The Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s 20th anniversary conference focused on the future of land use in the west. In a session addressing public rail transit in the Rocky Mountain West, John Inglish, CEO of the Utah Transit Authority, and Bill Van Meter, Assistant General Manager at Denver Regional Transportation District, showcased their cities’ plans – “Envision Utah” and “RTD FasTracks.” Utah’s Envision Utah is a comprehensive statewide plan, the “Quality Growth Strategy,” which includes both environmental and infrastructural goals. Denver’s FasTracks is a plan to expand the city’s existing light rail system to outlying residential areas and increase citizen use of intermodal transportation. The plan also includes mixed-use development at all rail stops.
Ed Ziegler, University of Denver Sturm College of Law Professor, identified some of the challenges that public transit in the West may face. The panel explored these issues in relation to transportation models in European cities like Barcelona. Population growth, congestion, and inversion are not new problems to Denver or Salt Lake City. Both cities are confronted with the need to develop quality growth strategies. They must find long term solutions that will enhance air quality, increase transportation options, conserve water, boost their economies and enable them to invest wisely in a cohesive infrastructure that can support growth in an efficient and sustainable manner.
Projecting that by 2025, more than 1 in 5 people will be on public transit, Salt Lake City and Denver are looking optimistically to the future of public transit being used more often, by more people. Both Envision Utah and RTD Fastracks plans seek to address the emerging trends of young professionals being less dependent on cars, baby boomers downsizing, and the growing popularity of transit-oriented development.
Professor Ziegler agreed there is a need for a more cohesive public transit system, but he pointed out that both cities have several preliminary steps to take. Both cities lack the dense urban core that have prompted public transit infrastructure in other cities. Encouraging the growth of more compact cities requires substantial reform to current local and regional planning and zoning guidelines.
Using Barcelona as a comparative model to Denver, Professor Ziegler explained that European city densities are generally 10 times that of U.S. cities. With a world-class public transit system, Barcelona is an environmentally friendly city that is easy to get around, and growth there follows very sustainable guidelines. Salt Lake City and Denver on the other hand, need better regional planning to supplement the new transit plans before they can achieve efficiency like Barcelona’s. Otherwise we are headed towards a future that looks more like Los Angeles.
Professor Ziegler explained that without substantial financial reform, this country is unlikely to be rich enough to afford both a world-class public light rail/bus system and an automobile transit system. Until we start to convert gas dollars to public transit dollars – it will remain but a planner’s pipe dream.
Hillary Ellis a second year law student at the University of Denver, an avid cyclist, and patron of public transportation.