Why Is Peña Boulevard A Bike Route? And Does Anyone Actually Use It?

March 23, 2020
Pena Boulevard Is A Bike RoutePena Boulevard Is A Bike RouteHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Reminder: Pena Boulevard is a bike route -- if you dare.

When Steve Lundt makes his daily commute from northeast Denver to work in Commerce City, he does what most safety-conscious cyclists do: he rides on low-trafficked side streets and paths. 

One of Denver’s designated bike routes has always puzzled him, though: Peña Boulevard, the busy four- to eight-lane highway (that will be even wider) that connects Interstate 70 to Denver International Airport. 

"Why is there a bike lane on the shoulder of Pena Boulevard out to DIA, and does anyone use it?” Lundt asked Colorado Wonders.

Let’s take those one at a time. 

Originally, there was supposed to be a better path. 

The $5 billion airport was supposed to have a $1.6 million path, “through a lushly landscaped route far from the traffic and noise of Peña Boulevard,” the Rocky Mountain News reported in 1996. 

That path was cut, said James Mackay. He was Denver’s bicycle planner back in the 1990s and 2000s. "The city had the money to do it,” Mackay said, adding that it even received a below-estimate bid. But the city was never committed to actually building the path, he said -- which still frustrates him today.

"A Dutch, a Dane, a Swiss, would know that when a big airport like this gets built, it'll have bike access,” he said. “But in the United States, it just doesn't happen. We have systematically exterminated the ability to ride bicycles."

But bicycle advocates still wanted a route, and eventually convinced airport officials to allow it on the shoulders of Peña Boulevard. They saw a future where European tourists would deplane and pedal straight west to the Rocky Mountains.

“We knew very well that it was likely to not get much use,” said Martha Roskowski, then-executive director of Bicycle Colorado. “But the idea of building this lovely new airport and then having zero opportunity for anyone to ride a bike there didn't seem right either."

Courtesy Steve Lundt
Colorado Wonders question-asker and Denver resident Steve Lundt on a recent bike ride in the Stapleton neighborhood.

After some new striping and signage, the route from 40th Avenue to DIA via Peña opened in the summer of 2000. And while city officials publicly touted it, their statements were clear-eyed too,  using phrases like “it’s a challenging ride” and “cyclists will be cycling at their own risk.”

"It was the cheapest way to declare, ‘mission accomplished,’ ” Mackay said.

Denver’s online database of traffic crashes in the city between 2012 and March 2020 shows some 2,700 incidents on Peña Boulevard -- but none involved a bicyclist. And a search of Denver’s newspapers from 2000 to the present didn’t turn up any reports of crashes either.

Of course, that’s probably because it hasn’t really turned into a popular route. The Strava heatmap shows Peña as dark as nearby E-470, where cyclists aren’t allowed. That means cyclists that use the popular app don’t tend to ride Peña. Parallel arterial roads like East 56th Avenue and Valley Head Street are far more popular and can also be used to access DIA.

DIA officially recommends that side route. I asked their press office if any airport employees who bike to work use the Peña route, but, understandably given the state of the world right now, didn’t hear back in time for this story. Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Roskowski said neither option -- Peña nor East 56th Avenue -- is safe. She had hoped the city would’ve upgraded the route to a separated path by now. Although, she said, any money for new bike facilities would be better used in the city where more people ride.

And even though she was instrumental in the Peña bike route’s existence, Roskowski said she never used it herself. 

“'I’m actually not that courageous of a cyclist,” she said. “I have a fairly good sense of self-preservation." 

Mackay calls that shoulder route, "a facade, an appearance, a deceit, a contrivance,” and said it’s still “triggering” to see those bike route signs today. He said Roskowski and other bicycle advocates should have done a better job of holding the city to its initial commitment to build a separated path. Moreover, he said, it could still be built.

"Blow the dust off the plans, freshen up the estimate based on current costs, and go build it,” he said. 

But still, our question-asker Steve Lundt wondered, has anyone actually biked Peña?

Before I answer that, let’s consider that this is Colorado we’re talking about. People here bike over three mountain passes in a day for fun. People ski up mountains for fun. People climb 2,000 foot cliffs for fun.  

In fall 2009, Chris Brown joined that elite group. He was a late-20-something new Denver resident who was working his way through all of the city’s bike routes on weekend rides. He knew the Peña route would be a challenge. 

Courtesy Chris Brown
Chris Brown wrote in a blog post, " “Riding Peña might sound scary. That's because it is scary. But it's doable. I'd do it again if I had to.”

“But if the city has gone through the trouble of designating this as a bike route, there should be an expectation that it's bikeable,” he said. 

So on a sunny September day, he hitched a ride to DIA with his partner who was leaving town. 

"I was excited for it,” he said. “I had done my homework and prepared for it the best that I was able."

As she left for security, he jumped on his blue Schwinn and headed east out of the terminal. At first, Peña’s wide shoulder seemed comfortable. Then he came upon debris like blown-out tires. And then, the cars blazed past. 

“There'd be a buffet of wind that hit me hard enough that it would give me the wobbles,” he remembered. 

The last big challenge was the on- and off-ramps, at places like Tower Road and East 56th Avenue. Cars were going incredibly fast, he said, and didn’t consistently use their blinkers to indicate if they were using an exit ramp. 

“I had no confidence whatsoever that the cars would be looking for me,” he said. “Or that if they saw me they'd be able to judge how fast I was going relative to how fast they were going."

So he waited until there weren’t any cars in sight before scooting across as quickly as he could. After about 45 minutes on Peña, Brown made it to Green Valley Ranch and peeled off to head toward home in central Denver. 

“Riding Peña might sound scary,” he wrote in a blog post from back then. “That's because it is scary. But it's doable. I'd do it again if I had to.”

That was nearly 11 years ago. And he hasn’t been back on it since then. 

“I don’t really see a situation in which I would do it again,” said Brown, who’s now in his late 30s. “Part of the appeal at the time was that it felt adventurous. There was definitely a thrill-seeking element to it. Maybe my tolerance for that has gotten a little bit lower in the 10 years that have passed.”

For our question-asker Steve Lundt, Brown’s story is enough to satisfy his curiosity. 

“It kinda confirms my belief over the years that it doesn't make sense to be biking out there,” Lundt said.

He’s daydreamed of biking to the airport, going on a trip, and then biking home. If he ever does follow through on that, he said, he’ll just use RTD’s A Line for the sketchiest part of the journey.

Do you regularly bike on Peña? Tell us why on Twitter by tagging @nbminor and @CPRNews.

Are you curious about something in the Centennial State? Ask us a question via Colorado Wonders and we’ll try to find the answer.

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