We love sharing how our Citizens’ Academy alumni are making change in their communities! We’ll post updates on this page when we get the chance to catch up with our 800+ Academy alumni.
April 2017: Eugene Howard (Spring 2010) chats about feeling transit, planning as a career, and neighborhood planning in Denver
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Transit Alliance Program Manager
Eugene Howard, Spring 2010 Citizens’ Academy alum, came by the Transit Alliance office to chat (among other things) about “feeling transit,” finding a career in planning, the City of Denver’s neighborhood planning process, and whether his kids will have driver’s licences.
What is your transportation and transit background?
My first exposure to transit was just being a regular person living in an urban environment. I lived in Atlanta close to downtown and took the bus to work. That was really my first exposure to using transit for real. I used it in college to get across campus, but living in an urban environment and using it for work to commute was the first real exposure.
When I moved to the Bay Area, I used transit to get back and forth to work and it was at that time that I began to feel transit—when I got to talk to people who rode the same routes as I did, and I got to see things that I never had seen before when I was traveling in my car. I had the experience of having to go to the dry cleaner, then go to the bakery, then go to the florist, then go pick up the dry cleaning all on my way to or from transit. That’s when I began to feel transit and I didn’t know really what that meant until I began to look into transit in grad school.
I knew I wanted to go back to get my Masters in something but I wasn’t sure what. I care about the environment, I care about our natural resources and how we use our resources because they are finite; I care about pollution and its impacts on our planet. When I started to talk to people about these things begin to lead me in the direction of renewable energy, so I went to work for a solar company. It was a great job and I enjoyed what I was doing, but it was too slow. It was one house or two houses at a time, and I really wanted to make big change—wholesale change.
At the time, I was representing my neighborhood on the FasTracks expansion for what would ultimately become the Gold Line. One of the project managers at RTD approached me one day after a meeting and asked me if I was a planner. And I said, “No. What do you mean a planner?” And she said to me, “You should really look into being a planner. You talk like one, you act like one, you care about things, you really are engaged, and we love that at these meetings.” It was really because of her that I understood that planning was a profession and then I started talking with people at CU Denver.
So just like that, you decided to go back to school for a planning degree?
That was starting around 2008. In 2010 I went through the Transit Alliance Citizens’ Academy as a test run of whether I could go back to school. I decided to apply for the Masters in Urban and Regional Planning and it was while I was there that the whole transit and transportation connection was made for me. I was able for the first time to put words, concepts, and theories to the things that I felt and experienced in Atlanta and in the Bay Area.
How did you find out about the Academy and ultimately decide to apply?
I think I heard about the Citizens’ Academy either through a newsletter or through one of my colleagues in my neighborhood. I volunteered for my registered neighborhood organization and we had guest speakers to talk to us about land use and different issues that were happening within the neighborhood. I think someone that sat in one of the committees with me mentioned that there was this transit academy coming up and that it would probably be something that I would be interested in. After that conversation I went online and read about it and immediately knew I had to do it. I really, really wanted to do it! So I filled out the application and crossed my fingers, and probably emailed a few people asking them and begging them to accept me.
You mentioned volunteering for your registered neighborhood association in Sunnyside. Can you talk about how you chose to live in Sunnyside, the changes that your neighborhood has gone through, and some of the points of pride and frustrations for you?
We moved into the city and bought our house in 2005. It was before everything with the economy and housing prices went crazy. Me being a project manager/planner, I did research and looked at the city and tried to understand the different neighborhoods. I then created a map of all the places where I would want to live and places that I didn’t know about. I could then go do research and drive around, look at neighborhoods, and read neighborhood plans. Then we had a must-have a list, a nice to have list, and all that information including color coded maps. I gave that to our realtor and said, “Find us a house, and don’t show me anything outside of these specific areas.” And we bought a house in three weeks.
When we bought our house, I didn’t know a lot about Sunnyside or the area, but pretty quickly realized that there was a lot of activity in the neighborhood to the south of us, which is Highland. It probably took a good five or six years before the level of change crossed 38th Avenue to go north into Sunnyside.
In 2010 the zoning code citywide was updated which I think helped developers have a better sense of neighborhoods and communities and what they wanted. And I think because of that and the increased pressure for new housing, we are now seeing redevelopment occurring in the neighborhood. That’s reinvestment in existing homes—a lot of homes are being remodeled and updated then put back on the market—and we’re also beginning to see older housing stock be scraped and replaced by larger duplexes or larger more modern single family homes. In the last couple of years, we’ve started to see what other parts of the city have seen already for a number of years.
One of the things spurring change in Sunnyside in particular is the fact that we have a new station, the 41st and Fox Street Station on the eastern edge of the community. The mere existence of this commuter rail station is another impetus for change.
Personally, on some level, I’d like it to change. It’s good in that there are people coming in and reinvesting in the neighborhood. The other impacts are people are being forced out on some level. Rental property that is now converted into a duplex for sale means that some people are no longer in the neighborhood, and some of the older residents who have been in the community for multiple generations are now not staying around. I think we’re seeing some people leave the community because it’s beginning to look and feel different than what they’re used to and with they grew up with.
