To the City: Be Bold on Brighton Boulevard

by Jill Locantore on July 1, 2015

Send your comments to the City on the proposed redesign

 

31st - 33rd West Side Looking NorthProposed design for Brighton Boulevard between 31st and 33rd. Image source: City and County of Denver.

Guest commentary by Joel Noble

On a recent trip to San Francisco I spent a couple days experiencing and admiring the multi-modal design of Market Street, a major thoroughfare connecting the hills to the water.  In the 1990’s, the City of San Francisco began making changes to Market Street aimed at diverting private automobiles and encouraging transit use, walking and biking. Now the City is finalizing plans to change the design once again, increasing transit facilities and upgrading to protected bike lanes for many more blocks while removing general auto traffic entirely. Although it’s a different design in a larger city with different goals, being open to continued evolution over long periods of time is an important lesson for Denver’s current efforts to redesign Brighton Boulevard.

Market Street Photo by Joel NobleMarket Street in San Francisco.  Image source: Joel Noble.

As Brighton blossoms into the vibrant, mixed-use area it can and should be, the City should give every consideration to making the best environment for people who are walking.  After all, nearly all visitors will be pedestrians while interacting with the businesses and residences on the corridor. However, in the proposed design presented at the June 18th public meeting, the sidewalks are quite narrow – as little as five feet wide in many areas – and therefore unlikely to support lots of two-way pedestrian activity. Given that the downtown sidewalk standard is 16 feet, does this Brighton Boulevard design really create the walkable, accessible environment we desire?

The proposed design does include a premium bicycle facility, in the form of an elevated cycle track, buffered by parking and adjacent to an attractive planted amenity zone between the cycle track and the sidewalk along much of the corridor. The city’s continued commitment to top quality bike infrastructure, which has long been a celebrated part of the full vision for the Boulevard, is very encouraging.

It’s unclear how transit use will be handled, as boarding and alighting require crossing the bikeway. It is also unclear where transit waiting-space would be, out of the way of other people who are walking. No ideas were presented for reducing crossing distances at intersections, avoiding bike-ped conflicts, or improving visibility of pedestrians for drivers.

35th and BrightonProposed cross section at 35th and Brighton.  Image source: City and County of Denver.

The design includes four full travel lanes ranging from 10 to 11 feet wide, limiting the room available for pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and making higher vehicle speeds very likely. As we know, the speed that cars travel is determined mostly by how comfortable drivers feel. Lane width, road width, and road shape (straight/curved, flat/hilly) play a larger role than posted speeds do in influencing driver behavior. At the public meeting, property owners understanding this dynamic expressed continuing concerns with the proposed wide lane widths, which we’re told today’s proportion of truck traffic makes necessary, but those needs may reduce over time.

As the years go by the character of the area will likely change, with much more pedestrian activity along the corridor and moving between destinations on both sides of the street, which will elevate the safety discussion and put a spotlight on sidewalk width, vehicle speeds (related to lane width), and pedestrian crossing distances.

If, in the future, there is a community desire to reduce the width or number of the general travel lanes, unless the edge of the elevated cycle track could move to “shrink” the general roadway, the reclaimed space would likely only be able to be put to some use with limited benefit, such as widening the median.  The ability for the design to meaningfully evolve would be limited.

Another approach, providing a vertically-separated bike facility in the same location but which is not elevated, might more easily support future evolution of the cross-section. A first implementation with preformed modular curbs would provide effectively the same bicycle facility protection and separation as the elevated proposal, and might even be more pleasant for riders, given the large numbers of curb cuts. Then in later years, moving the modular curbs to reduce the visual width of the roadway would be a relatively inexpensive proposition. With the additional space, widening the bikeway and/or providing upgraded separation with planters could be explored, adding both width and verticality to the distinction between the bikeway and the general traffic, greatly improving the attractiveness of the facility for all ages and abilities, while calming motorized traffic with the effective “road diet.”

Modular curbs bike lane Seattle People for BikesModular curbs separate a bike lane in Seattle.  Image source: People for Bikes.

Overall, the current proposed design is “a mixed bag which is very much a reflection of where the city’s head is at these days,” notes Kyle Zeppelin, who together with his father Mickey Zeppelin is leading much of the redevelopment along Brighton. “Reducing Brighton from four lanes to two south of 38th would be a game changer for livability,” says Zeppelin.

My request to the City is this: Be bold.

Research the best multimodal intersection designs that the world has developed. Designs that extend the protection of the bike lanes through the intersections. Designs that shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians. Designs that increase visibility for turning motorists. Designs that are the safest, most progressive available. (See, for example, the “protected intersection” design concept.)

Protected IntersectionIllustration of a protected intersection from www.protectedintersection.com

This will be a showcase for Denver and potentially for the nation. Don’t put all the protection for active modes along the length of the streets while leaving the intersections as standard, wide, default, hazardous afterthoughts. Most auto-bike and auto-pedestrian collisions happen at intersections in Denver. We can do better.

Most importantly, use the creativity that has been a part of the Brighton Boulevard study for the past few years to develop an incremental/evolving approach that can result in the most desirable design in the fullness of time. Avoid solutions that limit the City’s willingness to reexamine lane widths or number of lanes in the future as the character of the area changes and the demands for a calmer street increase.

Be bold. This project deserves it, and everyone is watching.

Joel Noble serves on the Denver Planning Board, is President of Curtis Park Neighbors, and co-chairs the INC Transportation Committee.  The views expressed here are his own.

Send your comments to the city: the project page has a “Get Involved” section with a comments form.

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