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May 2015 • Online Edition

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First Mile/Last Mile: It’s Time For Denver To Get Real Serious About Mass Transit | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

First mile, last mile. There’s a breath of fresh air blowing along the roadways of metro Denver.

Like a sailor buoyed by a sudden gust of wind billowing in the sails of his once dead-in-the-water schooner, help may be on the way for those of us who are getting increasingly frustrated by the difficulty in getting from Point “A” to Point “B” in the Mile High City.

With some three million people residing in the Denver metro area at the present time (and another million due in the next decade or so), our roadways tend to function as slow-roll parking lots at least as often as high-speed transit corridors.

In an effort to stimulate vehicle owners to abandon their cars or trucks in favor of alternate modes of transportation, Denver planners reduced parking requirements across the city several years ago, making it as difficult to park your car as it is to drive it, doing nothing to facilitate access to Denver’s anemic transit system.

First mile, last mile.

I own and drive an automobile, most times with no one in the vehicle but me, because I not only need to get from Point A to Point B, but most days I have a C, D, E and F involved as well. Trying to negotiate those visits by bus or train simply does not make for an efficient use of time.

I am not addicted to auto travel. I do not like auto travel. What I like is that I can get from my office near Evans and Broadway to Racine’s at 6th and Sherman in about 14 minutes by car, when it takes more like 41 minutes each way by bus, and that presupposes that the rest of my day lends itself to my cutting things precisely to the wire by successfully hoofing it to the bus stop or train station on time and making the needed occasional connections without unforeseen circumstance or delay.

I applaud Denver’s increasing focus on creating a world-class bike path network for two-wheel enthusiasts; I am pleased to see more and more of my fellow citizens making use of short term rentals like Car2Go and the like; and, when they are adequately and fairly regulated, I think Uber and Lyft and other on-line vehicle will-call services will make a nice addition to our transportation choices as well.

But if we are serious about reducing the number of vehicles on our roadways, and increasing the number of butts on the bus or the train, we need to make it far easier for people to get from their starting point to the train (first mile) and then from the train to their final destination (last mile). And vice versa.

In the movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner heard a disembodied voice assuring him, “Build it and they will come.” He built the baseball field in question, and the ballplayers of old came to live out their destiny. Our regional transportation gurus, handcuffed by an inflexible financing structure, are taking the reverse attitude that “if they come, we will build it.” Or even worse, “if they come to us clamoring on bended knee, we might build it if we can find the money.”

I am aware Denver is not New York, or Chicago or San Francisco, but if we really hope to change the travel patterns and habits of our populace, we need to do what those cities, and other noteworthy cities large and small have done – devise a system based on what the people need, not what the city thinks it can afford. You need to get me to my destination quickly, and get me there when I need to be there.

That fresh air I spoke about earlier that has filled me with hope? For the first time in (my) recent memory, in the past two weeks two people in positions to make things happen in this city have talked about the first mile/last mile connection with a good deal of enthusiasm.

Denver’s new Executive Director of  Community Planning and Development, Brad Buchanan told The Profile, “The last mile is a real driver,” in the need to re-examine Denver’s chief land use and transportation document, Blueprint Denver. “Until we clearly define our needs and where they are,” said Buchanan, “we can’t get projects funded.

Then toward month’s end, City Council president Mary Beth Susman expressed the need for Denver to address the first/last mile dilemma with some sort of system akin to Boulder’s Hop, Skip and Jump bus circulators. Denver must “provide a different kind of user-friendly bus before there is ridership,” said Susman.

With RTD – Regional Transportation District – having more on its mind than simply Denver, a solution aimed at Mile High drivers may have to come from the city rather than the region-wide agency.

Susman suggests, “Perhaps a TIF (Tax Increment Financing)-like solution for transit that lends dollars against future fare revenues? And what is a more user-friendly bus? It has to be very frequent, simple and inviting. A bus arrives every 10 minutes. Even if you miss one, it is only a 10-minute wait. Its routes are memorable and named, not numbered. It takes me within my 4- or 5-mile (area of travel) every day, at least 12 hours a day.”

While retrofitting a city with a fully functional rapid transit system is complicated and certainly not without substantial cost, it is not rocket science. And it is no longer optional. I envision a rebirth of Denver’s long abandoned street cars – put them on wheels, not rails, this time. I’m envisioning something with the charm of San Francisco’s cable cars and the efficiency of Boulder’s buses. Make it as easy and inviting for tourists to find their way to S. Gaylord St. and S. Pearl St. or 32nd and Lowell, as downtown or Cherry Creek.

And I’m envisioning me, smiling, as I make my way to Points A, B, C, D, E and F in a single day with my trusty Subaru tucked safely in its nest at home.

We’re a long way from our destination, but today I have hope we can get there. And that, my friends, is a very good thing.

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