Much hay is made over the problem of the “last mile,” that interim space between home and transit that for convenience’s sake must be bridged by some other method than by foot. Ubers, Lyfts, B-Cycles, Limes, Birds… it was even the original purpose of the Segway—moving people fast enough and far enough so they can reach needful destinations sans automobile. The problem is so acute that national and local non-profits have sprung up around the issue, hoping to help those unfortunate enough to lack the financial means to own a car in cities designed for car travel.
What if the problem isn’t a lack of transportation options but a lack of destinations?
It’s taken as gospel in many quarters that life in America, and in Denver in particular, requires a car. Walking somewhere, besides the general perceived indignity, is simply not time efficient. The grocery store is too far away. The dentist is across town. Work is a daily six-mile round trip (if you’re lucky). City planners are attempting to address this predicament in the next round of city plans: Denveright. They’re organizing transit corridors, which will be major streets with an emphasis on non-car mobility and fast, convenient bus service. But this is only half the battle.
On most of these corridors the destinations served by this presumed upgraded transit are only one layer deep—one half-block in most cases, and less than that in many others. What’s the purpose of a fast bus if my options for destinations are limited to what fits within 150 feet of the street face? It’s a one-dimensional solution to the problem.
It also means people will still need to drive. Even if my destination is along the corridor, if my house isn’t also along the corridor then the upgraded transit does me no good. And since housing density along these proposed corridors has not been adjusted, then people will live too far away to get to the corridor on foot and will, therefore, simply drive the whole way to their destination.
Urbanism isn’t just about building style or street design, it’s also about land use. We can’t expect affordable transit when the number of users is limited to the number of single-family homeowners within three blocks of our upgraded corridors. We can’t expect to find the services we need nearby (in terms of travel time) when those services are limited to a thin slice of land at the edge of those corridors. And we can’t expect healthy growth, growth that accommodates most people’s needs for housing, jobs, and daily essentials when we’re stuck on the idea that Denver is a stable city of houses rather than a growing city of people.
The solution to this problem is obvious, if politically fraught: we must extend mid-rise density out from our newly proposed transit corridors (something not currently envisioned in the Denveright plans). We need a solid two to three blocks of three- to five-story buildings on either side. This will provide the ridership necessary to make the buses economical. It will provide the customers necessary to support the businesses along the corridor (and perhaps even off the corridor!). It will provide the people necessary to make the connections among each other to build a strong network of personal and professional relationships that drives movement along the corridor. Buses without all these interactions—more people, more places, more friends to visit—will be woefully underutilized, as will be the streets they ride on.
Let’s make Denver a place of people rather than a collection of car corridors and parking lots.
Cover image: An example of mid-rise density along a transit corridor that is the land-use part of the “last mile” transportation solution.