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Archive of posts filed under the Multi-Modal Transport category.

Portland & Seattle streetcars: Rail for close-in neighborhoods

As Denver considers the possibility of streetcars on Colfax, it may be informative to learn about what other cities have accomplished.

Portland opened its first modern streetcar line in 2001, and Seattle followed in 2007. Both cities use streetcars in a decidedly different way than Denver uses light rail. Rather than shuttling commuters into downtown from far-flung suburbs, streetcar lines circulate residents of central city neighborhoods to shops, restaurants, and entertainment, plus of course jobs and homes.


Portland streetcar. All photos by BeyondDC.com

Streetcars are the central city answer to light rail. In Denver, where FasTracks lines shoot out from Union Station in every direction except into the dense urban core, that’s a sorely needed piece of the transportation puzzle.

Since Portland and Seattle streetcars are more for shorter central city trips, their interior layout is more open than suburban commuter rail. Like Denver’s 16th Street Mall shuttle, streetcars are intended to be for hop-on & hop-off type trips. Train interiors are less tightly packed than buses or light rail.


Portland streetcar interior.

Seattle’s initial streetcar line, to South Lake Union, is pretty short. But its second line will open this year, and will bring service to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Just like in Denver, Capitol Hill is Seattle’s densest inner city district.


Seattle South Lake Union streetcar line.

Since streetcars work together with bicycles to serve close-in transportation needs, Seattle’s Capitol Hill route has been designed to accommodate both. The streetcar line runs next to a fully protected cycletrack that was built simultaneously, as part of a joint project.


Seattle’s Broadway, with streetcar tracks on the left and a cycletrack on the right.

Elsewhere along that line, Seattle has installed special crossings to help cyclists navigate across streetcar tracks safely.


A “bike sneak,” directing cyclists to cross tracks at the safest angle.


At future streetcar stops the bike lane swerves behind the stop, to avoid trains.

All in all, Portland and Seattle offer great models for Colfax, Broadway, Highlands, and other central Denver neighborhoods that need better transit.


Sneak peek at MetroRide buses

The first RTD MetroRide buses are just about ready, and looking great at their assembly plant in Minnesota.

MetroRide will run on a special downtown Denver circulator route similar to the 16th Street MallRide shuttle, except it will only operate during commuting periods on weekday mornings and evenings.


Photo from RTD.

The stations are also visibly under construction.


Left: Bus stop construction photo from RTD. Right: Bus stop rendering from Krische Construction .


Density and Mass Tranist Efficiency: A West Denver Exercise

Since the opening of the West Corridor Rail line in my neighborhood, I have been somewhat underwhelmed with how well it seems to be performing in terms of ridership. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of them that certainly plays a role is a lack of residential density along the line.

I recently read Vishaan Chakrabarti‘s book “A Country of Cities” in which he suggests that mass transit rail service is inefficient (i.e. it doesn’t attract enough ridership to pay for the cost of operation) at residential densities less than 30 dwelling units per acre (du/acre). Since it’s sort of difficult to imagine exactly what exactly 30 du/acre looks like,  I thought I’d see how my neighborhood compared.

The West Colfax Neighborhood of Denver, shown outlined in orange in the map below, covers 540 acres. The neighborhood is served by four light rail stations and nearly 75% of the neighborhood is within one-half mile of a station as shown by the larger circles on the map (thanks to DRCOG’s new Denver Regional Equity Atlas from which I took the image). Click on the map for the full-size version.

Currently there are approximately 3,600 dwelling units in the neighborhood. That means that on average there are only 6.6 dwelling units per acre. Sadly this isn’t anywhere close to Vishaan’s suggested density and probably has something to do with why I generally see a lot of mostly empty trains.

Of course I’m not one to take one person’s word as the gospel truth and I seemed to recall my urban planning professors in college quoting numbers closer to 20 du/acre, so I set out to see what sort of numbers I could find with a bit of web research. Sadly, I didn’t find many hard and fast numbers; the numbers I did find varied greatly. On the low end, a study by UC Berkeley’s Center For Future Urban Transit (PDF) suggested that light rail could be efficient between 9 and 12 du/acre depending on the size and strength of the Downtown market it served. Similarly, the LEED ND standards award credit for projects that are within a walking radius of mass transit AND contain 12 du/acre or more, suggesting that this might be an important threshold. The few other numbers I found  ranged upwards from 20 to 40 du/acre. Apparently, there isn’t a clear answer, and I imagine it’s because usage depends on a multitude of other factors.

So how do all these numbers stack up in relation to West Colfax? How many more units do we need before we can cross these thresholds?

Currently I’m aware of about 150 new units that are under construction in the neighborhood. Additionally, the redevelopment of St. Anthony’s Hospital will add somewhere between 800 and 1,200 units of residential housing. Combined, this will add between 950 and 1,350 dwelling units to the neighborhood. At the high end of this estimate, adding 1,350 units to the existing 3,600 units (and dividing by 540 acres) gives us approximately 9.2 du/acre. This is barely enough to cross the 9 du/acre threshold suggested in the UC Berkeley study. To get to the seemingly better 12 du/acre threshold, we’d have to add yet another 1,530 units of housing on top of what’s currently planned. To get to Vishaan’s suggested 30 du/acre, we’d need to add over 12,600 dwelling units to the neighborhood!

Now, that’s a lot of units; just what might that look like?

Currently, Capitol Hill is probably the densest neighborhood in Denver. The neighborhood (bounded by Broadway, Colfax, Downing and 7th Ave), which covers about 430 acres, had nearly 11,300 dwelling units back in 2000 or approximately 26.3 du/acre. I apologize for the old data; it’s what I had handy. The area is probably closer to 12,000 units by now. In any case, one would have to add the entire housing stock of Capitol Hill (and then some) to the West Colfax neighborhood to reach Vishaan’s 30 du/acre recommendation. That is an enormous amount of housing. While it’s probably not very realistic given the current status of land ownership and zoning allowances in the area, I guarantee it would help to fill all those trains.


Welcome Back to Denver Union Station, Amtrak!

As mentioned earlier, Amtrak has now moved its operations back to Denver Union Station, and are using their new platforms under the new train hall canopy. I was able to make it tonight to take some pictures!

First off, let’s start out by walking around the new platforms under the canopy. This structure, especially at night, is absolutely incredible. Some of the station was still under-construction but we were able to access a good portion of it including the 18th Street pedestrian bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

My perch to watch the train come in was on top of the 18th Street pedestrian bridge. In the second picture, the California Zephyr Amtrak train is pulling into the station!

 

Photos are always great but I have something very special to share with you: A time-lapse of the California Zephyr train pulling into the station. The time-lapse is not very long but is still neat given this is the first train to pull into the new station! It’ll be great to see all of the action going on around this station once the commuter rail lines are done!

Welcome back to Denver Union Station, Amtrak! We are glad to see you back!


Union Station train canopy opens for Amtrak passengers today

At 7:10 this evening, the California Zephyr Amtrak train bound for Chicago will quietly become the first train to use Denver Union Station’s new platforms, under the landmark white canopy. Following it, all Amtrak trains through Denver from now on will use Union Station instead of the temporary depot at 20th & Wewatta.

Although most of Union Station is still under construction, and not yet open to passengers, this marks the first major milestone in the opening of the station. For now Amtrak passengers will still use temporary facilities to wait, buy tickets, and retrieve luggage.

The underground bus terminal is expected to open in May, followed by the interior of the historic depot building in July. The first RTD trains aren’t scheduled to use the new platforms until 2016, when commuter rail begins service to the airport and other points north.