The boldest move by a US city to remake its transportation system occurred five years ago, when Denver metro area voters in 31 communities committed $4.7 billion in sales tax funding for its FasTracks initiative.
It turns out not one of the 119 miles of promised light rail have been built yet because of material and land acquisition cost increases, a poor economy and other complications. Through city-wide strategies for making public transit, walkability and bikeability the modes for addressing freeway and city arterial congestion, however, Denver has so-far succeeded despite the snafus.
The city has almost doubled its public transit ridership since FasTracks was passed in 2004. In 2004 about five percent of city commuters used public transit; that figure hit nine percent in 2008, figures recently released by the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
So how did the Mile-High City make itself into a case study for how to take a car-dependent Sun Belt metro and move it toward multi-modality?
First, the city created a regional mandate for public transit, combined with tangible, measureable goals. Mayor John Hickenlooper told me in 2006, "We passed the most ambitious transit initiative in the history of the United States. It was because all 31 mayors in the seven-county area unanimously supported it."
Hickenlooper said the city wanted to reach 20 percent ridership by 2020, even 25 or 30 percent if it could. Little did he know at the time that the city would be on its way to hitting its goal without even laying one mile of new rail under the FasTracks. (Denver has recently extended its southern light rail line through a federal funding initiative separate from FasTracks, so that did help boost its ridership to a degree).
Peter Park, Denver's chief city planner, credits a number of approaches with the big gains in transit use. Strategic transit plans laid out in the 2002 Blueprint Denver document are explicit about not adding extra freeway lanes or widening city streets; these acts often occur as a panacea for traffic congestion. Most studies show such isolated approaches only eventually create more congestion.
Instead, Blueprint Denver took the radical tact of not projecting how many vehicles would be needed to get people around the growing city, but instead projected the number of "person trips": driving, transit, walking and riding bikes.
Another strategy was the Living Streets program, created by the public works department in collaboration with a range of civic and commercial organizations, including Kaiser Permanente. "The idea was that roads are for cars: streets are for people," said Park.
A video on Denver's city site has Kaiser's Dr. Eric France discussing how and why cities can be less auto dependent: "The way you build your neighborhoods can influence the way we live," France said. "Incorporating active transportation into our lives is one of the best strategies for keeping people healthy."
Park and others from the city have been working with a new citizen's academy, The New Transit Alliance, to raise awareness about the economic benefits of transit with businesses and community leaders.
Denver's creative approach to transportation, health and the green economy even helped it this summer get selected as one of three US cities in the federal government's new Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities.
All three heads of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency came to Denver earlier this month (others in the program are Philadelphia and Kansas City, Missouri) to figure out ways to collaboratively increase quality of life and reduce automotive reliance in affordable housing and beyond.
I remember working on a charrette for the "greening" of the one of the largest federal housing projects in the West. No matter how green the materials, landscaping and energy systems were, one of residents' biggest concern--besides not getting caught in gang cross-fire--was having to run across a freeway on-ramp to get to the only nearby store.
FasTracks is by no means dead in the water. Under the measure, the city will still be extending its light rail lines through 2018, though some of the plan might get scaled back unless another tax increase is levied. The system expansion should lead to exponential increases in ridership because of the new light rail stations being created--six neighborhood station plans have been completed and 10 are underway, according to Park. Bus service, including Bus Rapid Transit, is also being significantly expanded.
Denver's metro light rail and Bus Rapid Transit system, if FasTracks is built out to the original plan
"Each station will create a portal into new neighborhoods, breathing life into the streets and the economic vitality of businesses," Park said.
Denver has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near the 55 percent transit commute rate of New York City, or even the low to mid 30's commute rates of DC, Boston and San Francisco. But the city is an important model--good and bad--for how newer US urban areas can create a landscape and way of life that will no longer be defined only by the car.
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and co-author of a forthcoming book from the Post Carbon Institute on urban and societal resiliency.