Across Colorado, communities large and small are diverting cars around main streets to allow more open-air, socially-distanced dining, shopping and strolling.
And now the state is stepping in with a new $4.1 million grant program to encourage more creative uses for public streets as businesses revive after the pandemic shutdown.
Denver, Boulder, Littleton, Louisville, Arvada, Frisco, Breckenridge, Carbondale, Erie, Fort Collins and Estes Park are among the first municipalities to experiment with shifting pavement built for cars to pedestrian-only pockets.
Gov. Jared Polis’s new multi-agency Can Do Colorado Community Challenge — announced Thursday amidst a flurry of initiatives — is championing those kinds of community efforts with grants that support safer workplaces, more open restaurants and easier remote working.
Other state agencies involved in the challenge include the departments of labor, local affairs, regulatory affairs, public health, the Regional Air Quality Council, the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Colorado Energy Office, all working to maintain progress made during the pandemic on issues like traffic and air quality. The agencies are offering a variety of grants, from a $500,000 program that offers e-bikes and e-scooters to low-income workers to commuting incentives for workers and employers that could improve air quality.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is providing “small-scale grants” to cities and towns that can quickly convert parking spots and roads into plazas, using money available in the state’s Multi Modal Options Fund. The agency also is offering micro grants up to $5,000 for communities that promote telework to reduce commuter traffic on local roads.
“The blanket learning we can take from this is that government and business are serious about reprioritizing street spaces for all these different reasons and the effect is that people biking and people walking are just as welcome as people in cars,” said Piep van Heuven with Bicycle Colorado.
Bicycle Colorado’s Denver Street Partnership in April surveyed 1,400 Denver residents and found the pandemic stirring a growing focus on walking and biking in the city. Nearly 90% of respondents said the city should reallocate street space for people and they suggested more than 200 stretches of downtown streets for closures and bike lanes, many around Capitol Hill.
The shift away from cars in public space is coming as businesses reopen under strict guidelines for keeping customers spaced 6 feet apart. That’s pushed cafes onto sidewalks and tables into parking lots.
CDOT communications director Matt Inzeo said the agency is working with different communities coming up with ideas for temporarily changing public spaces built for cars. For example, he pointed to Estes Park considering an adjustment to U.S. 34 through downtown, Fort Collins exploring business and restaurant space in diagonal parking spots and Breckenridge closing its entire Main Street to cars and routing traffic around downtown.
“The look of this may vary from one community to another,” said Inzeo, who expects CDOT will award “lots of smaller grants” to help communities pay for traffic barriers, paint and staff planning expenses. “As for bike lanes, there could be a scenario where they come into play but the conversations so far are focused on expanded public spaces near commercial centers.”
For the growing community of biking and pedestrian advocates who have spent the last decade pushing for a better balance of cars and people in local public space, CDOT’s turn toward community-focused space is a welcome opportunity. If pedestrian-friendly streetscapes bustling with outdoor diners and shoppers prove successful, many hope the shift could be more than temporary.
CDOT is able to do this for communities on U.S. highways based on a temporary waiver from the federal government, Inzeo said, noting that some changes may not be permanent but adjustments made on city and town streets could last longer based on local support.
“This is an exciting experiment to see in real life what happens when you are able to repurpose street space for public space that doesn’t include cars,” said Morgan Lommele, the director of state and local policy for People For Bikes. “What if we are able to use the current circumstance to find shared values and understand there is very likely enough room for cars even if we take cars off select street to expand other types of access to public places?”