Examining the state of Downtown Denver at the halfway point of a 20 year vision

by Jessica Vargas on June 28, 2018

A lot has changed since 2007, when Denver’s Downtown Area Plan established a 20-year vision for achieving a vibrant, economically healthy, growing and vital center city. At that time, smartphones, social media, and the “sharing economy” were just beginning to take off. Denver’s Union Station was a sleepy old building with model trains in the basement, and the actual rail transit lines connecting downtown to places west and east didn’t exist yet.

Since then, Denver’s population has grown by more than 120,000 people, and nowhere is this boom more obvious than the bustling new neighborhood surrounding Denver’s most iconic landmark. At this midpoint in the plan, the Downtown Denver Partnership is taking a moment to reflect on these changes and identify the priorities that should define the focus for the next 10 years.

The plan outlines five vision elements, labeled Prosperous, Walkable, Diverse, Distinctive, and Green. The “Walkable” vision element includes the progressive notion of “putting pedestrians first” – a clear statement of priorities that is noticeably missing from other Denver plans such as Blueprint Denver and the Strategic Transportation Plan. Specific strategies for building a walkable city include creating an outstanding pedestrian environment, improving transit, providing clear bicycle connections, encouraging drivers to “park the car once,” and transforming Speer, Colfax, Broadway, and Auraria Parkway into “Grand Boulevards.”

Denver has made real progress, and still has much to do in each of these areas. The changes to 14th Street over the years have established a new, higher standard for streetscaping – including trees, art, pedestrian-scale lighting, wayfinding, benches, etc. – and include Denver’s first truly protected bike lane. But other streets remain hostile to people walking, in some cases resulting in pedestrian fatalities that could have been prevented with better street design.

Union Station has unquestionably become Denver’s premier transit hub, yet transit ridership continues to be sluggish, particularly among residents of close-in neighborhoods whose only options are slow and unreliable buses stuck in traffic with everyone else. Plans are in the works for transforming Colfax and Broadway into truly multimodal streets, but other potential “Grand Boulevards” like Park Avenue have languished without the same level of attention. And parking . . . there is still a lot of it downtown.

But perhaps the best measure of how far Denver has to go to truly “put pedestrians first” is a simple one – how the City has allocated space to cars versus people downtown. Take for example 17th Street. Some quick measurements in Google maps indicate the public right-of-way – the distance across the street from building face to building face – is about 80 feet. Of this, 60 feet or a full 75% of the space is dedicated to cars – parking lanes, travels lanes, turning lanes – leaving just 25% of the space for people not in cars, about 10 feet of sidewalk on each side. Zero space is allocated for people on bikes, and aside from the occasional pole or bench at a bus stop, none of the space is dedicated for transit either. It’s no wonder that anyone trying to get around without driving – whether it’s walking, biking, wheelchair rolling, skateboarding, or even scootering (gasp!) – feels like they have to fight for their turf at the edge of the street.

With limited public space downtown (yes, streets are public spaces) and a goal to prioritize pedestrians, is this the best use of that space? Imagine all the wonderful things Denver could do with just half of the space dedicated to cars on 17th Ave. That 30 feet could be divvied up into a two-way cycle track (providing a safe place for bicyclists that’s not the sidewalk) and a dedicated bus lane (significantly speeding up transit service), with space left over to expand the sidewalk and add more amenities like first-class transit stops that include more than just a pole and maybe a bench. Narrowing the portion of the street dedicated to cars would also dramatically improve safety, by reinforcing safe speeds and shortening pedestrian crossing distances, and maximize the number of people who can travel down the corridor, by favoring space-efficient modes (walking, biking, transit) over space hogs (cars).

The much-anticipated “Denver Moves Downtown” plan set to launch later this year will take a deep dive into these questions and re-envision the downtown transportation system. The midpoint reflection on the Downtown Area Plan is therefore an important opportunity to establish some clear priorities for this effort, and define what it really means to put pedestrians first: reallocate space on Denver’s streets to emphasize people, not cars.

Visit the Downtown Denver Partnership’s website to learn more about about the midpoint reflection process and how you can get more involved in shaping the future of downtown.

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