Jarrett Walker on How Denver Can Become a Great Transit City

Transit planner Jarrett Walker speaks at the Transit Alliance's Annual Event on Thursday. Photo: David Sachs
Transit planner Jarrett Walker speaks at the Transit Alliance's Annual Event on Thursday. Photo: David Sachs

In the last few years, Jarrett Walker has established himself as one of the nation’s most influential thinkers about transit. While you’ve probably read a lot of stories lately about ideas like autonomous Ubers replacing buses in a Jetsons future, Walker takes a very different view of transportation policy, grounding his analysis in reason and fact. He thinks about transit in terms of what it can do for cities and the people who live in them, and that mentality is reflected in the title of his blog, Human Transit (and a book by the same name).

The Transit Alliance, a nonprofit instrumental to passing FasTracks that has groomed regular Denverites into transit advocates with its Citizens’ Academy, brought Walker to Denver to speak at its 6th Annual Event on Thursday. Walker also plays an advisory role on the first-ever transit plan for Denver proper, which aims to produce a better transit system for current residents and to accommodate the city’s future growth.

I spoke with Walker as we strolled the 16th Street Mall and into Uptown yesterday. We talked about the path for Denver to become a true transit city, why we need to pass a funding measure for city transit, and how electing a president with an anti-transit platform will affect cities like Denver.

This is the first part of the interview. Here’s part two.

How applicable is Denver to other cities you’ve worked in?

When it comes to transit and how it relates to urban form, there’s a lot that we know that’s applicable to any city. There is the basic pattern of how a network with certain frequency is intersecting and connecting in certain ways, and how that would interact with a land use pattern to generate useful service that lots of people would use.

The principles are pretty well known. So it’s a matter, then, of two things: How those principles apply to your particular place, and then it’s also understanding what the community’s priorities are. Because the facts about transit require us to make a variety of judgments about competing priorities.

The most obvious example is, do you want a high ridership transit system or do you want a transit system that goes everywhere and serves everyone? That’s called the ridership-coverage trade-off, and you get two very different kinds of networks depending on what your objective is.

Denver’s system is definitely about coverage more than ridership, because it’s governed by the Regional Transportation District. How can Denver become a great transit city with an agency tilted towards the suburbs?

A regional transit agency is going to have, typically, a suburban majority and a suburban focus, because that’s what most of the region is. That’s true of most regions in North America. And so it’s very normal for an ambitious, dense, inner city — that wants to be even denser and wants to be more transit oriented — for it to discover that the level of service it gets from its regional transit agency is not doing everything it wants or needs.

As you go up the density scale, transit demand goes up — in fact it goes up steeper than density. So, inevitably, even if you deployed service fairly per capita across a region, it would still not be enough for the inner city. Because car ownership is so much lower. It’s not just that there are more people in the city, it’s that those people are more likely to use transit. And so it’s not that anybody is doing anything wrong. It’s just that the city needs more transit than the regional consensus will ever support, and that’s totally normal for an American city.

How can you change that?

People’s experience of transit isn’t just the result of what the transit agency does. It’s also the result of street design, land use planning, and a range of other things — but those two things primarily. Those two things are largely controlled by the city government. So when I’m talking to city officials, I will always say, look, I know you think that RTD does your transit to you or for you. But in fact, land use and street design are also transit decisions that make an enormous difference.

So one of the problems we have in a region like this, is that from the standpoint of the city it’s hard to plan for things that you don’t control. And the normal experience of a city public works official is, “My city council has expectations about roads and parking and bike lanes and so I focus on those things. And transit, that’s something that those people over there do.” So as a result, transit doesn’t get considered at every step of the decisions.

How can we make transit the business of the mayor and City Council and their city departments?

One of the reasons I’m here is because we worked on this in Seattle. What Seattle did was do its own plan for the city that would be adopted by council. Rather than just going with what the regional agency tells them, they did their own analysis of what kind of transit network they actually need in order to be the city they want to be. And that of course led to a vision of the much more intentional network than the regional agency was going to give them. So that was the first step.

The plan did two things: It told Seattle city staff to take care of transit, to do the right thing for transit, because the city council is now telling them to do that instead of just the distant transit agency. That’s actually very important.

That’s begun to happen here.

It has. The Denver transit plan will be a city adopted policy, which therefore tells city staff to take care of transit. In these specific ways. In ways that are clearly tied to the city’s interest rather than just RTD’s interest.

But then what?

If you build enough support for a higher level of transit than the region will provide, then sometimes city leaders will have to come up for a funding source for that. That was the next thing that happened in Seattle.

So that’s the direction Denver has to go in.

Mathematically, I don’t see how else to go. Ultimately, in the American system, in most states, citizens have to vote for the tax increases that help transit keep growing as it becomes necessary for the city. It makes all the sense in the world that those elections happen at the geographic level where people care about that.

Does Denver need the rest of the region to pass a transit measure?

It’s great if you can win these elections regionally, where there’s regional support. That’s preferable. But ultimately the central city should always expect to need more transit than the region would ever agree on.