Story and Photos by Scott Franz, KUNC (via AP Storyshare)
KUNC Editor’s note: Colorado is spending millions of dollars to help residents get out of their cars and into the saddle of e-bikes. Denver alone spent $4.7 million to help cover the cost of the bikes last year. The bikes cut air pollution, reduce traffic and haul hundreds of pounds of cargo. And as more riders hit the streets, there’s a growing push to build bike lanes and redesign roads to keep them safe. KUNC investigative reporter Scott Franz has been cycling through Denver in recent weeks to see the changes firsthand and learn more about the headwinds facing bike lanes and other safety infrastructure.
I’m pedaling a green electric-bike, following David Chen through the busy streets of Capitol Hill in downtown Denver.
A driver in a sedan behind us is honking because they can’t get around us on the narrow street.
Chen is unfazed by the horn. He rides his white, dutch-style Yuba box bike for as many as 40 miles a day on these streets.
Chen, a member of the Denver Bicycle Lobby, is also a leader in the efforts to make these streets safer.
But when it comes to changing them, through measures like adding protected bike lanes and reconfiguring intersections, there are a lot of conflicting opinions. This tour of Denver I’m on will reveal some of those headwinds.
But first, when we reach the intersection of Seventh and Sherman streets, Chen pulls over to show me what helped motivate the city to start redesigning some of the streets in this area to make them more bike-friendly.
He says this is the spot where a truck driver hit him while he was biking to pick up his kids from school four years ago.
“The front wheel was completely crumpled underneath and the frame was cracked,” he said of his bike. “I still have injuries today, like nerve damage in my foot, from that experience.”
Chen said the crash motivated him to push harder for bicycle safety improvements in the city. And when he comes back to this intersection, he has a ritual.
“No matter what the car traffic is, it could be completely empty, I will ring my bell like the dickens, just for luck,” he said.
Many other residents on Denver’s streets haven’t been lucky. Last year, records show 82 people were killed in traffic crashes, including two cyclists in north Denver and several pedestrians.
At the same time, Denver is becoming a sort of ground zero for a major change in how people choose to travel.
The city’s popular e-bike rebate program is one of the first in the nation, and when the vouchers are available online, they all get claimed in minutes—as quickly as concert tickets.
More than 5,700 residents have used rebates to buy electric bikes since the program launched last year, according to city officials.
As the demand for bicycles climbs this year, so too is the demand for safer cycling infrastructure.
As Chen and I continue our ride through Capitol Hill, we reach a brand new safety improvement that was installed in an area with a high number of bike crashes.
It’s called a diverter, and it uses a series of white posts and barricades to slow traffic down in the intersection and move cars onto another street away from the bikes.
“It’s a traffic calming measure,” Chen said. “It forces drivers to assess the intersection because there’s new stuff in it.”
Over the next few minutes, we see almost a dozen cyclists, skateboarders and scooter riders pass through this intersection.
“You get more diversity when you have infrastructure like this,” Chen said. “Electric wheelchairs will make use of the bike lanes as well because it’s less bumpy than the sidewalk.”
This protected intersection has become a big source of controversy though.
Neighbors who don’t like having dozens of white posts on this street lined with million dollar homes recently held a meeting at a nearby park to start a petition to have them removed.
Chen and other cyclists heard about the meeting and showed up to defend the diverter.
At the heated meeting in Little Cheeseman Park, video showed nearby residents criticizing the look of the posts. Some also said the intersection change will slow down emergency vehicles. Cyclists said the improvements came after weeks of public meetings and will save lives.
Chen calls this heated opposition to safety improvements “bikelash.” And he says it holds some people back from embracing cycling in Denver and beyond.
“Some [who have used the rebate program] have tucked their e-bikes away in the garage until such time as the infrastructure improves,” he said. “The city should be concerned, and the city should coordinate to make these transformational changes faster in places like this where you can get a connected [cycling] network.”
KUNC reached out to the Seventh Ave Neighborhood Association to talk about the debate over the bike lanes. The group’s president, Jesse Morreale, said the group had no involvement in the meeting organized to remove the new bike infrastructure and the association has not adopted a formal position on the safety features. Morreale said the group is likely to discuss the project at a meeting in mid-July.
