The Chicken or the Egg Debate is Actually a Red Herring

It’s pretty hard to make an argument that car-dependency is good. Some people try to say that its necessary, maybe, but credible arguments that car-dependency is a good thing are elusive. By almost any metric, our over-dependence on motor vehicles does not benefit us. Cars pollute, they make us less healthy, and they isolate us in our own neighborhoods because instead of encountering neighbors as we walk around our streets at 3 miles per hour, we’re cocooned in our metal boxes going 30.

Some folks insist that personal vehicles are necessary because we don’t yet have adequate transit or multi-modal infrastructure in place. Before we can start reducing and eliminating parking minimums, they say, we need to invest more in these other things first. It’s true: we do need to invest more in these things. But arguing about the chicken or the egg doesn’t help us advance either.

Here’s what we know for certain: the only guaranteed outcome of creating more parking spaces is more driving.

You could go here, here, or here to read more about that.

Polls like this one from 2015 show that Denverites feel that “the single most pressing issue facing the City and County of Denver today” after affordable housing is “transportation and traffic.” When we consider that we’ve been planning to accommodate and prioritize car traffic for decades and yet traffic is still a more pressing concern than homelessness or public safety, anything that results in more driving is moving us in the wrong direction.

The chicken or egg argument is not new, and the city of Atlanta offers a good example of planners facing this problem. In a story on Atlanta’s public radio station, senior planner Tim Keane responds to the chicken or egg problem by suggesting that “You really have to start with the density and less parking. If you don’t, then you’ve lost your opportunity, because once you’ve built that infrastructure, it’s so difficult to undo that.” The story observes that Atlanta is a city filled with parking structures that have become a huge obstacle to a truly revitalized urban core.

I’d also suggest that claims of the inadequacy of transit and bike/ped infrastructure in Denver are a little overblown and can themselves contribute to a narrative of a low-functioning system that isn’t accurate and that probably offers people an excuse to remain dependent on their cars. It also reflects a certain kind of privilege to claim that you must have a car to live in this town, since there are many folks who don’t have a car and rely on transit and other modes to get around.

The best example I can provide of the basic functionality of our transit/bike/ped system is my own. I’ll be the first to concede that Denver’s current multi-modal infrastructure legitimately doesn’t work for some people, but it is entirely adequate for more people than many would think. For example, last week I rode my bike from my house in Park Hill out to my job in Aurora as I do most days, but I also had two appointments to get to later in the afternoon in central Denver. I was able to leave work a little early, so I rode my bike to my first appointment at my son’s school, and then I hopped on the 24 bus and took it up to 22nd Avenue where I got off and rode my bike the remaining half mile to a doctor’s appointment. In other words, thanks to transit and our existing bike/ped infrastructure, I got to work and to two separate appointments without the use of a personal vehicle. This was not an atypical day.

So, Denver has a chicken. Maybe it’s more like a proto-chicken, and not fully realized yet, but it works for a lot of people. Let’s stop arguing about whether the chicken came before the egg or vice versa, and start saying “YES” to both the chicken and the egg. It’s the only way we’ll get either.

By | 2017-04-05T13:22:52+00:00 April 3, 2017|Categories: Transit, Transportation, YIMBY Denver|Tags: , |8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. JerryG April 3, 2017 at 4:57 pm

    I don’t disagree with your conclusions, but I will say that land use/zoning is a major factor. It is not just being able to commute to our jobs or to appointments that are generally expected to be more sparsely located, but is also being able to satisfy our daily needs by preferably walking. More needs to be done to make all of Denver’s neighborhoods more mixed use by identifying and rezoning (if necessary) those corridors (i.e. Main Street) and centers that a neighborhood prefers to be mixed-use.

