Masses in Transit

by Patrick Schabe

31 October 2004

Sometimes, the best way to really see a city clearly is through a bus window, smudged by the sticky hands of the toddler in his mother's arms, or through the crowd of people waiting with you on a non-descript platform at the light rail station. If you really want to know what Denver is like, leave the car behind, walk to a bus or train stop, make sure you've got change for the fare, then hop on board.
Photo: John Cochran 

As I write this, Denver, Colorado, is deeply embroiled in a massive highway reconstruction project bearing the amusingly illustrative name, T-REX (Transportation Expansion Project). In order to accommodate the unforeseen population growth of the last 20 years, each member of which seems to be driving a vehicle as large as the dinosaurs whose decomposed bodies fuel it, freeways will be expanded with additional lanes, bridges will be rebuilt, and like the carnivorous reptile that gives the project its name, the highway will be confirmed as king of local transit. By the time the project is complete in 2006, these main arteries of Denver life will swell and throb as traffic expands to meet capacity; plastic and steel vessels never ceasing to circulate. And yet, paradoxically, the best way to get a clear picture of Denver is not by car, but rather, by public transportation.

There’s little doubt that Denver is a driver’s town. Just as when the city and its surrounding towns sprang up along the South Platte River in the 1800s, the access to precious water resources being the only means of survival, the suburbs of the Denver Metro Area filled in along the highways. With Denver’s heart located just southeast of the intersection of I-25 and I-70, and the adjoining C-470 and E-470 encircling the outlying suburbs, Denver’s main highways nearly complete a Celtic Cross, or an enormous crosshair, laid over the city. In part, this is the inevitable result of geography. Located on the last vestiges of the Great Plains, some 20 miles from where the foothills suddenly jut out of the ground to mark the rapid ascent of the Rocky Mountains, the conditions of this town are just right for seemingly unlimited outward expansion. Otherwise flat and grassy, with only the mountains to lap up against, development easily turned to sprawl. And when it becomes 40 miles to get from one edge of the Metro Area to the other, the car becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.

In contrast, Denver’s public transportation developed more slowly, with time, space, and city planning making the populace increasingly dependent on the car and making the bus more of a hassle than a convenience. As the people flocked to the suburbs, the buses only timidly followed, with inconsistent routes catering to the only outlying residents who cared: the environmentalists and the money-conscious commuters looking to shave gas and parking expenses from their budgets. With the population of the city’s expanding middle class moving further and further away from the city center, taking a large portion of the commerce with them, a class division emerged between those who had a set of wheels and those who didn’t, further engraining an “us and them” split based on economics and mode of transit.

Or maybe this has always been the frisson between motorists and pedestrians — the mutual mistrust between those who can afford independent transportation and those who can’t. History certainly shows that the privately owned horse, carriage, and automobile were afforded to the privileged. Perhaps this resentment is simply the outgrowth of a pedestrian mentality, fostered by the obvious size and power advantages of the car over the body. Relying on the bus as your primary means of getting around is essentially like being sick and on state assistance. Some care is certainly better than no care, but it’s hardly comparable to the benefits of private insurance. And while the bus is certainly a people mover, you’re no less a pedestrian for riding it. You have to walk to your stop and walk to your final destination. You frequently have to stand on the bus or train, and many times it seems like you could walk to your destination as quickly as the Regional Transportation District (RTD) will get you there. Simple tasks like grocery shopping by bus seem like the Herculean efforts of pack mules, and many are the times when I’ve seen a mother, her two young children in tow, hauling eight straining bags onto a bus, the pain caused by the thin plastic handles cutting into her hands clearly written on her face.

And yet, for all its inconvenience, it’s only when you walk and ride by public transit that you can truly take in the details of a city — the carefully restored Victorian mansions converted to apartments; the way a particular front yard garden’s columbines and irises erupt in yellows and blues; the smells of Thai and Mexican and Mediterranean food mingling in the air; the sounds of some distant third-story musician practicing piano on a golden Sunday afternoon. Nearly all such pleasures are unknown to those who are isolated in their cars, the world rushing past their carefully controlled environments. There’s nothing inherently wrong with speed and convenience, but it comes at the price of sensory experience and a one-on-one connection to the place where you live.

