How to Drive in Denver




Good day!
I hate driving in cities. With a vengeance. With the fiery hated of a thousand suns.
In particular, I hate driving in Denver, mostly because I live there.

Anyway, I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on the ins and outs of getting around this fair city we've got going, so I thought I'd give a quick overview of the dos and donts, as well as the birds and bees of city driving. (I feel dirty after writing that)

I realize not everyone lives in the Mile High city (though it seems like they do), but I hope that this instructable will inspire others to create similar guides for their metropolitan/urban areas of their choice.

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Step 1: Geography and Street Layout

First off, the most important thing for any driver is knowing where you are in relation to your destination. The best way to know where you're at is to know which way is north (or south)
Luckily, we here in Denver are the noble decendants of those intrepid explorers who came west on wagons, saw the mountains, and said "Screw it, we're here!"

The Rocky Mountains are to the west. This is easily the most helpful advice anyone ever could get for driving here.
The mountains can also be seen from pretty much anywhere in Denver, and once you've got a handle on that, you can find your way north or south, because anywhere is better than where you're at right now, which is, inexplicably, Denver.

Another helpful fun fact: 90% of the roads here run on a grid, meaning north-south, or east-west. The only areas this doesn't apply are downtown and in the suburbs (places like Littleton and Highlands Ranch, but what are you doing there?)
The streets in Downtown Denver are on a angle, they run northwest-southeast and vice versa. The reason for this is ingenious: in winter, all the streets will get a good 3-4 hours of sunlight, which would melt the snow! Brilliant! Except when it really snows (like four or five feet, which is rare), it's never sunny! Wheeee....

Step 2: Cities and Areas

In common conversation, "Denver" could refer to many things.
The City of Denver,
The County of Denver,
The Denver Metro Area,
The Denver Omelet,
John Denver....
...I can't help you if you're trying to drive a Denver omelet,and I don't think John gets around much anymore...

In reality, there are 20 or so adjacent cities that make up the "Denver Metro Area", which is what most people use to refer to, um, the denver metro area.
A nifty  map with all the cities is below, but I'll outline the most common ones:

Downtown: Slang for the City of Denver, which encompasses all the big skyscrapers and sports teams; the center of all that is Colorado
Lakewood: The west side of town; the biggest city gets the naming convention. Populous.
Aurora: Conversely, the east side of town. Shady folk here.
Wheat Ridge/Arvada: Northwest Denver, mostly residential, except when it's not.
Littleton: Southwest Denver, suburbs and Lockheed Martin MI complex; stay away unless you have a missile to sell.
The Tech Center: Included: Englewood, Centennial, and Highlands Ranch; Straight south down I-25, headquarters and branches of seemingly every white collar corporation ever, and the mother source of all of Denver's rush hour traffic. Seriously.
Westminster: Like Arvada North, except, well, it's Arvada North.

Also notable:
Golden and Morrison: Make up the far west and southwest edges of The DMA, very nice little towns, except for the foul monstrosity of the Coors plant. (Red Rocks is in Morrison, though, so it balances out)
Boulder: Far far away up to the Northwest, everyone should know where Boulder is so they can avoid it like the plague, unless it's April 20th.
Castle Rock: Surprisingly Stephen King free, CR is in between Denver and Colorado Springs, and has a rock that is apparently heavily fortified. Detour around if unarmed.

If you're new in town, you'll probably have experience with the airport, which is currently Denver International (there's been like twenty airports in the last 50 years, whatever.)
DIA is kind of interesting, it sits 40 miles northeast of downtown, but the city bought up all the land along I70 and now the city and county of Denver extends wayy on up, for some reason.  DIA is actually pretty nice, considering it sits in the middle of a cornfield and is shaped like a swastika...

Step 3: Interstate and Highways

If you are simply passing through Denver on your way to more exotic locales (like Omaha), consider this the only step that affects you.

Looking at a map of Denver, the first image that springs to mind is that of a hamburger. Actually I'm just hungry and really Denver looks more like a crosshair from above.

There are two major Interstates that cross here, around these Denver has sort of coagulated. I70 carries your east-west traffic, and I25 is north south. Both of these cross most of the country and run for hundreds of miles, so they're my logical starting place, since you'll be using them most often. For when you arrive, and when you flee.
There's also I-76 and I-270 directly north of downtown, they cross at I-25, and are pretty much useless for in-city driving.
On the Southern half of the crosshair, C-470 and I-225 create a big loop that acts as a city wall, keeping the heathen tribes of the suburbs out at night.

