01 April 2013

Transit and infrastructure in Denver and Colorado

Since any statements of fact made today are inherently unreliable, here are a few little squibs of opinion about transit and public infrastructure in Denver.

A slightly thoughtless light rail stop design.  One of the first stops out of Denver on the light rail's West Line that opens later this month is the Decatur-Federal stop.  It is pretty, but it only takes a moment seeing it to observe a slight bit of thoughtlessness that went into its design.  It is right across the gulch from Rude Recreation Center, one of the newer and more deluxe rec centers in the city which anchors a hive full of new social service agency buildings.  But, existing bridges over either Federal or Decatur Streets (which are the only authorized pedestrian paths across the gulch) require significant detours to either side of the stop.

It would have been very easy to have a direct pedestrian route from the RTD light rail stop to the rec center immediately opposite it.  A slight bit of grading to integrate into the existing bike path and a redesign of one rec center door to be more of a main entrance instead of a side entrance is all it would have taken.  Alternately, the stop could have been placed a bit further away from Federal, and a bit closer to the side street bridge that is one of two ways over the gulch to Rude Recreation Center and the social services agencies, which would also be closer to Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High where the Broncos play, both of which will be high volume pedestrian destinations at the stop for the next twenty or thirty years at least.

But, the rec center, bike path and social services office complex are owned by the City and County of Denver and managed by non-transportation departments, while the light rail stop is a Regional Transportation District is a special district that isn't part of the City and County of Denver, and the stadium is part of its own stadium district, so integrating the biggest destinations on that side of the stop for pedestrians apparently took second place to having a stop a bit closer to the bus routes on Federal Boulevard and not having to coordinate too much with other governmental agencies.  Yet another agency, the Denver Regional Council of Governments, exists to encourage cooperation between these agencies, but this bandaid doesn't assure total cooperation and integration of governmental services.

While it is hardly the end of the world and the stop is very nice and a welcome addition to the metropolitan area's public transportation capacities, it does mean that everyone who goes to Rude Rec Center, the social service agencies or the stadium, which covers just about all of the pedestrian traffic in this non-residential area that isn't just transferring to a bus line, will have to walk a couple hundred yards farther.  It also means that people will be making a not very safe jump off the light rail embankment as a short cut for the next twenty or thirty years on a regular basis en route to Rude Rec Center.  And, it means that pedestrians will have to take a less visible route not intended to be a major pedestrian path to the Rec Center and social service agencies, which may increase the amount of crime that takes place at the stop and tarnishes some of the elegant designs of the Rec Center and social service offices which are oriented towards the longer and busier Federal Boulevard route that used to be the main public transit access to these locations.

Public sector urban planning, unlikely zoning, is good.  As an aside, I'd like to note that while I have a very low opinion of land use regulations like zoning and aethestic building code provisions in urban planning, I have a very high opinion of the value of urban planning in thinking through public improvements (such as roads and bridges), facilities (such as libraries and rec centers) and public spaces (like parks and trails and pedestrian malls).

Denver's rec center and library systems.  As another aside, the cost of an adult pass to a city recreation center for a year is about $30 a month for access to all of them, including the niceest ones.  A rec center pass that provides access only to second rate rec centers is about $20 a month, and a rec center pass that provides access only to the most mimimal rec centers in the City is about $10 a month.  Youths, seniors, and people with disabilities, etc. pay less, there are shorter time periods with higher average rates available (day passes, for example), and non-residents pay more.  Honestly, the rates are quite fair and comparable to those in the private sector for non-residents and adults in no special category, while providing a modest but appropriate subsidy to others.  Denver's libraries and rec centers are generally well managed and maintained and provide good affordable safe spaces for struggling and middle class families to leave more comfortable lives without unduly burdening city budgets. 

Rec centers and libraries as support for the invisible homeless and working poor.  The libraries and rec centers also provide showers, exercise, heated spaces, quite space and clean bathrooms for a lot of the City's invisible homeless population that isn't vagrant and sleeping under bridges but may live out of an RV, in a car, bouncing from friend to friend or between shelters, or crammed into overcrowded rooms with insufficient bathrooms for the number of residences and no quiet places to think, that buffer the harshness of not having a proper home for a while.

The new West line is a good thing.  The opening of the West Rail line also brings a new level of mobility and freedom to large numbers of metro area tweens and teens who can't drive or don't have cars.  Bus routes, particularly low frequency bus routes, are hard to figure out and use.  Light rail and high frequency bus routes are easy to understand and use, and light rail tends to have less sketchy passengers so you feel safe putting tweens and teens on these routes unaccompanied. 

The West line dramatically expands the territory within which it is possible to live with a viable car free commute to downtown (although not necessarily a car free life), something that a number of new apartment and condominium complexes going up right now near light rail stops already in place is also enhancing.  The new line also continues to make downtown Denver the center of everything and to make it less important to have parking available downtown for everyone who works or shops there.

About frequent bus service.  The Denver Urbanism blog had a nice map (not an official RTD map) and post discussing the near equivalency of frequent bus service (in light gray) and light rail (the red lines are planned future heavy rail and the black dots are planned future intracity rail stops).  Frequent bus service, because of high ridership, also tends to have the lowest public subsidy per passenger-trip and per passenger-mile of any form of bus service.  Indeed, the least subsidized service in the RTD system per passenger-trip and passenger-mile is actually the free 16th Street Mall shuttle downtown because it has such high ridership and a fairly modest operational cost on the route that is only two or three miles long.

