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Archive of posts filed under the Technology category.

RTD A-Line Opening Countdown: THREE DAYS!

Now that we have climbed over that Monday wall, I am pleased to announce that there are only THREE days left until the A-Line, connecting the world to Downtown Denver, opens. Today we are going to look into the commuter trains that will be hauling passengers to and from Denver International Airport at a top speed of 79 miles per hour.

The Silverliner V looks and feels like a very classic heavy rail / subway train. These trains are large, silver, and mean serious business.

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RTD purchased 66 of these cars, in the married pair configuration for $300 million. The trains were built in Korea, tested in Philadelphia, and then shipped to Denver. Philadelphia made a great candidate for testing because they use the same exact trains for SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority). The first Silverliner V’s arrived in Denver on November 20th and initially had to be pulled into Denver Union Station for testing since the overhead catenary wire system was still under construction.

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The 70 ton, 600 hp Silverliner V has been in full speed testing for months now and can be seen at regular 15-30 minute intervals along the line.

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In three days, we will all be able to ride this brand new type of train, how incredibly exciting!

RTD A-Line Opening Countdown: FOUR DAYS!

There are only four days until the “Train to the Plane” line opens! This is an incredibly huge transit milestone for the Denver metro area, as we will finally have solid rail transit connecting Denver Union Station and Denver International Airport. For this countdown, we are going to be exploring some facts and figures about Denver’s best new rail line.

Today, we are going to settle the confusion of light rail and commuter rail. In many news outlets, reporters are referring to the new A-line as light rail. This is completely incorrect. So what exactly is the difference and what are the differences between the two systems in Denver?

Light rail is exactly what the name implies, light. They are designed to operate in crowded, narrow corridors, usually have narrowly spaced stops, have a capacity of around 155 passengers per trip, and top out at 55 miles per hour. The overhead catenary system is fairly lightweight, powering the trains with a direct current of 750 volts. Below are two photos showing the West Line light rail system.

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Commuter rail is a heavy rail system. It is designed to get passengers and commuters to their destination faster. Commuter rail runs along open corridors, and doesn’t interact much with the street level. It’s like a freight line except for passengers. These trains are big. They have a capacity of around 170 passengers per trip, have fewer stops, and top out at 79 miles per hour. The overhead catenary system is serious business powering the trains with an alternating current of 25 kilovolts (kV). Below are two photos showing the new A-Line commuter rail system.

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In summary, the commuter rail serves longer distances, in a shorter amount of time, with fewer stops while light rail covers shorter distances, is made for more urban spaces, and has more stops. I’m glad we settled that difference before April 22nd!

Colorado Leads the Nation in Embracing, Regulating Ride-sharing Services

The controversy over ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft is well known, with national sites like CityLab reporting that states and cities both nationally and internationally are discouraging or even banning these companies from providing ride-sharing services as a viable transportation alternative in urban areas. 

Meanwhile, Colorado has taken a different approach. Recognizing that ride-sharing can be a smart and sustainable transportation option if properly regulated, Colorado has become the first in the nation to pass a comprehensive set of ride-sharing regulations that allow Uber, Lyft, and similar companies to succeed while providing reasonable safeguards for ride-sharing customers. The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support in the Colorado legislature, was signed by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper on June 5, 2014.

The difference in attitude on this topic between Colorado and other states is stark, as is evidenced by Governor Hickenlooper’s signing statement on the new legislation: “Today, as we sign into law Colorado’s Transportation Network Company Act, we celebrate and affirm that Colorado is open for business as a place where entrepreneurs and tech-savvy innovators can thrive. We welcome UberX and Lyft and other ride-share companies that will provide Coloradans with an affordable and convenient new transportation option. Colorado once again is in the vanguard in promoting innovation and competition while protecting consumers and public safety.”

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Uber and Lyft echoed Governor Hickenlooper’s views on Colorado’s leadership in providing transportation options for its citizens. Lyft spokesperson Chelsea Wilson said: “By creating a common-sense regulatory framework for ridesharing that prioritizes public safety and consumer choice, Colorado has stepped up as a leader in welcoming innovative, community-powered transportation options and forging a path for other jurisdictions to follow.” Uber’s Eva Behrend added: “Colorado is on the cutting-edge of innovation and technology. Their leaders understand that laws should not stand in the way of consumer choice, innovation and the natural evolution of the way people travel; instead, they have proactively adopted commonsense rules to allow for technology to create safe, convenient and seamless new transportation options.”

Way to go, Colorado!

Gates Redevelopment: Planning for Innovation

“When people come together they become much more productive” – Geoffrey West

Currently, the Old Gates Rubber Plant is being demolished. Its long anticipated demolition will pave the way for years of development and, in the end, provide South Denver neighborhoods with new places to shop, eat, hang out, and better connect with new friends.

This piece will not cover the demolition timetable, the history of the site, or what might have been; this is a piece laying out an idea for something new, something interesting, something that will continue to make Denver a lure for future generations to move to Colorado.

