Public transit is not the key solution to Denver metro’s transportation problems and growth

People tend to cling to their beliefs long after changing reality has destroyed their foundations. Consider the prevailing beliefs among political and civic leaders regarding public transit and urban growth.

“RTD is in a way the answer to so many challenges in our region, be it climate, air quality, equity or access. All roads point to RTD in finding solutions to these issues we face,” says Molly McKinley, director of policy for the Denver Streets Partnership, quoted in a recent Denver Post series about the troubled situation in the Regional Transportation District.

The Post itself endorsed this credo of RTD primacy in a recent editorial proposing sales tax hikes to improve rail and bus service while raising RTD wages and cutting fares. Public transit, The Post believes, is “the key to solving so many pressing problems: greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, poor air quality, traffic, worsening income inequality and staggering cost of living. pushed up by rising gasoline prices.

Such views are common among political elites: we need to get people out of cars and onto buses, trains or bikes if we are to redesign our cities, stop urban sprawl, save the planet and create a just society. and fair.

Unfortunately for the thesis, it is overwhelmed by technology, transportation options, consumer preferences, remote working, and the inconvenient fact that even before COVID, during a time of high population growth and increased density of housing, RTD has actually managed to lose traffic.

Since COVID, ridership has plummeted, with little hope of returning even to anemic pre-pandemic levels for years to come. Indeed, as The Post discovered in its dive into RTD’s outlook, “Financial pressures, coupled with staffing shortages, have led RTD officials to set a target of restoring just 85% of service hours. pre-pandemic by 2027”.

If RTD is really the key to solving so many serious problems, then we are to be doomed.

But is it? As pandemic fears fade, RTD could thrive again if it focuses on corridors where service is most in demand, adopts affordable fares for those who need public transit the most and resists plans to high subsidy and low ridership like the proposed North West Rail Line. But the agency’s broader ambitions are mostly fantasy.

Leading the charge against climate change and air pollution? The only way Metro Denver (or any region) will decarbonize its transportation sector is to continue greening the energy grid and adopting electric vehicles. Even if this process takes longer than optimists anticipate, as it likely will, it will still happen faster than any conceivable shift from personal vehicle travel to mass transit.

Over the next two years alone, a slew of new electric models will hit the market, their appeal further enhanced by the possibility of ever-higher gas prices.

“Even in the medium term, the growing adoption of hybrid, electric and autonomous vehicles will almost completely break the link between VMT (vehicles driven) and greenhouse gases,” Judge Glock wrote in a recent paper for the Breakthrough Institute. . “Those who attempt to redesign cities, projects that will take decades or even centuries, simply to reduce the use of gas-powered cars, are thus engaging in an exercise in futility that will only get worse over time. It would be like trying to redesign cities in 1900 to reduce horse manure. Technology will change faster than the city will.

As for income inequality, one of its main drivers these days is soaring housing costs, the remedy to which RTD has little to contribute. The affordable housing crisis is primarily a supply problem: new housing has simply not kept pace with the growth of new households, as numerous studies have shown.

And this is where the myths of mass transit and urban growth become particularly problematic. In order to “get people out of their cars,” Denver metro officials have bet on higher density, seeking to concentrate new housing along transit corridors, for example. And while that makes sense to the extent possible, it’s not enough for the task. Barriers to new housing must be removed at all levels, both inside and outside the metropolitan core.

Yes, it could mean more urban sprawl, but the tradeoff is worth it. Whatever the downsides of sprawl, which cleaner transportation will significantly diminish, it also has benefits – the biggest historically being cheaper and more spacious housing. It’s no coincidence that nationwide house prices tend to be highest where growth controls and housing regulations are the tightest, with California being the prime example.

Greater density is indeed important and has created vibrant neighborhoods for tens of thousands of new residents. But nowhere in America in recent decades has the pursuit of density alone produced enough housing to level the playing field for homebuyers.

A Denverite reporter, espousing the mainstream creed, recently wrote, “I think it depends on what kind of city we want to live in. If we “keep expanding outward,” she warned, “we will build a city for cars. The alternative – where there are more homes and businesses on/near existing transit corridors, and more space on city streets for transit (more) cycling, etc. . – is also possible.

In fact, the choice is not either/or. We can build up and out at the same time, as we actually did. We just haven’t seen enough of either type of growth given the volume of new households.

As for the kind of city we want, how about one where middle-class residents can afford to buy their first home, where neighborhoods don’t see housing prices quadruple in 25 years (like the mine), and who doesn’t rank — as Metro Denver does now — among the 10 least affordable housing markets in the country?

To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit it online or see our guidelines for how to submit by email or mail.

Melvin Z. Madore