Watch Denver’s Historic Streetcar Network Grow Rapidly — Then Disappear

The last electric streetcar, owned by the Denver Tramway Company, in existence. Photo: Denver Public Library Western History Digital Collection
The last electric streetcar, owned by the Denver Tramway Company, in existence. Photo: Denver Public Library Western History Digital Collection

As the city overhauls its transit system, Denver’s historic streetcar network holds lessons for today.

Ryan Keeney, the same Denverite who brought us this insane visualization of space dedicated solely to parking downtown, created this interactive map that illustrates the legacy of streetcars and how they shaped Denver back in the day.

“They built streetcar lines that allowed the footprint of the city to grow larger,” said Keeney, a geographic information systems masters student at the University of Denver who’s focusing on urban planning . “Once they built a line, they would build a tightly knitted street grid along the line and build houses around it.”

Not just houses — stores, schools, doctors’ offices, you name it. The streetcar system led to flourishing, compact neighborhood hubs — think South Pearl Street — where people could walk to their daily needs, or take transit to destinations further away.

That’s how the city grew until the middle of the last century. In 1950, Denver dug up the last of its streetcar tracks to make way for the automobile.

Just as the streetcar lines shaped neighborhood development in the first part of the 20th century, automobiles shaped the city in the second. But while streetcars encouraged close-knit, walkable places, cars encouraged sprawling, unwalkable development. City officials bulldozed buildings to pave parking lots, and neighborhoods became more spread out, less compact.

Colfax and Federal in 1933 versus today.
Colfax and Federal in 1933 versus today.

Compare a 1933 overlay of Keeney’s map with a modern one. Clusters of homes, shops, and services surrounded the intersection of Colfax and Federal in 1933. Zoom in on the intersection today, and there’s a highway cloverleaf interchange and parking lots.

“I think that if we want to shift the mode share away from single occupancy vehicles, as Mayor Hancock set out as a goal in the State of the City address, I think we need to invest more in intra-city transit,” Keeney said. “I think another approach is trying to figure out how we encourage commercial developments in neighborhoods that are somewhat under-served, so that everybody in the city proper can walk to the sorts of services they need in their daily lives, like a grocery store.”

Keeney found a 1915 survey that documented travel in and out of downtown on one day. More than half of travelers — 51 percent — used a streetcar, and 38 percent walked.

The point is not that Denver should recreate the old streetcar network — investments in bus service can deliver more bang for the buck — but to apply lessons from the streetcar era to our modern context. Denver used to be a city with more compact mixed-use development, frequent local transit, and less parking — these remain the building blocks a walkable, transit-oriented city.

To meet his own goals for transit, walking, and biking, Hancock will have to move the city toward a future that, in some ways, captures what made Denver work so well in the past.

  • TakeFive

    IIRC the City tore out some old streetcar tracks when they did the rebuild of So Broadway in recent years. They had been paved over but in order to attain proper drainage they were finally.torn out and the road regraded.

    Denver’s population in 1920 was 256,491; in 1940 it was 322,412. Today it’s ~ 2,814,330. Given that the city core is the cultural and sports center for all metro residents and visitors the challenge and need of providing high quality transit options is ever growing.

    Speaking of streetcars River City finally replaced their nostalgic but troublesome streetcars about 18 months ago with the hottest selling zero emissions bus. TARC has been so delighted with their performance that they’re seeking a grant for additional buses.

    • JZ71

      TARC’s “troublesome streetcars” were nostalgic buses, NOT vehicles that operated on rails. And if their new buses are so great, why wait for a grant, why not just pay for them out of local revenues and savings on maintenance?!

      • TakeFive

        Yes, they were buses; fair point.

        Why bother with grant funding? Is this a serious question? Would you expect Denver or RTD to forego potential free money?

        • JZ71

          Because these buses cost more! Transit is all about moving people efficiently, not investing 2-3 times as much per vehicle!

          • wklis

            Streetcars move more. With buses, we need more of the buses and drivers, the fuel costs and employee costs more with the buses.

          • neroden

            This gets back to a fundamental principle which I figured out years ago, which is obvious, but which is STILL missed by lots of people:

            Rail scales up well: it’s good for huge numbers of people. It’s not good for small numbers of people. So, rail is good for Denver or LA, not for Helena, Montana.

            Buses and cars don’t scale up well, they scale down well. So, buses are good for Helena, not for Denver or LA.

          • TakeFive

            lol, I didn’t mean literally free money. Just a guess though that Louisville isn’t concerned with Denver and vice versa.

            Funds appropriated by Congress to DOT include money that is (by law passed during the Reagan years) allocated to transit (FTA). While some projects like TIGER or New Starts are on a competitive basis and/or need to meet minimum standards there is also funding to be spread around among all the states.

