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Colfax may require a redesign to keep pedestrians safe

Denver isn’t ignoring the safety issues along the corridor, but solving the problem could mean bigger improvements.

DENVER — Denver police are searching for a driver who hit and killed a pedestrian Monday night on Colfax Avenue near Quebec Street, the second hit-and-run crash along Colfax in Denver in the past week.

Monday’s fatal crash marked the seventh time a driver hit a pedestrian along Colfax since the start of the year. Four pedestrians have died in crashes along Denver’s portion of the road in the same time.

“Colfax Avenue is one of the busiest pedestrian and transit corridors in Denver and is on the city’s High Injury Network– a term that refers to corridors with the highest number of fatal and serious injury crashes,” Nancy Kuhn, a spokeswoman for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) wrote in an e-mail to 9NEWS.

Denver isn’t ignoring the safety issues along the corridor. DOTI has installed paint and post safety treatments at more than a dozen intersections along Colfax and improved signal timing for pedestrians at 37 intersections. Other safety improvements also include enhanced LED streetlights and signs that warn drivers if they are exceeding the speed limit on a street. The city also improved street lighting to make intersections more visible at night.

“We are grateful for the changes they have made to Colfax,” said Jill Locantore, executive director with the Denver Streets Partnership, an advocacy group for safer streets for all modes of transportation.

“They have done some quick and low-cost treatments using paint and bollards to shrink the size of the road space and increase the size for pedestrians.”

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The improvements come as part of Denver’s half-decade-old Vision Zero campaign to implement traffic safety improvements around the city with a goal of eliminating all traffic deaths. Last year, the city saw the most traffic deaths, 84, since it began the Vision Zero program. As of mid-year 2022, the city is nearly on track to match that number.

But a 9NEWS analysis of Denver Police Department (DPD) traffic crash data since 2013 found pedestrian-involved crashes on Colfax have decreased since a peak in 2019. That year, DPD reported 59 pedestrian-involved crashes. Last year the data shows 40 such crashes. The number of pedestrians seriously hurt on Colfax remains relatively constant.

“[Colfax] was designed well before cars were invented,” said Wes Marshall, associated professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado Denver. “It was designed for other things first, then it became it state highway. And that’s where the prioritization for drivers and cars came into being.”

Marshall, who teaches new traffic engineers, said Colfax’s car-centric design inherently leads to danger for people using other modes of travel, like walking or cycling, even with the small improvements the city has made.

“I think we’ve been trying to put Band-Aids [on it] over the years,” he said. “The band aids are helping a little bit, I’m not sure they’re going to solve the problem.”

Marshall says a complete redesign of the road in pedestrian sensitive areas would be the best way to make the road safer.

“I would start from scratch,” he said. “I think it needs sort of a fundamental intervention.”

“I think I heard about one third of trips on this road aren’t in cars, so pedestrians, biking transit, but we dedicate about 90% of the space to cars. We could flip that and do something different.”

The city is considering just that. There are plans to convert much of East Colfax into a bus rapid transit corridor, narrowing the road for regular traffic with bus only lanes running down the middle. The changes would create more safe space for pedestrians to cross the street.

“Bus rapid transit will maybe reprioritize the street a little bit and maybe it will have a lot more of the fundamental infrastructure for people doing something other than driving,” Marshall said.

The concept has been discussed for years, but remains in the engineering and design phase, according to a website established for the project. DOTI estimates bus rapid transit corridor will be ready to go by 2028.

“It’s taking forever to implement those plans, and meanwhile, every week we’re seeing the tweets from the police department about people being hit and seriously injured or killed,” Locantore said.

DOTI will begin construction on a West Colfax pedestrian improvement project between Sheridan and Irving next year. That project includes new medians and curb bulb outs to shorten pedestrian crossing distances.

9News data journalist Zack Newman contributed to this report. 

Have a tip about this or any story? E-mail 9News reporter Steve Staeger at steve@9news.com.

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