In the wake of the tragic crash that recently killed a seventh-grade student on his way to school, community members want Littleton’s officials to make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.
On the morning of Oct. 17, a Euclid Middle School student was riding his bike to school when the fatal crash occurred at the intersection of South Elati Street and South Arapahoe Drive.
The death has left the community reeling, with people leaving candles and flowers at the intersection and holding moments of silence to remember the student.
Several residents say the way he died is inexcusably too common.
Last year, Colorado reached an all-time high of 115 pedestrian deaths, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, or CDOT. The data also shows that 15 bicyclists were killed last year.
Based on recent data, this year might end up being even deadlier. As of Sept. 30, there were 87 pedestrian fatalities in the state — nine more than at that time last year, according to CDOT.
The Euclid Middle School student isn’t the only life lost in Littleton in recent weeks. In September, Preston Dunn, a 51-year-old pedestrian, was struck and killed on West Bowles Avenue.
With recent tragedies, the calls for change are getting louder as advocates want better, safer infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“Collectively — as a city, as citizens, as advisory boards, as council, all of us — we have let our people down,” said Matt Duff, a community advocate for safer bike and pedestrian infrastructure. “The way that our streets are currently set up is a situation where if people make everyday, normal, human mistakes, it can cost a life.”
Duff has been asking for safer pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in Littleton for years. He is a member of Vibrant Littleton, a group that advocates for the cause, and a father of four.
“We specifically moved to Littleton because it was a place where our kids could walk or bike to school,” he said.
With his kids walking and biking to Runyon Elementary School, Euclid Middle School and Heritage High School, Duff said he knows the paths for kids to school are not safe enough.
He said the streets need to be designed as “complete streets,” offering dedicated space for many modes of transportation — like bikes, pedestrians and wheelchairs, not just cars.
On streets with painted lanes, there are possibilities for interaction points between cars and bikes, he said. Cars can cross over the lines and parked cars can open their car doors into the bike lane, potentially hitting, and even injuring or killing, cyclists.
One design solution for these routes would be protected bike lanes, Duff said.
Protected bike lanes have curbs, elevation differences or other physical barriers between the bike lane and street in order to reduce interaction between bikes and cars, Duff said.
The Oct. 17 crash is under investigation by the Littleton Police Department, so officials have not announced details about how it occurred.
Duff said the conversation should not be about who made a mistake, but instead about creating streets where people can make mistakes and not have them lead to death.
Especially on routes where children tend to travel, Duff said, this is particularly important.
“Our best opportunity right now is to start with our educational corridors to get kids to school safely,” he said.
Changing design goals and culture
As a member of Littleton’s transportation and mobility board, Duff said it would be helpful to have a clear “complete streets” framework that city staff and board members would always use when assessing maintenance or development projects involving streets.
Ben Traquair, another Vibrant Littleton member and community advocate for safer bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, said Littleton could start by looking at national and regional design guidelines that already exist, such as those from the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
“(They’re) guidelines that say, ‘If you’re building a road that looks like this, here’s the requirements — it has to have this much sidewalk, it has to have this much bike lane, if you build a bike lane, here’s how you have to do it to do it safely,’” he said.
Since some of these guidelines are general or for larger cities, Traquair said Littleton could use them as a starting point and adapt them to fit the city’s specific priorities and needs.
He also said it would be beneficial for the city to hire extra public works staff members who are specifically focused on neighborhood street safety and traffic.
Josie Haggerty, a Vibrant Littleton member who founded the group Littleton Social Cycle with Traquair, said the issue with the city’s current infrastructure is rooted in car culture, which is not unique to Littleton.
“Littleton was built to accommodate these big vehicles in the 40s, 50s, 60s,” she said. “Cars have only gotten faster and people are so dependent on them for transportation … That is a big change that needs to happen, just as a society, to realize that there are a lot of people who can’t drive.”
Age, disability and economic situations are some factors that play a role in people’s ability or desire to drive.
Instead of focusing on making it possible for cars to go faster, Traquair and Haggerty said Littleton needs to focus on how to make roads safer for everyone.
