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“The train that saved Denver”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “the end of Auckland’s old growth model“. In that post, I argued that the old pattern – build roads and pipes into some paddocks and orchards, and subdivide away – is now kaput. It isn’t the 1960s anymore:

Auckland North Shore before AHB

A land-constrained city with pinch-points on all its key transport corridors cannot afford to provide sufficient road capacity to serve all new demand. More space-efficient transport – which means rapid transit for long-distance trips and walking and cycling for local trips – is a prerequisite for ongoing growth.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at what’s happening to the cost to add road capacity in Auckland. A decade ago, we could build urban motorway extensions for less than $10 million per lane-kilometre. Over the next decade, we’ll be lucky if we can keep costs to $50 million per lane-km.

Cost per added lane-km chart

Rising costs to add new road capacity reflect fundamental spatial challenges. Due to geographical constraints and the existing built environment, new roads must go in tunnels (VPT, Waterview), on viaducts (Reeves Road), or reclaimed land (East-West). All three options are expensive.

Space for rapid transit is also expensive… but the difference is that rapid transit systems allow many more people to move on busy corridors. Consequently, the space required per user can be significantly lower.

But: can rapid transit also play its role in supporting land use and development?

Evidence from the US suggests that it can. A recent article by Colin Woodard (in Politico Magazine) reviews Denver, Colorado’s successful development of a new rapid transit system:

Denver has done something no other major metro area has accomplished in the past decade, though a number of cities have tried. At a moment when aging mass transit systems in several major cities are capturing headlines for mismanagement, chronic delays and even deaths, Denver is unveiling a shiny new and widely praised network: 68 stations along 10 different spurs, covering 98 miles, with another 15 miles still to come. Even before the new lines opened, 77,000 people were riding light rail each day, making it the eighth-largest system in the country even though Denver is not in the top 20 cities for population. The effects on the region’s quality of life have been measurable and also surprising, even to the project’s most committed advocates. Originally intended to unclog congested highways and defeat a stubborn brown smog that was as unhealthy as it was ugly, the new rail system has proven that its greatest value is the remarkable changes in land use its stations have prompted, from revitalizing moribund neighborhoods, like the area around Union Station, to creating new communities where once there was only sprawl or buffalo grass.

In other words it’s taken Denver only two decades to build a successful rapid transit system from scratch. Further expansions are underway. To be fair, Auckland’s accomplished something similar. The city’s rail network had a near-death experience in the early 1990s but its fortunes have turned around due to some far-sighted decisions – purchasing surplus railcars from Perth; building Britomart; rail electrification; and the Northern Busway.

Daily Britomart Passengers - Actual vs Projected 2016

However, Denver has arguably done better than Auckland at using rapid transit investments to enable urban development. This has included a mix of urban redevelopment and more intensive greenfield development:

Denver’s leaders had, by accident, built something extremely valuable, but because they had misunderstood its real purpose at the outset, some potential had been squandered. “They were really asking the wrong question: How do you reduce congestion on highways?” says Wesley Marshall, a transport engineer at the University of Colorado Denver. “The obvious answer is to put transit adjacent to highways and to surround the stations with park-and-ride lots.”

Problem is, while transit really does mitigate congestion in the long term, it does so by facilitating better, often denser land use, rather than by offering an alternative to getting from point A to point B on the interstate…

One of the best examples of this is the area around the 10th and Osage Station just south of the city center. The Denver Housing Authority wanted to replace the South Lincoln Homes, a distressed, low-slung 270-unit public housing project on 15 acres with mixed-income housing. The two key criteria critical to attracting middle- and market-rate tenants, DHA Director Ismael Guerrero says, were proximity to downtown and a light rail station, but they also wanted to ensure nobody was unwillingly displaced.

“This is a close-knit community and a lot of history, where people live for generations and have family close by,” Guerrero notes. “Residents told us they wanted to make sure that we weren’t just replacing housing but improving the quality of life.”

