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Improving Bicycle Facilities for Better Safety

Last week I attended a meeting of City staff and bicycle community advocates to discuss possible tools for improving bicycle safety in Denver. The meeting focused on what kind of a campaign might be used to improve behavior among motorists, pedestrians and cyclists when sharing the roads and paths in hopes of increasing safety for all users. There was the usual discussion of people on bikes running red lights and people in cars driving too close to cyclists and people on bikes buzzing past people walking on the Cherry Creek path. As Denver continues to grow and more people choose walking and bicycling as a primary mode of transportation, these conflicts will also increase. So what to do?

First, there is a need for a “rules of the roads and paths” campaign. There is a lack of knowledge of how to properly ride, drive and walk on shared facilities. Walking a dog on an extended leash is no problem in most parks but on a shared use path it can be deadly for a cyclist. A person on a bike riding along at 20 mph on a street or on a bicycle-only path is fine but, for a pedestrian walking down a shared path, it can be terrifying to have something virtually silent fly by you without any warning, and simply opening your car door without looking can result in serious injury for a cyclist.  Thus, as our city becomes increasingly multi-modal, it also becomes increasingly important for everyone to know how to behave on shared facilities. An effective educational campaign through Public Safety and Bike Denver would be great.

Second, we need to look carefully at how our facility design influences behavior. Why do so many people run stop signals when riding bikes? Why doesn’t the constant flow of jay-walkers on our downtown streets result in the same degree of anger that bicyclists elicit when they ignore stop signals?  I believe the answer lies in the differences among the transportation modes and that designing facilities that acknowledge these differences will go a long way toward improving safety in our public realm.

To Illustrate this, I will look at two heavily used bicycle routes that access Downtown Denver from the east: 12th Avenue at Cheesman Park and 16th Avenue from York to Lincoln.

12th Avenue is a busy bicycle facility because it links neighborhoods as far east as Aurora with Downtown Denver through the most densely populated neighborhood in Denver, Capitol Hill. Two years ago, Denver Parks and Recreation completed an update to the path system through Cheesman Park. One of those updates was the addition of a 6-foot-wide cement walking path along 12th Avenue through the park. Since its installation, City Councilwoman Robb has received many complaints about bicyclists using the path instead of staying on the roadway.

To address this concern, last year Parks and Recreation placed “Cyclists Dismount” signs at the east and west ends of the 12th Avenue sidewalk.

This has deterred some people on bicycles from using the path, but the issue has not gone away and recently there have been calls for increased patrols by the Volunteer Courtesy Bicycle Patrol to help address the issue.

In my view, this conflict is something that should have been addressed through design rather than signage and enforcement.  The use of 12th Avenue as a key bicycle route through the park was well known by Parks and Recreation when the new park design was created. In fact, the social path that ran across the park along 12th Avenue and inspired the new cement path was clearly carved by people bicycling and walking from 12th Avenue on the east side of the Park to 12th Avenue on the west side of the park. There were always bicycle tracks in the path and a consistent flow of people on bikes using the cut-through before the cement walk was installed. Knowing that 12th Avenue is a key bicycle route and knowing that bikes used the cut through should have resulted in the construction of a path wide enough to be shared by bicycles and pedestrians, such as that pictured below in Vancouver.

Designing facilities so that the most direct route is also the safe and sanctioned route is an essential part of improving safety and compliance with the law.

My next blog will look at 16th Avenue and how changes in design might increase compliance with traffic laws.

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11 Comments

  1. [...] more: Improving Bicycle Facilities for Better Safety « DenverUrbanism Blog This entry was posted in Blog Search and tagged buzzing, cherry, conflicts, creek, cyclists, [...]

  2. thrackle says:

    Exactly. Awesome, thank you John. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on traffic compliance. As a cyclist, I have some ideas about why cyclist act the way they do, but I’ll wait until your next post to discuss them.

  3. Larry says:

    Sign, sign, everywhere a sign…. You know, people will use the routes that make the most sense; drive the speed that makes the most sense; and will generally do what feels comfortable. Not because they want to disobey the rules, but because they never even see the signs. I am always amazed at how few people actually know what the speed limit is on the roads they travel.

    Unfortunately, many traffic engineers (and apparently parks and recreation officials) seem unaware of the importance of how to design these types of environments. It reminds me of when CDOT first built C-470 and its associated bike trail. The trail tends to wander along the highway and even at some points, just becomes part of the meandering Highline Canal trail it follows the contours of the land, you know). If a person uses the bike lanes for transit, they really want to ride in a straight line. Funny how that works, but many traffic engineers seem to think that people on bikes are only out for a Sunday ride and never use them for commuting. You have to stop and cross the major roads at all the interchanges also since that would require crossing highway traffic in the exit lanes, or making tunnels or bridges.