For intra-city travel, there's highway 285 on the south half of the city, it runs from I25 west and then south, and eventually will take you into the mountains and to freedom. It's a good choice for avoiding C470 at busy times, but there's currently (meaning forever, in Den-speak) a lot of construction, so it's not always the best.
The northern equivalent is 6th Avenue, or Highway 6, turns from a one way street into a highway and will also lead you into the mountains, intersecting both I70 and C470 along the way. It's peachy, most days.

For residents of Denver, consider this: the Denver Metro area covers 8500 square miles, making Highway and Interstate use almost inevitable. HOWEVER, that does not mean that a 6 lanes road will get you there quicker than a two lane one. (size doesn't matter)
It's all about playing the time game, and knowing when particular routes are shitfucked during the day.

Step 4: Taking the High Roads

OK, on to the (ground) meat.

Like I said earlier, the most important thing to remember about driving here is knowing what routes are clogged, at what time of day, and when to ignore your GPS.

For example, if your GeepeySauce or mapagoogles or whatever the kids are using these days tells you to take I25 through the tech center, at any time, on any day, I would counter it's instructions with an offer to chuck it out the window for you. I25 is always hosed, and there's nothing to be done about it by you.

Aside from the highway of death, the time of day matters most when using I-70 or one of the other major highways.
Example: because of the way the 303's laid out, most people live in the west or southwest, and drive north east or east to get to work, and vice versa on the way home. So, logically, avoid I-70, 6th ave, 285, and C470 eastbound until about 9:30 or 10am, and westbound from about 4-6:30.
Easy enough right? WRONG. NEXT STEP.

Step 5: Back Down to Earth

If you're avoiding the highways, you'll be using surface streets to get around. The problem with that is that then you have to deal with the increased traffic that comes with driving near shopping centers, or parts of town that are heavy on business.
I unfortunately can't speak on all of the major streets in Denver, but i can give you an example with the streets I live near:
Wadsworth blvd is the most direct route for me to get home from 6th ave, but Wadsworth is almost 100% commercial property from 6th to C470. that means that all the soccer moms going to Garts, all the hipsters ironically shopping at Walmart, all the Honda Civics with $400 rims and junkyard doors, they all use this road, and they all drive like idiots (more on that later)
But wait! Kipling Street has nothing but homes and schools on it, and it's only 30 seconds farther up 6th avenue! But more importantly, there's a Dippin Dots on the way home! Yippees!
It's well-thought out decisions like these, made for the right reasons, that can make the difference between a blissful day of futuristic car friendly ice cream enlightenment and shitting in a 30 mile long parking lot filled with douchebags who aren't even douche-ey enough to honk at each other.

Step 6: Your Fellow Vehiculists

The best piece of advice I can give you about the other people on the road is that the sooner you realize that everyone else is either an idiot, an asshole, or legally blind in this town, the sooner you can make the decision to buy a bike, leave it at home, and ride the bus.

I realize that every city has it's share of bad drivers, but Denver's infestation is compounded by a couple of crucial elements. The first is what I assume must be Colorado's incredibly low age requirement to obtain a license (apparently 4 and a half, judging by the generally juvenile approach to basics like sharing, counting, and potty training), the second is what most people think of when they think of Denver: weather.
CONTRARY to popular belief, the Mile High City is not a mountain town, and 300 days of sun a year does not justify having streets at an angle. It snows here, yes, but infrequently, and never really enough to close schools, which is the only reliable weather predictor we have.
What comes with mild weather are mild drivers, which means that at the slightest sign of rain or snow or wind, people starts slamming on their brakes, running their windshield wipers, and generally driving like the apocalypse has broken out. Avoid these people (read: all people) in inclement weather, and pray to god that CDOT has its shit together this time.

A word on speed limits: Add 5. The fast left lane drives five above the limit, and the slow right lane drives five below. Or as fast as they can. The middle lane, therefore, is completely free to merge into one of the other lanes, since no one likes wafflers. Cops don't care unless you're endangering others, and the other drivers don't care because they're too busy eating/sleeping/drinking or writing instructables.

Step 7: Happy Trails

Well, this turned into a rant pretty quickly, didn't it?
Take it or leave it, just don't forget to avoid I25 and always make sure you wear a helmet, and you'll be fine-ish.

