Politics Dispatch from Denver
posted by December 17 at 22:16 PMon
While Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire was punting the Alaskan Way Viaduct question to voters (and proposing that the City Council artificially limit the choices to the two that involve building huge new freeways) I’ve been in a city that has actually managed to improve its transportation situation by taking cars off the road: Denver. Here, in a city pretty much no one would regard as cutting-edge (the girls are still wearing tube-tops; the guys still favor large wire-framed Dick Cheney glasses), light rail has managed to take thousands of cars off the road. Surveys found that nearly 50% of light rail riders switched to transit from cars, and that more than 25% of commuters to the city center get there by transit. Light rail ridership here has been 60 percent higher than projections.
Yesterday I took a jaunt on the six-year-old southwest light rail extension to the suburb of Englewood, which planners here hold up as an example of transit-oriented development—the kind of stuff Sound Transit is planning for the area around its own light rail stations. Here, much unlike Seattle, the process of planning and building light rail has been quick and relatively painless—three years from groundbreaking to ribbon-cutting for a 19-mile segment from downtown to Denver’s southeastern suburbs (which opened on time and under budget one month ago), three and a half years for an older segment to Englewood and other suburbs to the southwest. Compare that to our regional system, Link light rail, for which crews broke ground three years ago. It will be three more years before the first segment from the airport to downtown is complete, and a decade before rail opens from downtown to Husky Stadium. A still-unfunded extension to Northgate, meanwhile, will take even longer.
Denver has several advantages Seattle doesn’t. It’s flat, so trains don’t have to burrow through any hills (they do go up in the air, though, to avoid railroad right-of-way). It’s big and sprawling, and land is relatively cheap, so stations don’t cost as much to build. And it’s a major rail depot, so many of the lines run along (or sometimes over) existing tracks.
Still, I can’t help thinking Denver’s success at building light rail where Seattle has faltered (five light rail lines have been built so far, and voters recently approved 119 new miles of rail that will be built simultaneously in the next 12 years) has something to do with our cities’ respective cultures. Seattle, for all its pretenses of being a “green,” “progressive” city, is really overwhelmingly conservative. Change never comes without a huge cost: in time, money, and pointless deliberation. In Denver (like, I might add, New York, where the subway system is stillbeing expanded), density isn’t up for debate—officials and citizens I’ve talked to seemed surprised by Seattle’s irrational opposition to any project that removes even one precious single-family home. In contrast, the debate here has largely been over which communities get light rail first: Every single suburban mayor in the Denver region supported expanding the system, and the latest expansion passed 58 to 42 percent.
Light rail’s popularity here could be the product of frustration: Denver’s traffic is head-splittingly bad—not “bad” like Seattle (where you sometimes have to slow down to 10 miles an hour) but bad like Houston, where getting from downtown to the airport can be a three-hour process. People here seem to recognize that doing things the same way (endless sprawl, endless freeway expansion) is never going to lead to a different result. For example, when Denver officials proposed closing off a mile-long stretch of road through downtown in 1982, there was virtually no organized opposition: People saw how bad the congestion was, and turning it into a pedestrian mall seemed like a better idea than just leaving things the way they were. (Imagine if Seattle City Council members proposed shutting down First Avenue from Yesler to Bell Street). Now you can ride light rail to the station on the east end of downtown, hop on one of the free shuttles that run every couple of minutes, and ride down the center of a bustling, congestion-free pedestrian mall to your destination—or catch another rail line at the west end of downtown. Urban renewal, in the form of loft conversions a la Portland’s Pearl District and high-rise residential towers, has also started springing up in and around downtown, drawing suburbanites back to the city. How logical. How civilized. How urban. We don’t plan things that way here because we’re addicted to process, afraid of change, and convinced that Seattle is so exceptional that doing things differently is simply impossible. Additionally, it may be that things in Seattle just aren’t bad enough yet to get us to change our anti-urban, car-loving ways: I get the impression that light rail happened when people just got fed up with sitting in traffic.
Denver’s not a paradise, of course. As mentioned earlier, it’s a big, sprawling mess of a city, with suburbs stretching out from the freeways as far as the eye can see. Their light rail plan also includes more than 20,000 new parking spaces for long-distance commuters, more or less wiping out the environmental benefits of choosing rail instead of driving a car. (Most emissions happen when you start your car.) The “transit-oriented development” at Englewood had a distinctly suburban feel—identical taupe stucco and brick apartments perched on top of liquor stores, nail salons and chain restaurants, and right around the corner was a massive, ugly Wal-Mart/Petco retail complex. Still, change takes decades, not years. At least Denver is getting started.