speeds." Pedestrian-friendly speeds foster positive economic activity, and the DDP has data to back that up.

Once bicyclists are downtown, they need a place to park. Improving bicycle parking and amenities, then, is another critical element expounded in the Downtown Area Plan. Last year, Fanganello's department implemented a bike-parking program, and continues working with local business owners interested in adding U-racks and bike corrals, the latter of which take up about 1.5 parking spots. Once individual business owners have identified a need for a rack or corral and successfully submitted an application, the city will install the rack or corral, free of charge.

The idea for a bike station or hub has also been floated. Such a facility would be a multi-function space for bicyclists to park, as well as, say, work on a flat tire or buy accessories. "Some stations in other states even have showers and lockers," adds Fanganello, noting that the city is working with private developers to install a hub in front of Union Station.

"The biggest work we've done has been through our partnership with Denver B-cycle, the bike-sharing nonprofit," continues Fanganello. This take-a-bike, leave-a-bike program -- the first large-scale bike sharing one in the country when it launched in 2010 -- works especially well in high-density areas.

"The Downtown Denver Partnership was a strategic partner in the creation of the B-cycle program, and has supported the organization's expansion by connecting them to organizations that wish to place stations near their sites, and by promoting the program to downtown Denver employees through our transportation outreach and education efforts," says the DDP's Brittany Morris Saunders, senior vice president of economic development and public affairs.

With the help of a federal grant, Denver B-cycle expanded the stations in its system from 50 stations to 82 in 2013. Today, there are 87 Denver B-cycle stations with roughly 700 bikes.

Stay tuned: Next month we're exploring how city officials and business leaders are working to make downtown Denver more diverse.

In 2005, two entities -- the City and County of Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership -- developed what would become the 2007 Downtown Denver Area Plan, a comprehensive strategy establishing five overarching vision elements with 19 strategy elements -- all meant to guide decisions and actions affecting the form and function of approximately 1,800 acres divided over eight districts. In this series, we're examining each of the plan's five vision elements.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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