Still, it’s possible that I’m projecting my own bias on what is truly a non-issue of transportation. It’s not like gangs of bus riders have clashed with drivers in the streets over perceived disparity, and the only time that public transportation seems to be a political issue is when it involves taxes. And despite my layman’s familiarity with local history, I’m certainly no authority. In fact, I don’t really have much of a claim to the city of Denver, as I’m more or less your average suburban white boy, and not even a native. My family moved here when I was 10, and my first and formative experiences of Colorado are from the perspective of suburban Littleton, in an area where buses were a minor feature of the landscape at best. That I also happen to be a part of the much-maligned “California invasion” — the large waves of Californian transplants who descended on Denver in the ‘80s and ‘90s and who are blamed for the yuppification of the region, the spike in housing prices, and, ironically, bad driving — would probably irk true natives (a stoically proud lot) for presuming to represent the city here.

But nearly 20 years later, Denver is still my home. Like so many other immigrants to Colorado, I wound up here and never left. In the 1800s, it was miners and pioneer families who were lured to the West and stopped short of attempting the climb over the Rockies, deciding instead to settle in the dusty frontier town. Today, young and old alike are drawn here to settle, lured by the city’s humidity-free, sunny climate (contrary to snowy expectations, the city averages over 300 sunny days per year), mountain camping and winter skiing, the once strong telecommunications and finance industries (though Colorado was hit hard by the economic slump of recent years and its work force has been one of the last to see the benefits of the so-called “recovery”), and even the ghost of an overly-romanticized image of austerity that blends the cowboy mystique with John Denver wholesomeness. Perplexingly, very little beyond the sunshine actually appeals to me, the majority of my interests being urban, and yet Denver continues to exert a gravitational pull on me. Having lived here for most of my life, I find it easier to see the things that Denver lacks, and yet I choose to remain. This in spite of the fact that I’ve spent the last 10 years as an adult without a car of my own.

When people visit, it’s easy to explain Denver’s attractions in terms of a tour guide. There’s the majestic Denver Performing Art Complex with its Tony Award-winning theater company; the open-air shopping on the16th Street Mall; the wide variety of ethnic cuisine and theme restaurants; the yuppie mecca of LoDo — the Lower Downtown district packed with bars, clubs, and up-scale eateries; the bizarre juxtaposition in architecture between the castle-like Denver Art Museum and it neighboring postmodern, city-in-a-building Michael Graves-designed Public Library; the city’s laudable parks, zoo, and botanic gardens; and, of course, the gorgeous Rockies to the west. These are all unique features of my city, but my regular landmarks are the bus benches with their faded ads for employment at 7-11, the shelterless design of the open-air train stations, and the scratched and graffitied route map kiosks. And it’s difficult to explain I why I love these things. While visitors may consider a journey on New York City’s subways an “experience”, some intrinsic part of the city’s character that its is important to see, ride, and survive, no one comes to Denver looking forward to riding the clean and staid Light Rail, much less the bus.

But it’s impossible to really see the Denver I love from its highways. When an online acquaintance made a stop in Denver on her way from Princeton, New Jersey, to California, she remarked of Denver: “This is the richest city we’ve driven through.” My first thought was to say, “Well, you need to see the city by bus.” From the highways, it’s easy to see Denver as one massive suburb ringing a small urban center, and for many that’s the appeal of the Mile High capitol. But on the bus or the train, Denver is more than a series of far-ranging roads coursing through price-inflated cookie cutter houses and commercially molded strip-malls. If the city itself has any soul, it’s more readily evident in the bus stations, in the industrial and ancient commercial properties where the Light Rail runs, and along the inner-city bus routes that service the areas where car ownership remains a luxury. They may be older, more run down, but these are the sectors of Denver where character doesn’t seem pre-fab.

Sure, these aren’t the areas that inspire the state’s tourism industry — a cornerstone of the local economy — and they can be pretty rough. Among the hardcore transit passengers, there’s even an established bit of street wisdom: the worst rides are the 15, the 0, or the 30/31 bus routes. Those are the routes that follow the oldest main drags of the Denver Metro Area: Colfax, Broadway, and Federal. Though I spent a number of years staying in the safe confines of the Littleton area, I had to commute into the city for school, and on different occasions that meant taking both the 0 and the 30. When I finally got up the nerve to move downtown, I wound up trading down to the infamous 15. In all cases, I took my unfortunate suburban prejudices with me, but over time the bus cured me of most of these misconceptions, even as it taught me to see the beauty in “the dirty streets”. And, really, anyone who’s taken the 15 after midnight earns the right to consider himself a tried and true vet of the RTD.

