Governor Jared Polis' push to get legislators to approve $500 rebates for electric bikes is pushing bicyclists and transportation advocates to wonder if the infrastructure exists in the northern Front Range to support them.
For Carl Christensen, a 61-year-old resident of Northglenn, there is. But it hasn’t always been that way.
“I used to fear for my life to get from my house down to where I can pick up the South Platte trail at 104th and Riverdale,” Christensen said.
Back in 2009, he started to incorporate biking into his daily commute. He used to ride his bike to the bus station, rack his bike on the bus, take it down to Union Station and ride the last mile to his office
Since 2010, he has made the 18-mile ride from his home in Northglenn to the TIAA building downtown and champions the added bike lanes and trails that make it possible to do so.
He doesn’t ride for environmental reasons or to save on gas. In fact, he owns four vehicles. He rides because the trips make him feel good.
He says it’s healthy, too. Both mentally and physically.
“It was a great way to clear my head and it keeps me healthy so I can actually eat the way I like,” Christensen said.
Rachel Hultin, sustainable transportation director for Bicycle Colorado, sees it differently. She said the Front Range doesn’t have enough infrastructure to support biking and electric biking because development has been focused on cars.
“Our present situation is really the result of 100 years of (car-centric) transportation planning and investment in which the leading question for transportation projects has been ‘how do we make it easier for cars to travel quickly through communities and down corridors?’” she said.
How comfortable it is for drivers and easy for cars to travel through a corridor has long been the measure for success, said Hultin, who also serves on Wheat Ridge City Council.
“And the outcome of 100 years of that thinking and those investments is a transportation system that overwhelmingly serves cars because that's what we've been measuring,” she said.
Communities, Hultin said, started to realize the current transportation system doesn’t work for everyone. It needs to be more bikeable and walkable, with more transit to serve everyone. Not just car owners.
Transportation officials in the Metro North have taken some notice.
In 2018, Northglenn adopted the Connect Northglenn Bicycle and Pedestrian plan. According to Amanda Peterson, director of Parks, Recreation and Culture, the plan identifies needed trail connections and gaps in the existing network.
So far, 6.41 miles of on-street bike lanes have been installed, which adds to the 35 miles of off-street trails. The trail network also includes three bike repair stations.
Northglenn also provided 550 refurbished bikes at no cost. They come in as donations and volunteers fix them up, with funds from the city and donations.
Thornton hosts a combined 396.5 miles of trails, including local and regional off-street trails, on-street bike planes, paved shoulders designated for bike lands and 8- to 10-foot-wide sidewalks designated as trails.
Darrell Alston, a traffic engineer for Thornton, said for the past decade new resurfacing projects have included painting on-street bike lanes.
However, with a segment of the population feeling uncomfortable riding in the street, the city is actively trying to provide separated and protected bike lanes. That may include a physical buffer, a vertical separation or a completely separate bicycle track.
The city is applying for grant money to complete studies to identify the roads where protected bike lanes make sense. Those studies are planned to start in the third quarter of this year, which will include public outreach.
“On a lower speed corridor, you can probably get away with some type of a simple vertical separation like pylons or maybe the periodic placement of decorative planters. When you get onto a higher speed roadway, you're probably looking at some kind of a bigger physical separation, like curbs or a cycle track further away from the roadway,” Alston said.
Some of the corridors the city is considering include 88th Avenue from Pecos to Dahlia, 128th from I-25 to York, Pecos from Milkyway up to Thornton Parkway and Huron from 84th to 88th. Those streets are based on high bicycle traffic already there.
Alston said providing bike lanes on the long arterial roadways with connection to the trail system can serve both short commutes and long range.
In Westminster, the 63.5 miles of on-street bike lanes, 17.3 miles of shared-use bike routes and 150 miles of trails help get bikers around. According to Andy Le, a spokesperson for the city, all bike lanes and shared-use bike routes have paint and symbols, with some buffered lanes.
However, none are protected by pylons, curbs or anything other than striping, he said.
The process to decide which types of bike lanes to build follows street resurfacing projects. None were stand-alone and included funding for constructing barriers. That may change, Le wrote in an email.
From Westminster, it is possible to commute to either Boulder or Denver. To Boulder, the US 36 Bikeway is a paved concrete trail from 88th and Sheridan north.
More money for bicycle infrastructure could be coming, thanks to the Greenhouse Gas Planning Standard, a new rule adopted by the Transportation Commission of Colorado in December 2021. It requires agencies to measure greenhouse gas emissions from projects, with limits on how high those emissions go.
Jacob Riger, multimodal transportation planning manager for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, said his group has already modified its 2050 Metro Vision Regional Transportation Plan based on the rule.
DRCOG will now send more money to 11 bus rapid transit corridors by 2050, and budget more for bike lanes and better multimodal mobility options and less for road improvement projects, such as DRCOG's Interstate 25 project.
