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Build Colorado for Humans, not Cars

Build Colorado for Humans, not Cars


Ean Tafoya recalled riding the bus with his mom when he was younger. “I was public transit-dependent, and I used to ride the bus until I was like 16,” he shared. He recalled positive memories and pride in taking the bus but experienced first-hand the difficulty surrounding public transit use in the area. Stops without shade or shelter, lack of public restrooms, and bus stops surrounded by open parking lots and not much else. He noticed the expansions of highways to the detriment of the environment and witnessed how transit access was segregated, not just along race and class, but also by rural and urban divides. 

“Transit is an important equalizer to allow people to have access to get to their jobs to get wherever they need to go for school, among other things,” Tafoya said. Tafoya is the Colorado State Director for GreenLatinos, an organization that focuses on climate and transit equity and justice.


Roberta Ayala, a local politician and activist, also recalled the difference in transit and walkable connections. “I grew up in like the original neighborhood of Thornton when it was developed like you can see that but it’s still more walkable, as you go further north, it gets worse,” she shared in a previous interview with Yellow Scene Magazine.

Walkability, safe and reliable transit, and affordable places to live sit atop the wishlist for many Coloradoans. All are interrelated and all help foster a sense of community and place that many feel is currently missing from modern suburbs. The way we design and build cities affects how they are used, and in turn, how the people living there experience daily life.

“Social cohesion exists because of a meaningful and moral intention of settlement which in turn expresses itself in the organization and appearance of buildings, which in turn promote a sustained social identity,” stated award-winning Syrian architect and author Marwa al-Sabouni in her novel “Building for Hope.” Creating public transit hubs that invite people in, offer mixed-use areas, encourage people to leave their cars behind, and have proper amenities is essential as Colorado looks to expand rail and other public transit options in the coming years.

Psychology & architecture

We are not Europe. Our cities did not grow organically from villages designed for humans and animals. Colorado’s suburbs, in fact, the nation’s as a whole, sprung up rapidly in the decades following WWII. The chosen solution to the nation’s baby boom was mass-produced single-family homes built near interstate offramps. The massive interstate system is a product of the Cold War. They were built to ensure the military could rapidly move things like tanks and artillery across the nation if the need ever arose. They also functioned as America’s new primary mode of transit.

“Of course, mass production did not begin in the world of building. Cars, rather than houses, led the way — and in due course, the buildings made room for cars,” al-Sabouni wrote. “The infrastructure built for vehicles dictated the nature of the urban fabric — low density and suburban sprawl…” she continued.

The idea that each family should have their own patch of land, fenced in, away from the bustle of inner cities, may also be a subconscious rejection of the communal solutions offered by political rivals such as the U.S.S.R. and China in the post-war years. These psychological influences affected the way modern American cities were built, and how they function today.

The architectural design of the typical suburb physically distances neighbors from each other, which in turn results in more mental and emotional isolation. This cannot be solved overnight. It is impossible to transform the suburbs into European-style towns, plus many residents prefer their suburban homes and yards. Our culture values home ownership and takes pride in personal automobiles.

Ayala explained a major complaint for many Colorado residents along the Front Range: “It’s just been built with a lot of housing but not any resources nearby.” This low-density style promotes individualism but also isolation. It is also the reason why public transit is so difficult to properly implement in Colorado, many places were designed with car ownership in mind, disregarding public-transit dependent people and eliminating the need for walkable, human-scale, pedestrian-friendly areas. The individual freedom of the car eroded the sense of community and connectedness that walkable areas possess.

We’ve built the roads for you know, for the car, not for the person. So there’s no median. And if you’re driving up and down that thing, like I do, for campaigning, or just in general with your life, you notice there’s tons of accidents, “Ayala elaborated on the danger of certain local roads. 

Additionally, car travel does not promote interaction and community the way walking or biking does. People are much more likely to stop in a local shop, recognize a neighbor, or have a conversation with a stranger when they are walking rather than driving around town. Unfortunately, oftentimes a store trip without a car involves traversing a quarter mile of a half-empty parking lots to get from one big-box store to another. There is little in this experience that fosters any sense of community or belonging.

One way to increase a sense of place and “home” while also taking cars off the road is mixed-use zoning in a thoughtful way that allows each neighborhood walking and biking access to small shops, local markets, and food options other than drive-thrus. Mixing businesses, restaurants, and offices with residential areas provides options other than driving to a supermarket or big box store. Although many new developments do consider this, revisiting the zoning of older suburbs and lower-income areas could help reinvigorate neighborhoods and provide more equity in access to food, jobs, and entertainment that do not require a car.

Nodes not roads

Public transit expansions are likely coming, here and nationwide. RTD is planning expansions and the Biden administration has made infrastructure projects a priority with nearly $5 billion allocated to transportation infrastructure.

As Governor Polis pushed to secure federal funding for the Front Range Light Rail, it is important to examine how to ensure the rail line’s success, the shortfalls of the current public transit system, and how to encourage car users to take more train or bus trips instead. One factor that causes public transit to see fewer riders than expected is that new public transportation can be poorly designed in a way that is competing against existing public transportation, not car transit. A passenger rail line that is faster than the bus but does not deliver riders directly to their chosen locations, or that has an unpleasant user experience, will likely only pull riders from the bus, not encourage drivers to buy a train ticket instead of a tank of gas.