Every city has a Broadway, and Denver’s is more or less typical: old and more or less one long stretch of commercial property. You quickly learn that there’s little to fear or condemn in the working class ridership of the 0. Federal is much the same, except that its long chain of strip malls and fast food joints runs through an area of Denver with heavily concentrated Hispanic and Asian populations. After a year riding the 30 or the 31 even a dumb white kid from the suburbs learns quickly that not everyone riding in a “lowrider” or chromed-out “rice burner” is “bangin’”, and the passengers on the bus aren’t any different than he is; we’re all just people, just looking to get from point A to point B. But a week on the 15 teaches you that Denver does have its share of mean streets. Oft cited (dubiously) as the longest continuous commercially developed street in the US, Colfax stretches roughly 30 miles from the foothills in the west to the plains in the east, and runs smack dab through the heart of downtown Denver. Colfax is Denver’s slice of gritty urban realism, the fabled haunt of prostitutes and drug dealers, the home of strip clubs, tattoo parlors, and dive bars. It’s old Denver, locked into a seedy history that reflects the city’s legendary red light district of the Frontier days (though that was located to the north end of Denver around Market Street). It’s also the home to countless boutiques and restaurants and auto dealerships, but they all seem to fall under the socially constructed mystique of “Colfax Avenue”.

As buses go, Colfax is serviced by two routes: the 16 headed west to Golden at the base of the foothills, and the 15 headed east toward Aurora on the plains. The point from which the two rays of the bus routes emerge is Broadway’s Civic Center Station bus terminal, located at the very heart of state and local government, flanked by the State Capitol Building and the City and County Building. For years, economic development has favored the west side of town where Colfax is concerned, while gentrification has pushed minority and lower income families further east away from the city center. The area between downtown Denver and the Aurora Mall has become collectively and infamously known as East Colfax, and its chariot is the 15. While the 16 has become a relatively sedate route, the 15 is the route that, in fact and in urban legend, is the toughest bit of public transportation in the whole region. Interspersed with run-of-the-mill passengers, I’ve shared the bus with characters gritty and dramatic enough for the hardest punk song or urban realism novel. One fight between strangers on a standing-room only bus turned into flying fists and a broken nose, the driver instructor yelling to her trainee behind the wheel to open the back door so the other passengers could push them out to the sidewalk and then commanding, “Don’t sit there! DRIVE!” I’ve seen jealous lovers crack strangers in the back of their head for looking at their partner, drug dealers spot a furtive user and hastily arrange a deal shielded behind seat-backs, and the mentally ill muttering and cursing under their breath at other passengers. One memory that still lingers strongly is the day when a urine-soaked bum climbed onto a crowded bus on a sweltering, 100-degree-Fahrenheit day, carting with him the two trash bags of his belongings, filling the bus with the oppressive stench of his unwashed grime.

Despite my love of walking the city, I moved back to suburban Littleton a few years back, still riding the bus, but leaving behind the 15 and joining the ranks of the public transit commuter corps, those rush hour riders who take the bus by choice, mingled with those few who ride by necessity, and the contrasts are extreme. While the rides into the city lacked the kind of excitement found on the 15, there was a sense of community among the passengers, most of whom took the same route to work and home again five days a week. Those of us who were happier engrossed in our headphones or a book were politely left to our own devices, while others engaged in friendly conversations with passengers they’d come to know over the course of time. There was something to be admired in those passengers, but I still felt like I’d lost some small part of my connection to the city. Moreover, the busses on those commuter routes tended to follow the same highways and major thoroughfares that serviced the car-bound, isolating us from the more community-oriented environs of the downtown routes. Altogether quieter than those inner-city routes, those bus rides were almost stultifyingly relaxed, though I must admit that I was happy avoiding the more dangerous aspects of the 15.

