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Could Brighton Boulevard Become a Pedestrian Paradise?

By Jill Locantore, WalkDenver Policy and Program Director

WalkDenver is excited to participate in a working group that is advising the City of Denver on the design of Brighton Boulevard from 29th Street to 44th Street. Last April, the City released a plan [pdf] outlining a bold vision for transforming Brighton Boulevard into an engaging, connected, multimodal gateway. In November, City Council approved a 2015 budget that allocates $26 million for improvements along the corridor, which currently serves more as a “back door” into downtown. This funding will go a long way toward making the City’s vision a reality, and presents a unique opportunity to create a true multimodal street that sets a precedent for similar projects in the future. Redesigning Brighton Boulevard won’t be easy, however, and the proverbial devil is in the details.

Today, Brighton Boulevard is a harrowing place for pedestrians and bicyclists, which is to say, people. Most of the corridor has no sidewalks, no curb and gutter, no bicycle facilities, no streetscaping, and no tree canopy. The intrepid person who attempts to walk or bike to one of the enticing new developments or adaptive reuse projects along the Boulevard, such as The Source or Industry, is likely to encounter dirt and gravel, standing water (if it’s rained recently), cars parked willy-nilly on the shoulder of the roadway, and traffic flowing freely in and out of adjacent properties, without any clear driveways. On the bright side (pun intended), this almost complete lack of infrastructure means the Boulevard, in some sense, is a blank canvas on which the City can paint a new vision. Will the City seize this opportunity and transform Brighton into a true pedestrian paradise?

BrightonBlvdExistingStreetscape

Existing Brighton Boulevard streetscape. Photo credit: City & County of Denver

The City’s plan clearly states the redesigned roadway must accommodate all modes of travel—walking, biking, transit, and driving—as well as a tree lawn and “amenity zone” with public art and other streetscaping that creates “a consistent character and attractive gateway to downtown.” The challenge is fitting all of these elements within the available right-of-way, particularly when the City envisions that Brighton will remain “an important vehicular connector” and, therefore, must continue to have four, 11-foot-wide lanes. So, the working group is rolling up its sleeves and digging into the trade-offs associated with restricting left turns versus providing protected turn lanes, on-street bike lanes versus raised cycle tracks, continuous versus intermittent on-street parking, etc.

BrightonBlvd

Potential Brighton Boulevard streetscape. Photo credit: City & County of Denver

Here are a few of the issues that WalkDenver is particularly interested in:

  • Safely separating pedestrian and bicycle facilities, to minimize potential conflict
  • Ensuring a robust tree canopy and quality landscaping (rather than planting trees that are doomed to die due to inadequate access to water, air, or room to grow)
  • Innovative storm water collection facilities that capture moisture, support vegetation and create a “pedestrian-friendly micro-climate”
  • Enhancing safety and convenience for pedestrians crossing Brighton Boulevard, including minimizing the distance people must walk across the street and between safe crossings
  • Minimizing the impact of driveways (property access points) on continuity of sidewalks and pedestrian safety
  • Providing pedestrian-oriented wayfinding, particularly to the pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks at 35th, the bridge over the Platte River at 31st, and the access point to the Platte River Trail at 29th
  • Street design that allows for outdoor cafes and a pedestrian-friendly streetscape
In addition to seeking guidance from the working group, the City will be hosting public meetings in the coming months to present and gather feedback on design concepts. Stay tuned for more information!

 


Bikes on the 16th Street Mall?

We’ve all seen the deluge of statistics showing the increases in biking as a mode share in Denver. According to the Downtown Denver Partnership’s 2014 Downtown Denver Commuter Survey, the number of people commuting downtown by bike has increased by 43% in the last year.

Combine that with new bike lanes such as the crowdfunding project on Arapahoe Street and the forthcoming Bike Hub at Union Station, and it’s clear to see that we live in a “bike city.” So why is that on Denver’s most iconic multi-modal street—the 16th Street Mall—bikes are all but completely banned?

16th Street 2

True, bikes are allowed on the mall on Sundays; and the city is considering lifting the ban for Saturdays. But is that enough? As a bike advocate, I’m excited for this progress, but for such a bike-friendly city, even the combination of Saturday- and Sunday-only access seems more like a consolation than a victory.

