While visiting Denver in June, I thought I’d resurrect the old ‘report card’ series here on STB.
Denver may not seem to have much in common with Seattle. Sea level, water-bound, temperate, and hilly Seattle is a stark contrast to the Mile High, dusty, rain-shadowed, and flat landscape of Denver. But we are both relatively young pioneer cities, Denver is our nearest peer city in population, and both cities are progressive islands in a sea of moderate/libertarian suburbs. And yeah, we both have legal pot. So perhaps some comparisons can be useful.
As a transit advocate, it’s an exciting and informative time to visit Denver, which is in the midst of a once-in-a-century transformation. Light rail lines opened in 1994, 2000, 2002, 2006, and 2013, (and one was suspended in 2009), and six more light and heavy rail lines are slated to open in the next few years. The ongoing Fastracks project is the most ambitious transit expansion in the U.S., and the most intense period of construction is currently underway. When originally conceived, the project promised 119 miles of rail in every direction, all to open in 2016; and the original price tag, just under $5B, was 14 times cheaper per-mile than our University Link. Even when rising costs (~$7B now) and the recession pushed back portions of the project for years, many projects (The Gold Line, the I-225 Line, a small segment of the Northwest Line, and the East Line to Denver Airport) are still on track for 2016, and a shortened version of the North Line will open in 2018. Daily ridership on the 6 lines is 87,000 on its current 48-mile system.
The low cost of construction should give away some hints of the system’s drawbacks. In particular, Denver decided to build trains wherever it could and with no tunneling and with minimal ROW acquisition. The result is just as you’d expect. The ride is fast, smooth, and comfortable. Total station dwell time is a blissful 15 seconds, and there are few at-grade crossings. But there is often a significant last-mile problem. Since lines were built next to freight mainlines (C, D), adjacent to I-25 (E, F, H), in a preserved gulch (W), or on the surface (all lines Downtown), station area walkability is often poor and there is too much parking. However, I was encouraged by the level of TOD I was seeing at Broadway, Osage, and other stations.
The new W-Line (2013) in particular was a disappointment. It runs through a natural area, adjacent to single-family homes, and through undeveloped lots before terminating at palatial government building in ‘Golden’ (3 miles from Downtown Golden). And the W-Line cannot run more than 15-minute headways by design, since RTD built only a single track for its last 3 stations (even a single-track bridge!). It was discouraging to see so much rail being built solely for regional mobility while existing dense corridors are bypassed, such as Capitol Hill, or the Highlands, or Colfax Avenue.
The lines currently in operation are thus very BART-like, with 4 infrequent suburban termini serving 2 corridors in the urban core. The base frequency for RTD’s light rail lines is 15 minutes but varies in strange and unfortunate ways. For instance, the stretch between Broadway Station and 10th/Osage hosts 5 of the 6 lines up to every 3-5 minutes. This ultra frequent chokepoint, with multiple conflicting crossovers, requires bunching trains on their own segments to achieve even 3-minute headways. The cost is significant. For instance, though Union Station has 8 trains per hour off-peak, they leave 3 and then 12 minutes apart, cutting the effective frequency in half for those traveling to shared stations.
With a borrowed monthly pass, I set out from Englewood on the C-Line, one of two peak-only light rail lines. As we raced a mile-long oil train, it struck me that I was riding coal-powered electric light rail, and I remembered that transit is only a relative environmental good and isn’t a panacea on its own. But arriving at Union Station cheered me up: it’s spectacular. The original 1881 structure remains, anchoring a massive redevelopment that includes a 7-track open train hall (see photo above), high-rise apartments and offices, two free Downtown circulators, and two light rail lines. And underneath it all? A massive 22-bay bus station serving local, express, regional, and intercity routes.
I walked into the underground bus station, and I saw what should be in every Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel station: immediate and prominent departure information. Greyhound departures are integrated with this display, and the inside board even tells you which bus to take to connect with the Southwest Chief train 200 miles away in Raton, NM. Though I’m no fan of loop-de-loop transit centers, placing this one directly underneath the future train platforms makes a lot of sense, especially in a city with occasionally harsh weather.
I walked out of the bus concourse, waited a few minutes, and watched the Chicago-bound California Zephyr arrive 2 hours late. As a terminal station like Los Angeles Union Station, intercity trains have to wye and slowly back in, and due to land constraints this cannot be fixed. But honestly, Amtrak is an afterthought compared to Fastracks. I walked back into the bus station and took bus #20 10 minutes to my Five Points AirBnb.
The next day I rented a B-Cycle and rode to Cherry Creek mall on an errand. I’m a daily Seattle bike commuter, and I found it so intimidating I rode on the sidewalk. Average Denver road speeds were just much higher than Seattle (35+ even on residential streets), one-way streets prevail, and there is too little traffic calming. Every street felt like riding on 23rd Avenue. Not wanting to bike more, I took the 83L bus back to Downtown. I was impressed by the structure of RTD’s bus routes. “Limited” routes like the 83L are like our 66, “express” routes are peak only, and “regional” routes are lettered like light rail. Seattle adopting a similar hierarchy could differentiate ‘express’ routes like the 7X from the 592, for instance.
All local and limited buses are ‘local’ fare ($2.25), express buses and inner suburban light rail are ‘express’ fare ($4), and regional buses and the outermost light rail stations are ‘regional’ fare ($5). Differentiating fare categories by service type for buses and by zones for rail seems to work well here. Retail passes are flash passes, while EcoPass (like our ORCA Passport) and CollegePass (UPass) users have smart card validation.
Denver has an amazing and beautiful urban core with an amazing future ahead of it. The great Union Station area will be a transformative hub in the most historic part of the city. Its southern (and soon northern) suburbs enjoy fantastic access to the city thanks to rail, but are unappealing and generic cities on their own, with the exception of cute historic areas in towns such as Littleton or Arvada. The East Corridor the Denver Airport will go a long away into fixing the trek to one of the furthest-away urban airports in the U.S. But my overall impression was to resist being blown away by their quantity of urban rail and their speed of expansion, and grateful for subarea equity. Seattle will get more genuinely urban rail because of it, and Denver and its regional transit body are a good example of what our rail future would look like without it.
- Bus (15, 20, 83L, MallRide, SkyRide)
- Light Rail (C, D, E, W)
- Lyft (1 trip)
- B-Cycle (4 trips)
- Overall Land Use: B (urban core), D (everywhere else)
- TOD: B-
- Ride Quality: A+
- Speed: A+
- Frequency: A (shared segments), C (suburban termini)
- Customer UX: A
- Fares & Passes: B
- Station Quality: A
- Station Area Quality: C
- Parking: D (too much)
- Bike Facilities: B