  2. James April 3, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    I think the chicken and egg comparison can be viable in certain contexts. From the user/rider perspective that considers how they will get from Point A-B today, people can only use what modes currently exist (assuming they are fully aware of their options, how expensive they are, and how efficient/reliable they are) and when time and resources are finite, their choice will be driven primarily by convenience and practicality given their individual situation – not ideology for most people. In this sense the chicken and egg thinking might fit – a middle-class Stapleton soccer mom with four young kids is not going to rely on the transit of today for her mid-week errand trips to Lakewood or Parker when her kids have afternoon club soccer, hockey, karate, and piano. This varies by situation. A University of Colorado student or a young, single 20-something might have a very different calculus who are far more likely to choose transit to avoid traffic to and from work/class. The people of today transit is arguably most accessible to is actually transplants who can in-advance of their move choose parts of the metro area that have good transit: ex to live Downtown or in one of the ToD developments along RTD’s rail system to commute to work with/manage grocery runs. For people who own property further away where there is no rail or have only busses that run on the hour who can afford a car, they are going to drive and are not going to vote to make driving harder for themselves lightly. This is where we have to be realistic. Denver currently does have neighborhoods with good transit, but most outside of Downtown still don’t and most Denverites have no idea when a future might be coming where the math changes for them.

    As for spurring demand for transit investment, or public support for reworking the city to become less dependent on transit, I think you have a point to that end as far as the chicken and egg being more of a red herring. Dissatisfaction with the transit options of today, frustration with RTD for not connecting suburban Denverites with where they want to go, and the general Denver resident’s loss of faith with DTP/RTD following the A-Line crossing gate issues are not sentiments we can rely on to build support for more multimodal transit investment indefinitely. There needs to be a different catalyst for pushing Denver closer to being functioning more like America’s equivalent of Munich/Copenhagen now that FasTracks is 60% built-out and the issues with commuter rail are well-known while ridership has not grown as much as expected in many areas.

    For me, it is clear the thing that needs to happen is that there needs to be a clear vision for a future Denver of 2050 that is pitched to Denver residents – they need to see that vision with denser development, attractive urban spaces that attract families (not just single millennial and under-30 couples without kids), and transit connections that work better than what we have now and this needs to be communicated in a way where the fruits of transit investment can be seen by present-day Denver voters. This is partially our responsibility as urbanites. Transit planners and advocates need to decide what we want the future to look like and how we can get there based on the reality of where we are now: where do we see transit going and who gets it next? What types of places, errands, and attractions can we see transit playing a considerably bigger role? And perhaps most importantly, what types of trips will be the most difficult/take the longest to be served by transit and are less realistic to expect people to ditch their cars for?

    Commuting to downtown is the most obvious area where ridership should grow since the system we have now is most designed for that with the practical benefit of avoiding rush hour traffic. So if we start eliminating parking anywhere, commercial (not residential) downtown is the obvious place to start. Downtown Skyscrapers like Republic Plaza or the Cash Register Building should not have adjacent 10-story concrete parking garages that have no other purposes aside from storing cars – this creates dead space we need to find a better use for. Second, sporting events and downtown nights out are the obvious next choice since they can involve alcohol and thus from a practical perspective, offer a value over driving. Finally, non-niche errands: As more people discover grocery services like Amazon Fresh, Amazon Pantry, and Jet.com – fresh grocery errands should be connected to transit since it is a universal need that working people have – so connecting supermarkets and pharmacies within a 2-5 minute walk from inner suburb and suburban stations should be a natural thing we advocate for. This is a huge opportunity for RTD to feature and advertise vendors like King Soopers, Whole Foods, CVS, and Rite Aid in maps or ads at their stations so riders know they can get off at x station on their way home to grab groceries after work. Even with those little things, there is SO much that cans till be done. On the macro level, identifying thoroughfares for BRT and Streetcar, identifying possible ROW’s for future rail, etc – these are all things we can work together on to figure out.

    There is so much DenverInfill and its readers can do to support this vision – we just need to work on engagement and communicating our ideas in ways that get non-transit people excited about the future.

    • JC April 4, 2017 at 4:01 pm

      Keep the conversation going by sharing the following older posts. DenverInfill/Urbanism has been preaching this gospel for years and the Denver Post has been opposing it for years (see John’s DenverUrbanism rebuttal and this piece from 2009 http://denverinfill.com/blog/2009/11/denver-living-streets.html). It’d be great if Ken/Ryan/John/Joel Noble, etc. could get a higher profile in the Post to publish some of these bigger, grander vision pieces….