            If the executives at TARC (for example) did not even try to obtain FTA grants they should be summarily fired for dereliction of duty.

          • JZ71

            Yes, various properties aren’t very concerned about what other properties are asking for or receiving, they’re just trying to maximize what they can obtain. Unfortunately, the Federal pot is finite (and shrinking), while demand is increasing. As a nation, we can either choose to fund the “latest and greatest” ideas (that inevitably cost more) OR we can choose to spend FTA grant money on proven, less-expensive technology, that will benefit more people. And when it comes to “winning” FTA grants, the greater the local share, the more likely the grant will be funded.

          • TakeFive
  • JZ71

    The rapid decline of the streetcar system mirrors the rise of the private motor vehicle, starting with ford’s Model T. People chose streetcars because it was better than walking. People chose (and continue to choose) private vehicles because it was (and is) better than streetcars. To get more people to use transit, it has to become the better option – it needs to be faster, easier, more convenient and flexible. Yes, changing the type of vehicle CAN attract new riders, in the short term, but to KEEP riders, transit simply needs to be the better option!

    • mckillio

      Street cars got a raw deal, the street car company was responsible for maintaining its right of way but was then required to allow cars to share that ROW, slowing them down reducing their on time performance. This is a big reason why they ended up going away. And people chose cars because the auto industry was powerful enough to influence city infrastructure planning.

      • JZ71

        When streetcars first went in, it was under a franchise agreement with the city – in exchange for using the PUBLIC right-of-way, the streetcar companies agreed to the terms of their respective franchise agreement. The alternative was for the streetcar company to buy private property (or obtain [pay for] an easement on which to lay their rails). When cars started showing up, they were (and continue to be) taxed for the right to use the public right-of-way, as well. Local streetcars, just like buses, are inherently slower than private vehicles simply because they need to stop every few blocks, for passengers to get on and/or off! And the big reason streetcars “went away” is simple economics – buses got to be more reliable (synthetic rubber and diesel engines) and their total cost of operation, on most routes, became (and continues to be) lower than streetcars.

        • bolwerk

          The comparison of transit speed vs. private automobile speed is rather specious. An environment designed for transit is one where origins and destinations are fairly close by, while an environment designed for cars encourages a great deal of distance between origin and destination.

          Meanwhile, as usage of an automobile artery increases (e.g., during peak periods), speeds begin approaching zero.

          • TakeFive

            That’s a very limited view of transit and true of only a part of the transit world.

            The comparison of transit speed vs. private automobile speed is rather specious.

            Speaking of specious… so would you contend that the 4-year downward trend in bus ridership has nothing to do with speed? What would be your conspiracy for that?

            Part of the problem here may just be that West of the Mississippi, out here in God’s Country we have different views from those of our NE urban corridor friends.

          • bolwerk

            It’s true of the urban transit world, which is what streetcars fall into. It’s perhaps not true of what I guess you could call suburban transit, commuter rail and buses that are intended to move people over relatively long distances – but typically only to a single or perhaps very few core destinations. That’s the “transit” that’s intended to be car speed-competitive, and sometimes is.

          • TakeFive

            I mentioned in my 1st post that the population of Denver “in 1940 it was 322,412. Today it’s ~ 2,814,330.” The reference to “Denver” as the metro area is much the same today as back then. For example Google for the population of Denver.

            As Denver grew in population it changed how the city center interfaced with the growing city/metro and created different needs and preferences. You’re right, it wan’t a conspiracy, it was merely the will of the people.

          • bolwerk

            People don’t have a common will, nor could they, and have precious little say in the rules that affect their lives even if they understand them.

            If the nwolibtards in a smoke-filled mohagoney planning department make a rule saying buildings can’t be taller than a certain height or there must be a certain square footage or parking per x units of floor space, builders will follow it or get fined, what people generally want be damned. I guess you can argue it might be a zeitgeist, but it’s not a conspiracy.

          • bolwerk

            I wouldn’t say speed has nothing to do with bus ridership trends, but I don’t think it’s a predominant factor. Bus speeds haven’t changed much in generations. I think I have two better ones:

            1) when there is a choice at all, buses are almost always a second choice, in a sense, clinched by some other factor. For example:
            • if someone would prefer a car, high fuel prices might still clinch the bus trip, and lower fuel prices might cause them to abandon the bus quickly.
            • from another angle, if bus fares go up, people who would prefer to walk but take the bus for some extra speed might hit the price point where they say fuck it and walk

            2) Cost-cutting starting in 2008 may have taken a few years to bear fruit, as people adjusted their lives by moving and changing jobs to work around bus service cuts that were bearable but ultimately annoying.

            If anything, I would think those factors are all even more predominant out there in “God’s country” than they here in the Godless northeast corridor, where car ownership is somewhat less attainable.