Traquair highlighted car-centric aspects of road design, such as right-turns on red lights, which was started in many states in the 1970s to reduce idling and save gas.
“The ultimate goal is to make the cars go faster,” he said. “What we want is to change that in the city to say, ‘Cars are going fast enough — you did it, you did a great job — but now we want to change the goal.’ And rather than focusing purely on, ‘How can we make cars get through the streets faster?’ we want to say, ‘How can we make it safer for all people to use it – people on bikes, people on wheelchairs, people walking?”
Traquair said pedestrian deaths are not only a Littleton problem. These deaths are on the rise nationwide, as reported by the New York Times.
He and his fellow advocates are not trying to assign blame to the city, but instead trying to help find solutions, he said.
“This is not a Littleton-only issue. And it’s not something that’s caused by the people in the current city council and the staff engineers,” Traquair said. “But they can fix it. They didn’t cause the problem, but they can fix it.”
Traquair, Haggerty and Duff partnered with other members of Littleton Social Cycle and Vibrant Littleton to organize a rally for safer streets on Oct. 28.
“We need to make a public stance that, as a community, we’re tired of seeing this,” Haggerty said.
Community members laid down their bicycles in front of Littleton Public Schools headquarters to call for fundamental changes to community policy around road design and safety.
Haggerty said the organizers chose the location to highlight the priority of safe routes for kids to get to school.
Traquair added that they want safe routes for everyone — not just students — but safety for kids is a number one priority.
Patrick Santana, an advocate who attended the rally, said 50 people showed up despite freezing temperatures and snow, including Mayor Kyle Schlachter.
The city’s plan
For Schlachter, the recent crash hit close to home. His son is a seventh grader who bikes to Euclid Middle School each day and knew the student who died recently.
Schlachter said he also uses a bike as transportation regularly.
Schlachter has been advocating for safer bike and pedestrian infrastructure for years, both as mayor and as a city councilmember before that. He said he is listening to the community advocates calling for change.
“I hear them, I’ve been listening to them for the last couple of years here, and I will continue to advocate for the policies that they are pushing for,” he said.
Schlachter said he supports the idea of protected bike lanes, which he has heard suggested from members of the community. He said he would especially like to see protected bike lanes on routes where kids bike to school, like Windermere Street, South Elati Street and West Caley Avenue.
Before the Oct. 28 rally, city staff was starting to reprioritize its work to begin accelerating plans for bike and pedestrian safety, City Manager Jim Becklenberg said.
He said a priority for 2024 will be creating a new bicycle and pedestrian master plan.
“As soon as our new city council is seated, we’re planning one of their first study sessions to focus on this topic,” he said. “Specifically, to really articulate for us the vision and what that new priority for bicycle and pedestrian safety looks like as we go forward.”
The city’s 2019 Transportation Master Plan included more than 70 projects for bike and pedestrian safety, of which 34 have been funded, planned or installed, Becklenberg said.
But the city is aspiring for a new level of bike safety which will build on this work, Becklenberg said.
“This is something I’ve been advocating for,” Schlachter said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities to improve the bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the city. And I think this, unfortunately, is an event that is going to hopefully spur some even more dramatic investments into that infrastructure.”
First steps towards the new bicycle and pedestrian master plan were already in the works before recent deaths, Schlachter said. But now, the city is taking an approach with more urgency.
Becklenberg said the city plans to assess design ideas from around the country and will likely have a community forum in the coming months to hear what citizens want as they create a new plan for bike and pedestrian safety.
Some advocates have said the city has hesitated in the past to take rapid steps towards safer infrastructure because of costs and lack of equipment for plowing.
Becklenberg said the city would assess these costs as it faces the challenge of protecting cyclists at a higher level than it has historically.
Acknowledging that many people rely on cars and do not want to be inconvenienced by changes, Schlachter said it is important to remember the consequences of this topic.
“There has to be a kind of mindset change that we are going to prioritize the safety and the lives of people that are on bicycles and walking around our community,” he said. “I think having a priority of people’s lives over being able to drive as quickly and as fast as people want is important, and a sacrifice that I think that we should make.”