I hear the train a comin’

 

I’m not a city person. I live just outside a small town of less than 2,000 souls, and I like its gritty, two-block downtown, where you see your neighbors every time you pick up the mail or buy some dog food; I like the quiet so deep that you can hear the wingbeats of ravens and eagles overhead, the night skies so dark and clear that you can almost touch the stars. And I love the fact that I never, ever have to sit in traffic, except in the company of cows or sheep.

Still, I relish the chance to visit the city. There, I can feel that pulse of energy unique to humanity, generated by hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people living and working cheek by jowl. The vast majority of Westerners live in urban areas, yet, as Senior Editor Jonathan Thompson reports in our cover story, since the end of World War II, those cities have grown increasingly unlivable, with their glass-and-steel downtowns that empty out by 6 p.m. and their ever-expanding rings of megaburbs, where you have to drive and sit in traffic to do almost anything.

This model of development, fortunately, has finally begun to change. Led by a new wave of creative planners and developers and supported by citizens fed up with traffic jams, many Western cities are embracing public transportation, light rail in particular, and the walkable, bikeable, mixed-use neighborhoods it can spawn. Denver, with a 10-year sprint to revamp its lower downtown and build a practical rail system, has been at the forefront of this railvolution, but Salt Lake, Albuquerque and even, as Thompson discovers, Phoenix are fast on its heels.

These days, I look forward to heading over the mountains to Denver to see what new parks, apartments, businesses and public spaces have sprouted since my last visit. After a ballgame at Coors Field, a quick bus ride to a great restaurant and then a stroll through neighborhoods filled with people out shopping and enjoying the evening, I start thinking that perhaps I, too, could live in a city.

But, no. After a couple of days, I’m eager to leave the bustle behind and drive back to our semi-wild — one could almost say feral — region. Cities are not for all of us. But as the West fills up with millions of newcomers in the coming years, it is essential that our cities become more livable places. And embracing rail, rather than more roads, may be the best way to do it.

High Country News Classifieds