How Denver Is Becoming the Most Advanced Transit City in the West

But the key question remains: Will metro residents give up their cars?

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Union Station is the centerpiece of Denver's FasTracks expansion program. (Taras Grescoe)

DENVER—It's a vision straight out of a transportation planner's fondest dream.

In the center of the metropolis, the Beaux-Arts façade of a grand old railway terminus, finished in robin egg-hued terracotta stone, is cradled by the daring swoop of a canopy of brilliant white Teflon. On one of eight tracks, a double-decked passenger train has stopped to refuel. A few hundred yards away, German-built light rail vehicles arrive from distant parts of the city, pulling into a downtown of soaring condo towers and multifamily apartment complexes. Beneath the feet of rushing commuters, express buses pull out of the bays of an underground concourse, and articulated buses shuttle straphangers through the central business district free of charge. A businessman, after swinging his briefcase into a basket, detaches the last remaining bicycle from a bike-share stand next to the light rail stop, completing the final leg of his journey-to-work on two wheels.

An out-of-towner could be forgiven for thinking she'd arrived in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, or another global poster child for up-to-the-minute urbanism. The patch of sky framed in the white oval of the Union Station platform canopy, however, is purest prairie blue. This is Denver, a city that, until recently, most people would have pegged as an all-too-typical casualty of frontier-town, car-centric thinking.

"Denver is a car town," says Phil Washington, who has been general manager of the Regional Transportation District, metro Denver's rail provider, since 2009. Originally from Chicago, Washington joined the transit authority after a 24-year career in the military. "You've got to remember, not so long ago, this was the Wild West. Historically, everybody had their own frickin' horse. They'd strap them up on a pole outside the saloon. Folks feel the same way about their cars." (Washington notes that even the RTD headquarters — conjoined brick buildings in what is now rapidly gentrifying LoDo, Lower Downtown — was once a notorious brothel, located a convenient stroll from Union Station.)

But in a state that recently voted to legalize the retail sale of marijuana, change is clearly in the wind. Ten years ago, Denver's new mayor (and current Colorado governor) John Hickenlooper began to ramp up a campaign to convince voters to approve an ambitious expansion of the region's embryonic light rail network. A similar plan — fuzzy on such key details as routes and cost — had been defeated in a 1997 referendum. In 2004, the region's voters approved $4.7 billion of new debt for the FasTracks program. The plan, to add 121 miles of new commuter and light-rail tracks to the region, 18 miles of bus rapid transit lanes, 57 new rapid transit stations, and 21,000 park-and-ride spots, was approved 58-to-42, precisely reversing the results of the '97 referendum. (The pricetag has since risen to $7.8 billion.)

Courtesy of RTD

Washington attributes the approval of FasTracks, in part, to growing frustration with traffic congestion. An earlier program called T-REX (for Transportation Expansion) built not only a light rail line to the city's southeast, but also widened Interstate 25, the region's main north-south axis. Following the apparently immutable laws of induced demand, increased road supply led to increased traffic. Within a year, I-25 was just as congested as it had ever been. Voters, Washington believes, came to the conclusion that transit offered a better path.

Another key factor in the referendum's success, Washington insists, was a concerted public relations campaign. RTD, supported by the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Denver Regional Congress of Governments (DRCOG), launched a communications blitz which had them doing presentations in schools and city halls across most of the region's 60 municipalities.

"From the start, we made it clear we weren't competing with the car," says Washington. "And we explained, to the average Joe, that for only four cents on most ten dollar purchases, he'd be getting a whole lot of new transportation."

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Washington traces the progress of FasTracks on a poster-sized map clipped to a whiteboard. Light rail trains, on a track that branches south of downtown, already offer service to Littleton and Lincoln; extensions will see new miles of tracks penetrating even deeper into the southern exurbs. Last year saw the opening of the first FasTracks project, the West Rail line, running through some of Denver's lowest income neighborhoods to its terminus at the headquarters of Jefferson County. By 2016, the Gold Line to Arvada will offer further service to the west, and the East Rail line will carry passengers to the airport; both lines will run heavy-duty commuter trains powered by overhead catenary wires. A rail line along Interstate 225 will create a loop east of downtown, which Washington hopes will one day become a true circle line.

