By Peter Bird POSTED: 01/23/2016 05:00:00 PM MST
In the last year, Denver has made some serious progress building bike lanes. Arapahoe Street, Lawrence Street, and 11th Avenue are all up and ready to ride — even in the dead of winter! And next year promises to be even more exciting for bicyclists, with bike lanes on the horizon for Brighton Boulevard, Broadway and others.
Good news for bicyclists, but what about everyone else? Remember last summer, when BikeDenver partnered with the Broadway Merchants Association to demonstrate what a protected bike lane could look like? Too often — with Broadway as no exception — the conversation around bike lanes deteriorates into a fiery “bikes vs. cars” debate, and that’s bad for everyone.
Admittedly, I’m an avid bike rider and advocate for better bicycling facilities. That being said, if our only rationale for bike lanes is moving bicylists, we ignore the underlying issue: streets. The same goes for only harping on bicyclists encroaching on drivers’ space. We need to improve streets (with bike infrastructure being a component of that) so they’re better able to move people in cars, on bikes, and on foot, in a way that increases safety and connects our communities.
Streets represent one of our greatest stores of public space. Yet we’ve allowed them to become one of our greatest killers. According to the most recent transportation data (2013), vehicle accidents claimed the lives of nearly 33,000 people in the United States. In 2015, 545 people died in car crashes in Colorado; 51 of those were in Denver. To put that into perspective, in 2008, traffic crashes were the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people between the ages of 8 and 34.
We shouldn’t be OK with that. There are obviously outside variables, like alcohol and weather. But we need to get real about how we design our streets, and how that design contributes to the death toll. Mayor Michael Hancock and the Colorado Department of Transportation have committed to making the city safer for people walking and biking. But to do that, we have to reassess how we think about streets: Denver’s urban streets can function as high-speed car movers, or they can be safe places for people and vital community connectors, but they can’t realistically be both.
How do bike lanes impact streets? At the end of the day, they’re most important because of what they facilitate. They lower vehicle speeds by narrowing the street; they protect pedestrians by getting bicyclists off the sidewalk and into their own lane; and they send more money to local businesses by bringing slow-moving traffic to the storefronts.
In time, they relieve congestion by encouraging people to take shorter trips by bike or foot instead of in a car; they improve community health by getting people outside and exercising; they increase property values and directly support small businesses; and they encourage transit use by providing elusive first- and last-mile connections.
At the end of the day, we don’t need a counterculture, or bike culture. We need a culture that emphasizes choices in transportation, as well as healthy and vibrant communities. Bikes have a role to play in this, but so do pedestrian facilities, public transit, and cars. A vibrant Denver demands equally vibrant streets.
Broadway is the current focus of Mayor Hancock’s ongoing commitment to improve and empower Denver communities. And the ripple effect of robust bike facilities — in conjunction with other programs and community-supported street design strategies — will make our streets safer and more vibrant for everyone, whether or not they choose to bike.
Peter Bird is a graduate student in the University of Colorado’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning program.