Denver is adding e-bikes to city streets faster than it is building infrastructure for them
Denver is making progress on its bike infrastructure goals.
But the exploding popularity of e-bikes particularly in a city that is putting up as much as $1,700 per purchase so more residents can afford them, raises a question: Is Denver building the right kind of infrastructure to serve a varied group of bike users, some using pedal power and others riding with a motor capable of propelling them at up to 28 mph?
Not really, members of the city’s biking community say.
“Our street system is just not keeping up with the demand of how people want to be using it,” said Jill Locantore, the executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, an organization focused on making Denver less car-dependent.
With top speeds that well exceed what an average bike rider can do, the potential for conflict between e-bikers and riders on pedal-powered bikes abounds. One problem with e-bikes is that they have no room to pass slower travelers on many of the city’s existing bike lanes because so much street space is dedicated to cars, Locantore said.
“We really have just seen a sea change about how people want to move around Denver and how people are moving around Denver,” she said. “The city should seize that and quickly update our streets but also remain flexible. We can’t build infrastructure like it’s going to be exactly the same for the next 50 years.”
The city has made headline-grabbing progress in getting more residents on e-bikes this year even as a federal effort to do the same crashed in the Senate. As of Oct. 10, the city’s climate action office had provided instant rebates on the purchases of 4,156 e-bikes and their more payload-focused cousins e-cargo bikes. Rebate funding that was supposed to be disbursed over three years may now have to be replenished after just one, city officials say.
At the same time, Denver is rolling toward a major bike lane milestone. By next summer, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure expects to complete the last mile of the 125 miles of new bikeways Mayor Michael Hancock promised to deliver over five years in his 2018 State of the City address. After the last mile is completed, the transportation department will manage more than 300 miles of on-street bike infrastructure citywide.
The city has already installed 107 miles of the 125 promised, transportation department spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said. Of those, 42 miles are what the city classifies as “high comfort” bikeways, including 26 miles of bike lanes separated from traffic using some sort of vertical barriers like a curb or plastic dividers.
The dimensions of standard e-bikes are not much different from a regular bicycle. The city is creating an updated set of bikeway design guidelines (expected to be finalized early next year) that list the preferred operating width for a bike at 5 feet.
That should be plenty of room for a motor-powered e-bike but problems arise when narrow bike lanes run alongside lanes of car traffic and hem in riders. Wider lanes or double lanes that allow for passing would be an ideal upgrade, Locantore said. That is if city leaders had the nerve to take away more space from cars.
As things stand today, e-bikes have not overwhelmed the existing bike network, according to city officials.
“As a city, we’re thrilled to see that e-bikes are increasing in popularity and getting more people out on bikes,” Kuhn said. “Our infrastructure is handling the increase in demand at this time, but it highlights the importance of a better-connected system within our city.”
In city hall, there is chatter about the next phase of bikeways in a growing Denver.
City councilman Chris Hinds’ central Denver district has the most complete bike lane network in the city with protected bike lanes crisscrossing the downtown street grid. He sees the question of whether or not e-bikes can coexist with traditional bikes and rentable electric scooters in the city’s existing bike lanes as a good problem to have.
“We are in some ways a victim of our own success in our bike infrastructure,” Hinds said. “We wouldn’t have had these questions if not for the e-bike rebate program that has put a lot of e-bikes in our bikeways. It is time to take a look at that infrastructure.”
For Hinds and bike advocates that means more protected bike lanes, not just paint on the ground or an extended curb at the end of the block to pinch and slow traffic — common features in what the city calls “neighborhood bikeways.”
The transportation department recently signed contracts with two companies to install 44 more miles of bikeways in northwest, central and south central Denver, Kuhn said. Of those, roughly 40 miles are considered “high comfort” but just five miles will be protected from traffic with some sort of physical divider.
The neighborhood bikeways are the city trying to have its multi-modal cake and eat it too, said David Mintzer, a member of the grassroots group the Denver Bicycle Lobby and frequent Twitter commentator with the handle @iBikeCommute.
“My biggest issue with the 125 miles of bikeways that the city is touting is that most of them are unprotected and they’re still having bicycles mix with traffic,” Mintzer said. “As they stand now, they are not comfortable for new riders.”
Mintzer has a hybrid road bike that suits him just fine for his 10 to 15-minute commute from his home in the Capitol Hill area to his work at Denver Health Medical Center. He also frequently rides with his daughters, ages 8 and 10. There are still too many conflict areas on the city’s unprotected bike network for him to feel safe with his girls riding alongside him, he said.
