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August 8, 2016 9:54 PM   Subscribe

What Works: The Train That Saved Denver - "How Denver overcame regional factionalism to build a rail system that is a model for 21st century growth... it all happened, Hickenlooper and others note, because Coloradans across the base of the Front Range were willing to set aside crippling rivalries and make some big collective investments in themselves." (viz. Spain, cf. California & Florida; via)

also btw...
The real reason American public transportation is such a disaster - "Canada has twice as much transit as the US. Why? Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program."
posted by kliuless (17 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Yes and it all comes at the expense of the bus system, which is overwhelmingly used by the poor. After all, who gives a fuck if poor people can get to work?
posted by evilDoug at 10:46 PM on August 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

Most places think of public transport as an integrated system. If your train network and your bus network (and tram network, where applicable) are at odds I can only think that someone's Doing It Wrong.
posted by pompomtom at 10:57 PM on August 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

I'm pretty sure someone's doing it wrong. I used to love the transit system in this city, I could get anywhere. Now my 3 mile trip to work takes an hour. Because the bus, on the most populous route in the city, no longer even attempts to run near schedule. It's even worse on weekends, and of course, I work weekends. It's going to be a long cold winter, but I'm going to have to get used to it, I'm not on a train line.
posted by evilDoug at 11:09 PM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

evilDoug, I went poking around and found this article (attn, autoplaying news video), which says that transit advocates in Denver have criticized the transit development for focusing overly on bringing people from the suburbs to downtown, while leaving urban Denver itself poorly connected. The Politico article actually touches on that too, though obliquely. So you're not the only one who's noticed.

It actually sounds super similar to the problem with transit in the Bay Area. You have a commuter-rail/metro hybrid that's very good at bringing people in from farther away but is also really expensive, while within the city itself you have mostly underfunded, slow, unreliable bus lines. (We also have some light rail, but it runs at surface level for most of its length and most of the lines have to run in traffic at some point.)

The article also mentions that congestion has gone way up in Denver, which makes me wonder whether that's actually the biggest factor responsible for the deterioration in bus service? With more congestion, buses without dedicated rights-of-way tend to get way less reliable, and to require more and more money just to meet the same frequencies (because the average speed drops). It's especially rough if you need to make a transfer because reliability and frequency are basically the ingredients you need for a good interconnected transit network. (FWIW, SF is trying to mitigate this problem a little now by adding transit-only lanes, but a lot of very outspoken residents hate them, because 1. they take away lanes from cars and parking, and 2. any infrastructure improvement is feared to increase the rate of gentrification.)
posted by en forme de poire at 12:54 AM on August 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

That Vox article is pretty good, btw, though IMHO it undersells the extent to which the difference between Canadian and American attitudes towards transit are influenced by structural racism. (After all, why is "welfare" a dirty word in America to begin with, and when did that start? And why did our urban areas become so underfunded -- could it have anything to do with the demographic changes engineered by racist policies making "urban" a dogwhistle for something else?)
posted by en forme de poire at 1:08 AM on August 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

By way of further example, Seattle is having this same debate in the run up to a vote on Sound Transit 3 ("Sound Transit" being the common name for the regional transit agency in Puget Sound and 3 meaning this is the third expansion of the system). Urbanists are thrilled at more light rail but are cheesed off about so much money being spent to build so-called "light rail to the hinterlands" to connect near-in and farther-out suburbs and cities to the light rail spine. This build-out is to be done in lieu of building in-city grade separated transit (except for a connection to Ballard—one of two*, relatively, very dense areas of Seattle as yet not connected to rail and an area that was due to be linked to the Monorail system before it went kaput—and West Seattle, which got on the list because of a single bridge linking it to the rest of town and some Very Important Politicos living there).

The same kind of breakdowns are happening in Seattle with the bus system. As more single-occupant vehicles come onto the roads (SOV use is climbing as carpool use declines), buses get tangled up in the congestion. Seattle tries using transit-only lanes and "BAT" lanes that are bus-only during peak periods but allow parking at other times but enforcement is lacking.

All of that adds up to like Denver: the region came together to build something but the goals are almost completely opposite. The region wants a quick way to get into and out of the commercial and employment core of the city, with easy links to the airport and sports stadiums (in that order) if there's money left, but the city itself gets a half-worked system with limited connectivity for city residents and poor connectivity to the bus system. (Capitol Hill and UW stations, in Seattle, could not have been placed in any worse spots for bus/rail connections.) Meanwhile, buses continue to slog through ever-increasing general-purpose traffic brought on by growth.

