Mile High Connects finds access and equity gaps in city's public transit

Since its 2010 launch, Mile High Connects has taken a long, hard, scientific look at Denver's transit system. Formed as a collaboration between nonprofit leaders and philanthropies, the group analyzed the equity and access of area transportation. The findings, which focus heavily on the distance between public transit and low-income housing, take into consideration ten years of data uncovered between 2000 and 2010 to create the Denver Regional Equity Atlas, released today.

On view below, the atlas analyzes the Current Denver Region Transit System in preparation for decades of work on FasTracks, the large-scale transportation program scheduled for completion in 2042. At a release party for the data held at the Denver Art Museum this morning, none of the event's keynote speakers spoke favorably of the three-decade wait period, instead urging the creation of a voter-approved tax increase to move up the unveiling to 2024. But before moving forward, organizers pointed out a few kinks for the city to straighten out.

Some of the findings are obvious, such as the indication that Denver's ethnic communities are highly concentrated by race. But other figures outline flaws in the transit system that will need to be addressed down the line. For instance, new service options leave out the southwest area, and even when all the new stations and lines are installed, a heavy handful of low-income neighborhoods will still be too far away to reach them. In addition, the city's elderly population, those 55 and older, is increasing in areas where it's tough to access transit, and the majority of the city's affordable housing is not near transit.

The data presented by MileHigh Connects is intended as a wake-up call, and Mayor Michael Hancock is not the only person to have called the city's transit situation a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" this morning. When Hancock began his time with the Denver City Council in 2003, he says, the Stapleton area housed only 3,000 people, as opposed to the 13,000 who live there today. And by 2030, Denver's population is slated to increase by 1.3 million.

Such growth demands an increase in sustainable transportation, the mayor says, and a focus on making it equally accessible to all sections of the population. "Transit is more than just moving people place to place," Hancock says. Like his fellow speakers, he stressed the importance of acting for the next generation, despite being unable to reap the benefits. "A robust transit system also helps with the economic vitality of the region. Our city is experiencing tremendous growth, and we have to keep pace. We won't have this (opportunity) again, and it would be not very responsible to leave it to the next generation."

As the transit system exists, those who live in lower income areas are less able to take advantage of its access to their jobs, schools and needs, says Melinda Pollack, vice president of Enterprise Community Partners. And the system is in need of additional connections through bike and pedestrian paths in order to make it accessible in the first place.

"We know that the demand for affordable housing will continue to be extremely high," Pollack says. "We know that we've only made a drop in the bucket. Here in the region, we significantly lack legislation to reinforce affordable housing where it's needed the most."

When the morning's keynote speakers finished their addresses and the floor opened to attendees, the discussion quickly changed to the near future. The data, presented in detail through artful maps, is a rallying point, attendees said, but 2042 is still far in the future. What can be done in the meantime? The answer is part sales, to package the need for equity improvements as an economic development issue to make it more immediate. The second half of the equation depends on resources and the potential for a tax increase to speed the process up.

But Gene Myers, owner and CEO of New Town Builders, sees the cycle of research and calls to action -- a system he participated in on a panel this morning -- as counterproductive. "We start the studies, but we already know what the answers are," Myers says. "There aren't enough resources. We need to stop studying and start doing. Until we get there, we're going to have another conference and another study about it, and my vote is to stop the death march."

Read the Regional Equity Atlas in full here: Regional Equity Atlas

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