The hundreds of transportation nerds gathered at Bicycle Colorado’s annual Moving People Forward conference earlier this month weren’t the kind of people who need much of an excuse to get excited about a day full of panels on traffic safety, regional funding solutions and data-driven micromobility policy. But the hottest ticket at this year’s event, held at the downtown Embassy Suites on February 10, was a live taping of an episode of The War on Cars, the funny and informative podcast about the past, present and future of America’s relationship with the automobile — or, as co-host Doug Gordon put it as he took the stage, “the podcast where three New Yorkers come to Denver and tell you everything that you need to do.”
After some banter, the show’s hosts welcomed their guest, 9News anchor Kyle Clark, for a conversation on the way local news covers transportation and mobility issues. At one point, Clark came clean: “I drove my SUV here this morning.”
“Go on, get out of here,” Gordon said. “That’s our show, folks.”
The crowd laughed at Gordon’s mock indignation, just like it had laughed a few minutes earlier during Bicycle Colorado director Pete Piccolo’s introduction, when he mentioned that he and his kids enjoy listening to The War on Cars while they’re driving. The podcast’s name might not be entirely tongue-in-cheek, but neither are the “#BanCars” stickers that were on sale in the hallway an entirely serious policy proposal. At least not yet.
There was a sense of optimism, not outrage, in the air at this year’s Moving People Forward conference.
Advocates for biking, walking and public transit are used to being frustrated by state and local policymakers — when they’re not simply being ignored. But there’s hope that the tide is finally turning.
“Denver has really seen a sea change in how we approach transportation,” says Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and chair of the Denver Streets Partnership. “In terms of the amount of money that we’ve got coming in through bonds and the budget, to build out bike lanes, the efforts to fix sidewalks, the conversations around what transit needs to look like, the new micromobility options that we’ve seen over the last couple of years — I think we’ve gone through some big changes, and we’re poised to make a lot of progress.”
At the State Capitol, lawmakers are negotiating a major transportation deal that they hope will finally solve the state’s chronic funding and congestion crisis. Health-department regulators are stepping up their efforts to clean up ozone pollution along the Front Range after a federal downgrade, while air-quality commissioners prepare to enact regulations aimed at drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Boardmembers and staffers at the Regional Transportation District are trying to pull the troubled transit agency out of a tailspin, even as they kick off a lengthy process to “reimagine” RTD’s services. A task force convened by Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration is reviewing Denver’s own climate policies while its recently rebranded Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) is pushing ahead with several major mobility initiatives.
The success of every one of these efforts hinges at least in part on one thing: getting more people in Denver and other urban areas — a lot more people — to routinely give up car travel in favor of walking, biking and taking public transit.
Within the next ten years, the City of Denver aims to reduce the number of residents who commute to work in single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) from 70 percent to under 50 percent. That means persuading as many as 100,000 Denverites to make the switch to alternative forms of transportation. The Denver Regional Council of Governments and the state Department of Transportation, too, say that “multimodal solutions” must be a central part of Colorado’s transportation future.
And yet even as policy makers in and around Denver have made these ambitious plans and promises, they’ve approved massive road-widening projects like Central 70 and a $94 million renovation of Peña Boulevard; they’ve postponed or slow-walked major multimodal improvements like the Broadway bike lane; and they’ve sketched out blueprints for new, car-dependent developments like the “aerotropolis” envisioned by Hancock and other civic leaders around Denver International Airport.
“If you’re going to promote multimodal options, you’ve got to make single-occupancy cars more difficult,” says Curtis Edwards, a climate advocate with Conservation Colorado who specializes in transportation policy. “Are cities doing things like really having the cost of parking reflect what it is instead of subsidizing it? Are we thinking outside the box when it comes to truly integrating all forms of transportation? Is it easy for somebody to get on a bus, to go to a train, to get on a bike or a scooter, or is that kind of a pain to do? Do people have to wait thirty minutes to do that and then say, ‘I’m just going to drive my car?’”
