Embracing Density and Transit Could Save Denver Households Thousands of Dollars a Year

Dense development around around the 10th and Osage RTD station includes homes and ground-floor businesses within walking distance of a grocery store, bike-share, a park, a student community center, and the Santa Fe Arts District. Photo: David Sachs
Dense development around around the 10th and Osage RTD station includes homes and ground-floor businesses within walking distance of a grocery store, bike-share, a park, a student community center, and the Santa Fe Arts District. Photo: David Sachs

Denver is changing, and change is never easy. It’s understandable that the pressures of a growing city — where car ownership makes less sense and transit, walking, and biking start to take precedence on the streets — make some people uncomfortable.

But change is also inevitable, and if Denver doesn’t manage its growth well, the costs will be high. In fact, if the city chooses to restrict growth, by 2040 each additional household will pay $3,600 more per year for transportation, energy, and water than if the city embraces dense development and transit, according to a new report assembled for the Blueprint Denver task force [PDF].

What’s more, each additional resident will cause significantly more traffic, use more water, and cause more greenhouse gas emissions in a low-growth scenario than in a high-growth scenario.

The report models the effects of five different “growth strategies” over the next two decades, ranging from Boulder-esque development restrictions to “multi-pronged” development around transit and walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Under the growth restriction scenario, the city’s population would expand by about 135,000 people by 2040, while the most pro-growth scenario would add 262,000 people.

Restricting growth will end up costing Denverites in the long run because suburban development patterns of rambling single-family homes are expensive. According to the report, household costs related to transportation, energy, and water use averaged $11,700 per year in suburban Denver neighborhoods in 2015, nearly three times the average cost of $4,300 in the most urban parts of the city.

The more Denver can transition to walkable, transit-oriented development patterns, the more residents will save, and the less traffic and pollution they will cause. This chart illustrates the differences (VMT stands for “vehicle miles traveled”):

Image: City and County of Denver
Image: City and County of Denver

Here’s how each scenario would affect annual vehicle and utility costs per new household:

Image: City and County of Denver
Image: City and County of Denver

This report is telling us that Denver’s approach to growth will spell the difference between turning into an expensive, polluting city, or becoming an affordable, sustainable city.

So when the City Council prioritizes parking over housing, or when newspaper editors become irate over modern street designs that prioritize transit and biking over driving, remember that Denver has to play the long game.

  • Anthony

    Here’s my first take/best stab at what each growth scenario type could look like:

    – Limit Development; Boulder, San Francisco
    – Expand City Center: Seattle, Portland
    – Multiple Urban Centers: Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas
    – Corridors & Neighborhood Centers: Houston, Atlanta
    – Embrace Growth: Boston, DC

    I struggled with the Embrace Growth scenario, and DC could arguably be placed in Limited Development, but I’d say it belongs in Embrace Growth because despite the height limit (which is 130 feet) there is new development and increased density pretty much covering anywhere in the district that was previously underdeveloped.

    Feel free to disagree and if you have better examples, please share so readers can get an understanding of what each scenario could mean for Denver moving forward.

    • EC

      If you really took a pro-growth path, Denver could maybe end up being more like Boston and DC but without the high housing costs!

      • Vooch

        more like Paris 🙂

    • TakeFive

      I’m not sure that growth is all that controllable. It’s a bit like squeezing on a water balloon. Certainly it can be influenced. Downtown Denver owes a great degree of its current success to metro-wide cooperative efforts to support the Capital City during decades when it floundered. Still, the “Eastern Slope” will continue to experience growth just as has been predicted for many decades.

      Phoenix OTOH, developed as a multi-nodal sprawling metro which promoted competition and not (so much) cooperation. This was the result of (political) influence and power. With one piece to go it has built a First-in-Class freeway system and their first foray into an urban based (long) LRT line has also been highly successful

    • Jason

      I’d argue that there’s plenty of influential anti-development sentiment in DC…the difference is that unlike in a place like Los Angeles, where your apartment building gets approved and then NIMBYs succeed in getting the building retroactively unapproved and thus effectively evicting all the tenants of the building, in DC it’s easy to find out up-front what the local neighborhood zoning board will and won’t approve. So you see a lot of development, but it’s generally the kind of squat developments that push luxury housing over the edge into being insanely expensive condos (while being super cheaply built and having no sound isolation because you don’t have to use any concrete for a two or three story building), because developers know those squat buildings will quickly sail through approval, whereas trying to get a variance is financially risky because it could take a couple of years without even having any guarantee that you won’t just get denied two years down the road.

  • Clint Schaeffer

    Just wondering how to handle the problems with hearing loss brought on by the denser living? We’re seeing an increase in hearing loss in young and old due to increased noise in our living spaces, and the main reason I live in a single-family home was that affordable dense housing was loud.

