By Allen Cowgill
What do you think the appropr iate number of deaths due to traffic crashes is? The city of Denver still thinks that number should be zero.
In May, the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) announced its new six-year action plan for Vision Zero, or the goal of having zero traffic deaths. This comes after two recent record years of traffic deaths in Denver, with 84 traffic deaths in both 2021 and 2022. As of July 1, there have been 41 traffic deaths in Denver this year, on pace to match the past two years.
Rolf Eisinger, Vision Zero program manager with DOTI, shared that as the previous five-year action plan came to a conclusion, the department had an opportunity to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. He said that during community engagement for Denver Moves 2050 (the long-term transportation plan for the city), Denver residents made it very clear that the goal of zero traffic deaths is a priority.
Eisinger said that DOTI is starting to see success with the program in certain areas, and that now is the time to scale up efforts. DOTI’s Vision Zero action plan advocates for additional resources for up to 11 additional full-time employees, on top of an additional $6 million to $10 million per year in planning and programming costs. The philosophy around Vision Zero started in Sweden in the 1990s, and the country is one of the safest in transportation.
The concept assumes that people will make mistakes, and that the transportation system should be designed to prevent serious injuries or deaths when people make those mistakes. DOTI has identified “High Injury Network” streets, or the small percent of dangerous streets in Denver that are accounting for a disproportionate amount of fatalities and injuries.
In North Denver, those high-injury network streets are Federal Boulevard, Sheridan Boulevard, Speer Boulevard, West 38th Avenue, West Colfax Avenue and West 29th Avenue. These larger “arterial” streets account for 83% of serious-injury and fatality crashes in the city. DOTI has also identified clusters where crashes are taking place.
In North Denver, the area around the intersection of West Colfax and Sheridan is one of them. DOTI is hoping to make safety improvements to these streets to have the greatest impacts on safety.
Eisinger said residents can expect to see improvements on high-injury network streets similar to what happened on Santa Fe Drive in the Art District. DOTI installed plastic flex posts along with paint to narrow the road and “give more space to vulnerable road users such as people walking.”
Pedestrians, people on bikes and people riding motorcycles are over-represented in traffic crashes. For example, pedestrians make up 7% of trips in Denver, but they represent 31% of traffic fatalities. Eisinger also said that there will be a new focus on leveraging transit as an opportunity to improve safety.
“When you are looking at the mode of transportation, (the) motor vehicle is the common cause in almost all of the traffic fatalities,” he said, “but when we look at modes that are very safe, we are finding that transit is it. Once someone is on a bus or a train, they are incredibly safe in getting where they need to go. We have not seen a fatality of somebody on transit.”
He highlighted that DOTI is looking for ways to expand transit in Denver through plans for East Colfax Bus Rapid Transit and, in the longer term, Bus Rapid Transit on Federal Boulevard.
The Vision Zero plan also calls for reducing speed limits on major roads to 25 miles per hour. Einsinger said that higher speeds make crashes more frequent, and make the crashes more severe because people don’t have as much time to react when they are going faster.
“Eighty-four people were killed last year on the roadways. If we want to reverse the trend, we are going to have to make some changes,” he said. DOTI spokesperson Vanessa Lacayo also mentioned that reducing speeds means fewer crashes, which in turn means less traffic jams due to collisions.
In a recent study, speed was a factor in 28% of traffic deaths in Denver. In terms of potential effects to North Denver, DOTI has improvements planned for Federal Boulevard funded by the Colorado Department of Transportation between West 23rd Avenue and West 27th Avenue, including a new pedestrian crossing at West 25th Avenue. The project is out to bid for a contractor.
Bus Rapid Transit is also planned for Federal Boulevard led by CDOT, and that project will kick off later this summer. Safety improvements are planned for West Colfax Avenue between Sheridan Boulevard and Irving Street. That project is also out to bid for a contractor and is scheduled to start construction in winter 2023 or spring 2024. DOTI is also planning safety projects for West 38th Avenue.
“Currently, we are getting ready to begin a study along 38th Avenue from Sheridan Boulevard to Fox Street to help identify safety and mobility improvements that could be implemented in the short-, mid- and long-term,” Lacayo said. “As that gets underway, we’ll reach out to the public to weigh in. Additionally, we’re working with CDOT to explore other safety improvements on that corridor.”
This comes in addition to the improved traffic signals that were recently installed at 38th Avenue and Sheridan.
Allen Cowgill is the City Council District 1 Appointee for the Denver DOTI Advisory Board.