“The first thing is that we should encourage non-car transit,” says Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents District 10, home to some of the city’s most dense and least car-dependent neighborhoods. “The second — and I think the order is important — is that we should discourage car transit.”
It’s a set of questions raised by nearly every conversation about transportation and urban development in America in the 21st century, but one that policymakers are often reluctant to confront directly. How do we rebuild entire metropolitan areas to be less car-centric? How do we shift the consumption and commuting habits of hundreds of millions of people? How do we end the country’s century-long love affair with cars and the open road?
That question was on Piccolo’s mind as he addressed the crowd at this year’s Moving People Forward conference. “As we sit here in mobility church with a lot of like-minded people,” he said, “I think it’s important to always remember how much cars and driving permeate our culture and our view of how transportation works in the world. Just remember how much effort and teamwork and persistence it takes to push back against that status quo.”
RidgeGate East development, approved by Millet and her fellow councilmembers in 2018, includes plans for thousands of new homes, three schools, 600 acres of parks and open space and a new “city center” just east of Interstate 25.
“Right now, it’s just the cows that are here,” Millet says. A newly built rail station lets passengers out in the middle of an empty field. Construction on the first phase of the project, comprising about 1,800 new residential units, is likely to begin in 2021.
RidgeGate East, which proponents hope will eventually double or even triple Lone Tree’s current population of about 15,000 residents, was made possible in large part by the 2.3-mile, three-station extension of RTD’s E, F and R light-rail lines, which opened in May 2019. As the city looks toward its future, its leaders want to make sure that transit, walking and biking are a big part of its aggressive expansion plans.
“We’ve learned some lessons,” says Millet, a civil engineer and former chair of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. “We’ve obviously invested in light rail, microtransit, bicycle connectivity, wider sidewalks. We’re making sure that as we construct new [developments], we’re taking advantage of the latest and greatest thinking.”
The City of Lone Tree, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is the last contiguous municipality on the southern edge of metro Denver, and it’s easy to see why so many have been drawn to the residential developments sprouting up on its gently rolling foothills, which offer striking views of the Rockies and the distant Denver skyline. The city’s incorporation came at the tail end of decades of gradual southward growth in the latter half of the twentieth century — boom times, in Denver and many other cities across the country, for ambitious highway projects like C-470 and sprawling, master-planned communities like Highlands Ranch.
In 1996, the same year that the opening of the Park Meadows Mall first put Lone Tree on the map for most Denver residents, a dissident group of architects, planners and academics gathered at a conference in Charleston, South Carolina, to sign a document that would come to revolutionize the way that many people thought about cities and how we build them. The “Charter of the New Urbanism” distilled a set of ideas that had been gaining currency in progressive city-planning circles since the 1980s, denouncing the socioeconomic inequality, environmental damage and “placeless sprawl” that its signatories believed had come to characterize American suburbia.
“Development patterns should not blur or eradicate the edges of the metropolis,” the charter reads. “Infill development within existing urban areas conserves environmental resources, economic investment, and social fabric, while reclaiming marginal and abandoned areas. Metropolitan regions should develop strategies to encourage such infill development over peripheral expansion.”
“Transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region while reducing dependence upon the automobile,” wrote the framers of the New Urbanist charter. “Interconnected networks of streets should be designed to encourage walking, reduce the number and length of automobile trips, and conserve energy.”
There’s no turning back the clock on the last seventy years of urban development policy — no erasing the effects of decades of redlining, white flight, low-density construction, ample federal highway funding and other forces that shaped the modern American metropolis. More than half of the country now lives in suburban areas. Car-centric enclaves like Lone Tree and Broomfield and Wheat Ridge and Green Valley Ranch are here, they’re growing, and they’re home to millions of people who like their single-family residences and sleepy subdivisions and gas-guzzling SUVs just fine, thank you very much.
It’s not their fault that the cars they’re dependent on are a disaster for clean air, public health, road safety, aging infrastructure, timely commutes and the Earth’s climate — but that’s what cars are. So what now?
