Denver Needs More Than a Train to the Plane to Become a Great Transit City

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According to Denver’s Transit-Oriented Development Strategic Plan, the A Line Stations (marked in green) have development potential, but most of them don’t serve walkable areas today. Image: City and County of Denver

As exciting as the impending debut of RTD’s A Line to Denver International Airport may be, the hyperbole is getting out of control.

In a Denver Post story exclaiming that the Friday launch of the A line will “change the metro area forever,” DIA CEO Kim Day said her airport is “no longer competing with Dallas and Chicago, but we are now competing with Zurich and Paris and other international airports.” Over at the Denver Business Journal, the downtown-to-the-airport rail connection is an unmistakable sign that Denver is becoming a “true transit city.”

It’s all a bit much. What makes the experience of traveling to “true transit cities” like Zurich and Paris so enjoyable is not just the train from the airport, it’s the robust transit network and walkable streets that enable you to conveniently get around the whole city without the hassle of renting a car. Denver’s not there yet — not even close.

So how much closer does the A Line get us to being a transit city?

Connecting downtown to the airport is important, but to be successful, the A Line should do more than that. As influential transit planner Jarrett Walker put it in a recent post, great airport transit works for airport employees as well as travelers. It should “connect to lots of places, not just downtown” and form “an integral part of the regional transit network.”

There are basically two things we should be looking for with the A Line. Does it have stations that serve walkable parts of the city with lots of housing or jobs, so it’s useful for many types of trips, not just airport trips? And does it connect with frequent transit routes, so transit riders can access the line even if they don’t live right on top of it?

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Image: RTD

The R Line will connect to Peoria Station later this year. But while 18 bus lines connect to the six A Line stations between the terminals, only one of those will arrive every 10 minutes or less during rush hour. Nine will arrive every 15 minutes, six will come every 30 minutes, and two will have headways of 30 minutes or more. The 61st and Peña Station won’t have any bus connections.

With the exception of Union Station and to a lesser extent 38th-Blake, the A Line doesn’t serve walkable areas — at least not yet. Take the 40th and Colorado Station. It has some apartment buildings and low-lying businesses around it, but it also straddles an industrial area and a golf course. The Central Park Station is next to sprawling parking lots and a strip mall.

Yes, Community Planning and Development has a Transit-Oriented Development Strategic Plan that aims to make walkable neighborhoods anchored by transit stations, but the unfortunate fact is, the A Line was built for people to drive to. In fact, that’s how RTD has marketed the A Line since day one. Consider:

  • The A Line has 4,329 parking spaces (see the giant billboard on I-70 that brags about them).
  • According to the FasTracks environmental impact statement, RTD plans to nearly double that number by 2030.
  • RTD is marketing their stations as places for air travelers to store private cars for free or on the cheap while away from the city.

Parking spaces don’t come cheap — it costs about $15,000 to build a single structured parking space in Denver [PDF]. RTD is spending tens of millions of dollars on parking for the A Line alone. Those resources aren’t helping to create walkable neighborhoods. Instead, RTD is facilitating car-based development by encouraging people to drive to the train.

Taking the train to and from the airport instead of slogging there on I-70 will be nice. But in many respects the A Line exemplifies Denver’s shortcomings as a transit city. Denver needs a transit system that enables people to make everyday trips without a car, not park-and-ride lots for airport travelers.

  • Sarah

    Ok, Streetsblog, I agree with you re bus service to the stations, but I think you really should re-visit the Colorado and Central Park stations. There is a multi-use path under Colorado to Smith Road to the east, connecting it to that neighborhood, and it’s pretty easy to walk in from the southwest too. Central Park is quite accessible on foot. Again, there’s a multi-use path leading directly out of the station under CPB heading east, and there are sidewalks, bike lanes, and traffic signals to facilitate ped traffic. And the Stapleton neighborhood is quite walkable, although there are a few areas that could stand improvement. You can even walk from the north–safely if not pleasantly since you have to cross on the big CPB bridge.

    • If the Google aerial view is accurate, I count maybe a dozen homes within a half mile walk of the train station platform at Central Park Station, and that walk involves crossing two, multilane arterials with about 100 feet of right-of-way. I don’t know what the pedestrian crosswalk recall timing is, but two minutes or more is common (prioritizing auto-traffic over walking traffic), which again subtracts from walkability.

      Sidewalks in good repair are an important component of walkability, but reasonable walking distance and a non-sucky walking environment away from thundering car traffic are just as important.

