I read today that ground was broken for a new light rail line here in Denver from downtown Union Station to Denver International Airport (DIA). From the comments I see, folks are once again polarized by this issue. I find that somewhat amusing because we seem to have this tendency to focus on the differences of opinion rather than things we agree upon.
Let’s go back a ways and examine light rail in Denver and elsewhere. My mother grew up in Los Angeles, back in the 1920’s and 1930’s and when she was a girl, the light rail (trolley and light rail) lines ran everywhere. You could get anywhere you wanted in Los Angeles and the surrounding area by hopping on a trolley or train. Los Angeles had a trolley car system that was made up of the Yellow Cars, and a light rail system made up of the Red Car line. Trolleys were generally short-haul, and the big red cars were used for long-haul such as from downtown Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles or Pasadena.
The system that existed in those days in Los Angeles was a wonderful transit system, if a bit out-dated by the 1950’s when it was bought up and put out of business by a Tire Company, a Car Company and an Oil Company. Did you all ever see the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The background idea behind that story is true. When they built the world’s first “freeway” in Los Angeles in the 1950’s (the Pasadena Freeway), those companies decided to get together and put the light rail out of business so they could sell more cars, gas and tires. Amazing, but true.
Light rail thus fell out of favor in our society when we became a car-crazed bunch during the 1950’s. Folks valued their “freedom” and cars soon became part of that ideal. Car ownership and the notion that you could just jump in and drive wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted came in to being. That idea soon became enmeshed with our vision of “freedom” and now the two are inseparable it would seem. We left public transit behind, and except for the poor who cannot afford cars in this country, almost everyone drives a car. Buses gradually replaced light rail and trolleys in most other metropolitan areas, Denver included.
When and how did light rail come back into popularity though? Well, guess what? We figured out that having that car and driving it everywhere was not always convenient and also it was just a pain in the rear sometimes, since destinations were filled with other cars, providing parking problems, and traffic problems and so on. Riding the bus, while it gets you there, provides a whole host of other problems, mostly inconvenient routing and schedules that make for long rides and confusing transfers. Most folks realized that with their new found “freedom” of the automobile, came a problem of too many of us driving our cars everywhere. They’re discovering this problem in China today. I read a couple days ago that they had a traffic jam in Beijing that was so bad, folks were stuck on the highway for days! I guess you just could not leave your car behind, rather you had to sit there with it and figure out some way to get food and beverages in spite of being stuck there.
Anyhow back in this United States, we’ve now realized that we have this efficient means of quick short-haul transportation (cars) and efficient long-haul transportation (jets) but we’re stuck with no sort of efficient medium range transportation, or what is always referred to as “rapid transit.” Mass transit is by definition much more efficient than a car (buses included), however much inconvenience you must deal with in parking at a station and finding routes, making train and/or bus changes to get to your final destination. Buses, however, as I said earlier, do happen to be very efficient from a “mass” point of view, but from a time scheduling point of view, they are not very efficient at all due to delays, number of stops, routing, schedules and all sorts of other issues. The average person can count on a bus taking anywhere from 2-3 times as long as driving their car if they’re commuting from a suburb to a downtown metropolitan area.
Many cities, Los Angeles included, realized this back in the 1970’s (a mere 20 years after having dismantled the old light rail system) so plans were put in place to start building new light rail. Of course some cities such as New York and Chicago have always had their light rail, they never gave it up. Those cities have always been rather congested and over-crowded such that city governments did not allow the “car crazies” to come in and tell them they didn’t need their light rail systems. They were smart. In the west, we’re just discovering, er, rediscovering this notion, that you must have an efficient means of moving large numbers of folks from suburbs to city destinations, not only for working class folks, but also for folks who like to come downtown to shop and attend sports events and so on.
Denver’s light rail system is now nearing 16 years. The first line was opened in 1994, and it has been expanding and growing since that time. This latest line that begins construction today is a natural addition to the line. However, I think some of the facts given to the media are not correct. It is still assumed the line will have an underground station next to Union Station, but I believe this is not correct. Plans were scrapped I had heard since you would need a runout of nearly 2/3 of a mile to get back to ground level from the 70 foot depth of the station as planned. It just didn’t prove feasible. I believe the bus station will still be undergrounded next to Union Station, and that makes a lot more sense, as it is done in cities like Seattle and so on and works very well.
But, I’ve not seen the latest plans, I’m not sure what they’re showing on the web sites either. I’ll have to go check it out. Most folks are either for it or against it, as I reported earlier. To me, it’s a necessary expenditure to help grow our city and provide a valuable additional service to our airport – DIA. The cost is enormous, and the construction will take many years, but it will be worth it in the long run whether ultra conservatives (reactionaries) choose to believe that or not.