For this month’s People Behind the Progress, we’re talking with Jill Locantore, the Executive Director of the Denver Streets Partnership and a leader in Denver’s Vision Zero movement. In our conversation we’ll talk about the work of the Denver Streets Partnership – ranging from pop-up traffic calming pilot projects as a way to reimagine car-centric street design to developing report cards on the city’s Vision Zero progress.
Vision Zero Network: The Denver Streets Partnership was founded in 2016 to advocate for people friendly streets, the same year the city started its Vision Zero program. How has the Denver Streets Partnership’s work shifted in this period?
Jill Locantore: The Denver Streets Partnership (DSP) began as an informal coalition of pedestrian and bicycle advocacy groups, including WalkDenver (where I previously served as Executive Director), Bike Denver, and Bicycle Colorado. Initially, our primary focus was collectively advocating for the funding Denver needs to build out complete pedestrian and bicycle networks within 20 years. Speaking together with a unified voice, we were tremendously successful. Not only has funding for walking and biking increased significantly in the City’s annual budget, we successfully advocated for $280 million for walking, biking, and complete streets improvements in the Bond measure that Denver voters approved in 2017.
Transportation funding continues to be a key focus area for the DSP – the Bond was a great jump start, but we still need a lot more funding to build out complete networks – and we have expanded our focus to include Vision Zero, transit, and other important transportation policy issues. By developing and advocating for a shared, multimodal policy platform, we’ve learned that we really are better together. So, WalkDenver, BikeDenver, and Bicycle Colorado have consolidated into a single organization: Denver Streets Partnership. We are now a fully-staffed division within Bicycle Colorado that advocates for walking, biking, transit, and safe streets within Denver. Bicycle Colorado continues to champion the interests of bicycle riders statewide.
VZN: Pedestrian safety is interlinked with development patterns, transit and much, much more. You are eloquent about the linkages between transportation options for all of Denver’s residents, congestion solutions and safety. How is your organization acknowledging and working with the reality of complex, interconnected issues that influence transportation?
JL: The DSP continues to operate as a coalition, and we’ve expanded to include additional members with a variety of perspectives on transportation and mobility. Our Steering Committee currently includes organizations – AARP, the American Heart Association, CoPIRG, and the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition – that care about public health, environmental sustainability, access for people with disabilities, social justice, and how we can address these issues while fixing our broken transportation system.
We also work really hard to listen to community members and respond to their needs. For example, our Little Saigon Initiative grew out of our work on Vision Zero and a focus on one of the most deadly streets in Denver Federal Boulevard. This boulevard is also home to an incredible concentration of small, entrepreneurial businesses owned by immigrants from Vietnam and other Asian and Latin American countries. The community was interested in forming a business improvement district so they could better advocate for themselves and needed improvements on the corridor, but they lacked the resources to move forward. So, we started up the Little Saigon initiative to bring the funding and support they needed to work together as a corridor, and to help the businesses thrive as the safety of the corridor improves.
VZN: The Denver Streets Partnership delivered hard news, giving the city of Denver a “C” grade in the Denver Vision Zero Action Plan Progress Report Card 2018. The report card gave the City some credit for areas of progress, while also calling out what you consider failures, including not directing more attention and safety improvements to Communities of Concern. Your advocacy keeps pressure on the City to implement the safety actions outlined in Denver’s Vision Zero Action Plan. How did you use the report card to help show the need for increased project funding, more staff, and stronger leadership?
JL: At the DSP, we always want to acknowledge the good work that City staff are doing, while also keeping focused on the ultimate outcomes that we’re trying to achieve – including zero traffic fatalities – and not settling for less than what’s needed to get there. We know that a lot of City staff care as much as we do about providing safe and healthy transportation options, but are held back by a lack of resources or political will from City leaders. The Vision Zero Report Card was a great way to document the progress that we’ve made, and demonstrate how it’s falling short of where we need to be. It focused the public conversation on the areas that need improvement, and in some cases lit a fire under the City to accelerate their work. For example, for 2018 we gave the City a “D” grade specifically for street lighting. We know a lot of fatal crashes happen at twilight or later at night when better lighting could make a real difference. That caught the attention of City leaders, and in 2019 they upgraded more than 30,000 street lights around Denver!
VZN: The Denver Streets Partnership sounds like an exciting evolution to integrate advocacy at many levels – local, regional and state – and to advance truly multimodal goals. What are you most excited about in terms of better coordination with agencies at all of these levels? How will your work change as you move from leading “WalkDenver” to leading a “Streets Partnership”?
JL: I’m excited to move beyond the tribalism of specific modes – “I’m a bicyclist” vs. “I’m a pedestrian” vs. “I’m a driver” – and to focus on truly reclaiming Denver’s streets for people. We’re all in this together, and our transportation system is failing all of us, regardless of how we choose to get around on any particular day. By considering our streets and transportation holistically, and showing people what complete streets can look and feel like, I’m optimistic that we can finally defeat car culture and start creating a system that supports more dignity and freedom for everyone.
VZN: Congratulations on this big step for Denver and Colorado! Knowing that you’ll inspire other organizations with this evolution, what cities and regions most inspire your Vision Zero work? And what needs to change most in Denver to make big Vision Zero progress?
JL: I had the pleasure of visiting Copenhagen last year as part of a leadership trip organized by the Downtown Denver Partnership. I was really struck by how peaceful the streets are there, simply because they are not dominated by cars. Instead of constantly being on alert to potential dangers while walking or biking, you could just relax and enjoy being out and about in the city. The most amazing thing was the absence of traffic noise – you could hear birds singing and people laughing. It took me a while to readjust to all the noise and stress when I came back to Denver. The interesting thing is, cars are allowed virtually everywhere in the city of Copenhagen, they are just clearly the lowest priority in the overall design of the streets. A great example is the “continuous sidewalk,” where the sidewalk continues at the same elevation across an intersection or a driveway – so no need for accessible curb ramps – and it’s the cars that have to drive up and over the sidewalk, kind of like a speed hump. It’s a subtle detail, and easy to miss, but conveys in a very intuitive manner who has the priority right-of-way at that intersection. It’s that kind of thinking I’d love to see reflected in street designs here in Denver.
VZN: Denver is lucky to have your big ideas and your experience – including past work at Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). In our January conversation with an MPO leader in Hillsborough County, Florida, Beth Alden shared her MPO’s work on a speed study. What is Denver’s biggest challenge and opportunity to manage speed? How is it different to work on safety as an advocate versus when you were principal planner at Denver Regional Council of Governments?
JL: In Denver, like everywhere else, so much of transportation planning from the federal government to MPOs on down is focused on “congestion mitigation.” The problem with that focus is that congestion essentially means slower speeds, and conversely mitigating congestion enables people to drive faster. We see that right now with the COVID-19 crisis – with so much less traffic on our streets, everyone is driving faster, and there’s some data that suggests crashes are increasing as well. I’d love it if we could just drop “congestion” from our vocabulary all together and instead talk about safety and access, and actually hold up slower speeds as the measure of a successful transportation project. That would be a gigantic shift in thinking for organizations like MPOs, but one I think the public could actually embrace. I continually hear from community members who are unhappy about how fast people drive through their neighborhoods, even from folks who would never think of themselves as walking or biking advocates. Sometimes the people are ahead of the political decision makers, and I think that’s the case when it comes to speed management.