By Allen Cowgill
Denver’s popular Shared Streets program is making a comeback. Sort of. Just not anytime soon. During the early days of COVID in April 2020, Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) came up with a temporary program called “Shared Streets” to allow people to spread out more and use a limited number of city streets for walking, biking and rolling in wheelchairs.
On 11 streets throughout the city, DOTI installed temporary barricades to calm traffic and slow down drivers to make the streets more friendly to all users. In North Denver, those included West Byron Place between Sheridan and Vrain Street, Vrain Street between West Byron Place and West 26th Avenue, and Stuart Street between West 24th Avenue and Lakeshore Drive.
All of the streets surrounded Sloan’s Lake Park and complemented the two full-street closures inside the park on Lakeshore Drive and West Byron Place that still exist today. Those small measures had a big impact on opening up the streets for all users.
According to DOTI, in 2021 vehicle trips were reduced by 77%. Driver speeds on those streets were reduced by 28%, and walk-and-roll use on those streets was up by 287%. “Folks felt comfortable walking and biking, and yoga-ing, and all those things on these shared streets,” said Jay Decker, innovation and transportation manager at DOTI, at a recent public meeting. In August 2021, those temporary Shared Streets programs came to an end.
The barricades were removed, and residents were told to go back to walking on the sidewalks. But the program was popular, as one petition from residents got around 1,500 signatures asking for DOTI to make the program permanent.
In July 2022, DOTI started a planning process to bring Shared Streets back. Eight months into the planning process, DOTI recently held a second public meeting about restoring Shared Streets. In the meeting, Decker noted that DOTI surveyed and received feedback from 2,000 Denver residents asking them about Shared Streets.
About 50% of respondents lived on or adjacent to the Shared Streets thoroughfares, and 90% of respondents liked the temporary program. Of those surveyed, 85% responded that they wanted a more permanent program.
Many residents at the virtual meeting questioned why it was taking DOTI so long to bring back Shared Streets when it took only a few months to plan the original version, which was very successful. Decker noted that DOTI wants to be very thoughtful in building out a long-term Shared Streets program that can last decades and be informed by community input.
The new Shared Streets will be broken down into two categories, Community Shared Streets, in residential neighborhoods, and Commercial Shared Streets, in business districts. Both variations will be anywhere from one to three blocks in length, and will only be allowed on local, neighborhood or collector streets.
Streets with RTD bus lines will not be eligible for Shared Streets so they don’t cause any transit delays. Since resources are limited, DOTI will be giving priority to streets with certain criteria, like being in a neighborhood that is high on the city’s Equity Index, streets that connect to places like parks, and streets that already are occasionally closed for events.
DOTI put out a survey that allowed Denver residents to make suggestions on where they would like to see Shared Streets return. In North Denver, some of the popular suggestions were the streets around Sloan’s Lake (where the original shared streets were), lots of the neighborhood streets in the Lower Highlands area, Platte Street, 25th Avenue in Jefferson Park, and streets around some of the smaller parks like Pferdesteller and Chaffee parks.
There were also lots of suggestions for Shared Streets near schools like Edison Elementary, Brown Elementary, North High School, Valdez Elementary and Sandoval Elementary, with comments to make the streets around schools safer for kids walking and biking to school.
Through the public meeting, Decker said it wouldn’t be likely they would have a Shared Street program next to a school, as they wanted to preserve convenient curbside school drop off for parents who drive their kids, since many families in Denver exercise school choice and drive their kids to schools. The streets that had lots of both positive and negative comments around changing them to Shared Streets included business districts like Tennyson Street in Berkeley, Lowell Boulevard in Regis and Raleigh Street in the West Colfax/ Sloan’s Lake area.
Of note, there was very little input from North Denver neighborhoods that score higher on Denver’s Equity Index, like Chaffee Park. The earliest that residents could expect to see these Shared Streets in a best case scenario is about two years from now. In the virtual meeting Decker cited that they need to follow the city’s process to request budget dollars to design the streets this spring, which would be allocated in the 2024 budget, and that once designed they would need to request budget to construct the streets in the 2025 budget.
That all assumes that Shared Streets are prioritized by the mayor and council.
Allen Cowgill is the City Council District 1 Appointee for the Denver DOTI Advisory Board.