It’s a way to reduce emissions, and according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, transportation is the second highest contributor in the state.
Emily Lindsey, active and emerging mobility program manager for DRCOG, said people are ready. Of the 15 million daily person trips in the region, 43% are less than three miles and 19% are less than one mile.
“So, super bikeable, even more so with e-bikes,” she said.
There just needs to be more dedicated active transportation infrastructure.
“There's not perfect infrastructure throughout the region. There's always room for upgrades to our safety, our comfort, and our connectivity,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey said area cyclists are ready to ride but are concerned about their safety. In fact, according to DRCOG’s survey Active Transportation Plan, about 59% of the region’s adult population are interested in biking, but are unlikely to ride without separate bike facilities.
Emily Kleinfelter, safety and regional Vision Zero planner for DRCOG, said paint isn’t protection. DRCOG advocates for the highest level of protection for bikers and that may be bollards, car parks or a curb, as well as creating a network that connects bikers all over the region without gaps.
“It's making it so that they're being able to get home safe to their loved ones,” she said.
Colorado State Senator Faith Winter said another barrier to biking is the cost of a bike. She's for the incentives Polis is proposing to make biking more affordable.
"Making sure people have access to what they need to bike, making sure they feel safe while biking, and making sure that it's easy and easy to navigate.," she said.
Another study co-authored by CU Denver researcher Wesley Marshall, found cities with more protected bike lanes lead to safer outcomes.
"Better safety outcomes are instead associated with a greater prevalence of bike facilities – particularly protected and separated bike facilities – at the block group level and, more strongly so, across the overall city," the results read.
Westminster City Councilor Rich Seymour primarily rides on the weekends between March and October, throwing up dust on the Big and Little Cry Creek Trails towards Thornton and Northglenn. He’s ridden on US 36, but doesn’t like the highway noise, he said.
He stays clear of primary and secondary roads, even if they have marked bike lanes.
“Being anywhere near traffic is taking your life in your hands. Distracted and aggressive drivers are wreaking havoc with law-abiding drivers and killing bicyclists and motorcyclists,” Seymour wrote in an email.
Thornton’s Mayor Pro Tem Jessica Sandgren also thinks e-biking and biking are great for mobility but cited safety issues,
“I don’t think it’s safe on any street anywhere,” she said. “The way people are driving across the country, I don’t feel comfortable.”
Data backs up his concern for bikers, motorcyclists and pedestrians. CDOT reported fatalities in 2022: 146 motorcycles, 105 pedestrians and 12 bicycles.
Fewer car lanes, more traffic?
Seymour noted Westminster has a mobility plan adopted by a prior council. His concern is the removal of vehicle lanes for bike lanes.
“I’m not in favor of decreasing auto lanes,” he said.
Still, Seymour remains all in on the idea of bike lanes. He said more people riding bikes would be great, but the addition of lanes needs to be a slow progression for road users to adjust. Those lanes need concrete, protective barriers for safety, he said.
But not at the expense of car lanes.
"I don't see enough people using their bikes to commute and to take up road lane miles right now. I think it just adds to more congestion, which people are already frustrated about. We hear about it all the time," Seymour said.
Seymour isn’t the only one concerned about decreasing lanes. The Weld County Commission, in a letter responding to CDOT's new rule, said that decreasing lanes may be counterproductive.
“Complete streets or road diets that increase congestion are a popular movement in American cities to encourage walking and cycling. Most cities with high rates of bicycle commuting, such as Boulder, are college towns with young populations. Therefore, demographics rather than street design may have the greatest influence on cycling and walking,” it reads.
It also says that complying with the new rules may present challenges for “rural areas and those with a lower population density” because of differences between urban and rural lifestyles.
Some of the aspirations are unlikely, it says.
“CDOT’s CBA claims of significant cost savings are unfounded because their estimated reductions in VMT are unlikely to be realized. The CBA is driven by aspirational assumptions about transport mode shifts that are unrealistic. History convincingly demonstrates that programs to reduce VMT have failed,” the letter reads.
Seymour pointed to the context of Colorado: it’s a western state that’s still highly dependent on cars.
“If we eliminate people's ability to travel by car, it is going to have a detrimental effect on our economy,” he said.
The progression of adding bike lanes needs to be slow, he explained, and constructing bike lanes prior to a demand for them may be adding the cart before the horse.
“If we really had that much pent-up desire to ride bikes and commute on bikes, I think we'd already see more bike riders,” he said.
Hultin sees it differently, that more, safer infrastructure will bring out more bikers.
She challenges local governments to rethink transportation projects and to make biking and other modes of transportation safer. Not pitting modes of travel against each other, but making roads more accessible to a more diverse group of users.
“(Local governments should) take in projects that serve, walking, biking, transit, and make sure that those are a priority for funding ahead of the car expansion projects,” she said.