People tend to hold onto beliefs long after shifting reality has blasted their foundation. Consider prominent beliefs among political and civic leaders regarding mass transit and urban growth.
“RTD is kind of the answer to so many challenges in our region, whether it’s climate, air quality, equity or access. All roads point to RTD for solutions to these things that we’re facing,” says Molly McKinley, policy director at the Denver Streets Partnership, as quoted in a recent Denver Post series on the troubled status of the Regional Transportation District.
The Post itself seconded this credo of RTD primacy in a recent editorial proposing sales tax hikes to upgrade train and bus service while raising RTD salaries and reducing fares. Mass transit, The Post believes, is “the key to addressing so many pressing issues: greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, poor air quality, traffic, worsening income inequality, and staggering costs of living pushed higher by rising gas prices.”
Such views are mainstream among policy elites: We’ve got to get people out of cars and onto buses, trains or bicycles if we’re going to redesign our cities, stop urban sprawl, save the planet and create a just and equitable society.
Letting go of the public transit fantasy
Unfortunately for the thesis, it’s being overrun by technology, transportation options, consumer preferences, remote work, and the inconvenient fact that even before COVID, during a period of high population growth and surging housing density, RTD actually managed to lose ridership.
Since COVID, ridership has cratered, with little hope of returning even to the pre-pandemic’s anemic levels for years to come. Indeed, as The Post discovered in its dive into RTD’s prospects, “Financial pressures, coupled with the staffing shortages, have RTD officials setting a target to restore just 85% of pre-pandemic service hours by 2027.”
If RTD truly is key to solving so many serious problems, then we must be doomed.
But is it? As pandemic fears recede, RTD could thrive again if it concentrates on corridors where service is in higher demand, adopts fares affordable for those who need transit most, and resists high-subsidy, low ridership projects like the proposed northwest rail line. But larger ambitions for the agency are mostly fantasy.
Lead the charge against climate change and air pollution? The only way metro Denver (or any region) is going to decarbonize its transportation sector is through the further greening of the energy grid and the adoption of electric vehicles. Even if that process takes longer than optimists project, as it probably will, it will still occur faster than any conceivable shift in trips from personal vehicles to mass transit.
In the next year or two alone, a host of new electric models will hit the market, their appeal further enhanced by the possibility of persistently higher gasoline prices.
“Over even a medium-term time frame, the increasing adoption of hybrid, electric, and autonomous vehicles will almost completely sever the connection between VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and greenhouse gases,” writes Judge Glock in a recent article for the Breakthrough Institute. “Those who are attempting to redesign cities, projects that will take decades or even centuries, merely to reduce the use of gasoline-powered cars are thus engaged in a futile exercise that will only become more futile with time. It would be like attempting to redesign cities in 1900 to reduce horse manure. The technology will change faster than the city will.”
As for income inequality, one of its single biggest drivers these days is soaring housing costs, the cure for which RTD has little to contribute. The crisis in affordable housing is mainly a supply problem: New housing simply has not kept up with the growth of new households, as multiple studies have shown.
The case for more ‘sprawl’
And this is where the transit and urban growth myths become especially problematic. In order to “get people out of their cars,” officials across metro Denver have bet on higher density, seeking for example to concentrate new housing along transit corridors. And while this makes sense so far as it goes, it is inadequate to the task. Barriers to new housing need to be addressed across the board, both inside and outside the metro core.
Yes, that might mean more urban sprawl, but the tradeoff is worth it. Whatever sprawl’s downsides, which cleaner transportation will greatly diminish, it has benefits, too — the biggest one historically being cheaper and more spacious housing. It is no accident that housing prices nationally tend to be highest where growth controls and housing regulations are most strict — California being the premier example.
Greater density is indeed important and has created bustling neighborhoods for tens of thousands of new residents. But nowhere in America in recent decades has the pursuit of density alone produced enough housing to level the field for home buyers.
A reporter for Denverite, espousing the dominant creed, recently wrote, “I think it comes down to what kind of city we want to live in.” If we “keep sprawling outward,” she warned, “we’ll be building a city for cars. The alternative – where there are more homes and businesses on/near existing transit corridors, and more space on city streets for transit (plus) cycling, etc. – is possible too.”
Actually, the choice is not either/or. We can build upward and outward at the same time — as in fact we’ve been doing. We just haven’t seen enough of either type of growth given the volume of new households.
As for what kind of city we want, how about one where middle-class residents can afford to buy their first home, where neighborhoods don’t see housing prices quadruple in 25 years (as mine has), and which doesn’t rank — as metro Denver now does — among the 10 least affordable housing markets in the country?
Vincent Carroll is the former editorial page editor of both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, where a version of this column first appeared.
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