But at the same time, you’ve got younger people moving in. You’ve got professionals moving in, and families coming in and starting their lives. I really look at it as the next iteration of Sunnyside. If we look back in history, we can see the different iterations of many of our neighborhoods. Like it or not, we’re going through another wave of change.
You know a lot about neighborhood transition, and you’re involved in the upcoming neighborhood planning initiative. What’s coming up for these neighborhoods going through the planning process?
Neighborhood planning comes into play because it’s a community’s opportunity to work with the city and other stakeholders in determining what their future can or should be.
The city is about to go through all Denver neighborhoods either to update existing plans or give them new neighborhood-level plans for the first time. This will be an opportunity for all communities and all residents to chart their future course. There are a number of neighborhoods that now have station areas, so that introduces yet another opportunity to have conversations about housing, employment, the mixture of housing and employment, and other community amenities that a neighborhood (or collection of neighborhoods) may want or desire for themselves. This includes the types of things that neighborhoods want to preserve too.
It’s an exciting opportunity that I hope people get involved in and take advantage. The best way to get involved right now is to go to the Neighborhood Planning Initiative website. People can go to this website to register for a newsletter, whether it be for the entire initiative or for their specific neighborhood.
I want to connect what you’re doing right now with these neighborhood plans back to your passion for transportation and transit. What’s the interplay between transportation, transit, and land use planning?
The interchange between transit, transportation, and land use is that all three of those work together, whether we have them work together intentionally or by accident. Transit is successful when there are a multitude of things to do around it, and I think communities can be healthy when they have options and transit is one of those options.
Denver is really smart in that we are looking at that intersection of those three, and also connecting to other things like health, education, and the ability for someone to earn a living and have disposable income. All of these things all work together, and transit is a key component.
Denver is looking at the greatest use of land around transit, and we are making sure that there’s a healthy balance of a mixture of types of uses around transit. Not all stations can have everything, and we’ve got to have a healthy distribution of things with the variety of different stations along the lines.
We have to make sure that we have a variety of different price points for housing around transit. It’s really important that it’s not just the most expensive housing at transit. We need to keep space around transit for everyone.
I’ve heard you say the word “station” a lot, which is the word we usually use only for trains. Do you think that good transit-oriented development is possible only for train lines, or is there potential for bus lines also?
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a train or bus. I think what matters is frequency—if you have a highly used bus route, then you still have the opportunity to have this healthy mixture of uses that you might expect to find around a rail station.
When you start looking at the numbers of riders and therefore the potential audiences for the uses, it becomes less important if it’s rail versus bus. I think one could argue that around a rail station you have a better sense of permanency because the rail line isn’t going to move without a few hundred million or billion dollars versus a bus line that can potentially be rerouted. There is more assurance or more certainty with rail stations versus bus. But that is it. If you have people, and you have high volumes of people, then the mode that they’re using becomes less important.
We are also beginning to evolve our thinking in land use and transportation to the idea of mobility. We’re headed in a direction where it becomes less about whether it’s bus or rail, but it’s more about all the things that can happen within a space. That includes car share, bike share, on-demand services, and of course bus or rail.
Before coming to work for the City and County of Denver, you were working in Douglas County. I’d love to hear your thoughts on planning for a suburban versus an urban environment. Does transit have a role in places like Douglas County?
Yes, yes, yes! Yes, it does. I think transit needs to exist in our suburban communities just as much as it does in our urban environment. You’re going to need to get downtown sometimes, and why should you be forced to sit in your car with sixty or seventy other thousand people needing to go the same way at the same time?
The other thing I worry about is that we’ll see a point in time where our most resource-strapped individuals are living further out in our suburbs, because they’re getting forced out of the urban center. They are going to need an affordable way to get where they need to go.
As newer generations begin to modify what’s important to them, they might prefer a suburban environment but only if they can get to where they want to go. In order for suburban communities to stay healthy, they need to be able to provide that service. And another thing that’s important is that we don’t need to make billion dollar investments in trains where buses would serve people just as well.
I’m curious whether you think your children will ever have a driver’s license?
We are beginning to have that conversation. I think as a form of ID they will need to have a driver’s license…but will they have a driver’s license for the purpose of driving?
I want to downplay the whole deal in our household. I believe that they are both growing up and will live in a world where they will have options and the value placed historically on driving won’t be the same. My thirteen-year-old was asking me about getting a driver’s license, and my answer was to ask why he needs a driver’s license if he has a bike, a train, buses, and the ability to order a car to pick him up and take him where he needs to go. Then I explained to him the cost of owning a car and how often we actually use it, which is about five percent of the time. I think he’ll care less about driving when it clicks in for him that it costs money. It sits in the garage or on the street most of the time, so there’s more value in having money invested in other things.
I know as a parent that I would feel safer knowing that they’re on a bus, on a train, or on their bike. On their bike, at lease I know they’re getting exercise and if they crash they will probably get up from that. To be an automobile accident is my worst nightmare as a parent for my children.