16th Street 1

The purpose of the current bike ban is to protect pedestrians and bicyclists—itself a necessary precaution given the handful of bike accidents that have occurred there. However, as bikes continue to make up an increasingly large mode share in the city, perhaps the time has come to rethink how we navigate interactions involving bicycles, as well as, fundamentally, how we categorize them. According to Chapter 54 of the Denver Revised Municipal Code bicycles are categorized as vehicles, “with all the rights and duties that apply to motorized vehicles.”

That’s a problem. Bikes are not cars. With the downtown bike commuting mode share approaching seven percent, bikes have earned the right to a separate designation with its own codified rights and duties in the city. This would also make bicyclist more accountable for obeying laws.

All in all, the ordinance to lift the bike ban on Saturdays is a positive step. But instead of asking whether to allow bikes on the mall, maybe we should ask how to incorporate bikes safely into the mall, in order to make it truly multi-modal.


Broadway: Denver’s Next Bike Corridor?

Anyone who has ever biked down Broadway knows how unpleasant of an experience it can be. Between cars passing far too close and at high speeds, and having to fight for space in a bus lane, most people just avoid Broadway altogether—understandably.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The reality is that Broadway has the potential to become a major thoroughfare not only for cars, but also for bikes and pedestrians. And this isn’t just one bike advocate’s pipe dream; plans for a bike-friendly Broadway have already been designed by city planners and approved by the Golden Triangle Neighborhood.

See these images of plans and renderings of Broadway from the newly completed Golden Triangle Neighborhood Plan:

Broadway Photo 1

Proposed design for the intersection of Broadway and 11th Avenue:

Broadway Photo 2

Images courtesy of City and County of Denver and Golden Triangle Neighborhood Plan.

The plan was approved by a Golden Triangle Neighborhood vote back in November, and as is clearly evident, includes bold plans for bike and pedestrian infrastructure. According to the plan (available here), there will be a protected bike lane on Broadway all the way from Colfax to Speer, with the possibility for further expansion north and south into adjacent neighborhoods as well. It makes sense. Currently, bikers heading downtown from South Broadway are forced to jump on and off of Bannock (currently the area’s only bike lane, albeit not protected) as it meanders tenuously through residential neighborhoods and by the hospital, then ride through the Sunken Gardens Park just to cross Speer, and finally either walk their bike or merge with high-speed car traffic on Broadway.

Back in December, BikeDenver capped its annual Winter Solstice Ride with a bike parade down Broadway from 12th Avenue all the way to Illegal Pete’s on South Broadway. It definitely felt safer riding with 60 bikers, and without having to worry about buses. But that withstanding, it was a powerful experience showing the potential of Broadway as a true bike corridor in the city.

We already have city and neighborhood support. Now we, as bike advocates, need to band together and make the actual implementation of this a public push for 2015!


Denver Urbanists Unite! MeetUp #10 Coming January 28, 2015

Mark your calendars! It’s time for another Denver Urbanists MeetUp, our first one in 2015 and our 10th overall!

Please join us for Denver Urbanists MeetUp #10 on Wednesday, January 28, 2015 starting at 5:30 PM at McLoughlins Restaurant and Bar, 2100 16th Street. McLoughlins is a great neighborhood pub right next to the Millennium Bridge on the northwest (Highland) side.

Never been to one of our MeetUps before? Stop by! There is no program. It is just a bunch of friendly people getting together to chat about Denver’s growth and development and meet like-minded people and make connections. There is no fee and you’re on your own for food and drinks.

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Click on the link below to see additional details. Registration just helps give us an idea of how many people to expect. You do not need to bring the RSVP ticket with you, and if you don’t register, that’s OK too. Stop by anyway!

Denver Urbanists MeetUp #10 Eventbrite RSVP

We hope to see you at Denver Urbanists MeetUp #10 on Wednesday, January 28 at 5:30 PM at McLoughlins. See you there!


