As Denver’s population grows rapidly with few signs of stopping, transportation rushes to keep up, developing high-speed tube networks and carless transportation—or at least, driverless. As we expand our technology, we need to do more than just envision the most futuristic vehicles possible. We need to change the way we think about mobility entirely.
Imagine traveling from Denver to Houston in 90 minutes. That’s 66% faster than a commercial jet. If all goes well, Virgin Hyperloop One would be able to make that happen, or a route like it. The company hopes to reach the speed of sound with their technology, though passengers would likely travel at slower velocities. For now. While there are military aircrafts capable of reaching double that, for most of us, approaching the possibility of traveling near the speed of sound for the price of a train ticket feels like living in the future.
In 2013, Elon Musk released a white paper called “Hyperloop Alpha” that sparked the formation of numerous groups, including Hyperloop One, that focused on bringing this technology to fruition. Hyperloop systems resemble futuristic trains and can be built above or below the ground: the vehicles float above the track via magnetic levitation and are accelerated forward by electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. According to Hyperloop One’s website, their technology has no direct carbon emissions as the result of an “energy-agnostic system” that uses solar and wind power in addition to more traditional sources, making it much cleaner than other modes of transportation. The vehicles will also be fully autonomous, but don’t worry: they will have multiple emergency brake systems. In fact, a hyperloop is expected to be safer than either high-speed rail or cars, having eliminated the potential for driver-error and interactions with other transportation or wildlife.
Hyperloop One launched a Global Challenge in May 2016 soliciting proposals for potential routes. David Clute, now a member of the Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP) board of directors, helped form the Rocky Mountain Hyperloop Consortium, a team that assembled a proposal for the longest route in the North American entries: Cheyenne to Houston, with a stop in Denver. The team became a semi-finalist, along with two others also proposing routes through Denver, out of more than 2,600 entries from around the world. According to Clute, Hyperloop One has since picked finalists and is working with each team to “take it to the next level,” which involves feasibility studies to further develop the technology.
Rocky Mountain Hyperloop Consortium was not selected as a finalist, but Clute went on to cofound the nonprofit group HARP, which hopes to facilitate the collaborative advancement of the research. “We saw a need for an independent third party to act as an industry clearinghouse for information,” he explained.
Hyperloop groups claim that this technology can offer “faster, cheaper, cleaner, and safer travel” according to the Hyperloop Partnership website, a welcome change in a world where time, money, the environment, and even life are sometimes sacrificed for the sake of mobility. But the technology is still relatively young. Andrew Goetz, a geography professor at the University of Denver and coauthor of “Metropolitan Denver: Growth and Change in the Mile High City,” warned that the possible outcomes of these developments could range dramatically from “huge improvements in mobility, reducing congestion, reducing pollution and energy use, all the way to making things worse.”
Although Hyperloop One’s goal is to develop a fully-operational system by 2021 and they have plans for a loop between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Goetz believes that hyperloop presents a significant gamble since it is still young in the development process. “It’s not being tested in real conditions yet,” Goetz explained. “But if it can actually deliver people and goods at speeds that are over 700 mph and do so safely and comfortably, that would be a huge breakthrough.”
Cars of the Future
Autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, are already being tested in the real world: in 2016, the Uber-owned company Otto had a semi drive itself from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs running beer (of course), the first commercial delivery by an autonomous truck. Another company, Google’s Waymo, started developing the technology in 2009 and has already racked up over four million miles on public roads.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has partnered with Otto and other groups to help Colorado adopt cutting edge technology. In 2016, they committed $20 million to launch RoadX, a program dedicated to accelerating 21st century technology and preparing our infrastructure for the future. In another partnership with Panasonic, CDOT plans to build a transportation “ecosystem” where advanced technology vehicles can communicate and share information about road conditions. CDOT estimates that this “talking” feature of autonomous vehicles and other smart cars might be present in up to four million Colorado vehicles in the next 10 years, so a data platform like this one is fully warranted.
This communication helps elucidate the widely shared estimate that self-driving vehicles could reduce car accidents by up to 80 or even 90 percent. Autonomous cars would essentially eliminate operator error, distracted driving, and drunk driving. They would also offer another mobility option to those who are unable to drive, such as seniors and the disabled.