“Government’s role is the planning and designing of the community,” Millet says. “So how are you designing your infrastructure to respond to what we know today? Our biggest impact is going to be on the transportation system, so we have invested heavily in a transportation network that we see as forward-thinking, as smart as we can be given what we know today, and also as collaborative as we can.”
That vision includes the $25 million that the city and other local entities chipped in for the light-rail extension. It includes bike lanes and a dedicated cycle track planned for RidgeGate East, and a new pedestrian bridge, completed in 2018, that spans Lincoln Avenue and connects the city’s north and south sides. It includes the Lone Tree Link, an on-demand shuttle service that takes passengers anywhere they want to go within city limits — for free.
“We’ve heard from our realtors that people have chosen to move here because they have that option,” Millet says. “You really can live here without having a car, and we’re very proud of that.”
There’s a different set of conversations going on in Denver, where neighborhoods and traffic patterns are often decades, if not centuries, old, not being built from scratch in a cow pasture. In November, city voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment that rebranded the former Department of Public Works as the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, and gave the agency more explicit authority to manage transit and mobility services, maintain sidewalks and make traffic safety improvements.
Within the last few months, the department has installed new pedestrian safety features on Colfax Avenue, announced plans for more bike improvements and installed two priority bus lanes on 15th and 17th streets downtown, with plans to do the same on 18th and 19th later this year.
“We’ve seen a ton of positive comments from transit users that indicate how much time they’ve saved by having a dedicated lane,” says DOTI executive director Eulois Cleckley. “Those are exactly the types of improvements that we’re going to be advancing.”
While Hinds and others stress the need for the city to more aggressively dis-incentivize car travel, Cleckley is more diplomatic. On Denver’s densely populated and increasingly congested streets, managing traffic and different modes of transit is a “balancing act,” he says.
“Placing the right encouragement on the mode that we would like people to use more frequently is something that we’re going to be focused on,” Cleckley explains. “So that’s where the dis-incentive naturally comes in.
When you see in our corridors where we’ve installed dedicated bus lanes, where you see folks sitting in traffic and the bus zooming by — what we would expect is that the person sitting by themselves in that vehicle would feel that they have a greater burden in traveling by using a single-occupancy vehicle, and they would end up making a choice to use transit.”
“Some people do need to drive their cars; we just have to acknowledge that,” Millet says. “And we can’t make it impossible for them to do so. But I think people just have get used to it. Fifteenth Street [in Denver] is a great example. At first I was like, ‘How do I do this, how do I park?’ But I get it now.”
After interviewing Millet in Lone Tree, I take a Link shuttle to one of the new light-rail stations, catch a train back to downtown Denver and then ride an e-scooter to the State Capitol. A little later, I’ll use my phone to reserve a car from a car-sharing service and drive to a meeting in Park Hill. None of this would have been possible even just a few years ago, and the rise of services like these has led many to settle on a tempting idea: What if everything wrong with our transportation system could be solved by new technology?
“We’ve been living with these health impacts, and we’ve been ignored for the longest time,” says Oliver, an activist with advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force. “Many people who live around these industries share the same story, like Commerce City, Globeville, northeast Denver, which all border the highway, as well as Suncor.”
The residents of low-income and predominantly Latino communities on Denver’s north side have long paid the highest price for our addiction to cars and fossil fuels. Today, a barrel of oil can be pumped out of the ground from a fracking site just north of Commerce City, refined at the Suncor plant a few miles south and used to fuel a truck that speeds along the expanding I-70 spewing smog-forming pollutants into some of Denver’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
As of this year, transportation has overtaken electricity generation as Colorado’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to estimates by state regulators. As coal plants shutter across the country and wind and solar generation come online to replace them, climate policy makers are increasingly turning their attention toward the threat posed by the internal combustion engine. If the climate villain of the last decade was the smokestack, in the 2020s it will be the tailpipe.
It’s not just the global climate that suffers from the pollutants spewed out of these tailpipes, of course, but Denver’s local air quality, too. Over the last decade, a consensus has emerged among atmospheric scientists and public-health researchers that no safe level of air pollution exists. Common air pollutants like ozone and fine particulate matter pose health risks even at low ambient concentrations, and the potential hazards are not just the obvious — asthma, emphysema and other respiratory conditions — but cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, neurological effects and more. One study published by researchers at Colorado State University last year found “strong links” between elevated levels of air pollution and increased rates of violent crime.