For a lot of us, getting the keys was our first form of independence. Do you worry that your children won’t have the same kind of experience guiding them toward becoming independent adults?
I personally think that form of independence is a mobile device or a computer. They can go anywhere on earth with either one of those two things at least virtually. Physically I think that independence will be facilitated through a bus pass or their bike. It’s no different than being in a car the minute they’re out of sight. I do think that they’ll have the same sense of freedom and independence without it having to rely on the car.
Thank you for sharing your parenting experience! Is there anything else that you would like to share as a part of this alumni chat?
I am really excited about what the future is going to hold for us if we continue to make wise investments in our infrastructure and continue to understand and celebrate the power of public transit. We’ll be better as a society and as a community if we allow people of all ages, all races, and all incomes take advantage of these investments that we voters made back in 2004. Hopefully we’ll do that through our planning processes, both citywide and neighborhood-level, which celebrate people, our differences, and our nuances. We’ve got a great fifty to a hundred years ahead of us.
March 2017: Kate Williams (Spring 2015) chats about her background in transportation, getting elected to the RTD Board, and her Academy realization
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Transit Alliance Program Manager
This month I had the pleasure of chatting with Kate Williams, a fellow graduate of my Academy class of Spring 2015. Since graduating from the Citizens’ Academy, Kate has been elected to the RTD Board as Director of District A, and she also serves as executive director for the Denver Regional Mobility and Access Council. We chatted about her background in providing transportation for the elderly and disabled, her experience campaigning and beginning her term as RTD director, and what she took away from the Citizens’ Academy.
In Miami, where I moved from five years ago, I ran a sports center for the disabled in the inner city. One of our biggest issues was always getting people to and from our programming. Since I was the program manager, that fell into my bailiwick. That was my first experience with transportation, and it was related to children and the disabled.
I come from a long background in nonprofit management, so when I moved to Denver I looked for a position in nonprofit work, but the Colorado nonprofit sector at that time was flooded. In the meantime, I got my CNA in senior care and saw a lot of similarities in the needs of children, the disabled and seniors. The Castle Rock Senior Center hired me to run their programs and I found out that they are the number one provider of transportation in Douglas County. I walked right into managing the transportation—coordinating FASTER [CDOT transit] grants, funding vehicles, and running over 1,000 rides a month. I liked it even more than the programming! Then I ran into frustration with seeing that we had the resources to fill transportation gaps, such as transporting disabled children, but we were not supposed to operate outside of transporting seniors. In the end I decided to leave.
I spent a few months driving for the Rescue in Parker, and I learned what’s involved in routing, scheduling, and getting people in and out of cars. I knew all of this in theory, but being a driver was really different. I did that for a while, but I’m not from Douglas County, I’m from Denver! When the American Council for the Blind had an opening in Denver, I became an area resource coordinator, where the number one thing I did was go to peoples’ houses and help them get transportation. A3 is a really cool place because it’s the only organization that goes to your house—bringing its services to the people who need them. I did that while staying involved in the local coordinating council, volunteering with transit-related organizations, and going to CDOT town halls.
Then DRMAC [the Denver Regional Mobility and Access Council], one of the transit-related agencies that I had been volunteering for, had an opening for an executive director and they asked me if I would come in and work temporarily. I worked temporarily for a month and they asked me to stay. I love my job at DRMAC.
What do you wish people knew about the transportation needs of our aging population and people with disabilities?
I wish that people knew that there’s travel training to help people who are afraid, unsure, insecure, or who don’t feel safe. With travel training, those people could ride public transportation, and there would be enough Access-A-Ride for those people who can’t ride public transit. Access-A-Ride is overwhelmed, and it shouldn’t be. With travel training, there are a lot of people who could be perfectly capable of using the bus and train, and they would have more freedom with the ability to use the whole system.
Why did you decide to run for RTD Board District A?
I was still with A3 when I ran for RTD Board. The reason I ran is because a lot of people asked me to. They said, we need somebody who understand transportation for the elderly and disabled. I had no clue how to run. But I thought that if I could get inside of RTD that I could make more of a difference than anything else I was doing at the time.
What concerns did you hear while you were meeting with constituents during your campaign?
I spent most of my time collecting signatures in front of the Safeway in Cherry Creek. It was the heart of the district, and the number one thing I heard is that people are aging out of being behind the wheel. They’re getting older, they are not able to drive, and they feel like they are living in a donut hole of transit. It was interesting to me that the economic appearance of a community is not indicative of its need for public transportation.
What do you wish people knew about RTD?
Since I’ve gotten into RTD, I’ve learned that the number one thing people care about here is people. I am amazed.
RTD also doesn’t have any money. We really need to, as a community, support our phenomenal transit system by paying taxes to support it. We’re starting to fall behind, and the reason is because we don’t have the money. Coloradans don’t want to pay any more taxes, but Seattle, Portland, and even Indianapolis are paying for transit! They are funding transit, but we are not, and we are falling behind. Our maintenance facilities are all over 30 years old. We are being asked to take care of this wonderful system with places and equipment that’s 30 years old. If we don’t start funding it, we’re not going to be able to buy new buses or maintain a state of good repair. We want to be safe.