How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail

Lots of American cities are building streetcars right now. But how are streetcars different from light rail? The truth is they’re very similar, and many systems are hybrids of the two. To tell the difference, one has to simultaneously look at the tracks, train vehicles, and stations.

 
San Francisco’s Muni Metro runs both in a dedicated subway and on the street in mixed traffic.
Is it a streetcar or light rail system? Photos by Matt Johnson and SFbay on Flickr.

It’s hard to tell the difference because streetcars and light rail are really the same technology, but with different operating characteristics that serve different types of trips.

The difference, in a nutshell

Theoretically streetcars are simply light rail that’s designed to serve trips over a shorter distance, through more tightly packed urban environments. They’re for travel within central cities, as opposed to travel from the suburbs into downtown. But what does that mean in practice?

There are several features of tracks, vehicles, and stations that both streetcars and light rail sometimes have, but which are generally more common on light rail. Thus, although there’s no single separating test that can tell the two apart with 100% accuracy, it’s usually possible to tell the difference by looking at several factors simultaneously.

Let’s look at each of those factors, one by one.

Lanes and tracks

It’s a common misconception that streetcars always run in mixed traffic with cars, while light rail has its own dedicated track space. That’s often true, and it’s such a convenient and easy-to-understand definition that I’ve been guilty of using it myself. But it’s wrong.

Sometimes light rail lines run in mixed-traffic, and there are plenty of streetcars with their own right-of-way. Some streetcars even have subways.

Compare Sacramento’s mixed-traffic light rail with Philadelphia’s streetcar subway, for instance:

 
Left: Sacramento light rail in mixed traffic. Photo by Flastic on Wikipedia.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar in a subway. Photo by John Smatlak via Flickr.

Every light rail system has long stretches of dedicated track, but so do some streetcars. And in fact, practically every mixed-traffic streetcar has at least a short section of dedicated track. Toronto’s massive streetcar network has several dedicated transitways, and DC is planning one for its K Street streetcar.

 
Left: K Street transitway. Image from DC Streetcar.
Right: Toronto’s Saint Clair transitway. Photo by Sean Marshall via Flickr.

There are too many streetcars with dedicated lanes for that to be a reliable indicator on its own. Too many lines that mix dedicated and non-dedicated sections. Certainly it’s an important data point; certainly it’s one factor that can help tell the difference. But it’s not enough.

An even simpler definition might be to call anything with tracks in the street a streetcar, and anything with tracks elsewhere light rail.

But that’s not reliable either, as Portland and New Orleans illustrate:

 
Left: Portland light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: New Orleans streetcar. Photo by karmacamilleeon via Flickr.

Or take the Fort Collins Municipal Railway. It’s mostly for tourists, but it’s a streetcar, and it runs through grass.


Photo by BeyondDC

Salt Lake City muddies the water still further. Its “light rail” mostly runs in the street, while its “streetcar” runs in an old freight train right of way, almost completely off-street.

 
Left: Salt Lake City light rail. Photo by VXLA on Flickr.
Right: Salt Lake City streetcar. Photo by Paul Kimo McGregor on Flickr.

Vehicles and trains

If tracks on their own aren’t enough to tell the difference, what about vehicles?

It’s tempting to think of streetcars as “lighter” light rail, which implies smaller vehicles. Sometimes that’s true; a single DC streetcar is 66 feet long, compared to a single Denver light rail car, which is over 80 feet long.

But not all streetcars are short. Toronto’s newest streetcars are 99 feet long.


Toronto streetcar. Photo by Swire on Flickr.

In fact, many light rail and streetcar lines use the exact same vehicles. For example, Tacoma calls its Link line light rail, and uses the same train model as streetcars in Portland, DC, and Seattle, while Atlanta’s streetcar uses the same train model as light rail in San Diego, Norfolk, and Charlotte. And Salt Lake City uses the same train model for both its streetcar and light rail services.

 
Left: Tacoma light rail. Photo by Marcel Marchon via Flickr.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

 
Left: San Diego light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Atlanta streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson via Flickr.

And although streetcars often run as single railcars while light rail often runs with trains made up of multiple railcars, there are exceptions to that too.

