Real talk about safe routes to school

by Jessica Vargas on August 23, 2018

Artwork by Jamie Perkins


It’s back to school time! That means families all over Denver are once again making the daily trek to school, and for those who choose to walk, WalkDenver offers the following safety tips:

  1. Only cross molten lava streams on designated bridges.
  2. Never try to cross the lava when the “Don’t Walk” signal is flashing. The bridge could vaporize at any moment.
  3. When you cross the lava remember you are in a danger zone. The human body is no match for 2,000 degrees fahrenheit.
  4. Always stay alert. Look and listen for lava that might splash onto the bridge.
  5. Don’t assume merely because you have the right to attempt to cross the lava that you will be safe doing so.
  6. Don’t be a distracted walker. The lava isn’t looking out for you, so you have to look out for it.
  7. Always cross perpendicular to molten lava streams.  Crossing diagonally takes longer and the heat radiating from the lava may kill you before you get to the other side.
  8. Minimize the amount of time you are on the bridge over the lava by crossing at a brisk pace. Crossing lava is no time for a leisurely stroll.
  9. Never stand in the lava.
  10. Always hold your children’s hands and keep them close. A small child lacks the experience to anticipate danger, and may dart into the lava.

Just kidding! Obviously no one in Denver has to cross a molten lava stream to get to school. But change the word “lava” to “street,” and the safety tips above start to look an awful lot like actual Safe Routes to School messaging put out by some public agencies. Unfortunately, some of Denver’s streets might as well be molten lava, given how dangerous they are for human beings not encased in large protective boxes (i.e., cars). So far this year, 15 people have died while walking and biking in Denver, already exceeding the total number from last year.

The good news is, we don’t have to accept traffic fatalities as inevitable. We can do better than meekly teaching our children to fear walking and biking because streets – which account for most of the public space in our city – are not safe places for people. For one, we could focus at least as much attention on driver education. Much like the lava in our imaginary scenario, cars are the primary source of danger on Denver’s streets. Unlike lava, people driving cars are sentient beings who can control their own behavior.

More importantly, we can design streets that are safe for everybody, for people eight years old to eighty years old, and for people walking, biking, accessing transit, and driving. Building safe streets isn’t complicated and doesn’t even have to be that expensive, as Denver Public Works demonstrated this week when they built three neighborhood traffic circles for just $11,000 each, a traffic calming measure that is proven to slow speeds and increase safety.

Making Denver’s streets more people friendly does require political will and the allocation of sufficient resources in the City’s annual budget. That’s why WalkDenver and our fellow members of the Denver Streets Partnership have been collecting hundreds of petition postcards from Denver residents calling on Mayor Hancock and City Council to invest in walking, biking, and safety improvements – so many that when we strung the postcards together on a ribbon, they wrapped around the front of the City and County Building. Check out the great photos from the petition delivery event, where about 70 supporters came out to hold up the ribbon and share their stories about why people friendly streets matter to them.

In the next few weeks, Mayor Hancock will release his 2019 City Budget proposal, and we’ll learn more about his vision for the future of Denver’s streets – more lava, or safer streets for all.

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