Overall, it’s now estimated that air pollution causes more than 8.8 million premature deaths worldwide each year, double the number previously thought, and, more than the number killed annually by smoking, according to several major studies published in the U.S. and Europe over the last two years.
That has a growing number of transportation experts and public-health advocates wondering whether it’s time for policy makers to start treating cars the way they’ve long treated the tobacco industry.
“Maybe there’s a shaming campaign that needs to go on,” mused Doug Gordon, one of the hosts of the War on Cars podcast, on an episode earlier this month. “Cities eliminated smoking, for the most part, by taxing [it] and telling them where you could and couldn’t do it. Tax them and restrict them. Do the same for SUVs.”
That’s not exactly a view that many transportation planners and public-health experts are willing to embrace publicly — at least not yet. “I wouldn’t want to demonize cars,” says John Douglas, a physician who’s the executive director of Tri-County Health, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. But the comparison of the risks, and the potential policy response, is hard to ignore.
“What we did with tobacco was move on a number of fronts,” Douglas says. “It took lots of different steps. It took education of the public. It took education. It took changes in laws — smoke-free environments, tobacco taxes, things like that. I think air quality, including greenhouse gas emissions, is going to be even more complicated.
This is a mutual responsibility of all societal sectors, and we, the people, have things that we can be doing. That includes making personal decisions, and it certainly includes encouraging policy makers to make changes.”
To date, there’s one change in particular that Colorado policy makers have embraced wholeheartedly: the adoption of zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs), which experts predict will dominate the market for new passenger cars within the next five to ten years.
It’s an alluring idea: What if nothing has to change but what’s under the hood of the world’s one billion automobiles? What if entrepreneurship and technological innovation can save the planet? What if we can buy our way out of this problem?
But interstates filled with mile after mile of EVs will do nothing to reduce the more than 40,000 traffic deaths that the U.S. experiences annually. They won’t alleviate worsening road congestion or lighten the load on our overburdened infrastructure, or lessen the environmental costs of construction impacts and non-exhaust pollution like road dust.
“Electric vehicles are an individual solution that can definitely get at the problem of pollution, but we’d still have too many cars on our streets and still devote too much space to them,” Katz says. “If you care about air pollution and climate change and saving lives and just moving people more efficiently and more affordably, [then] transit, walking, biking — these options can have an impact not just in one of those areas, but all of those areas.”
Other developing technologies, such as self-driving cars, can create entirely new problems — some of them nightmarish. In a study published last year, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, simulated the potential behavioral shifts that might result from widespread ownership of autonomous vehicles (AVs) by providing a small group of test subjects with a chauffeured car for a week. The results were alarming. Subjects drastically increased the number and distance of their car trips by, for example, sending their AVs home after driving to work to avoid parking fees — nearly doubling the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) among the test group, a horrific scenario for congestion, pollution and safety if replicated on a citywide scale.
Electrification and automation will almost certainly reshape the world’s transportation system in the coming decades; they’re two of the “Three Revolutions in Urban Transportation” described in an influential study published by researchers at the University of California, Davis, in 2017. But Travis Madsen, transportation program director at the Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, says that without the third revolution — the rise of “shared mobility” — the world will have missed an unmissable opportunity.
“It’s pretty clear that sharing is a really important part of reducing VMT,” Madsen says. “It can reduce the amount of money that we need to invest, both in vehicles and the infrastructure we need to drive them. I think that’s a missing part of the conversation that I’d like to see Colorado dig into more.”
With the rise of ride-hailing apps and e-scooters, we’ve already taken our first steps into the sharing revolution. But advocates envision a future transportation network comprising thousands of autonomous microtransit vehicles — think miniaturized versions of RTD’s FlexRide shuttle, or a supersized UberPool — that operate on short fixed routes or within a small local area, supplementing bus and rail and solving the “first mile, last mile” problem that has long plagued traditional transit systems. Existing car-sharing services like Zipcar and Turo also have the potential to grow. UC Davis researchers estimate that the number of vehicles on the road worldwide is on pace to double by 2050, but with widespread adoption of sharing services and technology, the world could instead cut the number of cars in half.