    • Nathan C Rhodes

      Can you link to any info that shows hearing loss linked to “denser living”? (Denser than what, by the way?) Besides construction, vehicle traffic is the largest source of noise in any city. A dense city with low vehicle ownership in which most people take transit, bike and walk would be quieter than a city where almost everyone almost always drives. Unfortunately, even in our densest cities (tri-state area, Boston, LA, etc), the urban streets are still overwhelmingly turned over to the suburbanites who insist on living 10+ miles away, driving in to work, and driving home. Again, it is the vehicles (and the suburb-dwellers who drive them) who make the cities noisy, polluted, and dangerous for those who actually live in the city. So, if you’re living away from the city b/c of the noise, but then driving there to work, you are the cause of that noise. In that example, you can see how suburban development is a downward spiral that destroys the urban fabric of great cities.

      • TakeFive

        Are you thinking of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan when you mention tri-state area? It’s the 1st one (of many) mentioned by Wikipedia. FWIW, Denver is not a coastal city nor do I see it developing along those lines except to a modified degree.

        BTW, it’s not as though buses aren’t noisy, jarring and polluting; light rail is certainly very noisy. The other thing I don’t see changing anytime soon is the amount of wealth and political power in Denver’s suburbs. You might consider being nice to your (suburban) neighbors.

        • Nathan C Rhodes

          Sorry, I meant NY, NJ, and PA. I read that section of Streetsblog most frequently and forgot that the reference might not be understood.

          First of all, I disagree that light rail is noisy. I’ve lived next to a station in Spain, and one could barely hear it as it pulled in. I also spent time in Germany with a bedroom window facing a commuter train track. Frankly, I find a train running by for 5-10 seconds every 15-60 minutes less jarring than my old house in OKC, 300 yards from I-35, separated by creek and many trees, or than my current house in Monterey, CA, on a street that leads to a mitary base gate and from 07:30 to 09:00 and 16:00 to 17:30 is bumper to bumper 5 mph traffic. I think most people would agree with my assessment there, though of course Americans in general are simply not used to trains and buses and many under 40 have never been on one (which is part of the reluctance to switch to them). Moreover, buses can be electric or natural gas, so they are much less noisy and polluting than the same number of cars it would take to transport the same people.

          Second, I didn’t say anything not “nice”. People who drive in cities are the major cause of pollution therein, barring cities that still have major factories. It’s not rude to point that out

          • TakeFive

            No doubt that freeways are very noisy to a gross degree. Probably why most people don’t choose to live next to them. They do attract the highest density of commercial uses including downtown Denver which borders the two most critical freeways in metro Denver.

            All vehicles can be(come) electric but I suspect it’s the noise from tires that grates. Good comment though.

          • Jason

            Unless your window is right over a freeway I don’t think the tire noise is the biggest contributor. I do not notice tire noise if I have a fan running or music playing, but way too often I hear super-loud car and motorcycle engines that there’s just no blocking out short of earplugs. Engine noise REALLY travels; tire noise can be bad if you’re right next to it but isn’t really audible a block away.

            As for what constitutes way too often: last weekend I really enjoyed being woken up by some jackass tearing around my residential neighborhood in their noisy vehicle at 7 AM on a Saturday morning.

          • Jason

            For a lot of Americans, their only real exposure to meaningful transit is the NYC subway. If that’s your only exposure to transit, I think it’s easy enough to understand why you’d think transit is uncomfortably loud.

      • Clint Schaeffer

        I looked at Wikipedia for them. I haven’t worked in downtown anywhere for decades so your assumption betrays a bias. When I did, I took the light rail, but that isn’t the point. I lived in an urban corridor, and it was noisier at all times of the day. I noticed it the most at night although I was young, partying, and didn’t really care until I had some problems with hearing. Guess what, my audiologist Mother suggested I try harder to avoid dramatic loudness changes which basically meant getting away from the honking, backup beeping, sirens, etc that mark urban living.

        S. Rosen and P. Olin, Hearing Loss and Coronary Heart Disease, Archives of Otolaryngology, 82:236 (1965)

        J.M. Field, Effect of personal and situational variables upon noise annoyance in residential areas, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 93: 2753-2763 (1993)

        “Noise Pollution”. World Health Organisation.

      • Jason

        Maybe they’re misremembering something about frequent use of the NYC subway demonstrably causing hearing loss? But that’s nothing to do with density and everything to do with the MTA refusing to do anything to get the trains up to modern, quiet standards in terms of wheel noise.

  • TakeFive

    I’ve always respected Denver (metro) for spending gobs of money on silly studies. Even nerds deserve to make a living. But in my experience “life happens while you’re making other plans.”

    The subject analysis only looks at a slice of Living Costs but trying to project those much into the future is a fools errand. They could have at least taken a stab at the taxation costs of creating a wonderful world of transit. That said, I am a Yuge fan of transit and its value in the future. How to get there and how much are the sticky points.



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