Editorial: Growing conflicts around bike lanes are a sign something isn’t working

Conflict is growing in Denver between drivers, cyclists, scooters, and pedestrians.

We all see it on our daily commute — the pedestrian knocked aside by a fast bike on the sidewalk, a cyclist frightened when a car passes too close in a shared lane, and a driver irritated by a cyclist riding on a busy, fast street when a bike lane exists for them one block over.

And everyone is scared of traffic fatalities. Odds are you have seen a horrific crash on one of your neighborhood streets. Denver’s roads are not safe. Between 2013 and 2022 about 680 people were killed in traffic crashes: 32 of those people were cyclists, 235 were pedestrians, 101 were in vehicles, and 111 on motorcycles.

No matter our mode of transportation we can agree that something is broken.

Speed, distracted driving, vehicle size, impaired driving, road rage, and sometimes just pure bad luck all contribute to keeping even Denver’s sleepiest side streets unsafe.

The city’s rollout over the past five years of 145 miles of new or improved bike lanes hasn’t helped the situation as intended, at least not yet. Some of this was predictable. We have long questioned the wisdom of putting a bike lane on the city’s largest, busiest and fastest thoroughfare — Broadway. That ship has sailed, however.

We have been heartened that most of the new bike lanes and shared street bike routes are going into much safer and more thoughtful roads — roads where traffic should already be going slow, where cyclists benefit from infrequent stops, and where the inconvenience to nearby residents will be low.

The city’s mantra should be to give bicycles and pedestrians dedicated, safe spaces on slower side roads and encourage education for everyone about how to properly share the city’s infrastructure.

Some residents are already sounding the alarm about how ugly and confusing the plastic bollards are that now line some new bike lanes and push cars away from corners to make them take wider turns. Some street closures to create bikeways are affecting commutes.

All of this requires greater education and communication and a willingness to admit that in some places the new bike lanes may not be working as intended, especially dangerous points where dedicated bike lanes end and merge into shared streets, putting cyclists at risk.

Heavily trafficked pedestrian thoroughfares create a vibrant city that feels more connected and more hospitable. The benefits of having a bike thoroughfare running through your neighborhood instead of a traditional road are enormous. Cleaner air, less noise, and stronger communities.

But Denver is not anywhere close to becoming Amsterdam, the bike capital of the world.

There are many – it’s hard to know exactly how many – people in Denver who would walk, bike, scooter, jog, and take transit to work, school, and play if it were safe. It’s what Denver calls “interested but concerned” riders and surveys done by Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure indicate that this segment of potential bike riders could be as high as 60% of Denver residents

Only time will tell if the added bike lanes with their traffic calming devices and clearly demarcated areas will draw these interested people out of their cars and into nature. Unfortunately with fall fast approaching, we may have to wait until next summer to see the full impact of DOTI’s plan. We are impressed that former Mayor Michael Hancock met his goal before he left office this year, and while Denver cannot neglect its drivers, giving a little bit of love, safety and convenience to cyclists is appropriate.

But none of this will work if drivers, motorcyclists, bikers, walkers, and scooter riders don’t get on board with obeying speed limits and traffic laws and working together to share Denver’s streets.

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