Denver to close downtown streets to cars for Viva Streets
John and Cody were driving to brunch Sunday when they found South Broadway was closed to vehicles. Undaunted, they picked up scooters and traveled on to their destination, like hundreds of others taking advantage of miles of roads closed for Viva! Streets Denver.
"We didn't know this was happening, but we thought this was great," said Cody, who like John, refused to give his last name. "We use scooters on a daily basis."
One Sunday a month through August, Welton Street from Downing to Broadway and Broadway south to Alameda will be closed from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., freeing the pavement for people to walk, bike, Rollerblade or ride a scooter in the city to connect with neighborhoods and businesses along the route. The next Viva! Streets is June 4.
Viva! Streets also was created to introduce people to new forms of transportation. The program promotes a healthy lifestyle through the reduction of air pollution that new micro mobility options, like scooters, allow.
The idea isn't new. Back in 1974, the city of Bogota, Colombia, began shutting down streets every Sunday morning for "La Ciclovía," which helped link the arts, restaurants and other businesses with the community. Today, more than 400 cities around the world have similar programs.
Viva! Streets Denver is about thinking streets in a different way. Each Sunday, there will be many activities, such as art exhibits, dance and yoga classes or activities for the little ones. Businesses along the route will be able to offer their products to the community.
The route starts at Curtis Park, goes past the Capitol and down through all the thrift store zone on South Broadway to West Washington Park.
The Downtown Denver Partnership developed Viva! Streets after taking an "urban exploration" trip to Mexico City looking for ways to bring new mobility ideas to Denver. About 150 "city builders from Denver" experienced the ciclovía there, said Ellen Forthofer, urban planning manager for the partnership.
Denver has a good base to build on.
Forthofer said there has been a spike in adoption of e-bikes in Denver, in part because of a city program that offered rebates to people who bought them. But she also said that the city has "seen about 5 million trips on electric shared bikes and scooters in the last year."
Rental scooters and bikes are important last-mile tools as the city encourages people to ditch their cars in the interest of cleaner air and less congested streets.
"If you take public transportation and have just a little more to go, a scooter or an e-bike serves that purpose," Downtown Denver Partnership Kourtny Garrett said. "What we need to do is have a safe infrastructure for its use so that everyone can coexist in a safe environment."
The DDP has partnered with Lyft and Lime, two companies that rent electric scooters and electric bicycles in the city, to increase the number of available bikes and scooters, and to make sure hubs are placed at bus and rail stops.
Between the last quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2023 more than 700,000 people in Denver made about 12 million trips on dockless scooters and electric bikes, according to the city's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. According to city data, there were more than 2,800 scooters and e-bikes on city streets during that period.
Lyft and Lime were present at the inaugural Viva! Streets event. "We just want to create a culture where people can get on their bikes or scooters and enjoy the city," Lyft operations manager Arnaldo Colón said. "We want to collaborate with cities to change the way people get around."
Lyft began renting scooters and e-bikes in Denver in 2018. The company currently has 300 scooters and 800 e-bikes, and 60 charging stations. Its service area covers 93 square miles of the city. The most active users are downtown.
"During the pandemic the city asked us to keep providing our service, at that point it became an essential service. We worked to keep the units especially clean and continue with that practice" said Colón, who also said scooters are the most popular choice among Denver riders.
Lime offered demo rides and instructed people about how to ride e-scooters and e-bikes safely, said Alex Sandor, the company's Colorado operations managers. He also explained the Lime Access program, which offers discounted rides to people who are eligible for federal food, health or housing assistance.
Lime came to Denver more than four years ago and recently started a five-year contract with the city's transportation department. Its fleet size varies depending on the time of year. Sandor would not say how many Lime scooters and bikes are on Denver streets today.
DDP's Garrett estimated that during the height of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders decreased the daily workforce downtown by about 120,000 people per day. "We are about 60% of our daytime traffic, our evenings and weekends are back to pre-pandemic levels. People want to come back.
"We have seen retail and hospitality as sectors hit by the pandemic. However, within the last couple of months, six new businesses opened on the 16th Street Mall and 15 others are in the pipeline," she said. "Retailers are beginning to see these numbers going back to pre-pandemic levels as well."
About 35,000 people live in the core downtown Denver, and close to 100,000 if surrounding neighborhoods are included.
DDP volunteers Katie Picarella and Braden Soul were part of the team who helped greet attendees and aid automobiles crossing Broadway and Welton at key intersections. Picarella said the intent of the event is to make people feel more comfortable with new modes of transportation in the city and not having to use automobiles to get everywhere.
Soul belongs to a group of cyclists who ride around different neighborhoods and go to bars. His group, though somewhat informal, has talked with Denver city council candidates. Soul said "five years ago there were half as many scooter- and bike-friendly streets in the city."
Not everyone can — or wants to — travel the 3.5 miles of car-free streets on foot or scooter, so the Downtown Denver Partnership is offering free rides in "limos" powered at least in part by humans.
These pedicab limos are hybrids, a 21-gear mountain bike that has a motor activated once the driver starts pedaling.
"It is a unique experience to operate without cars," said pedicab driver Aaron Kimmelman, whose company Aaron's GreenRides is providing the free service this summer during Viva! Streets.