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Denver's on the cutting edge of public transit

The city's light rail is an economic game-changer

Jeff Rundles //September 20, 2016//

Denver's on the cutting edge of public transit

The city's light rail is an economic game-changer

Jeff Rundles //September 20, 2016//

There have been few seismic shifts in the way American, and Colorado, society organizes itself, and I have been fortunate to be in the midst of two very important ones, the latest of which is blossoming before our eyes at this moment. It has actually been going on for quite a while, but a very important component is exploding this year – transit – which will have a profound impact on our world for years to come, and the Denver area has emerged as a national model.

Transit is generally thought of, and commonly defined, as public transportation – and these days particularly trains – although in reality the term actually just means “passing from one place to another,” according to Dictionary.com. That’s an important distinction because in the broader sense “transit” was at the heart of the last great seismic shift, back in the 1970s.

Early in my career, I had the marvelous opportunity and completely odd experience of interviewing George MacKenzie Wallace, the legendary founder of the Denver Technological Center (DTC). Sitting in this little chair somewhat below his massive office desk, with Wallace chain smoking Marlboros, all the while connected to two huge oxygen tanks that I was convinced would blow up at any second, I heard his tale of starting the DTC: Someone had keyed his prized Rolls Royce in the parking structure of his office in the downtown Denver Colorado National Bank building. He went looking for space – particularly ample space to park –away from core city, and found it on the prairie just off of I-25 south of Belleview.

The DTC was an almost immediate success, and it became the centerpiece of and model for massive amounts of suburban sprawl, in both office and residential development, that for the last 40+ years has transformed the Denver metro area from barely over 1.1 million people to nearly three times that many today. And most of it was based on 1970’s transit: the decidedly un-mass transit automobile.

Since that time I-25, I-70 and I-76 have gone from simple four-lane highways to multi-lane giants, and we have added such highways as I-225, E-470 and C-470 ringing the ever-widening area. If you look at these highways, the lion’s share of significant development has taken place at each of the major interchanges, so this transit system became the platform for economic boom.

Seismic shift to today. Economic development – economic boom – is now firmly centered on public transportation, and it has helped shift the focus of Denver’s future from one of sprawl back to the very core of the city.

The opening, in April, of the A Line commuter train from Union Station to Denver International Airport, and the July launch of the B line commuter rail connecting Westminster and the northwest suburbs to Denver Union Station – not to mention extremely popular light rail – has not only improved and flipped transit options, it has shifted economic development like no other time since the 1970s.

A recent Denver Post article sparked my interest: Golden-based HomeAdvisor, which connects home services to home owners, is moving with its 300-person work force to the core’s River North (RiNo) area because of “walkability,” “rail” and “recruitment” of millennials, who themselves are attracted to the core precisely because of the access, mobility and rail public transportation. Completely opposite attractions than those cited in my youth.

The Denver area is one of the very hottest metro areas in the country right now, and while there are many reasons, I believe the main reason is our community’s willingness, even insistence, to embrace and fast-track public rail transportation. It is allowing many people, particularly the young, to live in the city without a car; it is bringing countless suburbanites to the core city’s attractions for the first time in years, and even luring the far-flung back to the city to live. And, of course, HomeAdvisor is only one of hundreds of businesses looking at a core location as a recruitment tool, about the best economic development statement that can be made.

Seismic. The country is training its envious eyes on Denver.