How to Change Car Culture: My Denver Story

In my last post I claimed that culture was more important than infrastructure in terms of keeping bicyclists and pedestrians safe.  I want to expand on that with a story about culture from my past.  Then, in a subsequent post, I’ll share with you some concrete examples of what I mean.

I moved to Denver in 1981 after graduating from Butler University in Indianapolis. It was the height of the oil boom and there was this raw energy that was palpable along 17th Street, the heart of the city’s financial district.  Like lots of new arrivals, I went to work in the oil business.  As I was onboarded at my new company, I was given a bus pass and told that in Denver we ride the bus.  That was the start of my transit journey.

Bike and trains in downtown Denver.  It didn't just happen, but rather was the result of decades of hard work on the part of visionary transit proponents.  Rw rynerson at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bike and trains in downtown Denver. It didn’t just happen, but rather was the result of decades of hard work on the part of visionary transit proponents. Rw rynerson at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Much of RTD's rail network is more suburban than urban.  Southmoor Station, Southeast Denver.  By Jeffrey Beall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Much of RTD’s rail network is more suburban than urban. Southmoor Station, Southeast Denver. By Jeffrey Beall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the months and years that followed, Denver’s bus system (RTD/the Ride) grew in a big way.  The 16th Street pedestrian mall was built and anchored by two transit centers…one at each end.  Buses from the suburbs terminated at the transit stations instead of clogging downtown streets.  The mall was long, so to get people from the transit centers to their offices, RTD ran free shuttles (Denver’s version of San Francisco’s cable cars) up and down the length of the mall.

Parking at suburban (Sheridan) Park and Ride station.  In spite of the focus on trains, bicycles and buses, RTD recognizes that cars are part of the mix and it accommodates them.

Parking at suburban (Sheridan) Park and Ride station. In spite of the focus on trains, bicycles and buses, RTD recognizes that cars are part of the mix and it accommodates them. By Xnatedawgx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

RTD had four levels of bus service.   There was no rail service at this time.  It wasn’t even talked about.  It was all buses.   In the city, they had local routes and circulators.  Serving the hinterlands were express and regional routes.  The regionals typically left from park and ride lots that were located 20 miles or further from downtown.  They were repurposed luxury coaches with reclining seats.  Expresses were typically articulated buses.  They primarily plied suburbia.  Most were always full.  I was able to catch one a mere block from my front door on what at that time was the edge of the metro area, and I did just about every day for ten years.

The thing I remember most about RTD in those days was just how reliable the service was.  The schedule was structured so that I could get from where I lived to where I worked with minimal disruption.  The bus always showed up on time.  Always.  There was never any doubt.  The coaches were clean, pleasant and safe…not luxurious, but good.

None of this happens unless it’s a priority.  It was a priority with RTD because they understood the numbers. If they were going to realize their vision, they needed guys and gals like me to ride the bus.  The only way that was going to happen was if the service was good, so they made sure it was good.  That’s culture.

I often worked Saturdays in those days, and then I would bicycle the 14 miles from my home to my downtown office.  It was possible to go just about all the way on dedicated bicycle paths and trails, though some parts of the journey were on city streets.  This was well before protected bike lanes were part of the American consciousness.    It wasn’t much of a problem.  Denver motorists expected to see cyclists.  There were more than a few of us, even in the early 1980s.  They were, for the most part, courteous.  That’s culture.

I ended up leaving Denver before the first light rails were ever laid, but had I been around there’s absolutely no doubt I would have voted to tax myself to build them.  The reason why is obvious in hindsight.  RTD did the heavy lifting way back when that made me see how transit benefitted me.   Even though I was undoubtedly (in the eyes of some, at least) an “evil suburbanite” they didn’t make me their enemy.  They made me and the company I worked for their partners, and because of that little bit of culture they now have a world class system…not perfect, but as good as any system anywhere.

The moral of this story is really pretty basic.  The little things that we don’t see happening are often the biggest things of all when it comes to changing the culture.  It’s like building the foundation for a house.  You toil and toil for a long time with not much to show in terms of concrete results.  Then, one day, the house is built.  You wonder when it happened.

Right now, there are lots of people working tirelessly behind the scenes to build a better America, one where you and I will be able to bicycle or walk places instead of getting into our cars.   Some days it doesn’t look like much is happening, but it is.  Things are changing.  We need to celebrate this.  It is a victory.

In my next post, I’m going to expand on this theme a little with some real world examples of some of these little things that matter.  Until then, be well and ride on.

 

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