What will your four years on the Board represent when you finish your first term in 2020?
What I bring to RTD and will bring to RTD is the picture from the bottom up. I’m not a politician. I came from caring for the elderly and disabled, and I still run in those circles. I regularly tell people at RTD that this is different, this is a look from the bottom up. I think that it’s made a difference already and will continue to make a difference through the next couple of years.
How can citizens have the greatest impact on what happens at RTD?
Take transit! That helps RTD, Denver, and the planet! When you’re asked to contribute, support it. It’s like your car. You have to take care of your car, and if you don’t take care of your car, then you have to go get a new one! Support what you have.
Why did you decide to apply for the Citizens’ Academy?
It was back when I was at the Castle Rock Senior Center that I did the Transit Alliance Academy. Eugene Howard (class of 2010) had graduated and told me, “You should go do this. This is right up your alley.”
What were you expecting from the Academy, and what did you learn?
I was expecting to learn about trains and buses! Routing! Not at all what I learned, which is that transit is for everybody. My focus has always been on those who are transit dependent.
The people that I went to Academy with every Wednesday night for seven weeks—about half of the class are still my friends. It’s a whole new social circle of people who started with a common interest but then ended up finding out all the other things they have in common. I think that as much as the transportation education is important, the social networking and support is big. People who come out of the Academy do stuff that matters. The people I went to class with, I see their names in the paper doing pedestrian, bike, and transit work! If you think you are going to do something important already, go to Academy and it will help. If you don’t think you’re going to do something that matters—like me—you might be surprised!
I would never be on the RTD Board if it weren’t for the Transit Alliance Citizens’ Academy.
February 2017: Christi Turner (Fall 2016) chats about her Action Plan and how she’s going to better bikeability with kitchen scraps
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Transit Alliance Program Manager
UPDATE 3/6/17: You can support Scraps by grabbing an adorable Scraps T-shirt!
I sat down last week with Christi Turner, a graduate of the Fall 2016 Citizens’ Academy. I’ve known Christi for a while, through her role as Alliance for Sustainable Colorado’s Director of Communications & Marketing, but I got to know her on a personal level during last fall’s Academy. We sat down to talk through her Action Plan, a bicycle-powered food scrap collection service called Scraps, which is about to enter a pilot phase. Christi is representative of a growing number of our Citizens’ Academy participants, in that she views bicycle and pedestrian advocacy as paramount to growing a transit-oriented city.
What was your Action Plan as you presented it on the last night of the Citizens’ Academy?
“I presented a bicycle-powered food scraps hauling program. The idea is to use a fleet of bicycles to provide people living in multifamily housing a way to compost their food scraps, which they’re currently unable to do. The concept is as focused on being an advocacy tool for bicycling—for better cycling infrastructure, more bike-based businesses, and making sure that bikes and bike-ability are prominent as Denver grows—as much as it’s focused on diverting organic waste from the landfill.
My vision for this program started before the Transit Alliance Citizens’ Academy, and it was part of why I applied. I wanted access to knowledge, tools, and people to help coalesce this idea.”
How has Scraps evolved since your presentation to the Academy?
“It’s evolved rapidly and even more thoroughly than I had hoped. I’ve been putting tons of energy into developing the business plan and my network of supporters and potential collaborators. It’s gone so well that I just gave my notice at my 9-5 job. With the limited time and resources that I’ve been able to put into the plan, it’s gotten to the point where I needed to either take it to the next level or drop it.
After presenting my plan at the Academy, another Academy grad said to me, ‘My HOA is interested in finding a way to compost, let’s talk.’ Immediately synergies were happening. Another Citizens’ Academy grad who I work with at The Alliance Center was really excited by the idea, and was at The Alliance Center a few weeks later when somebody walked through the door who owns a pedicab company. He was looking for innovative ideas around biking, so she told him, ‘You need to meet Christi.’
Fast-forward a few weeks and that person is my de facto partner in getting this business off the ground. Along the way, I’ve connected with developers and property managers who are ultimately the arbiters or gatekeepers to the customers I want to target in Denver. I made connections with the city’s largest compost hauler, Alpine Waste, and I feel lucky to have their verbal support for the program, and they’re sharing lots of their wisdom with me as well. We’re figuring out ways to work toward the same goals. I’ve got the bicycle vehicle to use at very low cost for the duration of the pilot. I’ve got the bare bones of a legal and business structure in place.
I also applied for a scholarship to go to the US Compost Council 2017 Conference in Los Angeles, and I got the scholarship to be there last week. I connected with several other bicycle-based haulers nationwide, and the suppliers of compostable bags and bins.
How will Scraps work?
I’m going to function as an interim hauler, servicing multifamily buildings—those high-rises that aren’t a part of the city’s existing limited composting program—and then taking the food scraps that I collect to existing collection points.
