A test ride through Denver's light rail transit

Expanding light rail gets high marks.


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I am on the 19-mile Southeast line, built a decade ago as part of the massive T-REX transportation project, which was intended to reduce congestion caused by the huge bi-directional commute from and to residential and business areas in the southeast suburbs. It followed the 1990s construction of the Southwest line, and helped pave the way for FasTracks, the big 2004 measure to vastly expand the transportation network, which is still in progress. The train runs along the I-25 corridor, so passengers can see what they’re missing.

Pardon my schadenfreude, but it’s difficult not to be elated to see motorists trapped in their cars in traffic — I can almost feel them gritting their teeth in frustration while I sit and daydream. Meanwhile, a diverse crowd, looking rather relaxed, fills the train. Some wear business suits, others the uniform of service workers. Some read books, but most are on their mobile devices; one woman brushes her teeth without a trace of self-consciousness while talking on her phone. Try that while driving on the freeway.

Sitting in traffic vs. sitting on the train. Which would you prefer? Photos by Jonathan Thompson.

During the first quarter of this year, Denver’s light rail system carried an average of about 82,000 riders per day, a huge jump from the previous year thanks in part to the opening of the West line, which goes up to Golden. Phoenix’s daily ridership is around 47,000, while Salt Lake’s system carries about 66,000 per day. The news website FiveThirtyEight recently crunched the numbers in terms of population, and Denver, with 41.1 annual trips per capita was about even with Salt Lake — not bad for the Interior West, but it pales next to San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and even Los Angeles and Davis, California.

The most noticeable success in Denver is the degree to which transit-oriented development has taken hold. Adjacent to nearly every station (mine was the exception) along my ride towards downtown, new apartment buildings, most with retail space on the ground floor, beckon to renters. This is especially true within the City of Denver, where zoning encourages such development. The idea is to cluster people and businesses around the stations, to up the walkability of the city and remove treacherous journeys across pedestrian Hell.

A Denver bike share station at Union Station with new construction in the background. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

About a half hour after getting on the train, we arrive in the heart of what may very well be the epitome of all transit-oriented development: Union Station and the surrounding neighborhood. Back in the early 1980s, most of this area west of downtown was covered with industrial railyards. The historic lower downtown, along with the iconic Union Station, was crumbling and slated for demolition to make way for more skyscrapers. Denver was losing population, sales tax revenues and clout to its suburbs. In response, city leaders and citizens embraced both a historic preservationist ethos and a forward-looking desire for a more urban future.

As I step off the train at Union Station, the results of that long ago shift are everywhere. The railyards are gone, replaced by modern high-rise apartment and office buildings, most of them built during the recession. The population of the area has boomed, even as construction and population growth froze in the fringes. Cranes continue to swing their loads around the area as still more buildings are finished up, and the few remaining vacant lots are slated to be filled soon. At the heart of it all is Union Station, now the main station for light rail, regional buses and Amtrak. The transit hub was opened in May, and then in July the station itself opened to almost universal praise and amazement. The 120-year-old structure now houses an upscale hotel, several buzzing restaurants and retail outlets and a lavish bar. Yet it’s still a public train and bus station, albeit a luxurious one, where one is free to lounge comfortably while waiting on a train.

Over the next couple of days I continue my test of the trains. My conclusion? If the goal of public transit is to transform the greater metro area into a walkable place where residents will want to abandon their cars, then Denver proper gets a B+, while the greater metro area is more like a C — it will take far more than a handful of light rail lines to rejigger the post-World War II, auto-centric suburbs of the West, as my morning walk to the station demonstrates. But if the idea is to give all those poor car-commuting souls non-vehicular options for getting around the greater metro area, then Denver's system earns a B. As light rail lines out to the airport and other suburbs go on line in 2016, they may even move into A territory. After all, 82,000 daily trips on light rail are 82,000 trips people aren’t taking in their cars. And that’s a good thing.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets @jonnypeace.