Jill Locantore, policy and program director at pedestrian advocacy group WalkDenver, has a background in psychology. So her approach to making Denver a more pedestrian-friendly city is founded in a deep understanding of common misperceptions about the factors that shape human behavior.
“Typically we like to think of ourselves as very rational people who go through a deliberative process leading up to each of our decisions, and that’s not necessarily the case,” says Locantore. You’d think that in choosing their transit options, people would draw up some arithmetic, factoring in environmental impacts, health impacts, and cost impacts, and let the rational outcome dictate whether they walk, take the train, or drive. But Locantore knows all too well that that’s just not how people work.
“People more just respond to the environment that they’re in,” she says, “and what is the environment inviting them to do? Right now, in most of our communities, the loud and clear invitation is ‘PLEASE DRIVE!’” What we need to do, says Locantore, is shift the calculus so that our environments invite us to walk instead, to take the bus instead, to bike instead. “People are going to respond to that, even on a subconscious level,” she believes.
“People more just respond to the environment that they’re in,” she says, “and what is the environment inviting them to do? Right now, in most of our communities, the loud and clear invitation is ‘PLEASE DRIVE!’”
To that end, she’s taking on ioby’s Trick Out My Trip challenge, and working with her team to tackle a stubbornly pedestrian-UNfriendly section of Denver’s Federal Boulevard – the area around 25th Street. Back at the start of the 20th century, when the area was a streetcar suburb, Federal Boulevard was where streetcars came through. When Denver’s streetcars died out, that section of Federal Boulevard became an ugly, mammoth highway, and the business district in the neighborhood declined. Those shops and commercial buildings remained empty until just recently; in 2012, Walk Denver held a “better block party,” to temporarily demonstrate what it would be like if the area could be reanimated. The event was a huge success, and the area’s commercial buildings quickly filled up for the first time in decades. Now, on the east side of Federal and 25th, you’ll find a brand new coffee shop, a pizza parlor, an Italian restaurant under construction and set to open soon, a boutique men’s clothing store, and a Crossfit gym.
Almost impossible to believe, then, that there is still no crosswalk to connect people living in the residential community just on the other side of Federal Boulevard with the burgeoning business district.
“For so long Federal Boulevard has been this psychological barrier in people’s minds, and not someplace they could actually walk across,” Locantore says. The big lesson, it seems, as with so many of the Trick Out My Trip projects, is: stuff’s not that far apart! It doesn’t take that long! You can walk it – really! Even in a car-heavy culture like Denver’s, opening up new paths and getting people to try walking, says Locantore, can quickly open their eyes. “Once they start trying it, they realize that it can actually be really pleasant, it can save them money, it allows them to integrate healthy activities and exercise into their daily lives.”
In fact, Locantore has noticed word spreading right before her eyes: “I see people kind of going though conversions, where they’re like, ‘I don’t know why I never thought of this before – walking! Such a great thing to do!’ And then they kind of become evangelists and tell other people.” Her own neighbor went through that conversion. Locantore and her husband never talked to her about their car-free lifestyle, but she pretty quickly went car-free herself, and never looked back. “I think she just watched us, and saw how it wasn’t a burden, and that we were able to live full and active lives and do all the things she did without a car,” says Locantore.
The first step will be to hold an interactive mapping exercise in the community; Locantore and her teammates will gather community leaders, and brainstorm about where along the Boulevard a new walking path could be most useful. “We definitely want the community to be the owner of this project,” she says, “and for the project to be a reflection of the community’s vision. That increases the likelihood that people will actually take advantage of the path.” It’s safe at this stage to name at least three destinations that the new path will almost definitely link up: Denver’s Broncos stadium, the new business district, and a nearby Safeway.
Once a path is decided on, they’ll mark it through intentional, awareness-raising methods – making improvements at intersections along the way, installing public art and wayfinding signs. They’ll also, in partnership with Walk2Connect, hold a series of neighborhood field trips tailored to different demographics: one for families with kids, one for young people who might want to bar hop.
Finally, the team will hold a celebratory “walk to dinner” event, gathering locals to walk together to a nearby restaurant. Who knows, if you join up and walk to dinner, you discover a new favorite restaurant, making new friends along the way. Talk about inviting people to walk.