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    15 Discussions


    6 years ago on Step 3

    Caution: 6th Avenue has no relationship with Highway 6, other than being the western/northern termination point at right angles to the parallel route (yea, that sorta happens a lot as you get to the mountain wall west of Denver). Highway 6 runs from theTip of Cape Cod to Bishop, CA, and is never part of Denver's 6th Ave. The E/W convention of Avenues in Denver gets really confused when they approach the mountains and mainly run N/S, conflicting with N/S running numbered Streets, much less Hwys. When 6th Ave crosses Colfax (nee 15th Ave), a parallel street 9 blocks north, and then ends far north of 44th Ave (aka 10th St. in Golden) one can appreciate the confusion of those trying to turn E/W on a route that only offers N/S choices. CDOT needs to rename conventions when they change directions.

    Excellent advice! Except not ALL Aurorans are shady ;) Some of us just like affordable housing in quiet neighborhoods and inexpensive/awesome ethnic restaurants :) Note that I did not refer to NORTH Aurora, as that's the shady zone.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    If I still lived in Boston I'd cover that city - it definitely takes some insider know-how to navigate quickly and successfully.

    3 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I need that. I moved here over the summer from the lower Midwest and wow. It's taken me 4 months just to learn some basic driving survival skills, and that mostly means how to get around about half the potholes, how to figure out when there's one lane or two, how to drive to work in a flood (bka rain), and how to effectively survive the people pulling out into traffic that don't see you (ie, don't care).

    I went to Denver about 10 years ago on vacation and I learned to navigate by which shoulder the mountains were on. Once I figured that out, I didn't feel too lost, except for that one time I went downtown. But it wasn't too bad. Away from the mountains = east, towards the mountains = west. Left shoulder = north, right shoulder = south. My hotel was west. :)


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    That would be very interesting- How one would navigate through the maze of potholes dug by yankees fans and filled by the Irish with week old whiskey-based vomit particularly intrigues me... Do you prefer bulletproof glass or steel shutters when you drive in Boston? :-)


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Ha! When I lived there, they were changing up major (and minor) routes through the city on a daily basis as part of the Big Dig. It was a lot of fun to keep track of, and navigate smoothly.

    Of course, I actually prefer biking in Boston! You get there faster, and can actually find a place to park.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    You forgot a few key points....

    First, if a light turns yellow, keep going - don't even bother to slow down (or you'll get honked at).
    Next, there is a mandatory 3 car minimum for running red lights. So if your in the first three vehicles when a light turns red, you have to go through (or suffer the wrath of the idiots behind you as they get infuriated because you didn't go when you had the chance).
    Also, on the highways the speed limit is more like this; slow lane = add 5. Center lane(s) = add 10. Fast lane = add 15-20. And yes, I am serious. I get passed ALL THE TIME when I am doing 5-10 over in the center lane. And I frequently am passed right and left, one of the slowest cars on the highway, doing 5-10 MPH over the limit.

    4 replies

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Haha, very true. I assumed those are rules for driving anywhere, though my numbers may be a bit conservative to reflect my current vehicle's inability to make 60 in under ten minutes...


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Having driven in Texas (Dallas, Houston, and Austin as well as smaller cities), Northen Cali (several silicon valley cities as well as SanFran), New York (Up State as well as NYC, Manhattan, and even down to Jersey), and having made many cross country trips by car, I can feel confident when I say Colorado (especially Denver) has the worst {public*} drivers I have ever encountered.

    Now, the traffic can be worse elsewhere... but that is generally due to the constraints of the roads and such. Here in Colorado the drivers are just horrible!

    *Now, for public transit and such, D.C. has the worst drivers in America... I have had taxi drivers go an entire block on the wrong side of the street (into oncoming traffic) to get past cars stopped at a light, just make a left hand turn. I was scared... very scared.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I grew up in Detroit, home of "Malfunction Junction," a massive snarl of overlapping highway bridges and ramps. If a car breaks down on any one of the highways or ramps, ALL traffic stops. You're there for hours, hope ya brought a sammich. But I still think Atlanta has the worst traffic, hands-down (sorry Denver, you're on the list, well ahead of Detroit, and probably just behind LA and Atlanta.)


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I agree that Denver doesn't have the worst traffic here, as I said in my previous reply... but we do have the worst *drivers*


    You gotta make one of these for the Springs. I moved here from a small city in Michigan, where people are alot more "conservative" while driving. It's taken me 2 years just to learn to accelerate fast instead of easing into a lane.


    9 years ago on Step 4

    Very nicely done! The sad part, of course, is that some very simple global search-and-replace can turn this into a description of just about any Western U.S. metro area :-)

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks, and it's not really the advice, but the manner in which it's dispensed that makes the 'ible unique, so I'm looking forward to others!