The Moving People Forward conference in February 2018 was an opportunity for many in Metro Denver to come together to exchange innocuous platitudes on the status of biking in an environment of rapid expansion and growth. The presentations and panel discussions surrounded two constants: How can Denver emulate Seattle’s allowance for rapid metropolitan growth while managing to keep the number of single occupancy vehicles moving through their downtown core constant, and in what ways can people’s transportation needs in and around Denver be an opportunity for the burgeoning bike-share industry.
Bike Share Forum
Currently the bike-share system in Denver, B-cycle, is run as a not-for-profit organization and serves primarily the downtown core and surrounding areas. The operating costs for each ride on a B-cycle costs the company $4.50, which helps explain why that program is prohibitively expensive and unreasonable for many people except those who already have the financial freedom to live close to the core. The head of B-cycle pointed out that ridership among yearly subscribers has remained constant but there has been a lag in adoption from more casual riders and that the system as it is cannot be maintained in the future. Later on in the conference we learned about Seattle’s own not-for-profit bike-share program Pronto having failed for similar reasons.
The bike-share system Denver has right now, using docking stations where bikes are required to be returned to, severely limits which communities can have access. It focuses primarily around the affluent neighborhoods surrounding the core (similar to Seattle’s program in that Pronto docking stations were found principally around the Amazon campus and along major bikeways in the city, but not lower-income communities). In Aurora there has been rapid expansion of dockless bike-share programs. The key advantage: with dockless systems one can ride from door to door and not have to worry about finding a parking station for the bicycle. Since there are no stations that need to be maintained and bicycles don’t need to be transported from one dock to another, the operating costs for such for-profit programs are much less than B-cycle. Of the four dockless bike-share companies currently operating in Aurora, a few of them boast the ability to offer $1 rides.
When we talk about issues of equity and available alternative transportation options, for-profit companies are providing a cheaper service to a greater geographic area, but there is no guarantee that this will remain true. During the panel discussion, we were able to hear from spokespeople from four companies, all operating in Aurora, and the question was asked: can the market accommodate all four of these players? The short answer, no. Some will fail and go out of business, but what will that mean for communities that those companies engage with and which grow to depend on? That was left unanswered. Aurora is jumping in with both feet and following the Dallas example: say yes to everything and try not to overregulate which companies are allowed to operate nor how. Dallas narratives of multi-colored bikes being abandoned in densely packed urban community walkways, or left in far-flung remote locations or vandalized are concerns that were left unanswered, with a “let’s see what happens” or “there will be a learning curve” attitudes adopted.
The keynote address from Mr. Scott Kubly drove the point home that Denver aspires to copy the Seattle experience at the foothill of the Rockies. While there are some useful comparisons in the way of numbers, growth rates and potential between the two cities, in a lot of ways these comparisons are shoe-horned in and don’t accurately reflect the mentality of the citizenry. In Seattle, a yellow light means “be careful, we’re stopping soon and we should acknowledge and respect that other people around me need predictable behavior from me” That is not the case in Denver. Not to sound overly-critical, but car culture in Denver has a deeper hold on the communities’ values and structure. Enforcement of “minor” infractions doesn’t compare with the Northwest. People in Denver love to hold up their independence as a virtue, but there is also a lack of accountability through poor enforcement of traffic laws that breeds a “me first” mentality that is completely antithetical to Seattle’s experience.
Investment in Bus Rapid Transit was an overarching theme for future transportation initiatives focused on behavior change and growth. How do we change perceptions of riding the bus? How do we make the bus a sexy alternative to driving? One thing is clear, to make room for more people, there needs to be a mode of transportation to move more people faster, and there has to be an incentive to choose this mode of transportation. It has to be faster, a more efficient use of people’s time, or cheaper.
One of the overarching themes that I heard from the multiple speakers was it takes collaboration from multiple agencies and the community to make project successful. One big example of this was the Grand Avenue Bridge (GAB) project implemented by CDOT. For a three-month span, the Western Slope community of Glenwood Springs had a BIG detour right through the heart of town. One goal at the time of construction was to reduce car traffic by 30%. With multiple educational outreaches, they were able to reduce car traffic 22%! Commuters learned how to ride mass transit, employers encouraged mobile commuting, and the school district provided more buses to alleviate traffic from the high school. With the cooperation of the community through education on the benefits, CDOT completed the project early. This shows that having the cooperation of the community and local agencies, multi-modal transportation can be implemented quickly.
Differences between Seattle and Denver
Seattle has reinvented itself in Amazon’s image. Amazon bought up property in an area that was known as the epicenter of the grunge scene, pushed the existing community out and built up offices and residential buildings next to each other to allow for the type of bike/pedestrian culture that was wanted for its brand. Amazon was able to build that type of community out of sheer will and investment, but there is no reason to believe that it can be recreated with just any old company here in Denver. Seattle has different physical limitations on where, how and for how much the city can expand. The Puget Sound and various waterways divide the area in such a way that dissuades massive concrete strips from being the preferred transportation infrastructure. The costs associated with building around reclaimed land along with steep, hilly topography means that car speeds are limited by the natural surroundings. In Denver we don’t have those types of restrictions, so it’s very easy for developers and planners to take the easiest solution and build up communities for automobiles.
In Seattle, top-down support for Vision Zero initiatives from the Department of Transportation Director to their engineers helped influence and create infrastructure changes that reduced speeding and easily welcomed people walking and biking in the community. Their quantitative analysis showed that the new infrastructure worked, crashes were dramatically reduced in the areas where they made changes. Drivers felt that they needed to drive slower on narrower roads, helping them avoid crashes with pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers. Infrastructure change helped create a behavior change. Seattle’s transportation leaders didn’t wait for behavior change to just happen, they knew how to create physical changes to the landscape that would drive this behavior to transform more rapidly, and they made a decision to reconstruct roads and walkways because they knew it would push the change they desired and stuck with it.
While Seattle can offer some hope on the possibility of growth while limiting the expansion of car culture, let us not forget that their bike culture grew organically from their communities’ values bottom-up, not enforced top-down. Bike polo was supposedly invented in Seattle, a $15 minimum wage was adopted by the city years ago, and a number of their homeless encampments are sanctioned by the city. Road diets and limiting speeds in town helped change particular roadways in Seattle but the real reason for their success in moving away from car culture was because communities wanted it for themselves and everyone agrees that they can’t be fiercely independent, so while we can aspire to emulate their model, let’s be sure to realize that it’s individuals’ values and adherence to standards that enabled it, coupled with a lucky break from a company that deliberately planned to create the pedestrian-centric neighborhood and had the funding to make it happen.