      Colorado & 40th, as you note, does seem a little better. There might be as many as 200 homes and a dozen jobs within a half mile of that station.

      • Sarah

        Crosswalk recall timing all over the city for the most part prioritizes auto traffic. I would love to see some changes there. As for walkability to CP station, I live in the area and have considerable on-the-ground experience walking to the station. If you take the multiuse path at Smith and CPB you don’t have to cross any arterials; I’m sure there are more than a dozen homes within a half mile by that route. In fact, I live about two miles from the station and don’t have to cross any major streets to get there–and I get to walk through a park and open space for most of the way. People coming from the south only have to cross one arterial, MLK. I understand two miles is long for some folks, but it’s less than a 30″ walk–10 by bike. I do agree that walking distance and pleasant conditions are also a factor for walkability.

  • enguy

    I wonder if Kim Day is aware that both Dallas and Chicago already have rail lines from their respective downtowns to both airports in each city.

  • Roads_Wide_Open

    The line wasn’t built for “walkable neighborhoods”, but for congestion reduction. You’ll never get rid of needing parking at the stations; the more the better. In fact, by parking at a station and riding to DIA, I will save time, money for parking, and AQ. These lines are not being built to serve station neighborhood development and anything to do with walkability, as 75% of the users don’t live/work at a station location.

    • Tattler

      What a succinct explanation of why the A Line is so underwhelming and RTD transit sucks in general.

    • Anthony

      Transit doesn’t reduce congestion, it increases capacity. A study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute found that auto trips replaced by transit or bike trips were replaced on the road segment at a rate of 1:1. This is induced demand; when more capacity is created, it’s quickly filled to capacity by more/different autos. Building transit (or more lanes, for that matter) in effect does nothing to reduce congestion by itself. They do, however, increase the number of people able to get through a corridor and provide an alternative to sitting in stop-and-go traffic. It provides mobility for those 34% of residents who don’t or can’t drive. It reduces GHG’s/PM2.5, increases interaction with other humans, increases physical activity, and stimulates economic growth. But it does not reduce congestion.

  • Chris

    We have to remember that people can literally pay $9 to go from the Lincoln Station all the way to the airport. I have already told friends visiting that the day’s of me picking them up from the airport are over. You can take the train before I’ll drive I-70’s dangerous road to get out there. The train is too convenient. Heck I’ll even go out and meet them their via train.

    Beyond the B and N lines we need a refocus on the core of the metro. Prioritizing transit over cars. A true transit city will move people around quicker and more efficient and cars is certainly not the way, nor is the current transit system. Imagine a circular subway that connected downtown, City Park, Cheeseman, Wash Park, Five Points, Capitol Hill and the Golden Triangle all underground in one loop. Going 60 mph and with no grade crossings. Probably a $5 billion project, but dividend in moving the core of the city quickly to all the main neighborhoods and enhancing economic development.

    • Walter Crunch

      Wonder how many friends you will have left.

    • Olivia Morales

      I agree with a lot of what you say, but LOL there was already a transit option. The RTD airport bus went on basically the exact same route as the current train and came every half an hour. It cost $11 to the train’s $9 and actually had a few more pickups in the city than Union Station. There was already a convenient transit option that took, believe it or not, about 10 minutes longer than the current train does. But I guess people have a mental blockage when it comes to taking buses, so they spent a billion dollars on this train line, rather than boning up the city’s pathetic transit infrastructure. The RTD transit system seems to have been designed with tourists and suburban commuters in mind, not Denver residents. The plane train proves it.

  • JerryG

    It should beeped unmanned that RTD is a commuter system. It was originally set up that way and, even after taking over the remnants of the Denver Tramway Co., it still functions that way. That is basis of the conflict between RTD’s mission and what the city of Denver and its residents need. Denver needs a transit system that serve for more than just commuting and RTD will not supply it. The city needs to step up now.

  • Walter Crunch

    Guess what they could have done…put down a multi use path trail to dia for pennies. Guess what they didn’t do….? Major lost opportunity.

  • Gary Sprung

    This article is too negative. Sure, Denver is not a great transit city; not a Chicago or New York. Sure, we have a long way to go. But these new rail expansions — including lines on I-225 and to Arvada and Westminster opening this year and to Thornton and Northglenn in 2018 –are a huge improvement. With bicycle+bus or bicycle+train, I can get around most of metro Denver without a car. Some places still need radical redesign, like Evans Ave. But we’re starting to get there. Negativity does not foster progress. Hope does.

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