The result is Mariposa, a 900-unit development of energy-efficient three- to nine-story buildings with shops and office spaces mixed into a network of parks, bike paths and community gardens, some of them on land transferred by RTD to the city. Osage Café, a breakfast and lunch place, is actually a culinary academy training local teens. Arts Street, a non-profit providing arts-oriented “learn and earn” sessions for at-risk youth, moved into the complex from temporary digs at DHA’s invitation.

Denver Mariposa apartments

Mariposa Phase II apartments (Source: Politico Magazine)

[…] Mariposa, now nearly complete, has retained more than 40 percent of South Lincoln Homes’ residents, Crangle notes, about four times the national average for similar projects. The net result has been diversification, not just gentrification, according to Todd Clough, executive director of the nearby Denver Inner City Parish, which helps the poor. “I was anticipating eight or 10 years ago that we would be gone by now, but because of light rail and Mariposa, we’re still relevant,” he says. “I’m a cynic; I serve poor people, that’s what I do. But, you know, this project is about as good as you can do it in a city that’s on fire.”

Basically, if it’s done well, rapid transit works. If you put in a system that is useful to people – i.e. one that connects them to places they want to be, in reasonable comfort – it will in turn shape urban development. If it goes into an existing urban fabric, it will be a lever for getting better outcomes from future redevelopment. If it goes into greenfield areas, it will shape its development form for decades to come.

I’m actually going to be in Denver at the end of this week – one of my brothers has moved there. Will be interesting to see how the place works, if only as a tourist.

58 comments to “The train that saved Denver”

  • Ricardo

    I’m always entertained by the (lack of) logic on this blog that keeps insisting that PT is the savior for every known social ill. PT has it’s place, but largely only useful for work commuter A to B transport. Absolutely hopeless for food shopping for a family of four or more, taking the kids to sports, taking out elderly relatives confined to wheelchairs (not just getting to where they live and back, but actually taking them out – in all weathers), picking up building DIY materials, popping out of work to see doctors, dentists (yes, some smarty pants will now say – get one close to where you work – really?), ducking out for a couple of hours to attend children’s school events (without waiting all day for matching transport), and so on. You get the picture. Personal transport in whatever mode will still be around for a very long time. And that is why quality roading that flows efficiently is equally as important as PT. It is not a case of ‘one or the other’, it’s a case of BOTH.

    • Clearly, there are some places left for you to visit in the world.

    • Peter Nunns

      “Personal transport in whatever mode will still be around for a very long time.”

      Yes, I agree. That’s why frequent, connected PT networks are important; that’s why providing for safe walking and cycling options is important. They all allow for good personal mobility to meet a range of situations.

      “And that is why quality roading that flows efficiently is equally as important as PT. It is not a case of ‘one or the other’, it’s a case of BOTH.”

      Exactly why it’s time for Auckland to build a high-quality rapid transit network. We’ve had six decades of “roads first” planning; time to balance things out by prioritising PT investment for a while.

    • patrick M

      Some funny examples in the above.
      “taking out elderly relatives confined to wheelchairs” – so most peoples Personal Transport have wheelchair ramps, lifts, or cranes? If not then most of these relatives are able bodied enough to lift the elderly to/from their transport?
      “picking up building DIY materials” – the majority of transports on Auckland’s roads would have real issues with transport decking timber or any timber greater than 3000mm or any of the larger items from Bunnings or Mitre 10. Like brand new BBQ, outdoor oven, outdoor furniture, piping, etc. Though a box of screws shouldn’t have a problem.
      “food shopping for a family of four or more” – doesn’t Countdown offer an online delivery service???

      Just wanted to point out the silly examples chosen. Though the sports and doctors visits are mostly a good reason for having person transport if you live out in the suburbs. But can I add, the reason for the doctors visits may be related to a sedentary lifestyle, and wouldn’t it be healthier for the kids to use active means to get to/from sport events WHERE POSSIBLE, after all it does seem as contradictory as somebody driving to the Gym to spend an hour on an spin cycle.

      • But neither in Denver nor in Auckland is anyone proposing to rip up every road and ban cars; this is a post about adding another option to what we already have; a great deal of roads and traffic. Everyone with the desire can drive around as much as they like anywhere in both these cities, and by adding Rapid Transit systems to these cities that option doesn’t magically evaporate.