Self-driving vehicles could also help reduce congestion significantly, since their communication systems would allow them to move much closer together at higher speeds. It’s also possible that the cars would be less bulky than ours are now: “They may not need as much space—the lane width may not be as wide,” Goetz explained.
There are also environmental motivations to pursue this technology: the vehicles offer increased mileage thanks to more efficient braking and accelerating. An important consensus seems to be that we need to proactively set standards for these technologies that will carry us toward a sustainable future. According to Benjamin D. Leibowicz, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, autonomous cars might have unexpected environmental impacts, and lawmakers should prioritize emission reduction initiatives while these transportation options are still being developed rather than waiting to regulate later.
Connecting the Front Range
Another CDOT partnership involves Arrivo, a transportation company with “hyperloop-inspired” technology meant to facilitate regional mobility—up to 30 miles—rather than connecting multiple metropolises. One proposed route is from Boulder to downtown Denver, which would take just 8 minutes. The system runs similarly through tubes, but magnetically levitated sleds carry cars, cargo, or passengers to their destination at speeds around 160 miles per hour. Segments of the system might be elevated above the ground, but it’s designed to operate within existing highway medians.
Given the nature of the technology, this option will likely cost less than hyperloop transit. It is also likely to beat a hyperloop system into Colorado. Feasibility tests are set to be completed this year, and with the help of the construction company Aecom, Arrivo estimates the system could be operational by 2021.
“This is a very exciting time to be looking at transportation,” Goetz said, speaking to the development of emergent technologies like Hyperloop and autonomous vehicles. “They have the ability to transform and revolutionize our transportation systems.” But the technology itself, and any changes we make to our current systems, need to be ushered in by public interest. “In fact, it’s more of a social and economic challenge than an engineering challenge,” stated Clute. “I think it has to be a very collaborative and community-based initiative.”
Moving Toward Car-Free Cities
The social challenges of implementing a new transportation system certainly exist in trying to get people out of their cars, as the most immediate future of Denver metro depends on reducing car use generally. As more people move to Colorado, the most obvious solution would seem to be expanding roads, but the rule of induced demand dictates that more road space only leads to more cars and equal congestion.
Because of this phenomenon, preparing for Colorado’s future growth means reinventing the way Denverites think about mobility. Public corridors have long been yielded to cars, but reallocating road space to transit, bicycles, and pedestrians would help our roads accommodate more people, and do it in a way that’s safer for travelers and the environment. “This has been the goal for a number of cities for quite a while: to encourage people to get out of their cars,” explained Goetz. We can look to Paris and Amsterdam for inspiration.
According to Goetz, driving, suburbs, and highways were a “way of life up” until the 90’s, when Colorado experienced an initial shift in thinking, and the city of Denver began the light rail initiative. Goetz is fairly optimistic about our ability to move away from automobile-oriented “land use patterns”: “Chances are better in Denver than LA and Phoenix because they’re more reliant on driving than we are here. I think we’ve taken some steps toward reducing our reliance on cars.”
This philosophical shift is apparent in the way that more public spaces are being redeveloped using traffic calming techniques that lend agency to pedestrians and cyclists. Larger sidewalks don’t just mean more space for pedestrians, but also slower vehicle speeds and safer road sharing. The City and County of Denver has projects aimed to accomplish more of this in the foreseeable future. Denver Moves Bicycles plans to build out a citywide cycling network and improve crossings and signage, though at the rate of funding it has received, this particular portion of the initiative won’t be completed until 2042.
Another barrier to managing growth is the low rate of transit use in Denver. In fact, rates are even going down and have been for the last few years. “People aren’t using transit enough,” said David Sachs, editor of Streetsblog Denver: in terms of downtown Denver commuting, “more people drove last year than took transit.” RTD is trying to incentivize ridership by subsidizing transit use, but according to Sachs, “frequency and land use are the two most important parts of a recipe for high ridership.”