Imagine a cutting edge research institute within ten minutes of downtown Denver. A site that has great access to open space, public transit, historic neighborhoods, and great parks. This site would have a bustling center with shops, apartments, great restaurants, and tons of energy. The heart of this community would be built around innovation, creativity, and the next generation of scientists, designers, and entrepreneurs. A place where new technologies are being built in cooperation with universities, businesses, nonprofits, and local municipalities.

What I am envisioning is something best defined by Bruce Katz: an Innovation District is a location that clusters leading-edge anchor institutions and cutting-edge innovative firms, connecting them with supporting and spin-off companies, business incubators, mixed-use housing, retail and 21st century urban amenities.

The concept of the Innovation District it is not drastically different than the original plan for the redevelopment, where it is different is the clustering of anchoring institutions, and supporting companies. I am imagining a series of facilities that satellite locations for: CU, CSU, and the School of Mines. If done correctly, the three schools could share their resources in the purchasing of equipment, better run challenges, and foster new businesses that utilize students from the different institutions.

In terms of supporting organizations, space could be provided for the many other schools around the city: Metro, Johnson & Wales, the Art Institute. This connecting of universities would allow non-technically oriented students to assist these future companies with help in marketing, accounting, advertising, planning, art, etc.

Outside of schools, this would provide an impetus for businesses to relocate to Denver, they would have a plethora of talent to pull from, researchers at close reach, transit, historic neighborhoods within walking distance, a newly enhanced S. Platte River, and all within 10 minutes of Downtown Denver.

It’s time for a trolleybus comeback

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Trolleybus in Seattle.

Trolleybuses are rubber-wheeled buses that are powered by overhead wires. They offer a number of advantages over regular buses, but are very rare in the United States.

There are currently only five US cities that operate trolleybuses. They are Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Dayton. Trolleybuses are so rare because they require overhead wires, which are expensive to install, limit bus route flexibility, and are often considered ugly.

On the other hand, compared to normal diesel buses, trolleybuses are quieter, smoother, cleaner, and accelerate faster. They also offer a sense of permanence that normal buses can’t match.

Many of the advantages of trolleybuses come from their power source. Since they run on electricity rather than fossil fuels they emit no fumes, and they accelerate quickly, smoothly, and quietly. However, all those advantages can be duplicated by wire-free electric buses without the cost or trouble of overhead wires.

So why bother with wires?

Because the cost and relative rarity of wires is a sure signal that a transit route will be predictable and permanent. Wires provide the same sort of visual fortification that rail tracks provide. They are a clear signal to riders that they are dealing with a significant and special transit line.

Since so few trolleybuses have been built in recent years, and all the cities that use them have used them for decades, it is difficult to know how much of an effect wires without tracks can have on transit oriented development. Given the push for affordable BRT in many cities, the potential prospect of TOD-inducing buses is something that ought to be explored.

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Trolleybuses can shift lanes without disconnecting their wires.

Trolleybuses even offer a significant advantage over rail streetcars. Since they aren’t tied to tracks, flexible trolley poles allow buses to switch lanes in order to go around obstructions. Without tracks to constrain them, trolleybuses mixing in a lane with cars are less likely to be held up by traffic. Additionally, many trolleybuses are built as hybrids and are capable of lowering their poles and running on batteries or fossil fuels as a backup.

It is unfortunate that the so few trolleybus systems survived the 20th Century. Most of them fell victim to the same transit death spiral that destroyed most American streetcar systems.

However, streetcars are enjoying a renaissance because contemporary planners have discovered they can be useful. It may be time for trolleybuses to enjoy a renaissance of their own.

Are electric buses the future?

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Above: A traditional electric trolley bus in San Francisco.
Below: GM’s wireless electric bus prototype.

Electric buses offer many advantages over traditional fossil fuel buses, but they are more expensive and difficult to run. A new model by General Motors may bring them to the mainstream.

The most obvious advantage of electric buses is environmental, but the fact that they don’t spew any harmful gases into the atmosphere is hardly the only benefit. Electric buses are also quieter and smoother to ride than fossil fuel buses, resulting in a more comfortable experience for riders and fewer negative effects to the neighborhoods buses travel through.

Traditionally to run an all electric bus a transit agency had to install overhead wires. This can actually be an advantage as well, since it displays a sense of permanence to the transit line, which gives trolley buses some of the same economic development advantages of actual trolleys. On the other hand, wires can also be a big negative, both visually and fiscally. Installing and maintaining overhead wires adds so much to the cost of running a transit line that very few cities in the US use them.

But what if it were possible to run an electric bus without the wires? You’d lose that permanence advantage, but the environmental, comfort, and noise advantages would all still apply. And if, after all, wireless streetcars are being developed, why shouldn’t a wireless bus be possible too?

It turns out General Motors is working on one, along with a Colorado-based company called Proterra. Their EcoRide BE-35 model bus is fully electric and runs on lithium-ion battery packs that give it a 40-mile range for every 10-minute charge. The 35-foot, low floor bus design is basically comparable to normal city buses otherwise.