        Poor ricardo is clearly has problems with comprehension; there is nowhere in the text above or anywhere here that suggests we’re gonna come and steal his car keys. He’s tilting at windmills; fighting an enemy that isn’t there.

        And with the same silly argument over and over in his one repeated comment: Transit doesn’t do something well, therefore it doesn’t do anything well. And the same repeated reference to traffic flow without any understanding of the failure of traffic to be able to flow in geographically constrained cities with only poor alternatives to relieve that system.

        Anyway the post above is actually about land-use, and land-use transformation through transport investment. A really important and largely overlooked fact of urban development.

    • Nick R

      Correct, it is a case of both. However Auckland has a hell of a lot of one, almost exclusively roading, and very little of the other. To have both we need to catch up on the missing one.

      “Taking the kids to sport”. In my partners family they kids took themselves to sport when growing up, the parents didn’t have to taxi them to every single activity they did, and only came along if the wanted to watch. I wonder how many kids miss out on sports and activities because the parents don’t have time to drive them around all the time?

    • harrymc

      ” It is not a case of ‘one or the other’, it’s a case of BOTH.”
      And thus far Ricky it has been one ONLY (sorry for shouting). So now the balance is being redressed and it will take a long time plus a large redirection of funds from roads to PT. I’m so glad that you understand this at last. Well done you!

    • Nick

      Actually, can he just be banned? His always-first, Debbie Downer comments kind of kill the comments section.

      • mfwic

        Yes that’s the way. You don’t agree with someone so there should be censorship. Those pesky people with opinions- something should be done so correct thinking people like you never have to doubt yourselves.

        • Sailor Boy

          Have you read the user guidelines? There are at least 3 that Ricardo’s behaviour is clearly in breach of.

          • The thing is that if Ricardo were banned for trolling, derailing comments which just aim to disrupt discussion on this blog because he opposes the very principle of it, mfwic would be banned for precisely the same reason.

            Come to think of it, a plan with no drawbacks!

          • Nick R

            Yeah but at least mfwic is clever about it and usually has a droll tongue planted in cheek. Ricardo is just boorish.

          • mfwic

            But Daphne you have missed the chance to show Ricardo where he is wrong. Public transport will be the saviour. The compact city has worked so well there are people out there who can’t even afford a car to live in. Clearly we need to start parking old buses around the city for groups of families to live together in communal socialist harmony- provided they have a Commissar such as you to tell they what to think.

          • Nick R

            I take it back, mfwic is boorish too.

      • Dave B (Wellington)

        No! Don’t ban Ricardo. His fatuous postings always elicit a flurry of sensible refutations. Always worth a read 🙂

      • Oh come off it, don’t ban him! having your beliefs challenged by a dissenting voice isn’t a problem. Yes, Ricardo can be a little tiresome, repeating the same thing again and again, but at least he is active in the community, providing comments even if they often don’t add very much. He can spell well, and uses grammar appropriately. He doesn’t use insults or vulgarity. I think we could do much worse than Ricardo. He should be welcome here.

    • Since you mention kids, kids can’t drive, and if both catching the bus (lack of services) and cycling (too dangerous) are ruled out as well, there’s a problem. I was regularly taxied around as a kid, and I can assure you it’s a giant PITA for parents.

      For grocery shopping, if the closest place you can go is a 10-minute drive away you’ll indeed be driving to the grocery shop for a long time. Which shows that just improving PT is only one part, the other part is building more houses in places where you can walk to the grocery shop. And walk to a bus stop or station.

      The magic word is indeed both. And to go from “we have only roads & cars” to “we have both cars and PT”, we’ll need to build PT for a while.