Only the Northwest Rail Line, says Washington, remains a question mark. Intended to bring commuters from downtown to Boulder and Longmont, along 41 miles of track, it follows a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad freight corridor.

A rendering of the Westminster Station on the Northwest Rail Line. (Courtesy of RTD via Flickr)

By 2016, a bus-rapid transit system will offer service to Boulder, home to a university and cluster of tech companies that make it a major employment hub. The BRT along U.S. 36 will be more than just a stopgap; plans call for it to continue to run in tandem with commuter rail. Washington concedes that the line will be something less than full BRT. The buses currently on order have only one door, significantly slowing boarding and unloading, and will run in regular highway lanes, rather than dedicated busways.

By 2018, when all but one of the ten FasTracks lines should be completed, a metropolitan area with a projected population of 3 million, spread out over 2,340 square miles, will be served by nine rail lines, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, and 95 stations. Many argue it will turn Denver into the west's most advanced transit city, vaulting it beyond better-known peers Portland, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

"We're witnessing the transformation of a North American city through transportation infrastructure investment," says Washington. He foresees a not-too-distant future when Denverites will be able to access not only light and commuter rail but also RTD buses, B-Cycle bicycles, and car-share vehicles using a single stored-value fare card.

"You'll wheel your suitcase out of Denver International Airport, ride the train to Union Station, and hop a Car2Go — or even a B-Cycle if you're traveling light — to your house or hotel. All using one card."

It's a beautiful vision, if one undermined by an uncomfortable truth. Denver's mode share for transit — the proportion of people who use buses or light rail to commute — is only about 6 percent. Contrast this with the Canadian city of Calgary, where a similarly sized bus and light-rail fleet operating in a similarly dispersed landscape draws in a mode share of nearly 17 percent. Even epically sprawled Atlanta and automobile-mad Los Angeles manage to achieve almost twice Denver's per capita transit ridership.

In spite of all the inducements, Denverites, like eight in ten Americans, continue to get to school or work the same old way: driving alone.

Will FasTracks make an appreciable number of people in Denver give up their horses — or their contemporary equivalent, private automobiles? The RTD is betting heavily that the answer will be yes. To achieve the transition, they're planning on changing not only the commuting habits of Denverites, but also the DNA of Denver itself, making it into a far denser city.

It's a multi-billion-dollar gamble not only on the future of transportation, but also on the future of the American metropolis — one whose outcome other cities will be watching very closely.

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A trip to Denver, "The Queen City of the Plains," once meant arriving in one of the continent's great railroad towns. In its heyday, 80 trains a day passed through Union Station — trains like the Pioneer Zephyr, a kinetic sculpture of wraparound windows and streamlined stainless steel, whose record-breaking, 13-hour run to Chicago, in which it topped out at 112 miles an hour, earned it the nickname the "Silver Streak."

Union Station, with its eight-foot-tall chandeliers and plaster arches lined with carved Columbine flowers, announced Denver as an oasis of urbanity in the American West. Emerging from the Wynkoop Street entrance, travellers were met by the six-story high Welcome Arch, illuminated with 2,194 incandescent light bulbs. Incongruously, the arch was emblazoned with the Hebrew word "MIZPAH," meaning "God watch over you while we are apart." (Denverites liked to kid newcomers that it was the Native American word for "Howdy, Partner.")

The grand opening of Union Station took place May 9, 2014. (Courtesy of RTD via Flickr)

The fate of Union Station mirrors the fate of rail in much of North America. The Welcome Arch, which came to be seen as a traffic hazard, was torn down in 1931. Private interurban lines that linked downtown to Boulder in the north and Golden to the west disappeared with the coming of freeways. In 1958, a bright red sign entreating Denverites to "Travel by Train" was erected on the façade of the station. Air travel had begun to outpace rail, and Stapleton Airport had become the new gateway to the city. The streets around Union Station became Denver's skid row, the stomping ground for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, whose epic cross-country road trips were usually made by car, not train. By the 1970s, many of downtown's most elegant buildings, which went up at the height of the City Beautiful movement, had been replaced by oceans of surface parking.

