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#2: FasTracks and Union Station

I was thinking the other day that it’d be nice to do something big and splashy to celebrate FasTracks/Union Station coming in at #2 on our Denver’s Top 10 Urbanism Achievements of the Aughts list, so I arranged for the feds to give us a billion bucks and I threw in the Union Station movie as a bonus. I hope you liked it!  Seriously though, that was quite a happy coincidence of events as I was about to post that Denver’s FasTracks transit program and its redevelopment of historic Denver Union Station are #2 on the countdown. Friday was certainly a great day for Denver.

Cities around the world have wisely built and maintained balanced transportation systems that include rail transit, cars, busses, bicycles, and a variety of contraptions in between. In the United States, we started out well, with streetcar systems (first horse-drawn, then electrified) running on the streets of just about every major city in the country. But then we abandoned all of that after World War II and went on an automobile binge that we have come to realize may not have been all that wise. Cars are awesome machines and the personal freedom they provide is phenomenal. But just like so many other things in life… too much of a good thing can be bad. So better late than never, cities across the US, including Denver, are bringing back rail transit to provide some balance to our transportation systems. It’s called having a diversified portfolio of transportation assets. I am proud of Denver for taking such a bold step in the right direction.

FasTracks is more than just an ambitious regional public transit program. It will also positively influence our regional land use decisions. Major employment centers, residential developments, shopping malls, and other land uses that draw or produce high numbers of people will be/should be located in the future along our transit corridors. That is one of the principles on which Denver’s regional MetroVision plan is based. It’s also common sense.

But let’s be very clear about what FasTracks is and what it isn’t. FasTracks is a regional transit system primarily designed on the hub-and-spoke model to move people from the suburbs into and out of Downtown Denver. Such a system is absolutely necessary and I wholeheartedly support the FasTracks program, as should you. But we also have to recognize that for those of us in Denver proper, FasTracks is only one side of the transit coin. FasTracks doesn’t provide Denver with the transit connections we need and desire within and between our denser urban core districts. That is where a new Denver streetcar system would come in, but that’s a topic for future blog posts.

If FasTracks alone wasn’t enough, we have the whole Union Station redevelopment to celebrate as well. Many cities destroyed their historic train stations or converted them beyond repair into shopping malls or festival marketplaces or whatnot. Fortunately in Denver, our Union Station remains intact and is now poised to once again serve as the rail hub for the city and region. Along with its associated private sector development, the Union Station project will complete the transformation of the Central Platte Valley as a dynamic transit-oriented extension of Downtown. Downtown Denver just keeps getting better and better…

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15 Comments

  1. Freddie says:

    As soon as I saw this post, and before I even read it, I already had a comment in mind. But you addressed it somewhat in mentioning the additional need for a streetcar system within the city.

    The thing I don’t understand about Fastracks and the like, is the way the vast majority of lines run congruent with existing freeways. Now I’m sure it’s much easier and cheaper this way, but I just don’t see how it would work well. Freeways corridors are not walkable neighborhoods. In fact they’re the opposite. To a pedestrian, they’re great expanses that are noisy, polluted, and have little more than gas stations as a form of retail.

    From what I understand, such transit systems will only serve as PARTIAL commutes. They’re basically stations where people can swap their cars for a ride on the train for the last leg of their commute, rather than a convenient center-piece of a real neighborhood to which a pedestrian can actually walk. Perhaps I’m displaying some ignorance as I really don’t know how successful similar existing lines are, but personally, once I’m in my car, I’m in my car. And now I’m DRIVING to where ever I’m going. It would have been nice if there was rail-transit from my neighborhood to my work, but there isn’t, so into the car I go. And I’m not about to drive out of my way to some giant parking lot, just so I can get out of my warm car, walk across a sea of parking, and then wait in the cold for 20 minutes for the next train to come. And I think most people are like me.

    Of course most of suburbia isn’t very dense, so no matter where you put the lines, they won’t serve many people – at first. But I think the mere existence of a transit hub in a more walkable, and more residential neighborhood, would encourage a great deal of transit oriented development, and from there you will get the dense, walkable, retail-rich neighborhoods that will thrive for decades to come thanks to their relationship with rail-transit. But freeway corridors? Sure you will get SOME transit-oriented development – that’s somewhat forced due to blind speculation – but you’re not going to get much of it. And you’re not going to ever get a real, dense, “neighborhood” that ensures the local transit-hub remains relevant and viable for decades to come, because no one in their right mind is going to want to buy a condo that sits in a noisy, smoggy, freeway corridor surrounded by parking lots and gas stations.

  2. james says:

    the north line is far from the freeway and goes through mostly neigborhood, plus there are many spot where they can bulit transit hub, i live in thornton i cant wait too walk too the 112th station and pick a train too dt.

  3. Greg says:

    I’m looking forward to your post about streetcars. My feeling is that streetcars are equally valuable to buses, which are not all that useful. I’d love it if you could compare the benefits of streetcars to buses as they impact pedestrians, motorists, overall traffic, and bicyclists.

  4. We're Number Two!…

    The love affair between the Central Platte Valley and Ken Schroeppel over at denverinfill.com and the Central Platte Valley goes on. Our neighborhood already made one appearance on his countdown of the top ten urban achievements here in Denver in the p…

  5. BruceQ says:

    I couldn’t disagree more, Freddie.

    1) No matter where you run the lines, most people won’t be within walking distance, hence the park-n-rides and bus system. And since most riders will be coming to the stations on vehicles of one sort or another, why not take advantage of all the infrastructure that comes with the highway corridors?

    2) Most people don’t want big parking lots in their neighborhoods. Not to mention train stations, railroad tracks, and lots of people.