If at least one of Denver, Seattle, or San Francisco can't figure out how to build a working mass transit system that serves city and regional residents and that voters will approve...I'm at a loss for words. Because, in all three, there's simply no place to put more traffic lanes so something else has to be done.

* The other dense neighborhood is the Central District, which gets hosed for the next 30 years. It will acquire a single light rail station on the periphery of what is known as "the CD" and is nowhere near anything in the area with no hope for additional HCT.
posted by fireoyster at 1:53 AM on August 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

Beyond FasTracks
FasTracks is a great start. Nearly $5 billion for almost 120 miles of rail transit? Metro Denver should be proud. But in a decade or so, when it's built — what then?
These proposals imagine how transit can be improved in Denver's core and inner-ring suburbs. The proposals are unconstrained by costs, and unlikely to find a lot of immediate support, but they do show some possibilities for using various modes (bus, streetcars, surface light rail on a dedicated right-of-way, and even subway lines).
posted by audi alteram partem at 5:59 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I love love love the GO Train system. I wish that it would extend out past Oshawa towards where I am, but that is unlikely to happen. The Canadian cities I've lived in and visited have really quite decent bus transit that actually goes places and is affordable. It's my main mode of transport in the winter as I don't have a car.
posted by Kitteh at 6:28 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Denver was one of the few non coastal city's with a transit system good enough you could live carless.
The city is denser now, more condos and apartments are going up every day, and there is less parking, as the building often go up on sites that were previously parking lots.
Now we have a transit system that rewards suburbanites for not actually living in the city and contributing to the tax base, while punishing the city dwellers. I'm going to need to buy a car, and only have the scant on street parking to put it.
I thought I'd found urban nirvana, now I'm seriously considering moving.
posted by evilDoug at 6:29 AM on August 9, 2016 [8 favorites]

While there are obviously significant issues with reallocating resources from Bus systems to rail systems unless it's done in a way that helps meet the needs of most (if not all) commuters I do think continuing investment in commuter and regional rail is a very solid strategy. Rail stations seem to create localized development opportunities so that people can buy/rent new multi-family apartment/condos close to shopping, entertainment, and other amenities. While these changes often lead to a certain degree of gentrification the targeted audience is either going to pick between car-centric suburban developments or more environmentally friendly urban infill development.

Unfortunately coordinating transportation policy across various municipal governments is a challenge so the development of light rail networks is often very unbalanced as politicians seek to provide enticements for urban living without attracting "those kind of people" this inevitably creates light rail development that links urban centers with higher income suburbs while leaving other areas underserved.

However if light rail could be supplemented by strong regional rail that would be great. Unfortunately the distances involved in much of the US make existing rail stock extremely slow for regional rail and most attempts to stand-up high speed rail have basically gone nowhere.
posted by vuron at 7:41 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think there's a lot to like about the fact that Denver's actually investing in transit infrastructure, unlike a lot of US cities. It's not close to enough to keep up with population growth, but it's better than most (because most aren't investing squat). My own home-to-work bus route hasn't changed significantly in four years, and it's not on the streets most likely to be congested with SOV traffic, so it's generally on time. And I completely love that we finally, finally have real-time GPS bus tracking that mostly works. It is the best thing ever on snow days, when it is entirely reasonable that the bus might not quite make its regular schedule. (Especially since Colorado apparently doesn't plow like east coast and midwest states.)

Now we have a transit system that rewards suburbanites for not actually living in the city and contributing to the tax base, while punishing the city dwellers.

At least we've got a consolidated regional system that makes most of the suburbanites contribute something (even if it's really not enough compared to the costs imposed on everyone else by all that SOV-driving.) I hope Denver opts to pay for extra in-city service as Boulder does (discussed here). And maybe we'll really get that legit BRT service on Colfax someday -- until then, the 15 is perpetually stuck behind all those cars that the 1000+ people who move here every week bring with them.