San Francisco’s Muni Metro and Boston’s Green Line definitely blur the line between streetcar & light rail, perhaps more than any other systems in North America. Some might hesitate to call them streetcars. But they both run trains in mixed-traffic with cars, and some of those trains have multiple railcars.

Meanwhile, many light rail systems frequently run single-car trains, especially during off-peak hours.

 
Left: Norfolk light rail with a single car. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: San Francisco streetcar with two cars. Photo by Stephen Rees via Flickr.

Stations offer some help, but no guarantee

Light rail typically has bigger stations, while streetcars typically have smaller ones. A big station can sometimes be a good clue that you’re likely dealing with light rail.

For example, look at Charlotte and Portland:

 
Left: Charlotte light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But that’s only a general guideline, not a hard rule. Just like tracks and vehicles, there are many exceptions. Light rail often has small stops, and streetcar stations can sometimes get pretty big (especially when they’re in a subway).

This light rail stop in Norfolk is smaller than this streetcar stop in Philadelphia, for example:

 
Left: Norfolk light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

Stop spacing and route length

Probably the most reliable way to tell streetcars apart from light rail is to look at where the stations are located. Light rail lines typically have stops further apart from each other, on lines covering a longer distance.

This chart explains the difference:


Image from Jarrett Walker.

This is the definition transit expert Jarrett Walker favors, and if you have to pick just one or two factors to consider, stop spacing and route length are the best.

But even this is no sure way to categorize all lines as either streetcars or light rail. It might be easy to tell the difference between something with stops one block apart (theoretically streetcar) versus stops two miles apart (theoretically light rail), but what if the stops are 1/4 mile apart? Or what if the gaps aren’t consistent? There’s no clear place to draw the line.

Furthermore, Walker’s graphic itself illustrates exceptions to the rule. The top line shows a light rail route with stops close together downtown, the third line shows a streetcar with some sections that have far-apart stations, and the fourth line shows a very long streetcar.

Certainly station spacing and route length provide a convenient general rule, but only that. There’s no hard boundary where everything to one side is streetcar, and everything to the other is light rail.

To really know the difference, look at everything

There are seven factors that light rail usually has, but that streetcars only sometimes share: Dedicated lanes, off-street tracks, bigger vehicles, multi-car trains, longer routes, bigger stations, and long distances between stations.

No single one of them provides a foolproof litmus test, because sometimes streetcars have each of them, and sometimes light rail doesn’t. But if you look at all seven together and determine which direction the majority of a line’s characteristics point, over the majority of its route, then you can usually sort most lines into one category or the other.

For example, DC’s H Street line fits neatly into the streetcar category, because it runs in the street almost totally in mixed traffic, with small vehicles on single-car trains, along a short route that has frequent, small stations.

On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle’s Central route is squarely light rail. It has a dedicated right-of-way that’s often off-street, uses large 95 foot-long vehicles that are usually coupled into multi-car trains, along a long route with infrequent stations.

 
Left: Seattle light rail. Photo by Atomic Taco on Flickr.
Right: DC streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But even then not every system is crystal clear. San Francisco’s Muni Metro, Philadelphia and Boston’s Green Lines, and Pittsburgh’s T, for example, all have some segments that look like classic streetcars, but also some segments that look like classic light rail. These networks defy any characterization, except as hybrids.

And in Denver, RTD is considering re-categorizing the Central light rail line though Five Points as a streetcar.

It’s a feature, not a bug

The fact that it’s hard to tell the difference is precisely why so many cities are building light rail / streetcar lines. The technology is flexible to whatever service characteristics a city might need.

You can use it to build a regional subway like Seattle, or you can use it for a short neighborhood circulator like DC’s H Street, or anything in-between. And perhaps even more importantly, you can use it to mix and match multiple characteristics on the same line, or within the same system.

That’s why many of the most successful light rail / streetcar systems are the hardest ones to categorize as either / or. They match the infrastructure investment to the needs of the corridor, on a case-by-case basis, and thus have some sections that look like light rail, and others that look like streetcar.

That’s not muddied. That’s smart. That’s matching the investment to the need, which is after all more important than a line’s name.