Denver Can Grow Without Getting Overrun By Traffic, If We Act Now

Denver is at a crossroads, like L.A. was when officials decided to build a massive freeway system that's responsible for choking the city. Photo: Flickr via Thomas Lin
Denver is at a crossroads, like L.A. was when officials decided to build a massive freeway system that’s responsible for choking the city. Photo: Flickr via Thomas Lin

Westword commentator Bree Davies sometimes writes fierce, nostalgic critiques of how Denver is growing, and what it means when your hometown’s identity is changing from an intimate, small city to a fast-developing one attracting young professionals from across the country.

Sometimes she loathes change, like the squeezes Denver’s growing population puts on city streets. But after a trip to Los Angeles, Davies recently challenged the prevailing narrative, peddled by local media, that more people mean more congestion and more congestion means Denver is going the way of Los Angeles.

Writes Davies:

Being in a bigger city always comes at a price, which makes me think: Maybe Denver is that bigger city now to some people. We’ve always been a small town at heart… Denver has always felt small to me, but lately, it’s clear that we’re growing and not looking back.

If anything, my short trip to Los Angeles reminded me why Denver is so great. Beyond our traffic and skyrocketing rents, beyond the crushing development that seems to be filling our city with temporary luxury housing, beyond the myriad issues involved with how our city government is or isn’t handling this growth, we are still doing okay. There’s a lot of room for improvement, especially in our own civic duty as residents of Denver. As voters, we can make decisions about roads, highways and mass transit. As people, we can protest changes to our neighborhoods that we disagree with complain when we see a change in the city that we don’t like. It took me visiting another big city to see the potential that Denver has to stay great: We just have to make sure that as citizens, we make our voices heard. If you want to move to Los Angeles, you should! But don’t do it because Denver feels like it sucks right now. Instead, I encourage you to stay and try to ride it out.  Denver can be be great, I swear. It’s why I’m convincing myself to stay in this city even as I type this.

Davies’ column rubbed some people the wrong way, but the point wasn’t to make an outlandish comparison to L.A. — it was to provide perspective. L.A.’s traffic is perennially the worst (or close to the worst) in the nation. That’s because of decisions made many decades ago to handle growth by building a mammoth freeway system.

Denver is booming, and has some decisions of its own to make. It’s 2015, and with the benefit of hindsight, we should know to avoid the path L.A. chose. We know that building more space for motor vehicles leads to more people driving — and more traffic overwhelming our streets. The L.A. City Council just adopted a sweeping mobility plan that’s in pointed opposition to the 1950s-era transportation system that has choked the city with automobiles. How? By investing in infrastructure for walking, biking, and transit.

The idea that the Mile High City is destined to become traffic-choked is fatalistic — and wrong. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The decision is up to us and our elected officials.

If Mayor Michael Hancock, the City Council, and transportation agencies realize now that the best use of scarce transportation resources is to invest in walkable neighborhoods, effective transit, and bikeable streets, they will avoid a massive, citywide retrofit later.

  • [Quote] Davies’ column rubbed some people
    the wrong way, but the point wasn’t to make an outlandish comparison to
    L.A. — it was to provide perspective. L.A.’s traffic is perennially the
    worst (or close to the worst) in the nation. That’s because of
    decisions made many decades ago to handle growth by building a mammoth
    freeway system. [End]

    Actually LA’s traffic is bad because the entire urban area has grown by 80% in population just since 2000 to 18 million and because of a combination of several other factors.

    #1: It has been impossible to expand the freeway system to accommodate the extra traffic. The amount of funding required greatly exceeds revenue eve though fuel tax funding in California is one of the highest in the nation, currently at 47 cents per-gallon, with an increase of an additional 12 cents already approved.

    Meanwhile, with Colorado’s fuel tax only 21 cents per-gallon, continuing rapid growth here is going to put us in far worse shape than Los Angeles especially with RTD flat broke and already threatening to cut FasTracks service on a couple of lines suffering from low ridership.

    http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/energy-green/sd-fi-california-gastax-20170413-story.html

    #2: Because one of the primary drivers of LA’s rapid recent growth is the immense growth of LA’s ocean port facilities, large areas of the city are now choked with port truck traffic, and even greatly-expanded freight railroad facilities are choked too.

    #3: Because Greater LA sits in a bowl surrounded by high mountains every rail route out of the city is a bottleneck requiring a climb of 4000 vertical feet every direction except straight east, which is still a 2000 vertical foot climb.

    At a 3% grade, fairly steep for a mainline railroad, it takes trains 12.6 miles of grade to clear a 2000-foot summit and double that to clear a 4000-foot summit, often moving no faster than 5 mph while climbing a grade of 3% loaded.

    #4: The lament over the 1950s dismantling of LA’s trolley system always ignores the fact that the system was increasingly unprofitable to operate. The decisions to build freeways in Los Angeles goes back to the mid-1930s when surface streets were increasingly choked with traffic even though the trolley system was still viable and well-ridden at that point.

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