By Andy Peters
Denver bicycle messager Drew Atchley delivers for Denver/Boulder Couriers in this Aug. 17, 2005 file photo. (Lyn Alweis, The Denver Post)
High school civics teachers like to talk about laws. We agreed upon them as a society. They improve our lives. They’re, you know, legitimate. But as an adult, you know better: There are laws, and then there are Laws. Like, don’t embezzle.
But giving your 19-year-old a beer? Hey, no harm, no foul. Typically, we reach a kind of mutual understanding about these things.
Then some cyclist goes and runs a red light. And sometimes, he’s me. I’m that guy who frequently (if not flagrantly) runs the red at 15th and Court downtown, then blows through the stop sign at 10th and Washington (and Clarkson, too, if I’m lucky) every afternoon. That rubs some folks in four-wheeled vehicles the wrong way.
Occasionally, it rubs Denver’s law enforcement types the wrong way, too, as it did earlier this year when an errant young lady ran headlong into a patrol car at 16th and Pennsylvania, after which the Denver Police Department developed an interest in enforcing traffic laws for folks on bikes.
But that’s just the thing: For us downtown cyclists — those who commute and those who toodle on B-Cycles for the heck of it — it’s hard to tell whether traffic laws come with, or even deserve, a capital L. Are we supposed to follow them?
The answer, for the time being at least, appears to be “no.” To be sure, DPD faces larger concerns than whether hipsters on fixies come to a complete stop before turning right. But in the absence of enforcement, Denver has developed its own bike culture — and it’s not necessarily one that jibes with law. It’s at this point that reasonable people ought to begin a conversation about whether maybe, just maybe, our laws are out of touch with reality.
We did that once with pedestrians, and it resulted in four-way walk signals at red lights.
If we’re to encourage cycling (and nearly every public health official believes we should), then we need to recognize it as something apart from driving or walking and deserving of its own infrastructure and laws, laws that cyclists can and should actually follow.
To its credit, Denver has made cycling easier in recent years. The B-Cycle rental program is a model for the country. The numerous bike racks make stabling your ride a pretty simple affair anywhere downtown. Even the pedicabs on the 16th Street Mall are a nice touch.
But my last and unofficial account indicates that a single bike-specific traffic signal serves all of downtown. (It’s at 14th and Bannock, if you’re curious). That Denver boasts “over 100 miles of multi-use trail, 96 miles of bike lanes, 41 miles of sharrows, and almost 400 miles of signed bike routes” hardly matters as cyclists navigate gaping cracks and a disappearing right lane on 15th street every day. At this point, connectivity matters more than capacity.
That’s a concern not just for intrepid bike commuters, but also for would-be cyclists who catch a cab from Capitol Hill to Larimer Square because riding downtown simply doesn’t feel safe.
So let’s stop pretending. Let’s stop imagining that red lights and stop signs mean the same thing to bicyclists. They don’t. Or that cycling down 15th Street downtown feels as safe as being in a car. It isn’t.
As a city endeavoring to lead the nation in its dedication to cycling, our commitment needs to reflect reality: Bikes require their own infrastructure and their own rules, not just car culture hand-me-downs. Get that right, and you’ll make both cyclists and high school civics teachers very happy, indeed.