Denver’s ridership issues are in part a legacy of the way the city has been developing for over 60 years. In the 40’s and into the 60’s, the primary thinking, especially for low-income households, was just to get a roof over people’s heads and to do it in the cheapest possible way, which led to urban sprawl since the cheapest land was on the outskirts of the city. Goetz explained that a lack of density makes it difficult to place strategic stations capable of serving large groups of people: “when you try to put transit back into a landscape like that, it’s a challenge.”
The Social Effects of Development
An obvious challenge in adapting Denver’s transportation exists in the practical application, which requires an incredible scope of considerations in order to meet the ephemeral needs of mobility without compromising existing neighborhoods. CDOT has come up against difficulty in this area with its project to reconstruct 10 miles of a 54 year-old viaduct on I-70. CDOT is sinking the highway 30-40 feet and installing a 4-acre park on top of the expansion. This is a titanic $1.2 billion project, of which $20 million has been spent on outreach and community involvement.
According to Megan Castle, a Communications Manager at CDOT, there is “a lot of community outreach that’s done to educate the community as to what kind of impacts [construction] will have” throughout different stages of the process. CDOT has 11 transportation commissioners statewide that represent their regions, and elected officials that give residents a voice. She validated the concerns of the community but stated that there was some “misinformation” surrounding the I-70 project. “The community process has been over 14 years long of community outreach,” she explained. Castle recognized that these outreach attempts wouldn’t solve every problem but claimed, “CDOT knows that it’s doing its best.”
Some see it differently, and although construction is slated to begin this spring, opposition to the project is widespread among community members. It has even become the basis of a lawsuit filed against CDOT claiming that if the project is completed as planned and traffic is as heavy as predicted, the emissions will exceed standards of air quality outlined by the Clean Air Act. Models from CDOT have shown that the amount will just barely meet EPA requirements. However, the Sierra Club—one of the entities filing against CDOT—has completed modeling of their own showing that levels will exceed the standard. They are also claiming that CDOT followed an altered version of the EPA’s model when gathering data.
According to Goetz, CDOT didn’t consider the community’s proposed alternative, which would have move the highway around the neighborhood and through a less populated area. He went on to say, “They’re making a similar mistake that they did 50 years ago.”
Sachs furthermore claimed that the I-70 project, which he called “the most expensive project in CDOT’s history,” also goes against the goals of the city by adding car lanes when we should reclaim space for bikes and buses. He also said that the expansion will actually triple the footprint of the highway and that the project, with its park awning, could even be called “disingenuous.”
This type of behavior goes back to the 60’s, when the highway was originally built through the middle of a close-knit immigrant community. Goetz explained that, at the time, highway engineers “didn’t pay attention to community impacts—in fact they were told not to.” They wanted to create highways as cheaply as possible, and that meant going straight through. The highway split the community quite literally, and also presented air pollution that residents today claim has negatively impacted their health by increasing their risk for asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Despite these concerns and the lawsuit, the Denver Post reported in early April that a federal judge ruled not to halt the project.
Advocating for Transparency
Modern planning is supposed to consider community impacts, and while methods are in place to solicit community involvement and measure effects, the community feels that their voices have not been heard. Jordan Hill, director of the social justice program at the University of Colorado at Denver, decided to launch a website called North / East Denver Change, a nonpartisan, bilingual resource for information on projects scheduled to occur in that area. That district of Denver is frequently referred to as the “Corridor of Opportunity,” but it became apparent to Hill that most residents didn’t understand what the phrase meant in practical terms. They didn’t know where its boundaries were, and when Hill asked about its most prominent project, I-70, he was “startled” to find that even very socially conscious people couldn’t convey much information.
As managing director of the site, Hill assembled a team and started digging. It took 20 people with advanced research skills 4,000 hours of research over six months to fully grasp what was happening in the eight projects associated with the Corridor of Opportunity. “I think what we learned, if nothing else, is that… these documents make this very hard to understand for anyone. It’s almost like the language that they’re using is so intentionally dense.”
From there, the project’s goal is to provide an accessible resource for residents. “North / East Denver Change was the first organization to show people in the Front Range community where the Corridor of Opportunity actually was,” Hill explained. The website also provides an alternative to the political rhetoric: “On the surface, it sounds great, but for us it became a question of, ‘Well, an opportunity for who?’” To Hill and his team, it’s clear that the opportunity is for “wealthy, non-local individuals” rather than families who have lived in these neighborhoods for decades.