For example, here at The Alliance Center (which has agreed to be a part of the pilot), there’s a 3-cubic yard compost bin in the back of the building that is picked up once a week by Alpine. According to our building manager, it’s generally only about half full. So I’ll be collecting food waste from multifamily units in the neighborhood and then putting the food waste into this bin. Then The Alliance Center sends it out to A-1 organics on the Alpine truck, and then both parties get a small but hopefully growing added benefit, because the more Alpine sells to the processer, the more revenue they earn. And as a LEED certified building, diverting waste from the landfill is part of The Alliance Center’s goals as well. I’m not adding any additional truck routes, or absurdly long bike routes, out to the compost processing facility.
There are a lot of limitations to a program like this that actually require that you grow at a slow pace. There are so many unknowns: how much food waste people in multifamily homes produce, how much it weighs, what it consists of. It’s not like a single-family home compost program where lightweight yard debris gets mixed in, for example. There’s so much to learn, and there’s an opportunity to collect data for other cities around Colorado and the U.S. to use.
This cohort of supporters and collaborators that I’ve managed to pull in are all aligned. We’re not talking about a business that’s focused on growth. We’re focused on getting the model right and providing the optimal service. That way we will be able to eventually take this to more multifamily homes and give more people the opportunity to compost their food scraps and be a part of keeping more of Denver’s organic waste out of the landfill.
You’ve told me that the Citizens’ Academy was a tremendous help for you in getting Scraps off the ground. How did your Academy experience shape Scraps?
The visit to Evans Station Lofts was pivotal. Meeting Troy Gladwell [the developer] and his partner at Evans Station Lofts was awesome. Troy has become an advisor and supporter, and he’s helping me connect with other developers and property managers. He’s also helping me think about how urban development happens in Denver from a perspective that before the Academy I wasn’t thinking from.
The visit to that property got me thinking about transit-oriented development, low-income development, and other values-driven development that I could focus on and reframe how I was approaching building this business. Seeing the level of innovation and thinking outside the box, I started wrapping my mind around what costs look like from a property management standpoint and how to go beyond the costs argument in trying to on-board different properties with a service like this.
A lot of the other Academy participants during the course of the program were urban planners, developers, engineers and property managers, and the series of casual interactions or structured conversation was helpful in terms of understanding how that sector operates. They were helpful for understanding who the players are, who might be a good person to talk to, and what’s happening outside the urban core of Denver in areas such as Centennial, Englewood, Littleton and Aurora.
This could easily just be a business focused on diverting food waste from the landfill, but you want to go further than that. What’s your vision?
There’s a much larger vision of making bicycle-based businesses a hallmark of the Mile High City. Carina Gaz of BikeDenver was another participant in my Academy cohort. We already knew each other because we work at The Alliance Center, but it gave us the opportunity to get to know each other better, and to throw spaghetti at the wall and together build a grander vision. I want to use Scraps in whatever way that I can to advocate making Denver a model of how multimodal transit can elevate the life and sustainability of rapidly-growing city like Denver.
How can Transit Alliance and our network of over 800 graduates help you succeed?
There will very soon be an IndieGoGo campaign, which I’m hoping to launch in March, to raise some seed money for this business. I’m looking for people who support the idea of building this kind of infrastructure (bicycling and composting) in this city to share what they can and provide a little cushion for the business to get off the ground. Anyone who wants to get involved or who lives in a building where they think their HOA or property management might be interested, please get in touch and reach out by emailing christi(at)scrapsmilehigh(dot)com.
Soon the website will be launched, with a prominent “presubscribe” button that will function as a heat map of interest. If you live in a multifamily building, then you can add your building to the growing map of people who want this service.
Christi ended our conversation with a few very nice (and unsolicited!) words about the Citizens’ Academy:
Support the Citizens’ Academy by telling your friends how amazing it is! Just being able to share this idea in front of a cohort of supportive, knowledgeable peers who also care about the city’s development—we’re still keeping tabs on our project progress. I just sat down with [a fellow graduate] the other day and was like, ‘how’s yours going?’ He’s made great traction. It’s so important to feel like you’re supported and benefit from the vast amount of knowledge and passion about this city that you get in a cohort of Citizens’ Academy. The access to information is unprecedented. People should spread the word about it! It’s literally changed my life.
January 2017: State Senator Rachel Zenzinger (Fall 2008) chats about her district, what’s on the horizon for transportation policy statewide, and her transition from state to local politics
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Transit Alliance Program Manager
I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting with State Senator Rachel Zenzinger at her office last Thursday, January 5th. Senator Zenzinger is a graduate of the Fall 2008 Citizens’ Academy, and has served her community in Arvada in numerous roles including as a member of the Arvada City Council (where she also filled the role of Mayor Pro Tem), Jeffco Transportation Action Advisory Group, Gold Line Advisory Committee, APEX Coordinating Committee, Arvada Transportation Committee, Metro Vision Issues Committee of the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), and the Executive Committee of DRCOG. Transit Alliance honored Senator Zenzinger as the Outstanding Graduate of the Year in 2014, and we have benefitted from her leadership on our Board of Directors. We chatted about her district, which encompasses parts of Arvada and Westminster, what’s on the horizon for transportation and policy statewide, her transition from local to state politics, and how her experience in the Citizens’ Academy still influences her today.