    • I don’t understand you Ricardo. I agree with you that roads are great, but no-one on this blog has ever really proposed ripping them up or doing away with them entirely. There is still plenty of room in New Zealand left for road building, but in the case of Auckland, the cheapest, bestest, bang-for-buck in moving people is public transport. As the recent Sunday post here showed: the Downes-Thompson paradox is basically that people will generally travel on the option thats quickest and easiest. No one here is suggesting we make roads worse, people are suggesting we make public transport better. The beauty of making public transport better is that it will in turn make the roads freer for all the wheelchair bound grandmas going to bunnings for 3m lengths of timber.

  • I have family in Denver and admired the rapid Rail system when I went into the city centre. That was in 2005 and now it has extended out closer to where they live saving miles by car.

    edit I was in Auckland in the late sixties when Robbie was advocating light rail… such a lot of time wasted by Auckland.

  • mfwic

    Remind me where we are land constrained again?

    • Sailor Boy

      Moving from literally any point in our city to literally any point 5 km or more away from it you will pass through natural bottlenecks.

      • mfwic

        No the constraint on bare land is artificial. Have a look at Kingseat, Glenbrook, Waiuku or Patamahoe one day. Or try Dairy Flat or go out to Kumeu. There are geographical constraints on the bits already developed, but the discussion is about whether you artificially constrain bare land. The through process of the current decision makers is “the isthmus is constrained therefore we should constrain the rest too.”

        Maybe we need minimum carparking brought back so future generations will have somewhere to park the car they have to sleep in.

        • 0/10 for reading comprehension MFWIC.

          “Transport infrastructure is land use policy” there it is, clear as day.

          While we have plenty of land around us, connecting that to the existing city is where the constraint lies, due to lack of land and the fact that much of the land is already occupied.

          You state that we need minimum parking to ensure people can park their cars. Wouldn’t it make sense to allow people to see the cost of having cars in busy areas? And decide if it’s money they’d rather spend elsewhere?

          • mfwic

            Except I read more than the captions on the pictures, you will too when you get to chapter books. “A land-constrained city with pinch-points on all its key transport corridors…” The hard constraints fall away when you get to the greenfield areas. You can have any road or railway line you want. All we have is constraints that have been imposed by regulation. The argument Peter is making is we have put constraints in therefore we are constrained.

        • Auckland is constrained on both it’s long sides (east and west roughly) by the ocean and forests, which leaves just it’s short sides north and south.

        • Sailor Boy

          Glennbrook or Waiuku you say?

          No geographical constraints getting anywhere from there are there?
          https://www.google.co.nz/maps/@-37.0650605,174.864967,30863m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

          • mfwic

            Yes, did you notice the area about the size of the entire Auckland Isthmus between there and the official ‘growth corridor’ ? That area is probably larger than the urban part of North Shore and the old Waitakere City combined. Constrained? Only by rules.

          • Sailor Boy

            Perhaps you missed the ocean in that shot. Which rule is the ocean?

          • mfwic

            No I am very familiar with the ocean. It is the low down wet bit. But you get my point even if you dont wish to admit it. The fact you are pointing at the ocean shows you have already capitulated on the rest. There is as much land out to there as we could ever need and similar amounts available at Kumeu, Dairy Flat, Clevedon etc. The only binding constraint is in the imagination of people setting the rules. It suits the current crop of people to pretend we are land constrained. But we will develop there one day because people want it.

          • Oh John, such old nonsense, you’re as stuck as poor Ricardo, aren’t you? Sure we can spread to Warkwork 60km away, say, and around Pukekohe, 50km. All grand, but then all those souls hop in their cars and try to drive to their jobs all over the wider city and whoops; what have we here? A horribly stuck and inefficient clogged road network, especially though the very very very geographically and permanently constrained Isthmus. Its two [soon] motorways at gridlock; no-one getting anything done efficiently.

            Perhaps you are one of those happy fantasists that insists every new resident around Pukekohe will all work at the library there, or something, and the same for everyone in Warkworth, and Kumeu/Huapai and Whenuapai. None will ever go to a job or university in the centre, or heaven forfend, on the completely opposite side of the city. Gosh they may even start a widget factory near where they live and all their staff will live next door to each other happily driving for 2 minutes to one of their many Council mandated carparks, and all materials and finished product will be sold at the Warkworth market and never generate any trips to or from here and there and everywhere; right?

