Denver, Randal O'Toole, Transit, Transportation

Denver mayor’s anti-car agenda doubles down on failed policies

As Albert Einstein didn’t say, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” Someone points out that this is actually the definition of perseveration. Whatever you call it, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is doing it.

“Shockingly, 73 percent of Denver commuters drive to and from work in cars by themselves,” says Mayor Hancock. So, he plans to serve the people by working to “dedicate more travel lanes as transit only and make bus service more accessible to everyone.”

Hancock is behind the times, as the share of Denver commuters who drive alone to work hasn’t been 73 percent since the early 2000s. According to census data*, it was 71 percent in 2000, but grew to 74 percent in 2006 and was 76 percent in 2016.

Denver has elected pro-transit, anti-auto mayors since at least 2002. With their endorsement, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) has spent billions of dollars on transit improvements.

This has had a measurable effect on transit ridership. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of commuters taking transit to work grew by 1.1 percent. This can hardly be considered a success considering there were 35 percent more commuters in 2016 than in 2000.

In that same time period, the number of people driving alone to work grew by 38 percent and the number of cars carrying commuters to work grew by 31 percent. (The census identifies the number of 2, 3, 4, 5 to 6, and 7-plus carpools; to calculate auto numbers, I assumed an average of 5.33 people per 5-to-6 carpool and an average of 7 per 7-plus carpool. The numbers in these categories are so small that changing these assumptions would not affect the outcome much.)

Put another way, the billions of dollars spent by RTD on transit improvements after 2000 managed to attract 263 new transit commuters by 2016–23, 750 vs. 23,487.  This means those using transit to get to and from work, rather than things like going to the airport, running errands, or going out to a ball game or evening on the town.  Meanwhile, there were more than 69,000 new cars on the road carrying commuters to work–276,236 vs. 207,135. Keep in mind these numbers are just for the City of Denver, not the entire region served by RTD.

While the share who drive alone has grown, it has been offset by a decline in carpooling so that total driving has gone from 84.9 to 84.5 percent (which still means more cars on the road even without an increase in overall jobs). The share who walk or bike has grown from 5.5 to 7.2 percent, but this was offset by the decline in transit’s share from 8.7 to 6.9 percent.

The good news is Mayor Hancock is shocked to learn that the city’s pro-transit, anti-auto policies haven’t worked. The bad news is that his response is to double-down on those policies.

Yet it would be nice if our cities were run by people willing to learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of their predecessors. Instead of punishing people who drive to work, cities should reduce the negative impacts of driving by making roads safer and reducing fuel-wasting and pollution-causing delays. Unfortunately, people like Hancock want to do exactly the opposite.

* The data is from the 2000 Census, City of Denver, Tables P030 and P035, and the 2016 American Community Survey, City of Denver, Table B08301, available here.

Randal O’Toole directs the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute, A free market think tank in Denver.  A version of this column originally appeared in his blog, Theantiplanner.

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