    It really would have been nice if they had made a dual use trail on 12th. And really it isn’t too late, since a dual use trail should be 12 wide anyway. I’m not too sure if the signage you show in the example above would really help much. Peds, pets, and cyclists would still not be able to figure it out. Perhaps a different color concrete (with bike lane markings) aligned with the street instead of the sidewalk would encourage the cyclists to take that route and the peds could stay off of it since they might like the meandering trail better.

  4. John O. says:

    I think that 12th Ave. is a poor example for an added shared path model. I am a biker who frequently commutes through the 12th Ave. corridor, but have always found it adequate to use the loop road. The road is not very busy and there is virtually no excuse for a biker to claim that they lose time by taking the path vs. the road. (I do agree that colored bike lanes would improve the bike experience throughout Denver.)

    In addition, the planning process for the paths now installed in Cheesman Park was not simple and caused a great deal of consternation from some neighbors and users. The paths were traditionally unpaved with either dirt or gravel as their base so when the addition of concrete was proposed through a natural park setting many citizens were unhappy. The argument for the new paths won the day when general accessibility (both by the handicapped and general public) was emphasized and it could be shown that the paths’ placement were called for in original plans for the park. A new shared path would have to be much wider and would cause a great deal more impact to the park than the current alignment. This seems to me to be overkill when an easy solution is already available (the loop road).

    A better example of a need is through Commons Park in West Denver. The path is meandering, but it leads to heavily used pedestrian bridges spanning between downtown and the Highlands neighborhood. I believe it is allowed for bikers to use the path, but it definitely isn’t a bike commuters dream (especially because of the Millennium Bridge barrier). The only road options are 15th and 20th Streets, which have their own issues.

    I very much encourage the incorporation of more shared paths and better bike design to our streets in Denver, however, I think we have to plan well so that the resources we can afford will be put to use to solve our most critical traffic problems.

  5. Anna says:

    John:
    I think your comments are right on. I absolutely agree that the path through Cheesman should have been designed to accommodate both pedestrians and bikes. What a lost opportunity! Thanks for your thoughtful commentary and I look forward to your next entry.

  6. Brett says:

    Given that it’s illegal to ride a bicycle on Denver sidewalks, I’d like to see the police more rigorously enforce this, especially on busy pedestrian streets like Broadway and Colfax. I have a colleague who was seriously injured by an idiot riding on the sidewalk on 17th Street. I’ve nearly been hit myself a few times. Bikes are VEHICLES and it’s time to get them off the sidewalks.

    • mckillio says:

      Just to clear it up, you’re allowed to ride your bicycle on a sidewalk as long as you plan to dismount or get on the street within one block. You also aren’t allowed to ride faster than 6mph.

    • dave says:

      Enforcement is not the issue. If broadway were safer to ride on (convert a lane of traffic into a bike path), there would not be a problem with people riding on the sidewalk. People only ride on the sidewalk because it feels dangerous to ride in speeding traffic.

      If bicycles are VEHICLES then our roadways should safely accommodate them.

      • jeffrey miller says:

        Exactly, Dave. When I come up 23rd from Confluence, there is a bike sign on the road surface. As if. The road is rutted with fault lines, holes, and is narrow with cars parked on both sides. There is NO WAY I’m riding up that hill during heavy traffic times. I’ve ridden the sidewalk many a time but I don’t like taking up the sidewalk and stopping for peds. So, now I ride up 20th in safety. Denver can boast of how many miles of paths it has but in truth, many of the routes are substandard.

  7. Pat says:

    thank you for the great ariticle. The dialogue about basic transportation behavior by all must be brought forward. The problem we have in the bicycle community (as a rider I include myself) is that we do have a significant portion of riders that break the law (running reds and stop signs. I see it literally every day. Until we either 1) change that behavior or 2) change the laws – we haven’t got a leg to stand on, and non-riders are not going to listen.

    I disagree with the second portion of your post regarding Cheesman Park. I think that John O described the situation very well. I ride that section at least once a week. It does not seem to be much of an issue to ride on the park road, rather than disrupt pedestrians on the park trails – basic courtesy. Yes, this could have been a wider trail to accommodate a slightly shorter bike route but by that logic it could have been a road to accomodate a shorter motor vehicle route. I think overall the park trails have been a great success – and their use seems to confirm that. Thanks!

  8. Fred says:

    The worst bike lane is going up 18th (OK that’s skewed -I just regularly go that way). It was added around the time the Dem convention hit town (Almost wonder if the city was adding miles of bike lanes to make a statement) But the road can’t properly accommodate cars and bikes. I have the utmost respect for people choosing to bike to work (Or where ever) but, this lane is dangerous. It’s time to the city to give cyclists, peds and cars another look on a global scale.