Denver’s Vision Zero plan aims for zero traffic-related deaths by 2030, but fatalities have increased every year since 2011 with the exception of 2017. A new dedicated bikeway in North Denver is one way the city is hoping to reverse that trend by creating a safer way for cyclists to cross from Sheridan to I-25.
New traffic calming measures that were intended to make the route friendlier to cyclists make it less convenient for cars. While neighbors and bike advocates are celebrating the new route, some neighbors are raising concerns that traffic circles and other traffic calming measures don’t actually slow traffic and may be making the streets less safe instead of more.
Mayor Hancock spoke at the unveiling of the new route in January after several of the concrete medians that stop car traffic from traveling east-west on West 35th Avenue were installed. “Vision Zero can’t just be a slogan,” Hancock said. “Our mobility system is going to provide multiple ways for people to get around.” City officials pledged 125 miles of new bike lanes by 2023.
Bikeway Traffic Calming Efforts
In August 2018, the City and County of Denver installed three temporary neighborhood traffic circles along West 35th Avenue at the intersections of Julian, Newton and Raleigh streets. They were the first-ever traffic circles installed by the City and County of Denver (different than roundabouts primarily in the size of the intersection), and they were intended to calm traffic heading east and west along the corridor. People traveling north and south on Raleigh, Newton and Julian must come to full stop at the traffic circle before crossing West 35th Avenue.
The circles were part of the Denver Moves plans to convert West 35th Avenue into a neighborhood bikeway. The mostly-residential corridor is 2.6 miles long. It was already a designated bike route, and the upgraded bikeway status gives priority to non-motorized and bicycle traffic on the road.
The West 35th Avenue and other neighborhood bikeway plans are available at denvergov.org/neighborhoodbikeways. According to the website, the roadway design, signage and traffic calming measures of neighborhood bikeways are intended to emphasize multimodal travel, and discourage through traffic for motorized vehicles while preserving local access needs for residents.
“To maneuver around the circle, you need to slow down,” said City Traffic Engineer Emily Gloeckner. “And the reason we put them on a neighborhood bikeway is to slow vehicles down to a comfortable speed similar to cyclists.” She said the city wanted to pilot how well the traffic circles would reduce vehicle speeds.
The city conducted a before and after study about the effects of the traffic circles just one month after installation. The November 2018 report said “the traffic circles do not appear to have a large impact on vehicle speeds.”
“Based on the speed study and data we received to date, the circles haven’t slowed traffic down the way we need them to,” Gloeckner acknowledged. She said the city wants to conduct another speed study now that other traffic calming (like medians and signage) has been installed before making determinations about how to best modify the traffic circles before they are made permanent.
Department of Transportation & Infrastructure spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said the low cost rubber curbs the circles were initially built with are temporary and will eventually be replaced with more permanent materials. The city will re-stripe the street in February, and will let traffic normalize after that before conducting a new speed study, likely in the spring. From there, they will gather additional community input before determining final design and treatments.
Controversy Around Circles, Calming and Cost
While most neighbors say they support the bikeway concept, they are divided about the various traffic calming measures, whether they actually have a traffic calming effect and how much they’ve cost taxpayers.
Grace Chrisholm moved to the neighborhood two years ago from Portland, and believes even the signage noting it’s a bikeway will help with car-cyclist-pedestrian problems. “Drivers are more careful if they know they’re on a bike route.” She said her husband commutes daily by bike and the improvements will make his ride safer.
Bill Conklin, who lives on Raleigh Street at West 32nd Avenue disagrees: “The traffic circles on 35th Avenue are very dangerous,” he said. “The intersection is not big enough and the cars don’t slow down. Some people don’t understand the situation and make left turns before the circle. Cars use the circle to make U-Turns and have come close to hitting pedestrians.”
In the five minutes The Denver North Star was taking photographs at the Raleigh traffic circle, one car turned left in front of the circle (the wrong way into oncoming traffic), a truck made a U-turn and couldn’t make the radius so pulled over the curb, and two vehicles missed the stop signs completely. Four vehicles, or half of the vehicular traffic, used the circle correctly during that time.
“I strongly feel these are contrary to everyone’s safety, efficiency and economic interests. We asked for none of this,” said Roger Oram, who lives at West 32nd Avenue and Newton Street. “The amount of money that is being spent for these unsolicited so-called improvements would astound most folks.”
