Behind sunglasses, Nicole Pemberton surveys Franklin Street with a foot perched atop the stoop in her front yard and said she still sees too many cars.
City officials designated nine blocks of the street in Cole — and about nine other stretches throughout Denver — as shared streets in April, plopping down signs at intersections to slow car traffic and create a buffer for residents and visitors to venture onto the pavement. The idea was to give cooped-up Denverites more outdoor space as the coronavirus pandemic shut down indoor activities and large gatherings.
Residents, passersby and city officials largely say they’re pleased with the experiment. While some of the shared streets remain calm or empty, others sometimes fill with pedi-cabs, bicycles, skaters, walkers, runners musicians and more, jolting the spaces to life.
Many hope to take the pilot program a step further, adding to the trend that has already begun to tip Denver away from cars and toward other modes of transportation. Strike while the iron is hot, they say, because allowing the shared streets to reopen solely to cars in the coming months would be a step in the wrong direction.
“We are wrestling for the soul of our city,” City Councilman Chris Hinds said.
Following a request from Hinds and his fellow council members in May, the Hancock administration agreed to keep the shared streets as they are through the fall before deciding what to do next, said Department of Transportation and Infrastructure spokesperson Nancy Kuhn.
Around the same time and as part of a similar program, DOTI permitted 193 businesses to expand their patios into public rights of way, Kuhn said.
That expansion is meant to help keep those businesses — mostly restaurants, bars and cafes — afloat as they struggle to attract dine-in customers while keeping them six feet apart from each other, as required by state law.
About half of those businesses, and a few new ones, have asked for their permits to be extended beyond the original Sept. 7 expiration date to Oct. 31, Kuhn said.
Similarly, the shared streets program should not only continue — well beyond this fall — but it should also expand, Hinds said.
Pemberton agrees. But she thinks the city should designate and advertise the shared streets more forcefully to further cut car traffic and encourage bikes, scooters, strollers and pedestrians into the rights of way. The experiment hasn’t hasn’t reached its full potential on Franklin Street, she said.
“I don’t see any reason for (the streets) to reopen,” Pemberton said. “They increase your community awareness. They give you the ability to get out and connect.”
About a block to the north, Mike Stump, who has lived on Franklin Street for 18 years, agreed. He said he’s felt especially shut in since the pandemic hit, conversations limited to his pets. But the shared streets have helped him see a bit more of his neighbors — an encouraging sight, he said.
“People need to get out and exercise, ride bikes,” Stump said. With the coronavirus still spreading, “it’s one of the safest things you can do. … I hate the thought of people not wanting to share streets. Everyone pays taxes.”
But Tim Jackson, president and CEO of the Colorado Auto Dealers Association, said in his experience the pilot has not actually resulted in shared streets.
“The streets were shared before, and they’re not now,” Jackson said. “They’re not shared to the driver going through.”
Surveys commissioned by the association show that the vast majority of Denverites own motor vehicles and use them to get to work, Jackson noted. Decreasing street space for those vehicles only makes traffic worse, he said.
City Councilman Jolon Clark believes people are starting to realize that they need their cars less and less and they can instead rely on their bicycles, scooters, roller skates or their own two feet.
“It’s created those spaces where people say ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been giving up. I didn’t realize I could have this,’” Clark said. “They say, ‘I feel like I can get to work, the library, the rec center. I can do those things.’”
Posha Zubair said she’s one of those people who rides her bicycle much more often now than she did before the pandemic, and the shared streets have come in handy.
Before, Zubair said, traffic frightened her too much to ride her bike very often. The same was true for her 10-year-old daughter. But now the whole family uses the shared streets for recreational rides.
“I just wish there were more,” Zubair said.
That would mean more fun rides and even the possibility of commuting on a bike, she said.
But Jackson, who also cycles, said he doesn’t feel as though the shared streets have expedited anybody’s commute. Rather, he said, it has slowed his cycling trips because he’s had to navigate the “super ugly” road signs.
Still, it’s a more environmentally friendly option, Hinds said, in addition to bringing neighbors closer together. The ultimate goal is to rearrange neighborhoods so that “everything you need to thrive and survive will be within a 20-minute walk, ride or roll,” he said.
And now is the time to build on the pilot rather than close down the shared streets at the end of the program, which would only be a regression, Clark said. The best approach would be to connect shared streets to each other and to existing bike lanes and trails. Expanding the network like that will encourage even more people to travel by something other than a car, he said.
That’s not to say the shared streets are perfect, Clark said. Some could have been placed more intentionally.
“The ones that are less successful have been ‘Let’s just throw out a block-party barricade at the end of these two streets that says these streets are now shared,’ but there’s not really anything beyond that,” he said.
That’s how Jerry Anderson said he feels about the shared street along Irving Street from 2nd Avenue to Gill Place, where he visits his mother-in-law almost every day.
In fact, Anderson said he wasn’t even aware the streets were shared. He thought the signs the city put up meant the area would be under construction. While he supports the concept, it’s not the most active neighborhood, he said, and city officials could have picked a better location for a shared street.
And they could have let neighbors know a bit more about the project, Anderson said.
Clark said he has heard similar feedback, but said the pilot project is a foundation upon which Denver can build.
“It’s a good experiment in what can be done quickly with not a lot of infrastructure,” Clark said. “I think there are a lot of really exciting ways we can think about completely reinventing the public right of way.”
Moving forward, council can encourage a shift further in that direction through the budget, he said.
“We’re going to be coming around a corner, looking at the next bond issuance and instead of tens of millions for car projects, this is an opportunity where council can push those tens of millions of dollars to build out a complete bike network,” Clark said. “Or overhauling the pedestrian spaces in our city.”
The shared streets program currently costs up to $70,000 a month to maintain and to ensure the barricades remain in place, Kuhn said.
While Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration is still assessing how the pilot worked, spokesperson Mike Strott said, the mayor is committed to transforming Denver into a “more multimodal friendly city.”
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