            Notgonnahappen. Ever. Such a shame about the real world, eh?

          • Sailor Boy

            You seem to be missing that these people will need to travel over/around the constraints, otherwise they may as well live in Timaru.

          • mfwic

            Patrick just wait for the national policy statement. We may as well get on with planning for what will happen rather than pretending people want to live in little boxes where freight trains will keep them awake at night. Those areas are under developed for a reason, they are blighted by rail.

          • Sailor Boy

            Yes, 2 million people moved to London and 1 million to Vancouver over the last 30 years because they were so blighted by rail.

          • mfwic

            Well now I am truly out of touch there. I just didnt know that 2 million people lived beside heavy rail freight lines in London. It wasn’t like that when I lived there.

          • Harriet

            I love sounds of freight trains in the morning, sweet memories of logging trains passing us on the NAL ;'(. I want one of those cheap terraces by Quay Park junction.

            But in all seriousness if people have the choice of a townhouse or apartment in central or a house in Puke, the younger generation of which I am apart of will pick the former.

            Also don’t mention children, you don’t need the 1/4 acre when you your average family from my generation will be 0-1 children.

        • Peter Nunns

          The fundamental constraint on bare land is infrastructural – i.e. how do we build the roads, PT facilities, and pipes needed to service growth there? Auckland Council’s signalled its intention to do away with an immovable urban limit and replace it with one that moves out as infrastructure becomes available.

          One key infrastructural constraint we face is that it’s expensive to expand motorway / road capacity across pinch-points such as the Waitemata Harbour or Tamaki estuary. This is important because growth that happens at the edge of the city (or within the city, for that matter) generates demand for trips across these pinch-points.

          My point in this post is that Auckland’s lack of a comprehensive, region-wide rapid transit system makes it more difficult to expand, because 100% of new trips on the fringe will be allocated to congested roads that are costly to widen due to geography.

      • mfwic

        We were lucky that most of the people who post comments on this blog were not involved in the decision to build the harbour bridge. We wouldn’t have one!

        • Load of rubbish. Pure speculation based on stuff all.

        • JBM

          Wrong. We’d have a harbour bridge but it would’ve had 2 rail lines, cycle lanes and pedestrian walkways as well as the multiple lanes of traffic. That’s what most people on this blog are saying – we need to balance out all the roads-first policies of the last 50 years with public transport infrastructure. In the end, it will be the road-users who benefit the most because their roads won’t be congested anymore.

          • KLK

            But haven’t you heard JBM? Promoting any kind of PT means banning the car and ripping up roads.

            Says a lot when the last resort is strawman arguments…..

          • mfwic

            I must have missed the people here clamouring for a Weymouth Bridge to improve buses and cycle connectivity or the Weiti River crossing for pedestrians.
            Clearly to use the nonsense jargon the Auckland Harbour Bridge caused ‘induced traffic’ so it must be a total failure.

          • KLK

            “Clearly to use the nonsense jargon the Auckland Harbour Bridge caused ‘induced traffic’ so it must be a total failure.”

            More Strawman stuff in the same thread? On form today…

    • harrymc

      “Remind me where we are land constrained again?”
      Don’t you have Google maps. And of course every city in the world is land constrained for various reasons.

      • mfwic

        The irony is the post is about Denver which is the only city I can think of that doesn’t have some form of topographical constraint.

        • Sailor Boy

          https://goo.gl/maps/KWbspLdgUq42

          Just the rockies. Literally continent dividing mountains.

          • Bruce

            Not supporting Mfwic or sprawl but he is right about Dever. The Rockies are still a long distance from the centre of Denver (I should know having recently driven down the I-70 through Denver – BTW the LR there does look pretty cool). Denver is a flat place with the ability to expand pretty much in any direction unlike Auckland. Aucklands problem is NIMBYs. Get rid of NIMBY ability and there is suddenly plenty of room for development upwards.

        • mfwic

          Again with the negatives. Did you notice the 900km of space the other way?

