A test ride through Denver's light rail transit

Expanding light rail gets high marks.


Last night as we passed through this stretch it didn’t seem terrifying at all — just another piece of suburbia, with its strip malls and car dealerships and parking lots. But we were in a car then. Now, on a warm and humid Monday morning in July, I’m on foot, and this particular streetscape seems downright hostile, designed to scare the unwitting pedestrian into a vehicle or perhaps the nearest Chick-Fil-A. Six lanes of traffic thrum by on the wide thoroughfare, inches and a text-while-driving away from hopping the curb and squashing me. The grocery store turns out to be on the other side of a vast expanse of pavement that would take too much time to traverse. Nothing is on the human scale here.

I’m making this mile-long trek, from my suburban hotel to the nearest light rail station, to test a recent headline from the Atlantic’s City Lab news site calling Denver “the most advanced transit city in the West." While a number of Western cities — Salt Lake, Albuquerque and even Phoenix — have put in rail systems in recent years, Denver’s effort to thread dozens of miles of light rail into the urban and suburban tapestry, beginning in the 90s and continuing today, have garnered high praise. Of course, none of that means much if the system’s not user friendly and people don’t use it. So I’ve come here, ditched my car and am pretending to be a commuter on the occasion of a major transit milestone: The July 26 grand opening of the revamped Union Station.

Once a grand rail terminal, Denver's Union Station had become a rundown mess by the 1980s. Now it and surrounding railyards have been revamped into a modern transit hub and more. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

So far, my test isn’t going so well. The Website of the transit agency, RTD, suggested that I take the bus from near my hotel to the light rail station, but also indicated that my ticket purchasing options on the bus would be limited (exact change, no all-day passes available). So I chose this harrowing walk, instead, crossing a freeway onramp and then offramp without the help of a traffic light, and feeling my way to the station as the only signage is for cars, not pedestrians. Notably absent is the buzzing, walkable, transit-oriented development that is supposed to pop up near every station.

Once in the station, things start looking up. I purchase an all-day pass from the easy-to-use vending machine for $11.50, which is less than I’d spend to park downtown. Notably, however, these machines don’t offer multi-day or monthly tickets (which are available in central locations). The train arrives on schedule, my fellow commuters and I board, and the cars slide quietly down the rails, destined for Union Station.