Cleckley points to the additional funding his department received in the 2020 budget to pilot several “neighborhood circulators” that could provide first-mile, last-mile service in underserved areas of the city. “As we move forward into the future, there will be plenty of opportunities that the city can consider to begin to build out our localized system,” he says.
“We need to electrify all vehicles to start,” Madsen says. “And then, if we can build systems where you don’t have to go as far and you can share vehicles — maybe that’s share ownership, maybe it’s more like UberPool, or maybe it’s more like a faster, more frequent RTD — but I think that conversation needs to happen.”
“The War on Cars is not being waged just by the bicycle crowd,” Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, wrote in an op-ed published in the Denver Post on February 11. “Event sponsors included [DRCOG] and the City of Denver (your tax dollars used against the mobility choice most Denver residents prefer). If you’ve been in central Denver recently, you’ve seen their strategy in action: Lanes for parking and driving are being turned over to bicycles and buses.”
Jackson and CADA are members of Colorado’s newly formed Freedom to Drive Coalition, which also includes the Colorado Petroleum Association and several other business groups. Lobbyists for the coalition have been among the most active at the State Capitol over the last year, taking positions on 29 bills since March 2019, according to records from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. If there was any mystery as to what a group bankrolled by car dealers and the oil industry is really all about, it’s cleared up by the fact that the Freedom to Drive Coalition has opposed pro-EV policies, multimodal investments and non-transportation-related climate measures with equal vigor. “They’re trying to defend their market share,” Madsen says. “I mostly just ignore them.”
But these industries wield plenty of influence at the Capitol, among Republicans and Democrats alike. As lawmakers negotiate a major transportation bill to address the state’s longstanding funding shortage, mulling a wide range of new revenue mechanisms like fees on EVs and ride-hailing apps and increasing the gas tax, they’re facing intense pressure from groups like Freedom to Drive and Americans for Prosperity, which is already opposing a possible gas-tax hike with an ad campaign that includes fifteen-second commercials playing on screens at Denver-area gas stations. Balancing the transportation sector’s many competing and conflicting priorities won’t be easy.
“A transportation funding bill is not going to pass through my committee without having multimodal funding in it,” Senator Faith Winter, chair of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, told a panel at the Moving People Forward summit. But lawmakers have also made it clear that a transportation deal must be bipartisan, posing a problem for transit advocates who must win over Republicans, who, in the words of House Minority Leader Patrick Neville in January, mostly want the state to fund widened roads and new bridges, “not extra pogo stick lanes or bike lanes.”
“If you insert transit into the middle of a transportation funding bill, it becomes an immediate issue for Republicans,” says House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder. “It certainly puts some roadblocks in the discussion, so I think it’s something that we have to kind of weave our way through.”
The apparent absence of climate and environmental concerns from transportation talks at the Capitol is alarming to activists. Planners frequently highlight the concept of “induced demand,” the phenomenon by which expanding road capacity to alleviate congestion simply causes more people to choose to drive, leading to more congestion and prompting further calls for more capacity in a vicious cycle.
“We can’t be making decisions about our transportation system — decisions that are going to lock us into decades of particular infrastructure — without having climate be a top consideration,” Katz says. “We need to maintain the system we have. We need the money to make sure our streets are safe, but we can’t be spending any more dollars on anything that actually increases the amount of driving or the number of cars on our roads. We passed that point a decade ago.”
Even as the market for EVs begins to catch fire, when it comes to the bulk of transportation-sector emissions, there are no easy answers, only costly trade-offs. This isn’t just a matter of replacing one big coal plant with a few big solar farms.
“You can get at the energy sector quicker, because you have a few really big players,” Becker says. “On the transportation level, there are more cars in this state than there are people. It’s just a harder, more dispersed issue to get at, in terms of climate, so it tends to be a little more incentive-based and a little bit slower.”