The part about policymakers and a lot of voters seeing transit as social welfare rather than utility is spot-on. I try hard to make my city council aware of transit issues and ask for their help with improving facilities and service, but I'm not very good at it, and I don't think any of them actually use transit even close to regularly (and definitely not the bus if they do). My RTD board member has been nice enough when I talk to him, but I'm not sure what he's doing specifically to improve service for my non-suburban district, and I should pay more attention. (Note for non-locals: Denver's unusual in that our transit agency board is elected.)

Personally, my two biggest complaints about Denver's transit system are that a) it should be easier to bring bicycles onto the light rail trains, and b) smoking shouldn't be allowed at bus stops and stations (and for fuck's sake, not in the elevators, what is wrong with those people?)
posted by asperity at 8:35 AM on August 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

They failed to mention the planned light rail line from Denver to Boulder, which got its funds misappropriated to pay off the highway, (its construction also became privatized). We did get shiny new buses, but we didn't vote for shiny new buses. When will the line be finished?


I'll almost be 60.

"FastTracks" indeed.

Denver housing is on Boom Town mode, and there's been a lot of criticism that what's being put up is ugly and cheap, while also dismantling old neighborhoods and causing massive amounts of gentrification.

I moved to Boulder 2+ years ago. I go back to Denver infrequently and I can't recognize many areas. It's shocking.

At this rate, they need to prioritize public transportation pronto, or stop building such awful new buildings.

Booms. After Booms come Busts. Always had around here, I'm guessing always will. I landed here during a pretty big lull and the city was amazing. Low rent, tons of artists space - it felt like a cool little city.

Now, I dunno.
posted by alex_skazat at 9:20 AM on August 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

"the new rail system has proven that its greatest value is the remarkable changes in land use its stations have prompted...creating new communities where once there was only sprawl or buffalo grass."

I'm not sure transit advocates/environmentalists really want to spur development of otherwise open spaces.

Does anyone know why the boulder-denver light rail line is so expensive. The massive 36 superhighway nightmare seems like it cost ~0.5 billion. Why 1) wasn't the train just put down the center of the highway and 2) why would the train be so much more expensive (quoted as being it $1.1 to $1.4 billion in the Politico article).

(I'm really negative about the 36 expansion because of the "law" that expanding highways doesn't decrease congestion in the long term, not because I have specific information to say that it wasn't a good idea to do all that work).

Also, I'm really hoping that rail is the primary component of any plan to improve the I70 congestion into the mountains/ski areas. Bring back the ski train! (something better than the super expensive train to winter park).
posted by lab.beetle at 8:14 PM on August 9, 2016

Also, I'm really hoping that rail is the primary component of any plan to improve the I70 congestion into the mountains/ski areas.

I have to think rail in the I-70 corridor will be ludicrously expensive. Just think of the grade traversed and the tunnels that would be needed.
posted by mmascolino at 11:17 AM on August 10, 2016

yeah fucking FasTracks. I've been paying the tax for that clusterfuck since 2001. The NorthWest Rail line (to Boulder, where I live) was supposed to be finished LAST. YEAR. Instead they built (and outsourced/privatized) a clusterfuck of a palatial HOV / tollway system and "bus rapid transit" (that isn't even configured correctly for starters) that nobody even uses.

goddamn it. Denver RTD can't even set up the bus system for a la carte fares like oh, basically every other transit system ever, since the 1970s. It's either exact change only like it's fucking 1962, or you have to MAIL IN an application for a monthly pass, oh and there's only two times per month they print the damn things and SNAIL MAIL them back to you. Oh or if you're in the vanishingly scarce privileged 1% of folks whose employers still shell out for EcoPass, then yeah I guess you get to use that (it's a contactless system! why can't we buy our own pay as you go contactless?) ARGGH VBLABJKbfslafngkjsdf;fljkdsf;jk!!!!

fuck RTD I say. And their fucked-up, bureaucratic mess of a fare system, and their corrupt inept management that couldn't even get 50% of the way right on the bid for FasTracks. Oh and while we're at it, fuck the shitty, libertarian TABOR tax restrictions that hamstring any and all attempts to reallocate funds, so that the government was forced to refund millions in weed tax instead of putting it into transit funding, infrastructure or something else that actually, you know, works.

meanwhile I-70 is a 100 mile long parking lot every weekend, and our roadways have potholes that have existed since the Bush administration.
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:39 PM on August 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

(lfr - one bit of good news is that they're finally working on pre-paid contactless cards; I'm in the pilot program)
posted by McBearclaw at 6:32 PM on August 11, 2016

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