What good is a $4.7 billion transit system in Colorado if passengers can’t reach their bus stops and light rail stations safely?
In many areas around Denver, sidewalks have seemingly gone missing. From Brighton Boulevard to Quebec Street, large sections of heavily trafficked roadways belong to big machines. Bus stops are merely marked with a signpost along skinny dirt shoulders, often offering no protection or even a place to rest for pedestrians waiting for transit services as cars and trucks speed by.
A lack of safe sidewalks was just one of many issues uncovered in last week’s First & Last Mile Connections report from Mile High Connects, an advocacy group working to make transit accessible and affordable for all Coloradans.
The report, developed by Walk Denver and BBC Research, looked at roads and sidewalks across Denver, Boulder, Aurora and other Front Range metro cities, routes from homes to transit stops to final destinations.
Missing or crumbling sidewalks, badly lit passageways and intersections lacking crosswalks concern people who need to access public transportation safely.
“It’s this really ironic thing. We passed Fastracks, the voter-approved billions of dollars that were being invested in the light rail build out, but we didn’t take into account all of these connections,” said Dace West, Director of Mile High Connects. “For instance, you might be able to hear the train coming in an area, but there’s no signage to tell you how to get to a station.
“It’s amazing to think that in some of these areas, we are investing all of these public resources in this huge public investment. But if people aren’t able to access it, this is not a good use of the resource.”
The lack of infrastructure hits low-income communities the hardest, West said.
“So many of the lower income communities in the region have much worse conditions. People have not been investing in those communities,” said West.
Mile High Connects hopes its report will pressure city councils to address how hard it is for folks to get to bus and light rail stops.
“We’re hoping the report will elevate and educate decision makers and that community members will be able to use it as a tool to take to their own elected officials, particularly city council members and say, ‘You know, this is a problem. How are we dealing with it in our community?’” said West.
The study found that missing or damaged sidewalks within neighborhoods were the biggest concerns among those surveyed.
Denver City Councilperson Mary Beth Susman told The Colorado Independent she agrees, saying this is something the city has been working to address for a long time.
“The City Council has made this kind of infrastructure for this kind of transit our number one priority — along with things like pedestrian accessibility and bike accessibility, which are both connected to this,” Susman said. “The city is going to take a look at our whole sidewalk infrastructure. We need to do some major, innovative things for pedestrian safety at crosswalks and intersections.
“The trouble is that in Denver, it’s neither RTD’s nor the city’s responsibility to maintain or even build sidewalks. It’s in the hands of each property owner,” she said.
Susman thinks that because there are so many cities involved with differing ways of handling the creation of accessible and safe passageways for pedestrians, there needs to be a way to assess these connection issues statewide.
“We need to take a look at how we can fund the ability to put in sidewalks where we have none,” said Susman. “In my district — and in every district — there are neighborhoods that have no sidewalks. Many were built in the ’50s, when I think people thought we would never walk again.
“Right now, we have a policy that all sidewalk installation except on public property is the responsibility of the property owner. I know that there’s a suggestion afoot that we figure out a way to install sidewalks. We can do that, when it is attached to some other project.”
Chris Hinds, an advocate for persons with disabilities in Colorado, agrees that the issue is about more than just funding — it’s about knowing who is culpable. “One of the big roadblocks for achieving accessibility for all forms of transportation is the varied responsibility for last-mile, ADA development.”
He points to the Americans With Disabilities Act itself, a set of federally enacted guidelines that set an accessibility precedent across the country twenty-five years ago.
“Access to transportation is a matter of civil rights,” said Hinds.
If cities can come together and create safer, accessible passageways to public transit across neighborhoods in the metro area, the question of how to fund these projects still remains.
“We saw that in other places like Englewood and Westminster, there was a small fee assessed on people’s utility bills, so the city had a pool of resources to be able to invest in and maintain that infrastructure,” said West. “A city like Lakewood makes an annual allocation — it might not be the hundreds of millions of dollars that you would have to put in to make the system perfect right now, but I think of it like being on a diet — doing a little bit consistently would get us a long way, particularly if there were plans in place that really said, here’s the deep need.”
West said that one thing is particularly clear from the study’s findings: Colorado needs to make accessible, safe transportation an issue of pressing importance for all people, regardless of economic status.
“We would love to see the municipalities really prioritize those neighborhoods where people really need transit the most. Places where it isn’t just a luxury, it’s something that’s really necessary — and then dedicate the funding on an annual basis to really make those improvements consistently over time,” West said.
“Sometimes just having a piece of research or data helps provide a different kind of legitimacy to a problem that people know day-to-day is there.”
To get a look at the complete FLMC report and Mile High Connects findings, visit the organization’s website.
Photo credit: David Wilson, Creative Commons, Flickr.