The Freedom to Drive Coalition and other groups like it may be pure Astroturf, but it’s not as if the feelings they’re seeking to tap into aren’t real. What red-blooded American doesn’t love the feeling of sitting behind the wheel of a car? For many of us, it’s a rite of passage into adulthood and independence — more than just being a part of our built environment, cars are embedded in our national consciousness, our identity, a hundred years of pop culture. More than just simple convenience, cars scratch an itch for power and control that can’t be satisfied in the same way by reserving a Zipcar for an hour or hopping in a microtransit shuttle with six of your neighbors.
But transit advocates argue that, in our transportation system as in much of the rest of American society, our fixation on certain narrow, highly individualistic definitions of “freedom” has for many of us led to just the opposite.
“I ride over I-25 on the way home on my bike every day, and when I look at that traffic, I think, ‘That’s not freedom, that’s imprisonment,’” says Madsen. “I think a lot of people feel that way: There’s no other options, and they’re just mad. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing the backlash against growth in Colorado. People are stuck in their cars, and they’re mad. And we’re just putting more cars on the road, and obviously, traffic’s not getting any better. I’m hoping that more people will start to think about what other ways we can get around.”
Ten years before he was elected to Denver City Council, Chris Hinds was just another of the city’s commuters, riding home on his bike after attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention downtown. At 18th Avenue and Logan Street, he was struck by a car, suffering a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the neck down.
For Hinds, who has felt the impacts of our car-crazed transportation culture more deeply and personally than most, the way for Denver to accelerate the shift to multimodal options is simple: Make people feel safe.
“There are a few people who are willing to ride a bicycle in any situation, any condition, and I was one of those — and people are seriously injured and killed,” Hinds says. “But there’s a much larger percentage of people in Denver who would be willing to use a bike far more often if they felt safe getting around.”
Hinds and other mobility advocates point to cycling meccas like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and other European cities as examples for Denver to follow, with segregated bike and pedestrian paths and plenty of streets closed to car traffic. And if the city wants 15 percent or more of its residents to commute by bike, he asks, why isn’t it spending 15 percent of its transportation budget on bike lanes and other safety improvements?
More than simple infrastructure tweaks and budget adjustments, though, Hinds believes that the transformation of Denver’s transportation network goes hand in hand with a shift in values.
“It’s about community,” he says. “I think part of the reason we have so many people honking at each other these days is that we go from our locked homes to our parking garage to our single-occupant vehicle to our parking garage at work to our office, and we’re not talking with anyone.”
The conservatives at groups like the Freedom to Drive Coalition aren’t entirely wrong to view the battle over transportation as another front in the culture wars — to fear a vast left-wing conspiracy to bring communism into town on trolley cars and tandem bikes. From the New Urbanist iconoclasts of the ’90s to today’s hell-raising youth climate activists, proponents of alternative transportation really do believe in the power of a revolutionized mobility network to break down barriers of geography and race and class and begin to rebuild a sense of community in a fractured, isolated country. And they’re increasingly eager to make the case for why we need to do just that.
“Any change is going to have resistance and require some growing pains,” Hinds says. “But we can’t continue to meet our climate goals and our safety goals without a little less evolution and a little more revolution.”
The vision being put forward in Denver is “piecemeal” for now, says Katz — an improvement compared to just a few years ago, but still a long way from where advocates want the city to be. But as a wave of technological shifts, policy changes and community activism continues to crest, there’s hope that the future is bright — for everything but the gas-powered car.
“I think people are ready,” Katz says. “I think the last couple of years have shown us that people are excited for Denver to embrace a transformation of our transportation system. We’re seeing people want to live in bikeable and walkable communities. We’re seeing lots of energy put into improving RTD and transit instead of just saying we don’t even need it. And I think the deaths we’ve seen on our streets have really created this moment where people are demanding change there. So we’ve got this moment where people are really there, wanting to see a transportation system that works for everybody, that is truly complete, that lets people get around in different ways.”