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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Cars, Community Gain Equal Footing From Living Streets | Print |  E-mail

by Amy Allen

To say that the day of the automobile is gone would certainly be a bit premature.

IN THEORY, DENVER'S MAIN STREETS WILL NO LONGER CATER EXCLUSIVELY TO AUTOMOBILES under guidelines of the Living Streets Initiative. A new way of thinking about transportation planning, Living Streets brings eight city agencies together to create transportation corridors that move people in the most efficient possible manner, while providing a comprehensive and safely accessible environment for pedestrians and cyclists, cars and mass transit, and businesses and their clientele alike.

Although much lip service is paid to our commitment to alternative transit, Denver’s bike paths, bus routes and light rail system are still too frequently an exercise in “you can’t get there from here” for many Denverites, not to mention that many individuals simply don’t make the effort to utilize available alternatives.

A new land use and transportation planning philosophy is taking hold among city planners that not only might ease getting from Point A to Point B in the future, but could also transform the travel corridors that ferry Denverites to and fro, making them more user-friendly and easier on the eye as well. More streetside storefronts and fewer streetside parking lots. Crosswalks designed with the safety of pedestrians in mind. Lane usage based on moving people – efficiently and conveniently.

For the past decade or so, “Complete Streets” has been the term du jour for traffic planning.  This philosophy takes into account all modes of transportation, not just automobiles, when considering roadway construction. “They ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper,” says the National Complete Streets Coalition.

While it is a quantum leap from days gone by when the measurement of an arterial street’s capacity, or usage, was stated in “vehicle trips per day,” Complete Streets has not gone far enough to integrate travel lanes into the communities through which they pass.

Gideon Berger is a senior city planner with the Department of Community Planning and Development (CPD). He is also co-project manager of Denver’s Living Streets Initiative, that takes the concept of Complete Streets and merges it with land-use planning in a more holistic approach to community development.

Exemplifying that holistic style, the Living Streets team brings together eight city agencies: CPD; the Dept. of Public Works (DPW); the Dept. of Environmental Health; Denver Parks & Recreation; the Office of Economic Development; Greenprint Denver; the Office of Budget & Management; and the Dept. of Human Rights & Community Relations.

“Complete Streets is about road building,” said Berger, “but Living Streets is about city building. We believe there’s more to be considered than simply multi-modal transportation. How do these corridors perform in creating jobs for residents? Are they walkable? Are they contributing to the public health or are they a negative influence? Are they inviting to consumers, either on foot or bicycle or by car? Do they facilitate development or do they impede its progress?”

The new initiative’s website (www.denverlivingstreets.org) explains, “By supporting multi-modal access, Living Streets provide a more sustainable transportation balance than just relying on private autos. By integrating the street with the adjacent built environment, Living Streets add value to communities.”

Chrissy Fanganello is director of Policy and Planning for DPW, and Berger’s partner as co-project manager of Living Streets. She explains that Living Streets is not a list of specific projects but rather a new philosophy. “It’s a new perspective about how the city goes about doing its business,” she said. “We used to be concerned with, how many cars can I get through an intersection? Now it’s, how many people can I move in the most efficient manner?”

Denver Public Works completed a Strategic Transportation Plan in October 2008 that divided the city into 14 different “travel sheds.” Fanganello explained that “the next step is to put policies in place that will guide (transit/roadway) projects across the city.” Recognizing that the current economic doldrums has put the brakes on major development, she warned that, “If we don’t plan for it now, when development does return, we won’t be ready.”

The current draft of Denver’s new zoning code lends a hand in creating more functional travel corridors, said Fanganello. “Several of the new Main Street and multi-use districts will help support a more user-friendly pedestrian environment.” CPD’s Steve Gordon concurs, “The new code is form-based, and by its nature interacts better with the street system.”

Another effort expected to dovetail with the Living Streets focus is the Multi-modal Access and Connectivity Plan (MACP) that is just getting under way. The MACP will function as a master plan guiding the development of a more effective off-street and on-street bicycle and pedestrian network. The project will focus on connectivity, and access to key destinations, including parks and open spaces, recreation centers, schools, neighborhoods, commercial and employment districts, and transit centers.

While the Living Streets philosophy talks about removing some lanes previously devoted to auto traffic, Fanganello assures that there is no intention nor license to clear-cut capacity. “This is not a one-size-fits-all program. We will look at how each project fits with the broader system. Most of our major roadways are also state highways. It might make sense in some cases to use a general travel lane for mass transit, but you’re probably not going rob a high- volume corridor of travel lanes to create a sidewalk.”

A recent series of public meetings was designed “to introduce residents to the choices that need to be made when designing travel corridors,” said Berger. “We’re trying to fix operational and safety issues, and create a sense of place. Do you want wider sidewalks or a landscaped median to make crossing an intersection more safe? Businesses usually want on-street parking, but do pedestrians want wider sidewalks?

“Do you need three traffic lanes in each direction, or would things move more smoothly with two traffic lanes and one dedicated bus lane? In Washington, D.C., the middle lane of Connecticut Ave. changes direction to add capacity during rush hours. Similarly, Rock Creek Pkwy. reverses all the lanes.”

In addition to D.C., Berger points to Seattle and New York City as aggressively pursuing the Living Streets concepts. “In D.C. the energy was aimed more at economic development. In New York they focused on public spaces and bicycles. They’ve added some 200 miles of bike lanes in recent years. Seattle has a tax devoted to bicycle and pedestrian improvements.” Closer to home, the City of Boulder has facilitated the use of mass transit by paying RTD a subsidy to enable bus routes to run more frequently.

While some transportation improvements may require grabbing adjacent land to widen the roadway, the Living Streets philosophy is to “stay within the existing footprint,” said Fanganello. While the reconstruction of portions of S. Broadway (from Antique Row into Englewood) and Federal Blvd. (Alameda Ave. to 5th Ave.) have required widening the right-of-way, in the future such projects will be the exception rather than the rule.

Visit www.denverlivingstreets.org for more information.

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