      Beyond FastTracks: A vision for Denver transit – http://denverinfill.com/streetcar/index.html. Good local commentary on these thoughts exists on a subsequent blog post on this site: http://denverinfill.com/blog/2008/05/beyond-fastracks-vision-for-denver.html

      On Trolleybuses: http://denverurbanism.com/2011/11/its-time-for-a-trolleybus-comeback.html

      On density needed to make transit more efficient use of tax dollars: http://denverurbanism.com/2014/03/density-and-mass-tranist-efficiency-a-west-denver-exercise.html

      On streetcars in Denver: http://denverurbanism.com/2014/04/portlandseattlestreetcars.html and http://denverinfill.com/blog/2009/01/7-downtown-streetcars.html

      On BRT on Colfax: http://denverurbanism.com/2014/09/denver-proposes-arterial-brt-on-east-colfax.html

      • James April 8, 2017 at 3:22 pm

        Great – a few of the could use an update for 2017. How about we draw some more/detailed maps of future rail and road transit that we can break down by route? Maybe make charts showing where we think frequency should be according to each bus route, show what certain streets/boulevards would look like should we make that change? How can we improve interchanges? From a sustainability fabric, how should we plan/maintain adjacent natural spaces – Types of trees and shrubbery we should be adding, how to deal with invasive species, etc?

        From a urban perspective, how can Denver make itself more appealing to various groups of people we may not be thinking about? How do we design Denver to attract different types of companies, and where is the natural fit? Which Denver metro companies that are not Downtown today we think would be better off there and why?

        It’s one thing to say, we should have x because of y theory assuming that readers have already bought into it. It is quite another to say, we should have x that includes details images, maps, charts that are backed up and contextualized by the y theory. That’s how this blog could do more – if we were able to draw out what we want the city to took like. This is what SeattleSubway and SeattleTransitBlog do – we should show where the transit needs to go, breaking it down with articles about individual routes showing the different modes, ROW’s, and recommended frequencies. Go into the biggest holes in the Downtown cityscape – look at the upper downtown neighborhood – maybe have fun designing skyscrapers, maybe a few landmark buildings and where they should go. There’s so much we can do.

    • Ann April 12, 2017 at 7:02 pm

      James, you just articulated everything I have been thinking about this region since I moved to Denver. Thanks!

  3. […] …Thanks to Fallacy That Living in Denver Requires a Car (DenverUrbanism) […]

  4. Wranger April 5, 2017 at 1:48 am

    Biking has been my primary mode of transportation in Denver for 3 1/2 years and close to it for 2 years before that. If you live and work in Denver proper then there are plenty of options for getting around without a car quite a lot of the time.

    Many people do “need” a vehicle but many could also ditch the vehicle more often. I would guess that a ton of people who are used to driving simply defer to it with little exploration of other options because it feels like the easiest thing to do (even if they’re stuck in traffic and struggle to park). In Denver we see that suddenly lightrail is packed before a Rockies or Broncos game…because people know parking is tight, costs money, and most importantly, they’ve been educated about the convenience of these transit options and encouraged to use them. Getting away from your norm takes some effort and many people are too lazy or disinterested to take these small steps.

  5. Freddie April 11, 2017 at 8:51 pm

    Dang, I wish I would have seen this post earlier. I suppose any comment I leave now will just float around in cyberspace and never be read. Anyway…

    I’ve realized recently that Denver has a long way to go, culturally, before it will ever make any significant steps towards becoming a city that isn’t automobile-dependent. I suffered a terrible repetitive strain injury a while back that I may never fully recover from. At one point I had to give up my car. Not only did I temporarily lose the ability to even drive it, but I actually HAD to sell it because the injury left me financially crippled as well. So now I’m a single guy with no car. At first, because I don’t often step out of my little liberal/urbanist bubble, I didn’t really think it would affect my ability to date. I was really disappointed to discover that it indeed does – very much. It doesn’t make it impossible, but it sure makes it more difficult. Some of the looks/comments I’ve gotten from women after I revealed to them that I don’t even own a car really made me feel like a bona fide loser. I’m starting to feel like not owning a car in this city all but eliminates a man from the dating pool. Having a car2go membership just doesn’t cut it.

    I’ve also recently had some conversations with strangers in local bars that really surprised me. These are people who actually live near the bar, in an urban neighborhood. They hate the development. They think all the new buildings are ugly and “ruining the city”. They literally want to “stop the developers”. They don’t like the way the new development is making the city denser. They don’t like the way downtown is changing. They provide anecdotes such as, “it used to cost $X to park downtown, but now it costs $XX”. It’s crazy. I fear we YIMBYs may be vastly outnumbered by the NIMBYs. It sure feels like it sometimes.

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