The contrasts in bus life from one area to the next may have continued to offer a fragmented picture of Denver, had it not been for one development. In 1994, the single greatest thing to happen to Denver’s transportation options occurred with the opening of the Light Rail. Despite being a hub for the traditional railway lines of the nation, there hadn’t been a local equivalent since 1950, when the last of the Denver Tramway trolleys stopped running. For nearly 50 years, there wasn’t a mass transit system in place for the Metro Area residents, a vacancy that only became more pronounced as the area’s population grew and the roads became more crowded. Although it began as a short, single line running through the heart of the city, the Light Rail quickly became the thread that tied the “funky” city to the “safe” suburbs; an electric trolley that joined the realm of the drivers to the world of the pedestrians. In the years since it opened, the line has been expanded, now stretching from the furthest southern suburban stretches to Denver’s inner-city neighborhoods, and wrapping around a reinvigorated Platte River district. The aforementioned T-REX transportation project also promises to open up new lines along the I-25 corridor, aimed at further reducing the number of commuters on the road. While the Light Rail was merely an extension of the bus service in its toddler years, it has since become a vital part of Denver’s landscape for travelers of all types, from the students of the Auraria Campus schools to business people to sports fans to late night LoDo partiers.

And that’s my justification for my belief that Denver is better seen through the window of a train or bus than through the windshield of a car. For one thing — on the Light Rail at least — nearly every type of person that Denver has to offer can be found united under the banner “passenger”. In addition, a trip from one end of the route to the other is in itself a rail-guided tour of Denver’s many facets: the past bleeding into the present, the evolving city emerging.

Beginning in the southern reaches of Denver’s suburbs and clipping along rapidly north toward the city, the Light Rail wends its way through the different economic sectors of the city. Following the concrete and asphalt ribbon of Highway 85, better known to local residents as Santa Fe Drive, the train glides north through residential backyards, suburban centers, commercial and industrial property, and the run-down quarters of Denver’s older and poorer neighborhoods. As it curves in an arc, it passes the sports stadiums and amusement parks, or, alternately, the education complex of the Auraria Campus, before heading into the skyscrapers at the heart of the city. Due to Denver’s relatively small central concentration of towers, the train seems to suddenly burst into downtown, slicing through the business district’s steel and glass and thronging masses. The train then curls through the older commercial districts, full of warehouses of weather-beaten brick and dull paint only slightly touched by the hand of redevelopment, before sliding to a stop in the middle of Five Points, one of Denver’s oldest and most infamous neighborhoods.

While the changes in economics and aesthetics occur in a gradient of the urban and suburban over the course of the journey, the two endpoints are a study in contrasts. At the south end lies Littleton. Lush, green, shady middle-class neighborhoods compete with multi-million dollar mansions not a mile from the Mineral Station, the Light Rail’s southernmost point to date. It is an area that, in my own mind, reflects just about everything stereotypical about suburban living. Across Santa Fe Drive, opposite the Light Rail station, lies the newly-constructed Aspen Grove, a “lifestyle center” that offers many of the high-end retailers one would expect in such an area. Of course, while the Pottery Barn and the Gap and Chico’s and the Apple Store might get a few customers off the train, most of the residents are locals who drive to buy.

For most of Littleton’s residents, the Light Rail is a luxury of convenience. The vast majority of people who begin and end their workday at the Mineral Station do so because they want to avoid the congestion of Santa Fe and the hassle of downtown parking, choosing instead to make a short trip by car to the station’s consistently full Park-n-Ride. If they want to go see a Broncos or Avalanche game, they drive to the station to ride into the city with efficiency. Most of the station’s passengers are businesspeople and students, with families of weekend adventurers and sports fans thrown into the mix at random intervals. They are almost all somewhere in the wide belt of the middle class, and, while I don’t want to misrepresent the true ethnic diversity of the middle class or suburban life, the vast majority of passengers using the stop are white.

At the north end of the line, there is Five Points. If the neighborhood has any claim to fame of national significance, it’s that Jack Kerouac mentioned the area as a part of his travels in On the Road. But in the intervening years since the ‘50s, it’s doubtful whether many travelers would have felt a community spirit in its parks. Five Points is, for lack of a more equitable description, Denver’s one true claim to a ghetto. Growing up in the white suburbs, Five Points was the spooky Other; a place that safely isolated suburbanites viewed as good for little more than risking being accosted by drug dealers, or shot, or both. The buildings were slums, run down by a depressed and poor economy to the point of crumbling edifices and abandoned tenements. Widely believed to be overrun by gangs and crime, Five Points was the place we children of the suburbs were afraid to be caught after dark. Though probably a disservice to the families and community leaders who strove to maintain dignity in the neighborhood, Five Points was generally considered a blight on Denver’s visage. And, of course, it was a predominantly black neighborhood.