In an email responding to Oram’s concerns in 2018, Senior City Planner Dan Raine said, “The current costs of improvements are estimated at about $800,000 for the entire corridor.” Kuhn said that number includes design, but the construction of the traffic circles was only about $13,000 for all three, and the bikeway cost is $300,00 not including the traffic circles. Oram argues he’d rather see the city spending that kind of money fixing alleyways or any number of other priorities.
Yet, advocates said there is no greater investment than in safety, and that these traffic calming measures are helping connect the community. Anne Spires DeLong has lived at West 35th Avenue and Irving Street for 19 years. She said she’s seen dozens of car accidents and the current traffic flow means parents can’t let their children walk across the street.
“People are speeding down Speer [onto Irving] and use 35th to cross,” Spires DeLong said. She said her family has seen the street as a “Berlin Wall” in the neighborhood, cutting off neighbors from each other, and she believes the new concrete barriers that allow pedestrians and cyclists but not cars to cross will be a big improvement in the neighborhood’s connectivity.
“Not only are we slowing traffic for a bikeway, but that benefits pedestrians in the neighborhood, too,” said Kuhn. She noted that reducing speeds is a critical factor in reducing the severity of crashes. “When you can slow people down even five miles per hour, the odds of getting in a crash or the severity of the crash are reduced. The slowing of vehicles is making things safer for people who are walking.”
Oram and other neighbors have also complained that there wasn’t enough public outreach and they weren’t aware the traffic circles were going in until they were already there. Kuhn said there was significant public outreach associated with Denver Moves Bicycles planning, and a multi-year public process about the West 35th Avenue corridor in 2015. That process is outlined here and included engagement with Highland United Neighbors, Inc., the West Highland Neighborhood Association, and an open house.
There was also a March 2017 open house on final design plans for the bikeway and presentations at neighborhood association meetings. The city also notified residents who had participated in design meetings by email before the traffic circles were installed.
“The first open house I attended for the 35th Ave Neighborhood Bikeway was Sept. 1, 2015, so, yes, I believe the community has been given adequate notice regarding this process,” District 1 City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval said. “But the project stalled for years and no communication was given to the neighborhood during this time, which was beyond frustrating.”
She said she supports the creation of safer bike infrastructure and multi-modal projects like the West 35th Avenue bikeway. “My hope is that in the future the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) – formally known as Public Works – maintains the lines of communication with the neighborhoods and residents they impact. I will continue to push DOTI to have public meetings and gather as much feedback from residents. It is essential [that the] community is considered and their comments are weaved into the project.”
Kuhn also added that the city set up a phone line for resident feedback and did a survey before and after installation of the circles. Results of that survey are here. It references 68 people responding to the “before” survey and 125 people responding to the “after” survey. The city’s report notes that survey respondents were self-selecting and are not necessarily representative of the neighborhood.
Of the survey respondents, 48% noted they were more comfortable riding bikes on the street after the roundabouts were installed, but 27% said they were less comfortable, and 25% said there was no noticeable change. The city’s report says: “The percent of drivers and pedestrians feeling safe markedly decreased after the traffic circles were installed. This decrease in perception of safety may be attributed to unfamiliarity with the traffic circle as the ‘after’ data was collected only after one month of installation.”
“Whenever you are doing something new, it’s difficult for people to adjust to change,” Kuhn said. “And there are some people who are not bought into the idea of a bikeway and having spaces for people on bikes. No matter what we do there, they may not like it.” She said that it’s helpful when residents can provide specific feedback based on technical merit about the design and “not just ‘I don’t like it.’”
One such technical criticism some neighbors have raised is the inability of fire trucks and other large trucks, like trash and recycling trucks, to navigate the traffic circles.
City Traffic Engineer Emily Gloeckner said that, in reality, fire trucks would just drive over the rubber curbs currently installed if they were responding to an emergency. “In a permanent installation, we would lay out a rollover curb for larger vehicles to navigate the space,” she said. Kuhn noted that the department did coordinate with other agencies, such as the Denver Fire Department, to ensure emergency vehicles could still access the corridor.
Kuhn provided a study the city conducted that shows the turning radius of different sized vehicles. “We found larger trucks would have the room they needed to navigate down 35th Avenue, but highlighted the potential for trucks to have difficulty with the left turn movement,” she said. “We have said that if we see large trucks having trouble making left turns, we will install additional signage prohibiting left turns for larger trucks.”
The Denver North Star photographed multiple drivers that found the circles difficult to navigate even in average-sized pickup trucks.
Watch for updates to this story after the city conducts a new speed study in the spring.