Basically, there is downtown frequenty bus service (within the City and County of Denver), East-West frequent bus service on Colfax Avenue (Lakewood-Denver-Aurora), frequent North-South bus service on five major city streets in the metro area (all but one of which are mostly in the City and County of Denver or on a City and County of Denver boundary), and frequent bus service to and from Boulder.  (The map omits some additional frequent bus routes within Boulder).

Thus, light rail is the only frequent transit service for most of Denver's suburbs, but Denver proper and Boulder have significant and helpful supplementing bus service.

Denver FasTracks and frequent bus map

A transit system that is increasingly one of the best in North America

FasTracks is still building out and lots of other public transit systems are stagnant. In addition to the West line, there are one to three new stops each planned on the Sante Fe, North Denver (connecting to I-70), and I-25 spurs, a continuation of the 9-Mile spur along I-225 to I-70, a heavy rail line to DIA, and heavy rail to Arvada, Boulder and Northern suburbs of Denver planned and construction on some of these is actively underway.

Denver has about 4.5% of its commutes by transit with will leap up when the West line opens and probably increase again with future rail line openings.  Denver may never have the public transit of New York (30%), Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington D.C. in the high density Northeast Corridor (the rest are in the 10%-15% range) which also have operationally profitable high speed Amtrak rail and but close to rivaling the weakest of these systems like Baltimore (about 6.5%) and Pittsburg (about 5.9%).  It also lags behind San Francisco (about 15%).   But is close to rivaling that of Pacific coast cities like Los Angeles (about 6%), Seattle (about 7%), and Portland (about 6.5%).  Denver already surpasses every Midwestern and Southern transit system in the U.S. except Chicago (about 12%), such as Minneapolis, Miami, Altanta, San Diego, Houston, Cinncinnati, Saint Louis, and pretty much every other major American city not mentioned already.  Of course, many Canadian cities, even the smaller ones, have quite high levels of transit use.

In other words, Denver is on track to be second only to Chicago as the U.S. city with the most heavily used transit system in the United States, as a percentage of commutes, outside the Northeast Corridor and the Pacific Coast.

Also, the ski resorts of Colorado have very good bus shuttle systems (its transit commutes are probably in excess of 10%), and there is some meaningful bus service in many of Colorado's medium sized cities.

High speed rail prospects.  There is serious talk about both DIA to Vail (more or less along I-70), and I-25 corridor high speed rail that may someday go somewhere (although the inability of the Colorado Springs-Denver corridor to continue to support even the FREX intercity bus line doesn't bode well for that effort, and Amtrak is in a perpetual state of near collapse outside the Northeast Corridor including its routes in Colorado).  

The I-25 Corridor has more population density and lower population costs, but these stretches of I-25 are quite fast to drive on and not terribly congested for the most part, so rail would have to be quite fast to generate much comparative advantage and not all of the destinations are friendly for carless visitors.  Fort Collins and Greeley are very flat, making them nice to bicycle in, but you wouldn't want to do that in a business suit and it has a fair amount of sprawl for college towns and little in the way of cab service.  Pueblo likewise has considerable sprawl.  Central Colorado Springs is a bit better in terms of density for urban business traveler destinations and tourists, but its chronically underfunded public services detract from the quality of its transit services.

High speed rail in the mountains that is sensitive to the construction costs associated with the terrain could mitgate the need for costly interestate highway expansions there making it more affordable in terms of opportunity costs.  And, the existing good shuttle bus services in these areas and very high urban densities also make them attractive destinations for carless travelers.

One nice aspect of high speed rail development in Colorado is that it doesn't really require any meaningful interstate cooperation until it is almost completely built out. In the I-25 corridor, the Fort Collins to Pueblo stretch would make sense to develop first before extending it to New Mexico or Wyoming.  And, the DIA to Vail stretch is entirely in Colorado and doesn't make sense to extend to the empty desert on the Utah border or the thinly populated plains of the Kansas and Nebraska borders anytime soon. 

The basic fact of high speed rail is that the economics are very dependent upon high population densities in the service area for cost efficiency relative to intercity buses and commercial airlines.  So, it will be a very long time before the U.S., which has far lower population densities in most of its territory than Europe or Japan or Eastern China or India, for example, will be well served by a national high speed rail service.  A patchwork of different high speed rail systems in the highest population density corridors looks like the most sensible course for at least the next half century or so in the United States.

Commercial flights are artificially slow relative to light rail.  It is also worth recognizing that much of the competitiveness that high speed rail has in point to point speed against commercial aircraft on medium sized trips has far more to do with a more relaxed security environment for high speed rail than it does from actual slower vehicle speed.  No commercial aircraft flies slower than even the fastest high speed rails system.

It would be possible to almost double the point to point speed of commercial flights on medium distant trips without changing any aircraft equipment or flight speeds, simply by devoting more staffing to security checks (or reducing standards or imposing greater baggage limitations), using more of the already available doors on commercial aircraft to board passangers and deplane them, running tighter schedules on short run routes, and dedicating traffic lanes or intracity rail lines to travel to and from city centers to airports.


Kevin Dickson said...

The RV/Rec Center lifestyle is compellingly inexpensive. One important caveat - It's illegal to park an RV more than 18'long on Denver streets for more than a few hours. Shorter than 18,it is treated like a car by law. Cars can be in the same spot for 3 days.

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