A bicycling renaissance currently permeates the North American landscape. From Manhattan to Portland, people are discovering the unmistakable value bicycles afford both personal health and …
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A bicycling renaissance currently permeates the North American landscape. From Manhattan to Portland, people are discovering the unmistakable value bicycles afford both personal health and community vitality.
However, without inspired and dedicated leadership, we may unwittingly forfeit our city’s natural potential to become a quintessential bicycle center.
“There really isn’t any reason why we couldn’t (compete with top cities),” says Tracy Halasinski, chair of the mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. “We’ve got better weather and a lot in our favor. It’s just an issue of the desire to make it happen.”
In 2006, Mayor Hickenlooper wrote, “Bicycling is a significant element of the Denver lifestyle, contributing more than $1.2 billion to our local economy and providing fitness, recreational and commuting opportunities for our residents. Our active cycling culture and investment in cycling infrastructure have consistently earned Denver recognition from Bicycling Magazine and the League of American Bicyclists.”
So where do these very sources rate us now?
According to Bicycling Magazine, the five best cities for cycling in 2008 include Portland, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boulder. With Denver conspicuously absent from the list, it’s time to re-evaluate our city’s commitment to bicycling as an accessible, everyday mode of transportation.
Providing further evidence, the League of American Cyclists published its most recent assessment of Denver’s bicycle infrastructure. To determine our city’s bicycle “friendliness,” the League examined five categories: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation/planning. The result: Denver was down-graded to “bronze-level” status while being surpassed by both Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, which achieved silver and gold ratings, respectively.
Andy Clark, Executive Director for the League of American Cyclists, explained Denver’s demotion by saying, “A number of decisions, policies, programs and choices being made by agencies in Denver indicated a diminished commitment for making Denver a more bicycle-friendly community.”
The disconnect appears to be our local government’s haphazard adherence to funding bicycle programs and continuing to support Denver’s Bicycle Master Plan.
In contrast, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley has managed to transform his town from a car-dependent behemoth into the exceptional cycling network that residents are now embracing, by using decisive legislation to enhance bicycle funding. Turning a traffic-laden hub into a bicycling mecca can be achieved with little more than creative planning and a desire to facilitate change.
Prior to the Democratic National Convention this past August, Mayor Hickenlooper stated his intent to increase Denver’s bicycle commuting rates by eight percent before 2018. While our current numbers hover at approximately two percent – a sharp contrast to Boulder’s admirable 14 percent – there exists an obvious demand from Denver cyclists to see dramatic amelioration to our congested roadways and trail interconnectivity.
Asked about the feasibility of Hickenlooper’s goal, Halasinski replied, “It’s very ambitious. Mayor Hickenlooper is supportive, but in order to achieve a goal like that, there’s going to have to be pretty substantial back-up (support).”
The current back-up, in the form of Denver’s Bicycle Master Plan, includes recommendations for improvements of trails, major missing links, and downtown routes. The Plan was unanimously adopted by City Council in 1993 and updated in 2001. It outlines initiatives such as bicycle education, promotion, enforcement, and public policy that would work to continually improve bicycle accessibility in Denver.
So what has become of this master plan and why has its implementation become arduously slow and spotty?
“A major reason the Bicycle Master Plan is struggling is because of a lack of funding,” says Christine Downs of the Department of Public Works. “Many of the major missing links identified in 2001 are caused because funding is not available to begin or finish the projects. Some of these projects include: improving trails and underpasses, developing new trails and improving intersections to become more bicycle friendly.”
According to Downs, the master plan has faced several challenges such as: establishing inventory and maintenance programs (signs, striping, lockers, racks, trails, and bridges); providing additional protected bike crossings of high-speed arterial streets; and obtaining dedicated funding for programs and facilities from the federal, state and local levels.
With scarcity of financial resources becoming a ubiquitous problem, how have places such as Fort Collins and Colorado Springs managed to enhance their bicycle programs?
“A lot of (elite bicycling cities) have a dedicated source of revenue for bicycling programs, which Denver does not,” said Halasinski. “There are different funding mechanisms out there and bicycle projects are usually the ones that end up on the chopping block when funding gets tight. It’s a commitment to making it happen, and Denver hasn’t (done that).”
So how can we seek to marry the declarations of our mayor with demand among cyclists for safer alternatives to perilously pedaling amongst hoards of unsympathetic motorists? How do we make our downtown a hub of bicycle efficiency with sharrows, visible sign markings and median refuges? How do we advocate for bike and pedestrian bridges that would be beneficial for connecting mass transit stations with current bicycle trail systems? Most of all, how do we foster street initiatives that protect and encourage individuals to commute regularly via bicycle?
“Ask your councilperson what their plans are to address the bicycle friendliness of your district,” says Bicycle Advisory Committee member David Rapp. “Ask what their plans are to address major missing links, and conduct a bicycle friendly community evaluation to share with them.”
To determine your City Council representative or to access contact information, visit www.denvergov.org or call 720-865-9534. Evaluations for bicycle-friendly communities may be conducted at www.bikeleague.org.
“I think progress is going to be slow, and that can be frustrating, but I think that the door is open, we just have to go through it. It’s going to take a little time but we’re moving in the right direction,” said Halasinski.
As Colorado’s capital city, Denver has a responsibility to set an example for the state when it comes to bicycling leadership and empowerment. And perhaps the best way to actualize our potential is to vote adamantly, every day – literally, pedaling for change.
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