Last Lessons from the Centennial State

30 years ago, Laramier Square looked a lot like Old Oakland, but a series of calculated urbanist policies has made it one of Denver's marquee neighborhoods today.

Old Oakland could use a few tips from Denver's Laramier Square (above)

[The conclusion of a series on urban design in Colorado]

Over the past two weeks I’ve looked at a number of innovative urban planning policies in Colorado, and how these policies have help fostered healthier, more vibrant cities.  Now I’m going to switch back to the Bay Area and look at what we can learn from Colorado.  Below are five lessons that the Bay Area can take away from Colorado:

Lesson 1: Invest in Pedestrians

Across Colorado you’ll find great pedestrian infrastructure–be it Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall or Denver’s artistic pedestrian bridges–but the same cannot be said for the Bay Area.  Palo Alto’s University Avenue and Berkeley’s Center Street are logical starting points when it comes to pedestrian malls–both have been the subject of recent proposals for a Boulder-esque treatments due to their popular commercial districts and their current poor handling of cars, bikes, and pedestrians.  San Francisco has also began to give trial runs for temporary pedestrian plazas, and there’s no reason a pedestrian mall couldn’t work in the Mission or North Beach as well.  One place where I cannot see a pedestrian mall working is Downtown Oakland (I wouldn’t really consider City Center a true pedestrian mall) but half-malls on excessively wide streets could be just as good.  Pedestrian malls can turn good commercial districts into regional destinations and create stronger, more exciting neighborhoods.

A half-pedestrian mall in Denver's LoDo district.  Two of the four lanes on this street were converted to pedestrian space with a negligible effect on traffic.

A half-pedestrian mall in Denver's LoDo district. Two of the four lanes on this street were converted to pedestrian space with a negligible effect on traffic.

Lesson 2: Why Not Experiment with [Free] Transit Malls?

Denver’s 1.2 mile 16th St. Transit Mall generates a whopping 63,000 daily riders and 6% of Denver’s sales tax revenue (tell that to SF merchants who will try to kill a project over a single parking space).  A car-free Market Street with a free shuttle/free transit zone would do wonders for mobility in Downtown San Francisco, and a SoMa and perhaps a Chinatown/Union Square Transit Mall could save the city billions of dollars.  Rather than the 2 billion dollar Central Subway, a SoMa Transit Mall provide a good connection betwen Caltrain and Downtown while encouraging more economic investment at as much as 1/8th of the cost.  If extended to Chinatown and North Beach, San Francisco could have 100,000 people riding on the mall daily.  Obviously, there would be a lot of street access issues that would have to be dealt with, but when the alternative is 2 billion dollars, Denver’s option looks pretty good.

Lesson 3: Activity is Contagious

Colorado’s culture of activity is a self-propagating phenomenon that is drawing more and more people toward biking and walking in their daily lives.  Coloradoans have come to expect walkable, bikeable neighborhoods with nice street trees and plenty of recreational opportunities, and the “if you build it, they will come” effect holds true when you look at the enormous ridership return experienced by Boulder, Fort Collins, and Denver after their moderate investments in bicycle infrastructure.  Bay Area cities need to pursue comprehensive bicycle networks that at least makes every non-arterial street attractive for bicycling.  This means 90% of the streets in Berkeley should have Fort Collins’ “bicycle friendly street” signs, and Oakland should look to turn excess road capacity in Downtown and the entire city into new wide bike lanes.

Lesson 4: Redevelopment Needs a Holistic Approach

The reinvestment and redevelopment of LoDo, Central Platte Valley, and other areas in Denver have been great succeses because of the comprehensive approach taken by the city of Denver and developers.  These areas are truly pedestrian oriented, creating a true sense of place that is essential for any good neighborhood.  If you give people a reason to walk around and enjoy their neighborhood, they will walk around and enjoy it.  If you use the bottom floor for a parking garage, as is the common practice in many new Oakland, Emeryville, and San Francisco developments, then people will not be as active, neighborhoods will not be as safe, and cities will not be as vibrant.

Lesson 5: Be Bold

Bay Area cities are very conservative when it comes to urban planning, balking at any large-scale proposal which would create transit-oriented and pedestrian-oriented streets.  30 years ago, Denver and Oakland would have looked one in the same, but Denver’s ability (as well as Fort Collins’ and Boulder’s abilities) to revitalize its downtown in the last 30 years has push it far ahead.  What makes Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins successful is the bold choices they’ve made (and continue to make) when it comes to reclaiming streets from cars and pursuing projects which put the neighborhood before the driver.   This is not a matter of advocating change for the sake of change–there are real issues at stake and our decisions to stick to the status quo costing us billions and billions of dollars.  Bart to San Jose (7+ billion), the Central Subway (almost 2 billion), the Oakland Airport Connector (half a billion), and a multitude of other projects of questionable merit could be done for a fraction of the cost if we made innovative choices to use more cost-effective technology (such as a functional light rail or commuter rail system) or dedicate a small amount of streetspace to transit.

Lastly, consider this:

For 6.2 billion dollars, Denver will revolutionize its transit system with 140 miles of new light rail, commuter rail, and BRT by 2015.  In comparison, Bart will spend more money on its 16 mile San Jose extension alone, which will not be completed until after 2025.  Something has to change in Bay Area transit planning.  We are being ripped off.


Colorado today is a truly unique laboratory for innovative policies in urban planning.  While Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins tend to not get much credit for their urbanism, I hope that this series has given their efforts a little justice.  I strongly recommend visiting these cities to see the potential of bicycling, pedestrian malls, nature, and redevelopment can have.

Also See:

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

And more pictures at the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr

One response to “Last Lessons from the Centennial State

  1. Building a pedestrian or transit mall is not always a good idea. To work, one must already be surrounded by a critical mass of pedestrians. But if it’s used to revitalize a declining street, it will only accelerate that street’s decline by further isolating it.

    That said, the most overdue of these potential malls in America is Market Street in San Francisco. It’s the city’s most heavily trafficked one for transit, bikes and pedestrians. But it is now being congested by automobiles, which are mostly driven by people looking for parking—even though there’s none on the street. These autos should be disallowed, so that Market becomes a transit mall. To read about what the city is doing to encourage this visit:

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