People on e-bikes do often pass him on his ride. He typically averages 10 mph. But his biggest concern with e-bikes is that they will go to waste because people don’t feel safe riding them.
“I don’t blame people for being afraid to bike in our streets. All it takes is one bad interaction or scary situation and that person might not take their e-bike out again,” Mintzer said.
The rise of e-bikes has been in the news this year as the Biden administration reached for and ultimately fell short of creating a means to subsidize them across the country. Aaron Gordon, a writer with Vice’s tech news publication Motherboard, wrote a column last month that zeroed in on the lack of thoughtful infrastructure that caters to the expanding class of road users and how that impacts biking in cities.
Gordon hasn’t owned a car since moving to New York City in 2014, taking full advantage of the city’s network of bike lanes to get around on two wheels. He rides in bike lanes alongside plenty of pedal-assisted e-bikes. They have been available for rent through the city’s bike share program for years. But more recent additions to the city’s mobility ecosystem include heftier, almost motorbike-like e-bikes and mopeds that look much like gas-powered Vespas but run on batteries and have made Manhattan and Brooklyn bike lanes feel less safe, Gordon said.
He received plenty of feedback from bike advocates on his column, much of it, he said, focused on how he was covering what is largely a New York problem and not something seen in less dense parts of the country.
“I think the question for the rest of the country is ‘Will this be dismissed as a New York-only issue that will never impact them or will these (vehicles) impact you in three to five years following the same patterns of e-bikes generally?’” Gordon said.
Covering technology, infrastructure and climate, Gordon does not want to see governments crack down on micro-mobility devices. He views e-bikes as a promising tool for driving down pollution and fighting climate change. He would rather see city codes and transportation networks updated to meet the emerging technology.
Cities like Denver that are still building out their bike networks may have an advantage, Gordon said; certainly an opportunity. They can build networks that better accommodate the advent of the e-bike if they have the political willpower to do so.
Mintzer and bike riders across Denver celebrated last week when the city broke ground on a 1.5-mile, two-lane bike lane that will run along Broadway from Seventh to Center avenues. With concrete barriers and a row of parking spaces buffering riders from car lanes and room to pass for bikes and scooters going different speeds, it’s the Cadilac of Denver bike lanes thus far.
But Locantore notes planning for the project got started seven years ago. Denver is not meeting the urgency of the moment.
“What they need to be doing is moving much more swiftly to build things like the Broadway bike lane and then instantly assessing those things and tweaking them based on use,” Locantore said. She cites Paris as an example of a big city that took bold steps to prioritize bikes over cars. In that city, leaders have committed to adding 112 miles of permanently protected bike lanes and 180,000 new bike parking spaces by 2026 through steps that include taking away parking spaces for cars, Bloomberg reported.
Tech entrepreneur-turned-full-time bike advocate Avi Stopper has a bold idea for Denver. It’s called the Vamos Bike Network and Stopper feels it can be set up in a matter of months for cheap and make Denver a national leader in multimodal transportation.
Bike Streets, the advocacy group Stopper launched, already created the low-stress Denver bike map. The map plots a roughly 400-mile series of city trails and low-traffic neighborhood streets that bike riders and people on other micro-mobility devices can use to get around without much exposure to cars.
The Vamos plan would take that map and apply the principles of the city’s pandemic-born shared streets program to it. Basically, design elements would be installed on the already low-traffic neighborhood streets to make it so cars are guests, mostly only open to drivers who live on them. Bikes, pedestrians and other road users would be the priority creating a near-instant network for streets where people can ride with confidence, Stopper said.
The shared streets program was popular in a limited rollout in 2020 and 2021. The city reopened most of those streets to regular traffic but is now developing a program that will bring the concept back for the long term in select locations.
For Stopper, that’s not good enough. Without a complete network of safe bike facilities, whether they be protected bike lanes or shared streets, people can’t get around confidently and that means the city is not on track to meet its traffic safety, bike ridership or, most importantly, climate action goals.
“As a society, we haven’t yet figured out how to dramatically reduce tailpipe emissions and we have to move quickly in that direction,” Stopper said. “It’s pretty clear when you look at the current infrastructure that we are not there and what we are proposing is a path forward that can be done and that doesn’t explode the budget and doesn’t explode the timeline.”
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