The website doesn’t include many details that will have to be addressed before very many transit agencies pony up money (such as whether the bus can run air conditioning), but if they can make the idea work it has potential to revolutionize urban busing.

Apps track bikesharing in real time

Do you use B-Cycle? Did you know that you can track dock and bike availability online in real time? Knowing ahead of time which stations are full or empty makes bikesharing tremendously more user-friendly.

Online maps accessible from your computer are available for both Denver and Boulder, and smart phone apps are free to download for iPhone and Android.

Happy bikesharing!

Nuclear power, the US, and Japan

Question: How might the disaster in Japan kill thousands of Americans? Answer: If anti-nuclear knee-jerk reactionaries are successful in using the Japanese tsunami as political leverage to scare Americans from investing in more nuclear power.

How so? Because every year 30,000 Americans die from causes related to coal power production. Thirty thousand. That’s more dead Americans every year than in the entire Revolutionary War. It’s five times as many dead Americans as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined. It’s almost twice the 18,000 estimated Japanese dead from the tsunami disaster.

The longer we use coal instead of nuclear for the majority of our power generation in this country, the more Americans will die.

While we’re on the subject, let’s also talk about how dangerous the nuclear situation in Japan actually is. The chart below is a snippet from a much larger one comparing radiation doses received for a variety of events. Note that the additional radiation doses received by Japanese citizens in villages near the breaking-down nuclear plant average less than a normal day’s dose (which is to say, they’re getting less than twice the normal daily dose that you get simply by living on the surface of the Earth). They’re less than you get from a dental x-ray, and much less than you get by flying on a jet from New York to Los Angeles.

It’s true that a relatively small number of workers at the plant are getting much higher doses, but the danger to the mass population is quite low. Meanwhile, thousands of people around the world continue to die every day as a result of coal power production. Far more than will ever die as a result of nuclear radiation from any of these Japanese plants. The 30,000 American deaths per year attributed to coal average to more than 80 per day, which is nothing compared to the average of almost 1,400 per day from China’s half-million annual coal deaths.

I don’t mean to imply that we should treat nuclear power lightly. Of course the only reason it’s so safe is that tremendous safety measures are involved. We should absolutely learn from the disaster in Japan to improve safety however possible. But one thing we cannot afford to do is allow knee-jerk reactionaries to stop America from expanding our nuclear production capacity. The human toll of such narrow thinking would simply be too great.

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Radiation doses from a variety of sources.
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Technology and Planning: A Good Partnership

By Jeremy Németh, PhD

This post presents a project just completed by students in the professional Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program at UC Denver. Our aim as faculty is to provide graduates the skills, knowledge and expertise to become not only good planners, but leaders in the profession. Our approach is twofold: we introduce students to the newest planning theories and methods, and we have students work on real projects with real impact on real Metro area communities.

This fall, I introduced a four-week module in my 60-student introductory Planning Methods I course. The question motivating the module was how recent advances in open source data, mobile technologies, internet-based platforms, and user-generated mapping and visualization softwares affect everyday planning tasks like data collection and analysis and public consultation and participation. Local practitioners at the forefront of this technological revolution presented their work each week to students, and it was easy to find candidates: the Denver-Boulder area is the epicenter of such activity.

Working with the Public Realm Committee of the Downtown Denver Partnership, we asked students to identify eight streetscape elements on designated “Priority Streets” in Downtown Denver. These streets were laid out in the Pedestrian Priority Zone (PPZ) document produced as a follow-up to the Downtown Area Plan. By adding photos to each element, public agencies and the Partnership, this mapping exercise would add a 3-D dimension to the PPZ document. This exercise resulted in a baseline inventory for future pedestrian planning efforts in the district.

Teams of students collected data using 3G Smartphones (iPhones, Androids), traditional GPS receivers, paper maps and GPS-enabled digital cameras and evaluated each method on a set of criteria. They found that Smartphones worked best for this quick collection and analysis effort for three reasons1:

  • Efficiency: Full-time 3G web access enables immediate upload of data as they are collected. Although 95% of students had no prior experience, they learned the protocol and collected 2200+ data points in an afternoon or two,
  • Accuracy: In high-density city centers, where traditional GPS devices fail to function due to limited satellite access, Smartphones do not need overhead clearance since they geolocate by bouncing signals off cell towers.
  • Multifunctionality: Smartphones are telephones, making it easier to communicate with fellow group or technical team members.

Former MURP student Michael Hinke of Decision Support Resources built a fantastic interactive website ( that presents the results of the students’ data collection efforts and provides links to collected databases. Visitors can download shapefiles and kml  files too; the goal is to disseminate the data as widely as possible, because we all benefit from a better understanding of our city.

1 This is a topic about which I have written in the past, as I have worked on a similar Smartphone data collection/analysis effort in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.


Jeremy Németh, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Planning and Design and the Director of the Master of Urban Design (MUD) program at the University of Colorado Denver, where his teaching and research focus on the design, management and politics of public space.