One problem is the over-building of parking. It may seem counterintuitive, but just like adding more lanes to a highway does not reduce traffic, adding more parking spots does not help the situation. It only encourages more drivers to use the space rather than take an alternate method. Colorado Public Radio reported that 40% of parking spaces go unused at peak hours near transit stations. Converting this space to something more useful would help immensely.

Providing all bus stops with shade and seating access is one step. It should not be physically uncomfortable to access public transit. “Unfortunately now for those who are transit dependent, the user experience isn’t very good. We don’t have enough park benches, we don’t have solar panels with shelters that will tell you when your bus is coming, or access to the restroom,” Tafoya shared his first-hand experience.

Public transit needs to provide reasons why someone who owns a car would choose not to use it. One way is to make the major stations themselves into attractions. This can be done by building transit stops with shops, restaurants, and convenience stores and reducing the amount of parking spaces. This creates a human-centric experience. Coupled with interesting architecture, public art, and free spaces that invite riders in rather than push people away, stations can be buzzing hubs of activity rather than just a parking lot. More riders, plus shoppers and employees, mean the areas would be busier, discouraging crime that plagues many isolated transit stops.

al-Sabouni explained what an inviting, free, and open public space can look like: “We feel safe when the city offers its abundance not in the form of price-tagged experiences, but in an accumulation of details that are perhaps redundant, but at the same time thoughtful and delightful: a balustrade fixed on a wall next to a steep step, a bench under a willow tree, drinking water flowing from a street fountain, a shaded corner, a fruit tree, an aromatic rose, a running canal, a molding with birds on it, a decorated window frame or niche for a potted plant.” 

This may seem a bit esoteric for a train station, but the idea that cities should have inviting spaces of interaction rather than soulless hubs stands true. Humans need spaces to exist, interact with one another, and connect to their community without driving to a location or paying for an experience.

Denver, Colorado, USA. Amtrack train ready for departure at the Denver Union Station.

Additionally, Amtrack is studying a nationwide expansion in the near future by connecting Denver to places like Dallas, Seattle, and Las Vegas via rail. This could create a new transportation, business, and tourism hub in a way that Denver International Airport does, but for train travel. Although it is likely a long way away, cities that are not Denver can take advantage of this by also offering a reason for business and leisure travelers alike to stay there instead.

Finally, there needs to be reliable public transportation to and from major transit hubs and future train stations. The Park-and-Ride model of expecting riders to drive to transit stations and then switch to public transit still puts cars on the road without increasing access to those without an automobile, who would typically be the prime demographic for train ridership.

This will not work for every station, and not every city, but those that do develop stations that have reasons for people to stop and stay for a while can see increased tourism, economic growth, and create a place for humans to interact and exist. Access to transportation increases equity. Tafoya explained how public transit allows access to opportunities like jobs and healthy food that may not otherwise be realistic for residents who cannot afford a personal automobile. He also noted that many employees and workers who serve areas like Aspen simply cannot afford to live in town. Even the wealthiest areas of Colorado rely on public transportation to function, even if many do not realize it.

Like many things, the hardships of the way the systems were designed — in this case as car-centric cities — fall mostly on the shoulders of Black and Brown people and those in lower-income neighborhoods. Increasing the usability of public transit helps reduce inequality in opportunity among those who live here.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

With countless studies showing that highway expansions do not help traffic flow, why do governments continue to invest so heavily in new auto lanes rather than trains, trolleys, or buses? Tafoya stated one reason is that contracts for expansion projects are lucrative and construction lobbies are powerful.

“I mean, billions of dollars for a couple of miles. Think of what we could do for the housing crisis, to further the education system. There’s a lot of other ways we can spend those resources, and we can extend the life of our roads,” Tafoya shared his frustrations with adding more lanes to congested highways, which only add more cars.

There is very little incentive for massive corporations to take cars off the road. Reduction in car travel would hurt the bottom line for the oil giants and car companies. The aim to replace public transit with car use is not a conspiracy, both Denver and sprawling Los Angeles used to have popular trolley lines but they were removed in favor of the automobile.

The cities of Fort Collins, Longmont, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo may all soon be connected via light rail. With a rail line breaking ground between Los Angeles and Las Vegas earlier this year, the United States will finally have its first high-speed train option after years of lagging behind many parts of the developed world. High-speed rail has the possibility to transform travel, with a trip from L.A. to Vegas projected to only take about two hours. Although the Front Range rail line will be a single track shared with freight trains, there is good reason to plan for the future of increased rail options by making Colorado’s stations user-friendly, inviting, and well-connected to the towns they serve.


Austin Clinkenbeard
Austin Clinkenbeard has been traveling the world with his wife for the past several years exploring food, history and culture along the way. He is a passionate advocate for stronger social science education and informed global travel. Austin holds degrees in Anthropology and Political Science from San Diego State. When he’s home there’s a good chance you can catch him cooking allergy friendly food. You can follow along Austin’s travel adventures and food allergy journey at www.NowWeExplore.com.

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