It is one of the most successful urban spaces in the country, but Denver officials aren’t content to let the city’s 16th Street Mall languish. There’s a proposal on the table to remove RTD’s iconic FreeMallRide shuttle buses for thirteen consecutive weekends next summer in an effort to further pedestrianize the mall.
Denver officials are smart to mess with success. Lots of things have changed since the mall first opened in 1982. I lived in Denver at the time and remember shopping at the Denver Dry Goods, Joslin’s and May D&F. All are gone, replaced with myriad specialty retailers. There are more restaurants and the trees have grown, allowing the mall to age gracefully, and yet the shuttle buses that run its length are pretty much the same as they’ve always been.
Some pockets along the mall have fared better than others. Residents and visitors have quietly voiced concerns that they no longer feel as safe there as they once did. There are so many buses (45,000 people use them daily) that crashes with pedestrians and bicyclists invariably occur, though not as frequently as they might…most likely due to relatively low speeds and frequent stops.As a practical matter, the 16th Street Mall was designed primarily as a transit connector between two bus stations that anchored it at each end. Instead of routing buses down already clogged city streets, commuters from the north and west would disembark at the Market Street Station while those from the south and east would end their rides in the shadow of city hall and the state capitol at Civic Center Station. It was twelve long blocks between the two stations, and so RTD ran shuttles down the mall to help commuters cover the last mile. It’s longer still, now. Market Street Station has been replaced by a new transit center at Union Station…several blocks further northwest. But commuters now have another option to get from one end of the mall to another. RTD runs free MetroRide buses along 18th and 19th Streets, and that gives the city the opportunity to experiment with a pedestrian-only 16th Street.
This is a good proposal and RTD should adopt it. The state’s largest newspaper agrees. Removing buses for thirteen consecutive weekends will allow planners to collect and analyze data on the impact of unimpeded pedestrian access. Denver has done more than most places to make pedestrians and cyclists feel welcome throughout the city. This is a logical next step.