The Globeville Swansea Elyria communities that will be impacted by these developments are the last neighborhoods in the city that are somewhat affordable. The process of gentrification is nearing completion in neighborhoods like the Highland, which were previously culturally and economically diverse, leading toward what Hill describes as a “modern and cultureless” downtown.
True Apodaca, a graduate student, participant in North / East Denver Change, and Denver resident, explained that he grew up in north Denver and has witnessed the evolution of the neighborhoods there. Regarding the I-70 corridor, he said, “This is something that’s been going on for years—the fact that the highway’s there in the first place was a deliberate attempt to divide that community.” He explained the impact it had on the residents there by saying, “It destroyed some of the strong social networks and the connections people have with each other.”
When development projects roll through, it’s often not possible for everyone who is displaced, or even most, to return to home. Even in situations when it might be possible, Apodaca views the situation practically: “Think about what that is asking people to do,” he suggested. “What are the chances that people’s lives are going to align with the developers’ schedules?”
In addition to harm inflicted on the culture of these historically immigrant neighborhoods by displacement, Candi CdeBaca, a fourth generation Swansea resident and founder of Project VOYCE, identifies compound financial impacts of this project. According to CdeBaca, the compensation promised to those who must relocate doesn’t apply to the undocumented, which means the numbers measuring the program’s efficacy are inaccurate. Most individuals also end up farther away from public transit, or from friends and family who would provide free child care. Moreover, the program that pays additional housing costs at new units for 42 months only covers renters, and homeowners often need to take out additional loans to buy a new home, even if they purchase outside the metro area.
“Beyond the tearing of social networks, you have an incredible loss of generational wealth,” says CdeBaca. The people in these neighborhoods have not seen increased value of their homes even with the growth that the city is experiencing—the very growth that is driving expansions in the Corridor of Opportunity. So when they are compensated for their homes, the payoff is not adequate to buy something similar within the city, or even in the metro area. “It’s completely unjust,” CdeBaca explained, “because we know that the primary tool for wealth-building is home ownership.”
There’s an emerging term for this experience of displacement, root shock. “There are health impacts and psychological impacts of ripping the social fabric in that way,” CdeBaca said. And these communities have seen it happen again and again. CdeBaca pointed to the light rail that RTD placed through her neighborhood as another example: the rail is another barrier, and “after all of the community participation and the demand for access within the neighborhood, we ended up with a train that we don’t even have neighborhood access to.”
CdeBaca and others feel that community meetings surrounding development in northeast Denver were not undertaken in a truly collaborative spirit. She explains that this version of the I-70 project was presented at early meetings and broadly opposed, but is now being pushed forward by CDOT, the City and County of Denver, and the Federal Highway Administration. “[They] decided to bypass community,” she said. “They completely ignored the input that was being provided. So the meetings happened for the sake of having the meetings, not to actually collect community input and integrate those into plans.”
Like Cdebaca, Apodaca thinks more should have been done to foster a genuinely reciprocal environment: “I think the actual community was either ignored, or they would get meeting fatigue because they would go to these meetings and just hear about what was going to be done to them.” Sachs has a similar outlook. “I hope these processes will become more transparent,” he said, but added, “I think it’s a matter of leaders needing to have a strong enough backbone to make a tough decision that might be unpopular, but might be better for the city overall.”
Far from thinking the situation is getting better, CdeBaca thinks they’re getting worse in some ways: “Over time we’re backsliding… Especially in an era where we have incredible access to soliciting real feedback.” Hill similarly acknowledges that the volume of meetings doesn’t really matter if the residents do not see themselves represented in the development project: “The community has to self-acknowledge that they feel they’re a part of the planning process.”
Even if I-70 is somehow blocked, Denver will continue to change as it grows. As Sachs put it, “You can either try to stop the change, or you can accept that it’s happening and then try to shape it.” The future isn’t far away—it’s happening right now. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the transportation of tomorrow, we need to engage the people of today in our planning.
Whatever we stand for, we need to demand transparent, equitable development that takes the wellbeing of every resident into account. Without that element, we could lose the things that make us who we are for the sake of growth.