Change came with the new century. In 2001, RTD partnered with DRCOG to purchase the station and the surrounding acreage for $49 million. Union Station, currently a construction site, will once again become the centrepiece of a renewed Lower Downtown, now rebranded "LoDo." The station will continue to welcome Amtrak trains bound for Chicago and San Francisco, but will also be home to the Crawford Hotel, a 112-room luxury property, set to open in July 2014, with "Pullman" style rooms and suites starting at $252. Cranes currently pivot over residential condo towers, the tallest of them 21 stories. On the north side of the station, adjacent to the light-rail stop, a whole new residential neighborhood, Confluence Park, has sprouted up on what used to be weed-ridden, trash-strewn rail yards. An elementary school has opened its doors in a high-rise tower, and the local supermarket chain, King Soopers, has staked a LoDo branch (there are rumors a Whole Foods will follow). All told, the station redevelopment has spurred $1.8 billion in private investment.

"RTD is one of the largest property owners in Colorado," says Bill Sirois, the authority's manager of transit-oriented development. He describes dozens of developments going up around FasTracks stations. On the East Rail Line, the Urban Land Conservancy, a non-profit that purchases land to serve community interests, has bought nine acres of land around the 40th and Colorado station, where it's building 156 units of affordable housing. An eight-story housing complex for seniors is going up next to the 10th and Osage station. On the Central Rail Line, 275 new apartments are going up to on a transit plaza adjacent to Alameda Station. All of these new developments will be within a half-mile of a FasTracks line, well within walking distance of a station.

The biggest success story remains downtown, whose residential population has reached 17,500, a 142 percent increase since 2000. All told, FasTracks investment has brought seven million square feet of new office space, 5.5 million square feet of new retail, and 27,000 new residential units. Driving demand for TOD, says Sirois, is Denver's changing demographics.

"We have a huge population of empty nesters," he says. "More and more, they're ditching their suburban homes and moving downtown."

Since the Great Recession, Denver has also become a hotspot for Millennials, knocking out such car-centric rivals as Phoenix and Atlanta. Members of Generation Y are less likely to own cars (or want to own them), and more likely to opt for transit or active transportation. They are also multi-modal by instinct: a recent survey found that 70 percent of those in the 25-to-34 age range reported using multiple forms of transportation to complete trips, several times a week.

All this bodes well for the future of FasTracks. RTD is counting not only on increased residential density around stations, but also the network effect — the synergy that happens when new transit comes on line, making more parts of a region accessible to more users — to drive ridership forward.

"The system is developing and merging," says University of Denver transportation scholar Andrew Goetz. "The opening of Union Station is a major threshold. It's the intermodal heart of the network, bringing together rail and the regional bus system. The connectivity we're going to see as a result is going to be quite impressive."

There's evidence that Denver’s transit mode share is already improving. Daily light-rail boardings increased 15 percent between 2012 and 2013. Even skeptics are starting to see a future for transit in Denver.

"I remember, seven years ago, I'd be driving down I-25, and it would be completely gridlocked," says Max Morrow, the owner of Max Lunch, a lunch counter next to Union Station. "A nightmare. In every car there's one person. And I'd look over at the light rail line that had just opened, and there'd be literally two people on every train. Now the trains are starting to get full. People in Denver love their cars, but they're beginning to figure out the train system, and they're using it." Morrow, who is in his forties, says he needs a car to carry supplies for work, but believes he'll be leaning heavily on FasTracks. "I'll be taking it downtown for ball games. You can sober up on the way home. As soon as the airport line's open, that's the only thing I'll use. I'll never drive out there again."

Morrow's employee, Zed Ireland, who is in his late twenties, already relies on light rail. "There's a bus stop behind my house. I take the bus to light rail. It takes about half an hour to get to work. Two forms of transit, it's not bad at all.

"When our baby is born"—Ireland and his wife are expecting their first—"we'll probably get a car. But it'll be mostly for my wife. I'll still take public transit. And if we move, it's going to be close to a light rail line."