MacKenzie Hardt works on a bike at his bicycle repair shop in Aurora on Thursday, June 8, 2023. Hardt said the demand for electric bicycles has grown so much that he is not taking on any new customers seeking repairs for acoustic, or non-electric, bicycles.
The battles over bike lanes aren’t new. They even happen in cities that market themselves as havens for cyclists.
In 2015, Boulder removed a set of bike lanes on Folsom Street in the heart of the city after drivers complained they were causing traffic jams.
I have more safety improvements to see. On another bike ride through a more central part of Denver, I learn there are other headwinds. Cyclist and north Denver resident Allen Cowgill said concerns about lost parking spaces and slower emergency vehicle response times are some of the biggest obstacles that can hold up new biking infrastructure.
Cowgill said he’s seen bike lane projects scaled back in some places despite strong public feedback for them at public meetings.
“I think a lot more weight is given to people that live [in homes] on the street and their concerns around convenience, around parking,” Cowgill said. “For some people there’s genuine accessibility issues. But for most people, I think it comes down to, ‘I don’t want to have to walk around the block to get to my vehicle.’”
He said fliers and mailers about proposals are mailed to property owners, but cyclists who commute through the area might not know about those projects.
“And it tends to discount what we call the interested but concerned person, someone that would love to bike but doesn’t because they don’t feel comfortable doing it,” he said.
Cowgill takes me along the Platte River Trail to demonstrate another example of bike infrastructure that was scaled back.
We’re on 8th Avenue, on the west side of the river, where the city originally planned to install protected bike lanes that would be separated from cars by poles and rubber bumpers.
Instead, the plans changed and it’s now a narrow bike lane marked by a line of paint. Heavy traffic moves along the road and we hear two cars honk at each other seconds after we stop in the area.
No one is using the bike lane.
“This is by far the most egregious example I’ve seen of the original design having a protected bike lane, looking really good on paper, and then something happened in the community input process that turned into this,” Cowgill said.
At a planning meeting, city officials said the protected bike lane was dropped because of funding issues and potential conflicts with commercial businesses on the busy road.
They also noted money needed to be spent first on a nearby traffic signal.
But as traffic deaths remain high in Denver, Cowgill is among a group of cyclists pushing for a broader effort to redesign streets.
“We have to change the system,” he said. “You look at a lot of traffic engineers who say after crashes, ‘Oh, crummy driver. Sorry.’ Well, I would say there’s a lot of systemic things we could change to make it safer.”
Meanwhile, many new cyclists in Denver and other Colorado cities might not be aware of these battles over infrastructure being fought, intersection by intersection. They’re still hitting the streets by the hundreds, though, and the bikes are changing their lives.
The influx of riders was on display last weekend as Denver hosted an e-bike trade show. City officials hosted a breakfast party for residents who have used the rebates to purchase electric bikes.
Eva Bauer is one of the 5,700 new e-bike riders.
“I am celebrating one year of having my e-bike, and I really love having my e-bike,” she said as she looked at dozens of other bikes gathered in a park.
Cycling advocates listen to city officials tout the success of Denver’s e-bike rebate program in Sculpture Park on Saturday, June 10, 2023. Many e-bike riders equip their rides with passenger seats.
Bauer said she got the e-bike because she’s concerned about climate change and wants to be more environmentally-friendly.
“I am pretty close to things like a grocery store and a library and my gym, and I’ve really been challenging myself the last year to keep the car parked and use my e-bike for running errands as much as I can,” she said.
She also loads the pannier bags on her e-bike with the produce she grows at a community garden.
But how safe does Bauer feel in the saddle?
“I definitely use the bike lanes,” she said. “I actually try to stay on paths when I can, but I also am mindful of putting reflective gear on and really using my mirrors to look for traffic. So I’m getting more comfortable.”
Denver’s e-bike rebate program has been so successful, the state is planning to launch its own rebate program in August.
Scott Franz is a reporter with KUNC’s Northern Colorado Center for Investigative Reporting. If you have a story Scott should look into, email him at email@example.com.