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Residents Re-Vision Denver as a Transit-Friendly City at CALC’s Lunch & Learn Book Club

Guest post by Amanda Roberts, Book Group Discussion Leader

During the months of April and May, Denver-area residents from several different neighborhoods came together for six weeks to discuss Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives by Jarrett Walker. In this canonical transit planning work, Walker explains the technical aspects of planning bus and rail service through places so that planners, city officials, community leaders, and residents can make informed decisions.

The passionate group of book club participants varied widely in terms of their experiences: from lifelong residents who enjoyed taking buses downtown, to newer transplants who enjoyed the speed and reliability of the Flatiron Flyer, and others who have used transit in other places. Book group members expressed the desire for Denver to become the following:

  • “A functional city that meets people’s needs in the broadest set of life circumstances”

  • “A city where you don’t need a car to live” and connectivity to local amenities or work

  • A city where kids are able to “walk to the park on their own without getting run over”

  • A city with “greenspace was accessible via non-car modes”

Book club participant and community activist Luchia Brown recounted her experiences of people-watching and de-compressing after a long day when she rode the bus downtown to work. While this point was not directly addressed by Walker, it’s something those of us who have benefitted from great public transit understand: buses and rail are inherently social, oftentimes joyful environments, and transit service is a civic good, whether or not you personally use it.

Land Use, Transportation & Density: What Does this Have to Do With Good Transit?

After reading Walker’s work, the group agreed that rethinking land use, density, and how space is allocated in transit corridors is required in order to implement successful transit in the Denver metro region.

First up in our discussion was Walker’s seven demands of transit that need to be met to get people to use it:

To meet these demands for reliability, connectivity, and basic human dignity, the group agreed that our physical space must transform into something more transit-friendly.

This includes reconsidering land use, particularly around stations. This also means making driving a less comfortable choice—and making mass transit a faster, reliable choice—by putting roads and streets on diets, addressing parking, installing transit-only lanes, and at the very least, not widening roads, highways or interstates, which ultimately induces demand for more driving in larger numbers, clogging our local and regional transportation system.

In fact, why not instead fund a 40% increase in reliable transit service—that is, doubling (to tripling) service along routes operating 30-45 minute headways by halving weekday headways to 15 minutes—to transform Denver’s haphazard connectivity from this:

Source: Transit Center

To this?

Source: Transit Center

We have the geometry! This 40% increase leverages the layout of Denver’s original streetcar grid, which looks very similar to the 40% increase map. While Denver is clearly nothing like bustling East Coast metropolises Washington DC or New York City, it does have the basic space and layout requirements to support transit service expansion.

The only thing stopping this expansion is funding priority.

What Can the Denver Region Do to Move Forward?

When the question of density and great transit was directly raised, Walker’s simple, concise statement provides a practical, logical solution when planning transit services:

“Denseville has more riders because it has more people, and more activities, in the fixed area, within walking distance of any transit stop.”

Book club member and housing advocate Chris Miller applies this concept to the Colorado context in his Colorado Sun opinion piece “We can pay for Colorado’s needs if we spend wisely and expand individual freedom on land use.” Miller argues that sound financial decision-making in terms of land use and transportation will require a two-pronged approach: 1) “a commitment from the state to making cost-effective decisions about our infrastructure,” and 2) “expanding individual freedom for landowners to adapt their land as they would like.”

In sum, great transit and improved zoning not only represent Colorado’s values of personal freedom, but, when considered together, are the fiscally responsible choice for our rapidly changing, growing state.

Transit and Walkability

One can’t talk about buses and rail without mentioning the need for basic pedestrian and transit stop infrastructure. According to Walker, public transport requires the practical reality of good walking environments to connect people to it. For the Denver context, where many bus lines are run through pedestrian-unfriendly environments, and walks to light rail are far from ideal, this means reconsidering how the public right-of-way is used.

It comes down to simple but impactful choices: building better sidewalks, reallocating or reconstructing curb space, and adding transit amenities so that people feel comfortable and safe walking and waiting at bus stops and stations.

Bus Stop in Globeville. Source: Denver Streets Partnership flickr

Photo Credit: Wes Marshall

Improving bus stops are politically popular as well. According to this May 2020 study, “improving bus stops by providing shelters, seating, signage, and sidewalks is relatively inexpensive and popular among riders and local officials.” In the world of spirited discussion around transportation topics, this is a political choice that could literally pave the way forward for better transit, more walking, and fewer cars.

RTD Directors Weigh In During Our Final Session

As a special session for our book club members, we arranged for current RTD Director Shontel Lewis and former Directors Jeff Walker to talk RTD, practical realities, and small steps we could all be taking to create change.

Director Lewis discussed RTD’s current strategic planning process, as well as the need to center marginalized voices, address fare equity, and remove barriers. Director Walker talked about the need for the suburban RTD Directors to read and understand the principles discussed in Human Transit, particularly the implications for building through denser versus less dense areas in the district.

When asked if and how transit shelters and amenities could be improved, Director Walker explained RTD isn’t in charge of curb space, and there are 10,000 bus stops in the entire district. Each shelter is $5,000 to $10,000. Simple improvements, however, have made a difference. Walker discussed Colfax bus stops and mentioned that Broadway stop improvements have helped.

When asked if RTD could simply run more buses to improve reliability of service, Director Lewis said that RTD already is running more buses, due to COVID. Lewis also offered up suggestions such as the state making Access-A-Ride (RTD’s paratransit service) free. Currently, RTD is looking at first and last mile options for riders.

Next Steps: What You Can Do

Towards the end of the discussion, I asked if transit justice makes economic sense. The general consensus of both directors was yes, implying that building great service for “captive riders”—which our group renamed “car-independent riders”—would also help RTD financially.

For further reading on the topic of justice in transit, Director Lewis recommended the following books:

  • Twice Towards Justice by Claudette Colvin

  • Transport Justice, Designing Fair Transportation Systems by Karen Martens

To get involved in making transit better in the Denver metro area, consider providing feedback in the Reimagine RTD process or attending public RTD meetings.

Going more locally, Director Walker suggested the following action steps:

  1. Write down what you’d like to see in terms of transit.

  2. Send it to your state senator and state house representatives, as well as your US Senators & Rep. Also send it to your RTD Rep and City Council Representatives.

  3. Include funding for what you want. You can use information from DRCOG to determine funding.

  4. Or, alternatively, call or email your RTD representative!

When talking with decision-makers about transit priorities, here's some tips!

  • Important: Shaming doesn’t work!

  • Find out: What appeals to them?

  • Cater your message to what appeals to them.

As a resident who has worked on community improvement projects, I can’t state enough that working collaboratively and productively with your Denver DOTI city planning team and your Council office really helps make incremental changes happen in a time of reduced or no budgets. Also, telling them what you would like to see, even if it can’t happen today, is a worthwhile exercise!

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