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There's a surprising amount of buy-in on FasTracks, even from traditional opponents of rail on either side of the political spectrum. Libertarians, who in many cities oppose rail projects as big-government "boondoggles," have been remarkably silent in Denver. (This may be because the president of the local free-market think tank, the Independence Institute, is a former chair of the RTD board.) In Los Angeles and other cities, opposition to rail has also come from groups on the left, who label it Cadillac transit for the middle class, and argue lower-income workers could be better served by improved bus service.

Construction at the 38th and Blake Station, which is targeted for transit development in the future. (Courtesy of RTD via Flickr)

"I think FasTracks is a great system," says Melinda Pollack, a founding member of Mile High Connects, a group that brings together non-profits and foundations to advocate for affordable development close to transit. "When all the lines open, it's really going to change connectivity for people. We're trying to make sure that low-income people don't get pushed away from the stations." The group's goal is to have two thousand units of affordable housing opened near stations in the next decade.

Such bipartisan support gets to a deeper truth about Denver: The region's deeply collaborative political culture has made it one of the most high-functioning metropolitan areas in the nation. In the wake of suburban tax revolts in the 1960s, central city and neighboring communities chose to cast aside rivalries, cooperating to build stadiums and a new airport that would benefit the entire region.

The RTD has also reaped the rewards of regionalism. Rather than being forced to work with a variety of smaller agencies, RTD (like Vancouver's TransLink and Portland's TriMet) has authority over a large service area, allowing it to streamline the riding experience for users.

Denver's reboot as a train town isn't based on wishful thinking, or blind nostalgia for Gilded Age choo-choo trains. The engineers of FasTracks are well aware that Denver International Airport will continue to be the true gateway to the region. But as Kevin Flynn, an RTD public communications manager who drives me out the airport terminal worksite points out, once off the plane, travellers will be able to ride escalators down to a platform to trains that will offer access to an entire region.

"I think our riders will be pleasantly surprised by our commuter rail," says Flynn "They'll be able to roll right on to our commuter rail from the terminal, with bicycles, ski bags, golf bags, wheelchairs, strollers, or whatever they're carrying."

Construction on the I-225 Rail Line, with expected completion in 2016, from May 2014. (Courtesy of RTD via Flickr)

Manufactured by Hyundai Rotem, the new low-floor trains (the next generation of the Silverliners already operating in Philadelphia) will reach maximum speeds of 79 miles per hour. Swiftness, arguably, will be a less salient feature than frequency. Unlike traditional commuter rail, which too often offers only once hourly (or worse) service outside peak periods, FasTracks trains will run with headways of as little as 10 minutes. They will also offer superior connectivity. As Flynn points out, military personnel and veterans from a seven-state area will be able to fly into Denver and ride trains to the Veterans Affairs Hospital at the Anschutz medical campus, a hub that already employs 40,000 people.

Back at the agency's headquarters, in LoDo, Phil Washington explains that RTD is building transit for a metropolis that, though born around rail, largely grew up around the needs of the automobile.

"There are at least five major employment centers in the Denver region." Apart from downtown, the Anschutz medical center, and the airport, Boulder and the Denver Tech Center, on the Southeast Rail Line, are significant magnets for commuters. "The reverse commute we're seeing to these centers is incredible. Tons of folks."

It's a reality echoed in many decentralized cities, especially in the west and south: Only one in five jobs in Denver is located within three miles of downtown. For the time being, light and commuter rail may deliver people to what looks like a low-density landscape of office parks and park-and-rides. (Which doesn't preclude future technologies, like autonomous buses and cars, delivering people from rail stations to low-density workplaces and suburban and exurban homes.)

By building a multi-poled system, RTD is tailoring transit to the contemporary metropolis. Crucially, by building it in conjunction with high-density transit-oriented development, the agency is also scheming to change the very nature of the American metropolis.

That's why, when it comes to the future of transportation on this continent, Denver may be the city to watch.

Surveying the airport construction site, where a hard-hatted Mayor Michael Hancock was presiding over the topping out ceremony for the Westin Hotel, I played the devil's advocate and asked Kevin Flynn if spending billions on transit in what has long been a car town was really worth it.

"Before it was a car town, Denver was a train town," he told me, with a smile. "For the time being, our infrastructure hasn't caught up with our ambition. Come back in a few years, and it'll be a completely different story."

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

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