One city street is starting to resemble its old car-first self four months after the transportation department converted it to a calmer, shared street for drivers, walkers, bikers and rollers of all kinds.
The changes, which amounted to placing barriers and signs at intersections along eight streets citywide, are meant to let people spread out and get exercise safely in a pandemic. And they’ve mostly worked. But a new design for 11th Avenue, requested by the Denver Fire Department so its fire trucks can maneuver the streets quickly in emergencies, has let motorists drive faster.
The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure originally placed four barriers at most intersections on 11th between Lincoln Street and Cheesman Park, one at each crosswalk. The barriers forced drivers to slow down and maneuver around them or deterred drivers from using the street altogether, leaving space for people to walk and bike.
The new design clumps the barriers together in the middle of intersections. They’re meant to act as traffic circles, but they leave so much room around them that residents watch drivers pass blow through without a brake, or they swerve into the bike lane.
“I’m just seeing cars really speeding past these barriers and not turning off the street like they used to,” said David Mintzer, who lives on the 11th Avenue shared street and just last week praised the program as a group of residents pushed to make it permanent. “I think some (drivers) may not even really get what it’s about because it’s harder to, from a distance, really see what those barriers mean.”
(A Denverite reporter, who has spent a lot of time on these shared streets, sat at the corner of 11th and Emerson and saw the same thing. It’s me. I’m the reporter.)
Mintzer, who commutes daily on 11th and has used the street as a bike area for his kids, no longer feels safe letting them ride there. A doctor who works in the emergency room at Denver Health, Mintzer was concerned about the fire department’s response times when the street changed this spring. So he emailed the fire department back in April to ask if the barriers were affecting DFD’s services.
“With the current traffic conditions, our response times have improved and the road restrictions mentioned will not have an impact on our ability to provide any essential functions needed for our citizens,” Assistant Chief Scott Buccieri said in an email to Mintzer on April 8.
But as time went on, firefighters discovered they were having trouble turning onto and off of 11th, said Greg Pixley, a DFD spokesman. Sometimes crews would have to physically move the barriers, he said. On August 12, DFD and DOTI met to find a solution in the new design, but safe-streets advocates say while the fire department’s problem may be solved, the new design undermines the whole point of the shared street.
The situation has created a conundrum because both the shared streets and the fire department are meant to keep people safe. Pixley, who said he’s seen Mintzer’s video of a driver swerving into the bike lane on social media and believes he has a point, said DFD is willing to revisit the design at certain intersections and will work with DOTI on possible changes.
“I guarantee it, that we are going to do our best to make sure that we have addressed whatever safety issues there are and work with everybody to try to get as many people as happy as possible with that safety message in mind that the number one priority for us is (finding) the safest thing,” Pixley said. “We’re not going to say we need something that’s going to decrease the safety of something else. We’re going to find a happy medium so that we can work to assure that everybody is, is, um, feel that the, the effort is appropriate for the situation.”
Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, said her group plans to study the changes. She said the fire department should focus on rerouting emergency vehicles rather than creating a street that could lead to more crashes between cars and people, which requires more emergency vehicles.
“We have to make those kind of trade-offs all the time and doesn’t seem like the fire department is thinking about those things holistically,” Locantore said, adding that Denver is “blessed with a pretty good street grid” that lets firefighters reroute easily.
DOTI will monitor the changes to see how the new design affects driving speeds and safety, spokeperson Heather Burke said.