We jumped right into the conversation by talking about attitudes toward transit in her district and about the
long-anticipated opening of the G Line to Wheat Ridge via Arvada:
“In Arvada in particular, there are a lot of positive feelings around transit around the Gold Line. We went outside of the main process with Fastracks by seeking a public private partnership pilot program with the federal government. That enabled us to have our line built faster, and a lot of people are very enthusiastic about it…From the get-go we’ve had citizens involved. We had a citizen committee, the Gold Line Advisory Committee, and they made it their mission to reach out to the public and educate about the gold line at public events, fairs, festivals, and anywhere they could have a booth…[The train] was supposed to open in the spring, then it got pushed off until the fall, and now here we are in winter of 2017 and we have not seen the gold line open…We are so close to getting there, but I think we’re very frustrated at the moment.”
“Locally, we’ve spent a lot of time investing in the infrastructure that supports transit, putting money into a new parking garage, the rerouting of streets, and into the plaza. We brought our own money to the table to have enhancements at our station areas to make sure that they reflected our local history and made sure that we brought in some artistic elements that we thought the public would connect with. We’ve done a lot of work on remapping our walkways and hooking up those last mile connections. We’ve been promising the downtown part of Arvada, Olde Town, for a very long time that they’re going to get a big boon from the train.”
We also chatted about the success of the B Line to Westminster despite challenges:
“Even though the B Line station is not in my district, the B Line is in Westminster, which I represent. The B Line has had a tremendous positive impact on Westminster. It’s a beautiful station, and they too put a lot time, attention, and resources in making sure that this wasn’t just a stop. It was integrated into the community, and it is a space that has character to draw you in. They did a fantastic job of planning for it. Again, there have been some glitches and hiccups with the line itself that have interrupted service, but overall it’s had a very positive impact to the area…I was stunned and pleasantly surprised to hear how welcoming and embracing the community has been at that station and I think it also speaks to why they want the North Line.”
Senator Zenzinger suggested that services to connect Arvada residents with the region will be increasingly important as the region grows:
“We’re a first ring suburb, and for many years we could get wherever we needed to go in our car very quickly because we were only a fifteen-minute ride to Denver. That’s not the case anymore. It takes me 45 minutes on average, sometimes longer now and sometimes shorter if I’m not traveling during rush hour. But it almost appears that rush hour is everyday all the time…Because of population growth on the Front Range, we’re seeing more demand on our highways and much more regional traffic that is spilling over onto our roads, impacting some of our major roads and intersections in the city. People don’t quite understand yet that this is a regional issue that we’re dealing with, but we’re feeling the impact of growth from a regional scale. I think that people might start to open their minds to transit options as a way of relieving some of these issues.”
She mentioned that her district has made significant efforts to increase mobility, including improvements to walking and biking infrastructure:
“Both Westminster and Arvada have put a lot of resources into bike paths and into sidewalks. When I was on the Transportation Committee as a citizen and then when I was on City Council, we had a missing sidewalks program in Arvada where we mapped the entire city and identified all the missing sidewalks. That was a citizen initiative. Everybody on the committee gridded the city and went out there and then brought it back to staff and we were able to figure out where we were missing infrastructure. We also put a lot of money into connecting trails.”
I asked Senator Zenzinger what she hopes will come before the Transportation Committee this session:
“We’re looking at doing a bill (probably a referred measure) to create a revenue stream to address our transportation needs in the state. It’s been a long time coming. How that particular measure looks is undetermined at the moment, because we have a lot of different policy considerations to look at. We need to think about how we’re going to address our aging infrastructure, which is then tied to our economy, and how are we going to make sure that we increase transit options so that our system will go further, work more efficiently, and provide more options to people.”
“I’m very interested in lots of transportation concepts, in particular the idea of investing money from the settlement from VW into infrastructure that would help electric vehicles in our state. I’m very interested in that…I’m also interested in conversations around driverless cars. It’s a new area, and it’s something that we’re just starting to grapple with. It’s been a concept that [we] thought was in the future. Well the future is now. The future is here, we have driverless cars. We’re going to have to think about what the policy considerations are around that. How’s that going to impact state policy? I’m excited about that.”
Senator Zenzinger was adamant that any transportation funding bill must address the needs of the whole state, not just the Front Range:
“We need to make sure that this referred measure applies to all Coloradans and not just those people who live on the Front Range. That means that we need to be thinking of the needs of people who live in our rural communities across the state and we need to have a vision to make sure that they’re included.”
