Denver’s Vision Zero pledge is failing. The city’s reset calls for slower speeds to stop deaths

Eighty-four people died on Denver’s streets last year.
5 min. read
Drivers speed through the intersection of 14th Avenue and Federal Boulevard on the edge of Sun Valley. April 25, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

It's no secret that Denver's six-year-old pledge to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030 has not gone to plan.

Both deaths and serious injuries have risen significantly since the campaign was launched in 2017. Eighty-four people died on Denver's streets last year, city data show, and there were 386 crashes that resulted in serious injuries.

Now though, outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock is recommitting to its "Vision Zero" program that reframes serious and fatal crashes as systemic problems that need infrastructure or engineering fixes. His administration on Wednesday released an updated plan that he hopes will get the city back on track.

"We cannot rest," Hancock wrote in a letter introducing the new plan. "A single life lost on our streets is unacceptable and preventable. We need to make Denver's streets safe for everyone -- no matter where they live in the city, no matter their means, and no matter their choice to walk, bike, drive or take public transit."

The plan touts the city's accomplishments since the initial plan was released -- including new bike lanes, traffic signal adjustments that give pedestrians more time to cross streets, lower speed limits (including on busy roads like Santa Fe Drive and short sections of other arterial streets), and quick-and-dirty "paint-and-post" traffic-calming measures.

The document also recaps known challenges that Denver, and many other U.S. cities, are facing, like consumers' increasing preference for dangerous-to-pedestrian SUVs and a rise in speeding during the pandemic.

And it sets a course for the next six years of Vision Zero work that, if the next mayor chooses to follow it, could result in a transformation of the city's most dangerous streets.

Here are three ways the new plan would try to accomplish that:

1. A tighter focus on particularly dangerous areas

Denver's original Vision Zero action plan from 2017 designated 27 dangerous streets as the "high-injury network" where it would focus its attention. Many are multi-lane "arterial streets" that carry thousands of cars a day, often at high speeds.

Now, the city has designated four areas that it says need "immediate remedial safety work:" downtown Denver, South Federal Boulevard, East Colfax Avenue and South Broadway/Lincoln Street. It will develop action plans for each area that will be carried out by 2025 if it has enough funding. Possible treatments could include dropping speed limits and banning right turns on red.

2. Lower speed limits across the board and more enforcement, too

The Denver City Council lowered speed limits on neighborhood streets in late 2021. But lowering them on busier, faster streets where most deaths and injuries occur is a more difficult task because many are owned and controlled by the Colorado Department of Transportation, not the city.

Still, the new plan says it must be done. It calls for the reduction of speed limits on "all major streets" to 25 mph by 2028, pending necessary funds. It also says redesigning streets to force drivers to go slower is "one of the most impactful Vision Zero actions that can be taken."

"We want to better design for slower speeds so that when people do make mistakes -- because to be honest, we all make mistakes -- that those mistakes don't lead to debilitating entries or lives lost," said Rolf Eisinger, Denver's Vision Zero program manager.

A CDOT spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

Denver also wants more speed and red light cameras throughout the city. The legislature passed a bill last session that would make it far easier for cities, including Denver, to expand the use of such cameras. Gov. Jared Polis, however, has yet to sign it.

3. More infrastructure for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users

People who walk, bike or roll are disproportionately killed and seriously injured in Denver, data show. Building more infrastructure for those users is the best way the city can protect them -- and car drivers, too, the plan says.

Specifically, the plan calls for 235 miles of new high-comfort bike infrastructure, 134 miles of bike lane upgrades, 120 upgraded pedestrian crossings, dozens of new bus stops and a slate of other improvements by 2029.

New "bus rapid transit" lines could make arterial streets safer, too, the plan says. Transit is the safest way to travel in Denver, city data shows. And the new bus lines may get their own travel lanes, as is planned on East Colfax Avenue. 

Eisinger said the federal government has called such "road diets" a proven safety strategy, though CDOT's executive director has said bus-only lanes might not be necessary for planned bus rapid transit lines on Federal and Colorado Boulevards.

The city also wants to upgrade its many new low-cost, plastic bollards used to calm traffic and delineate bike lanes (which have been criticized for their appearance) to more durable concrete infrastructure.

Eisinger, Denver's Vision Zero program manager, says he's feeling optimistic.

"We're trying to look at every opportunity we can in order to make the streets as safe as possible for everyone," he said.

The new plan is encouraging to Molly McKinley, policy director for the Denver Streets Partnership, which for years has prodded the city to follow through on its various street safety and active mobility initiatives.

"But, a plan is only as good as the will to get it done," she wrote in an email. "The transformational changes needed to meet the goal of Vision Zero require significant funding and leadership willing to stay the course, even when things get tough. We hope that Denver's new mayor and city council work together to prioritize this work. We look forward to supporting them in that effort."

The next mayor will be either Mike Johnston or Kelly Brough. Johnson has endorsed many of the same ideas called for in the updated Vision Zero plan, like building new bike lanes and slowing traffic. Brough has said she wants a "strategic reset" of Denver's Vision Zero program.

Read more about the candidates' approaches to transportation here.

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