            Another factor operable mainly in traditional urban cores in coastal (and some midwestern): some cities are seeing massive demographic turnover right now, and the new demographics are typically orienting themselves toward existing rail services and away from long-established bus services.

            Cf. rail, it may or may not be much faster than buses, but it’s typically harder to substitute. Rapid transit is absolutely impossible to substitute with another mode with the integrity of the trip still intact. Suburban rail commuters don’t contend with highway traffic, while suburban bus commuters often do. A lot of people poo this, but even mixed traffic streetcars, the one rail category that traditional mixed traffic urban transit buses are speed-competitive with, confer some tangible advantage like better comfort. Often a route is only partially mixed traffic and includes a private ROW that can’t be efficaciously carstituted during daytime hours (e.g., Boston, Philadelphia’s Center City, Buffalo). While rail serves more urban cores that are costly to navigate by car, many buses often serve urban peripheries where the “second choice” factors come into play more.

      • Emmeaki

        Car industries conspired to keep businesses and residential areas far apart, so people would need a car to do basic things like getting groceries, going to work, etc.

    • TakeFive

      Thee are various reasons why one might choose transit over driving to work. I would definitely agree that it is important for transit to offer a competitive product and ride.

    • bolwerk

      That choice narrative is so full of shit it’s amazing the bag hasn’t burst. It wasn’t a choice of the market. The state spent decades, overtly beginning no earlier than the 1930s, deliberately undermining railroads and streetcars to encourage asphalt and automobiles. Choking them off, driving them out of downtowns, pushing them off streets and into outskirts. Even buses were sort of a weapon to use against transit.

      • TakeFive

        So does that make you the Czar of conspiratorial thinking? And by “state” are you referring to the nanny state or just any state? So long as we remain a democratic republic it’s “we the people” that are the ultimate deciders. Blaming a faceless entity is pointless.

        Like it or not the influence of FAANG, IoT and 10 nm chips has arrived and will impact us in many wonderful ways and sometimes ways that are very frustrating. Stated simply the world will continue to evolve.

        • bolwerk

          Where’s the conspiracy? Stuff that’s obvious and open is by definition not conspiratorial. Agree with it or not, it was public policy in the 1930s to sunset interurbans, replace tracks with asphalt, replace streetcars with motorized buses, build highways, etc.. This wasn’t reconsidered until the 1960s, arguably the 1970s.

          • TakeFive

            The part that went right over your head – zoom – is that “we” are a democracy. Pubic policy merely reflected the (majority) will of the people (at least over time).

          • bolwerk

            We are not a democracy, or even a particularly representative republic. And when people tried to influence the process, and keep their homes, they were dismissed. Most of the public was not particularly engaged in these choices, in any event.

          • TakeFive

            Sorry, that’s a weak response to real world realities. I can assure you I have been on the minority/losing end of things. It is what it is and it’s decidedly not a good excuse. Being a sore loser is certainly a free speech option but it’s no substitute for reality.

          • bolwerk

            You’re drifting into ad hominem territory there. The morality of what happened can be debated, but I wasn’t doing that. Whether you agree with it or not, I don’t really care. I only made a point of fact.

            I can’t possibly be a “sore loser” in political squabbles and condemnation proceedings that took place when my grandparents were children. I wasn’t a participant.

          • neroden

            The 1950s was definitely an era of government-driven, top-down, command-and-control, Stalinist public policy. Pretty weird studying it (I was born long after). They ripped out the streetcars as a matter of federal policy. They prohibited apartment buildings as a matter of federal policy. They built highways as a matter of federal policy.

            And you have to remember that black people weren’t allowed to vote in the South at that time. Not exactly a democracy.

          • bolwerk

            The sort of super-ideology at play there is modernism, and both capitalists and communists had (still have) their own visions of how to achieve it. That’s why they were both so obsessed with space travel, industry, engineering, and boxy urban architecture that catered to automobiles. One of the reasons fascism was so frightening to them was fascists were decidedly anti-modernist – despite the usual fascist habit of contradicting themselves when it suited them, of course.

            People say democracy and free markets result in outcomes they like. I’m not sure I can think of any examples of that actually happening. The closest are

  • iSkyscraper

    Here’s a great parlor game. Pick any city in North America. Find an old streetcar map for that city. Select a residential neighborhood that originated as a “streetcar suburb”. Flash forward to today. Nine times out of ten, that neighborhood is still the most desirable residential neighborhood today, whether the streetcar remains or not.
    This trick works from Oklahoma to Ontario, from California to Connecticut. Without a doubt the streetcar era was the golden age of cities, and the attributes that came with streetcars — transit, walkability, retail corridors, leafy streets, destination parks at the end of the line, etc. all still work today.