“Ultimately because of population growth we need to make sure that whatever we’re doing with our transportation dollars, we’re taking into consideration how we relieve congestion, and we address some of the impacts that come with population growth…There are a lot of stakeholders and a lot of conversations to be had and people have very different ideas about [the] different policy considerations, so we need to make sure that we’re listening…We also have to think about the taxpayer and what they can do and what they’re willing to do…I think we need to be innovative and creative as much as possible and put in lots of different ideas so that we’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket.”
I then asked if Senator Zenzinger believes that a bill will be introduced this session to address construction defects, and what may be different this time around:
“It will. I hope it does. It’s something that we have needed to address for a very long time at the state level. Coming from local government, we’ve been telling the state we need to address it…and some local communities have adopted their own ordinances. It hasn’t fixed the problem. I applaud them for trying to move forward and to seek local solutions, but this is a statewide problem and it needs to be addressed at a statewide level.”
“We have a new mix of people and some of that is positive. We’re starting to get to policymakers [to] recognize that this one issue impacts a lot of areas that they care about…If you’re going to have good transit-oriented development near your transit station, development that’s going to be a little denser and that’s going to support the use of the transit, you need units that are not single family homes and you want for-sale units. You want to have some multifamily condos, and some townhomes, and have the type of housing that would really support the transit. That’s a crux of the issue. You can’t get that housing unless we do something about this issue of construction defects. I’m not carrying the bill, but I do have colleagues who are interested. I’m hopeful.”
“One of the drawbacks is that how we approached it in the past is we tried to do a top-down approach…I think we need to pick one [local ordinance] that has the best potential and then use that as the basis for the legislation to approach it from a ground-up approach. I think that would help create some assurances for some of the opposing views to the types of changes that we’re hoping to see. Denver’s ordinance, in my opinion, is a good one, and we’ve had some opportunities to test it a little bit.”
We shifted our discussion to the adjustment from local to state politics:
“The biggest adjustment is the partisanship. When I served on DRCOG, I saw different politicians with the different paradigms and ways of looking at things. Some had “R”s after their names, some had “D”s after their names, and some had “U”s after their names, but they came together to do regional planning, think about what’s good for our state and our region, and how we could support one another. Even though it was highly competitive and everyone was trying to get their piece of the pie, we were able to do it in such a way where we thought about policy first and thought about projects second.”
“That’s not the way that things work here. It’s partisan first and policy second. That’s really hard. Extremely hard. It gets in the way of getting things done in my view. It creates a lot of pressure on both sides. There’s pressure from your own side to do one thing and if you think differently or think your community needs something else, they put a lot of pressure on you to fold or to bend because you’re the one person holding up a particular position. And then the partisanship from the opposite side doesn’t even allow good ideas to come to the table just because it’s coming from you. The don’t even look at the policy to see if it’s a good idea, just refuse to look at it. Just kill it right away because of who’s carrying it. That’s extremely frustrating.”
But, overall, Senator Zenzinger is still optimistic about serving in elected office. I asked if she had advice for Academy graduates interested in running for office:
“Do it, because the system is only as good as the people who are in it. If you get scared away because you think, “I won’t be able to make an impact,” then who’s left? Then it’s the people who are in it for the wrong reasons. You’ve got to get in there and you’ve got do it. There are small victories and opportunities to work with one another, and if [there are enough people] saying “we have to put partisanship aside,” then I think the policy position will prevail.”
“If you’re interested in running, figure out where you’re trying to make an impact, and then just go out and do it. A lot of people say to start small in the local community first. I love local politics and I definitely feel I’m a better legislator because I was in local politics, but I ran for local politics because I wanted to make an impact there. I wasn’t thinking that I would just start off there and then move up the chain. That doesn’t serve anybody well except yourself. If what you want is to make an impact at the state level, then run for a state position. If what you want is to make a local impact, because you care about the character of your community and how things are zoned, then do that. And if what you really care about is federal policy, then run for a federal position. There are lots of opportunities, though. I think people have a very narrow view of how they can serve. They think “I’ve got to be a senator or I can’t serve,” but that is totally not true. There are local boards, special districts, so many opportunities to serve in our state. Sometimes having that experience will enrich your viewpoint, so why not?”
We ended with the discussion of how the Citizen’s Academy still influences Senator Zenzinger today:
“It influences me greatly. In my Academy class, I made connections with people whom I am still in touch with. It was surprising to me that it wasn’t just all about transit. The best example is a woman who was on the Centennial City Council, and who was [in 2016] elected to the State Board of Education, Rebecca McClellan. She and I through the Academy got to know one another, and we found out that we had lots of common interests. We always stayed connected to one another, and I learned from her Centennial City Council experience when I was on the Arvada City Council. Then we connected with each other at DRCOG. Then we found out that we had an education connection as well. It has totally benefitted me establishing that personal connection at the Academy.”
“The second thing is when talking about these issues of transportation, I feel like I have a much broader vision now about what transportation is and what it includes. It’s a much more integrated and multimodal perspective, that has opened my eyes to lots of different possibilities. That benefits any kind of policy conversation, because you’re able to bring multiple perspectives to the table. Not everybody has that. Most people when they think about transportation only think about roads and roadways. That’s a limited view, and doesn’t serve us as well as having that broader and more diverse perspective.”