Today, the equalizing force of the Light Rail has partially transformed the Five Points area, helping further those who see promise in economic redevelopment and small business investments. The stop at 30th and Welton helped create the Five Points Community Center, a square block of new business development and new buildings housing a (somewhat ironic) DMV office and a community broadcasting center, as well as the city’s public radio jazz station. The area’s rich cultural history is being unearthed from the layers of decay and neglect, and developers have increasingly seen the benefits of catering to the city’s black residents. Museums and research libraries fill buildings that were once condemned, and the clubs and theaters are slowly filling back up with people drawn to the area’s storied past. Still, for all this positive change, there is little doubt that, placed side by side, Five Points and suburban Littleton are a reflection of a remaining deep economic divide. While it may be the same in cities all over the world, in Denver it’s not something you notice from the highway, where the contrast is easily avoided. But on the Light Rail, these two communities are tied together in a way that makes it more tangible and direct.

And these are just the extremes in the spectrum. Other examples of Denver’s culture are more highly visible along the Light Rail than any major automobile thoroughfare. At the 10th and Osage stop, in the middle of Denver’s Westside neighborhoods — demographically a mix of the poor and the urbane, and today filled with a true ethnic diversity — lies the Buckhorn Exchange, a restaurant specializing in exotic meats that has stood in the same place, open for business for a period of time that now touches three centuries (1893-Present). The restaurant is high-end and filled to the rafters with an eerie display of taxidermy arts. The stuffed-and-mounted heads of a dizzying number of animals watch over customers paying hundreds of dollars for their meals. The Buckhorn Exchange is surrounded by red brick apartment buildings where the wash is hung outside on clotheslines and beat-up sedans are parked in front. Mirroring this, the Oxford Station in the Littleton area is just across the street from the southern suburbs’ only strip club, All-Stars, which humorously blends in with the middle-class values of the local residents by veiling itself as a sports-themed bar, in a building nestled among commercial and industrial warehouse parks.

But it’s the Light Rail’s contributions to the interaction of Denver’s people that is its best advantage and most important feature. While the Littleton station brings the comfortable suburbanites into the city, the Five Points station challenges hegemony by giving the lower-income residents of the city access to the same train platforms. In the downtown areas where the Light Rail runs, worlds truly collide, businesspeople sharing the block with homeboys, the outwardly wealthy rubbing shoulders with the obviously homeless. And if this is the nature of Anycity, USA, then the best part of the Light Rail is that it moves this melting pot in both directions. With 24 stops and 15.8 miles of track, and as many as 16,000 passengers a day, the Light Rail helps bring together the disparate parts of a population into one small space, forcing them to commingle.

For example, by the time the train arrives at or leaves the Englewood Station — a point that forms a major commercial and transportation hub as Santa Fe and Hampden Avenue (a.k.a. Highway 285) intersect — the train is usually full. Young and old; white, black, Hispanic, Indian, Arab, and Asian; wealthy and poor; at this point on the line, the Light Rail reflects the Denver area as a truly complex community. Grocery bags compete for space with backpacks and briefcases. During rush hour, the train regularly fills to standing room only capacity. People squeeze together on the bench seats or stand in the aisles, space constraints forcing all classes and types into close proximity. Removed from the hierarchical status symbols and individually secured spaces of their automobiles, drivers quickly fall into the etiquette of passengerhood, while the bus-bound are given equal access to the same speed and convenience as their wheeled counterparts. While the news continually reports instances of violent road-rage, I’ve never seen so much as a shouting match on the Light Rail. In a way that seems almost populist, the Light Rail is an equalizing force, itself a symbol of all things pedestrian, in all senses of the word.

I think it’s this last effect that makes me scoff at those who choose to drive when they have the option to ride public transit. Sure, cars are convenient, and I don’t pass up a chance to use one when it’s available and it makes the most sense, but I also think cars cause isolation and disconnect from the world. Even if I had a car of my own, I’d continue to take the train to work, every day.

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