        • Denver like almost all American cities of the middle have few natural constraints, and a highway system paid for by the taxpayers of New York and California. Which makes Denver’s success with rail Transit all the more impressive. Auckland however does have profound constraints but also no more Power Companies to sell to widen motorways with, nor indeed the space to waste on such a plan anyhow. But we must remember that constraint adds cost to all transport construction; a few hours on Google maps and it is plain to see that most US and Canadian cities have huge space to add whatever transport systems they choose, often very wide roads too to repurpose for surface systems such as LRT and cycleways. Everything is very tight in Auckland, that’s partly why we’re now heading underground.

          Those North American cities also have everything sooooo spread out, Auckland already is relatively compact, not out of design but because of a lack of land and money to urbanise more at the edges with infrastructure. We’re in a good place to change transport infrastructure investment into more spatially efficient modes and, like Denver, a land-use shift will occur too. But we haven’t made it easy through our foolish failure to reserve corridors for new systems.

          Denver is a good example because it isn’t relying on legacy rail systems to relieve its choked roads, it’s built them recently. But every city is specific and there are plenty of differences; our Council is not allowed to use sales taxes or anything other than rates to raise capital for example. But also space is tight even for more efficient systems across our narrow island, and therefore it’s expensive to add whatever we build to make it work. We have to choose well, and in particular stop trying to build more motorways as well as the missing modes.

  • Brendon Harre

    Denver could definitely be a model for Auckland, which is halfway there with its recent PT upgrades. Christchurch which is making all the mistakes of 1950s Auckland definately needs this option. Maybe Peter could write about PT for Christchurch after visiting Denver?

  • Matthew

    Space efficient PT can use roads, in Auckland its just a lack of efficient allocation that prevents roads from moving more people.

  • Mike (the longstanding one)

    Denver actually built two rail networks from scratch in recent years: a light rail system, which was started 10/15 or so years ago; and a heavy rail system, of which the first line has just opened with two more following close behind. It’s impressive!

  • Mr Plod

    Where did Denver get the money from as we’ve often heard here that there is no money for roading in the US?

    • Sailor Boy

      Local governments are allowed to tax whatever they want there so they aren’t restricted to begging for national funds like we are.

    • Bobo in pagliaccio

      Maybe Denver has a tax on marijuana there that funds their transport?

    • Harriet

      In the USA most local governments can raise sales taxes & gas taxes in excess of property taxes.

      Basically they have referendums on transport policies, the department or agency says will build this for x increase in gas or sales taxes.

      If population says yes they build it if not no. Since most Americans vote no, the ones who vote yes do very well since they also scoop up all the federal transit dollars that the other cities miss out on because they say no.

      Denver Local Governments also work together unlike others so they win federal funding more often as well.

  • robert

    I like the extra effort put into transforming a neighbourhood from low density to high density and retaining 40% of the original inhabitants.This model needs to be looked into and explored . If there is to be any success in convincing existing residents of auckland to accept and welcome higher densities we need to promote some of the successes Denver is experiencing. It could be immediately applied to the situation in Birkenhead where a SHA development has run into local opposition from residents who have approached their MP ( jonathan Coleman ) who has told the residents that Auckland Council should turn down the Resource consent. From what I have seen of the plans it is a very impressive well thought out development of approx 50 apartments on two residential sites. On one hand we have the Government threatening the Council re land and density while on the other hand one of its senior ministers is attacking the Council and the Governments own SHA process by suggesting a high density development should be disallowed.
    I understand the residents concern but most of it is fear and the opportunities are not being sold to them at all. The Denver experience suggests a lot more work needs to be done in this area of engaging with locals and selling the benefits of intensification.

  • Ted F

    Let’s remember the Congestion Free Net Work Plan!
    The greater number of residents in Auckland the more inhibited the individual personal transport module will become. It won’t matter if that module is battery powered or driver-less, the roads are finite and we already have a lot of paved area per household/business which enables free movement but not enough room for parking let alone moving those “individual personal transport modules”.
    Is Public Transport the answer, it is one of the answers and the easiest to free up road space. We also need space for other modes such as feet and bikes.

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