I work in downtown Denver, as I did about 16 years ago, and many things have changed. That’s largely good: the city’s core is starting to mature into a Real City now, at least from a building perspective. We also have a mess of Those Damn Scooters everywhere, which take up sidewalk space and – depending on the rider – can be very disruptive.
We also have the 16th Street Mall. The Mall is undergoing a redesign soon, thankfully, but one of the things that has been a great feature of it are the free electric buses that zip up and down regularly. The 16th Street Mall is a good start of what a downtown’s space could be like. Incidentally, when I was in San Jose earlier this year I was struck by how much nicer its downtown walking experience was versus Denver’s. Trees are larger and more canopy-like, light rail is quiet and relatively unobtrusive, and it feels like pedestrians were centered in its design.
Beyond that, there’s the problem with cars. Denver is a car city, and the RTD is just middling in its public transit options. Denver’s downtown is clogged with cars. The problem has only gotten worse. It got me to thinking on what a car-free downtown Denver could look like, and I have to admit, the idea is something that stayed with me.
Option 1: Tax cars in the Central Business District
In short, one could charge admission for cars downtown much like the London Congestion Charge. As we’re about to try to change our state’s EPA air rating, this feels like a reasonable option. If people wish to bring their cars into downtown, that’ll be $10 a day (with discounts or no fees for, say, people who have mobility issues and/or handicapped license plates). That money could then go directly into paying for improving mobility for pedestrians, bikes, and scooters.
Option 2: 14th, 15th, 17th, and 18th Street Malls
The second idea? More malls! The 16th Street Mall works well today, so why not expand that out? Add another bus line at 14th and another at 18th so one is never two blocks away from easy, free up-and-down transit. For the other streets, ban cars and trucks. This pushes parking garages out of the core, too, which means that arterial streets would need to support more traffic in the short-term. But, this is something that could be rolled out on a more experimental basis: try it on 15th within a ~4-5 block length and measure the impact, aside from fewer cars.
Option 3: The Denver Loop
Downtown’s 45 degree angled grid means there are natural boundaries… not far off from, say, the Chicago River in Chicago. So why not a Loop transit system here? Either dedicated electric bus lanes that go all around the outer perimeter of downtown or, better still, elevated trains or light rail that stay on a consistent and simple schedule. Imagine being able to hop on a quick train at Civic Center station and be at Coors Field in, say, 10 minutes. Or take a ride up to the doorstep of Globeville in 15 minutes. No traffic, no muss, no fuss, just good and easy transit. I would love this, personally!
Option 4: Do Nothing
This is the easiest option. Denver could do nothing, continue to allow cars and trucks in downtown, making the entire environment hazardous for bikers and pedestrians. Air quality would continue to worsen. Congestion would increase. People would see their commute times increase. The RTD would sit back and lean on its lackluster light rail and bus lines, probably even cutting service. Sounds great.
Denver has the opportunity to be creative with all of this. The answer isn’t more roads and more traffic. It’s better planning and better public transit options, all around. Getting cars out of our city’s core should be a top priority for the next 5 years.