    3) I think RTD has been excellent at providing pedestrian access to the lightrail stations (that silliness at Park Meadows mall not whithstanding). Those walkovers at all of the stations on the southeast line are awesome, and great fun to walk across!

    4) Frankly, if you’re not willing to get out of your warm car, walk across the parking lot, and wait no longer than 20 minutes for the next train, so you can save a pile of money, reduce your stress, and reduce the car problem in urban centers, well… there’s just no helping some people.

  6. Matt Pizzuti says:

    I’m surprised that this isn’t #1! FasTracks is really a systemic change. No, it’s not a complete system, and no it doesn’t make its neighborhoods automatically “walkable.”

    It does the same thing highways do- it connects the roads.

    I expect most transit stops will become walkable neighborhoods at least the size of a street or two. Most of the stops I’ve been to on the South Line are not there yet – they look more like Park and Rides. But as we get a little better at this, it will be routine to have a neighborhood here and there that is just a hop away from the train.

    Of course, even if every light rail stop were attached to a clone of the 16th Street Mall you’d still have only a meager a fraction of all of the Denver Metro area covered. One way to cope with this is to make those areas more high-profile and dense, with low-rise apartment buildings lined with streetside retail, with events centers, restaurants and highly-utilized parks right there at every transit stop. But ultimately, suburban light rail stops will be major connectors for buss and shuttle services, so you can “step down” so to speak to a more specific mode of transit to get home, and stops in Lakewood or Denver proper will connect to other more high-profile modes of transit.

    Anyway, the fact that a project on the scale of FasTracks is only #2 leaves me really wondering what the top of this list could be.

  7. Ken says:

    Matt… it was a close call for #1 !!

  8. BS says:

    I bet #1 is going to be the denver infill blog itself

  9. Toast2042 says:

    Ken, how do you reconcile the DUS capacity fears mentioned by Colorail? I want to be able to fit future lines as well as current ones.

  10. Aaron says:

    Colorail had chances over the last 8 years to make their voices heard. At this point, all they seem to be capable of doing is complain about some design elements in the DUS plans. Not sure if they want to derail the entire project or not, but it seems to be their intention at this point!

    As for their notion that people will be left out in the elements to go from the LRT platforms to DUS itself, are they forgetting about the underground bus terminal that will serve as one walkway between transit modes in times of bad weather?

  11. Freddie says:

    Well Bruce, again I have to admit I’m somewhat ignorant about just how well the system works since I seldom venture into suburbia. Admittedly, I don’t quite understand the park-n-ride concept.

    As for point number one. I guess in my fantasy, the new transit system would spawn livable urban villages that are all connected. In other words, I realize that currently, not many people will be within walking distance, but I have sort of a if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy about it.

    As for point two? I have to plead ignorance here. It seems to me, places with train stations and lots of people are much more livable. I guess I can’t picture people NOT wanting that. But of course most people live in a sprawled suburbia intentionally so… Also, I really don’t think the parking lots would last. After enough transit oriented development changes the local real estate landscape, I think we’d be looking at more compact garages that help the area become more pedestrian friendly.

    As for point three? I’ll have to take your word for it.

    As for the last point, well, I still think I’ve got you on that one. If I did live in the suburbs and had to drive to work I’m really not sure what I would do honestly. But seriously, once your comfortably in your car, your in your car. Might as well just drive there at that point. I’d be willing to bet most people are like that.

    And please don’t anyone get me wrong. I about jumped for joy when Fastracks passed. And over the course of the years I’ve probably spent many hours staring at the fastracks map and fantasizing about what it will be like when it’s built out. In particular, I can’t wait for the line to DIA to get built. After living in towns like SF and visiting Denver via DIA, it always made me feel like my home town wasn’t really a big city because it doesn’t even have a train that goes to the airport.

  12. Toast2042 says:

    Aaron, I left out their “elements” argument because, like you, I don’t beleive it will make that large a difference. I’m concerned solely with the idea that we won’t have enough platforms to handle the trains we would all like to see running. If I recall, the original redesign had through-tracks. The new redesign has stub ends. If we end up not being able to support a front range runner or an I-70 ski train because there’s no capacity, I’d be pissed. It seems to me that they’re using guerilla tactics to force the issue. And I’m not sure that they were biding their time until all the decisions had been made to speak up, as you seem to imply. If they really did, then that’s a fair point, but I’m not assuming it.

  13. Aaron says:

    I agree that enough room needs to be left over for additional expansions, Toast2042. At the same time, I really wouldn’t have a major problem with the notion of a secondary transit terminal somewhere else in the downtown area (perhaps River North?) for additional lines. Stub lines don’t necessarily choke off expansion opportunities, but even then, there’s no reason why stub lines couldn’t be made into through lines with additional funding at a later date. Tunneling or bridging is always a possibility if and when the additional capacity is desired and/or needed.

  14. Ken says:

    I don’t believe the original DUS plan had through tracks. It was always a stub, it just was underground vs. at grade today. There’s always the potential for a HSR or other through track at the CML by where the light rail would go, or creating an annex terminal elsewhere (such as in River North as Aaron suggested). Most big cities have multiple terminals for the same reason as we may face one day: there’s just not enough room for every train that could conceivable enter the city to arrive at the same station.

    It’s something to think about but not something to stop the current project in its tracks (pun unfortunately unavoidably intended).

  15. Beth Partin says:

    As someone who lives in Broomfield and commutes by bus to Denver a lot, I am still in favor of FasTracks, despite its money problems. But I got another view of it on February 17, when I was on the Environmental Justice tour sponsored by the Cross Community Coalition in Elyria-Swansea. They said that FasTracks will go through that area around I-70 and I-25 but, because it is commuter rail, won’t stop there. Just seemed like another way in which Globeville Elyria Swansea is left out of Denver’s urban housing and livability boom.