“Finally, I’m not an expert. Having gone through the Academy definitely made me more proficient in some of these concepts. More importantly, it showed me who is good at this. It connected me to resources and to people that I know I can go to now when talking about these kinds of issues, which is very helpful for somebody who is not an expert in this area. I now feel extremely confident that if I had a question about transit that I could go to Kathleen Osher [or other Academy speakers]. I understand that we need to integrate voices from MPACT64, the Metro Mayor’s Caucus, and from DRCOG. I know that we need to be looking at some of the [regional transportation authorities], like the Pikes Peak region for example. I wouldn’t have known any of that if I hadn’t been through the Citizens’ Academy.”
December: Kayla Gilbert (Spring 2015) chats about her Academy experience and managing Denver’s Community Active Living Coalition
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Transit Alliance Program Manager
Kayla Gilbert graduated from the Spring 2015 Citizens’ Academy. We sat down and chatted about her experience in the Citizens’ Academy and her role now managing Denver’s Community Active Living Coalition (CALC). You can learn more about CALC and view the Denver PhotoVoices project gallery by visiting their website, denvercalc.org
I was recommended to take the Academy by my former boss when I worked at PlaceMatters. He recommended it because I had been getting more involved in active transportation and tactical urbanism work and thought that it would be good fit for me. I was lucky enough to be able to do it as my work.
Was it what you expected?
A little bit? The real value was all the speakers that you brought in to talk about local examples of how this is working, and then the people that I met in that class was the greatest part—building those relationships and having a core knowledge that we could build off with each other.
You said that you were doing work in “active transportation.” What does that mean?
We were doing different community engagement programs based around walking and biking all over the nation. One project I worked on was community engagement around a rails-to-trails project in Yonkers, NY.
Now you work with CALC, the Community Active Coalition. What does CALC do?
The Community Active Coalition is administered by Denver Environmental Health. It’s a three-year grant from the state health department for healthy eating, active living community health programs, and I’m managing the grant. Right now, our coalition has representation from a lot of different community members as well as from organizations like Transit Alliance, BikeDenver, and WalkDenver. The coalition is helping to build the voice for policy, infrastructure, or systems changes related to active living. Primarily the places that we’re focusing on are destinations for kids and families, including schools and rec centers.
In our first year, we did a huge data collection push. We used the WalkScope tool developed by WalkDenver and PlaceMatters as well as some additional paper surveys about biking and transit stops at the school or rec center site. We looked at what amenities there were, and asked what the infrastructure was like and how it felt for people to be there. We evaluated about a quarter to a half a mile around all the schools, at 123 sites in Denver. We had volunteers from the coalition coming out and mapping all that data and now we’re using that data to inform prioritization of projects.
We also got data from Denver Public Schools showing block-by-block where students live so we can pull up a map of a school and where all the students live. If there’s an area with a high population of kids with low-rated sidewalks, we can show that area should be a priority. We’re also working on a Safe Routes to School grant on multimodal travel plans for ten elementary schools over the next two years. All this data is also informing these plans to help schools prioritize active transportation. What we hear a lot from parents is that they don’t want their kids to walk or bike to school because it’s not safe enough. [Some of the policies we’re pursuing include] kiss-and-go and drop off zones, bike racks, better crosswalks, crossing guards, and walking school buses.
What are the challenges and opportunities for making Denver a better city for active living?
We got through data collection, though we may do more supplemental data collection. One of the biggest challenges we have with being school-focused is the sheer fact of how big the school system is. We didn’t [collect data for] all schools in Denver, and we still evaluated 123 sites. Finding an approach that works for a large number of schools and then being able to roll it out is a challenge. We’re doing a pilot with the first 10 schools with an evaluation to see if what we’re doing is successful. Then we can start rolling it out to schools all over the city.
One of the great opportunities right now is going through the Denveright process. It’s a good opportunity to use all the data that we just collected, and to have the community voice be heard through those plans. I’m on the project management team for the pedestrians and trails plan and we’re talking a lot about equity and all the same things that our coalition focuses on. It’s a great opportunity to talk about these issues on a city-scale.
How can our Transit Alliance community members get involved with CALC?
We’re having our next quarterly meeting on Tuesday December, 6. It will be a quick meeting and will focus on networking [it’s also a holiday party]. Anyone is welcome to come join us at Cap City Tavern from 5-6:30.
We ran a data-collection challenge with WalkDenver last spring where we encouraged people to make teams and collect data on WalkScope. Our three winning teams are working on three projects right now. Barnum is working on a wayfinding project around the Weir Gulch Trail. Sunnyside is doing an intersection mural outside of Trevista at Horace Mann [Elementary School]. Athmar Park is doing another intersection mural outside of Valverde at Nevada and Tejon. We’re working on all of those projects with implementation in the spring and we’ll need volunteers for these community-driven projects. That will be a great way to get involved!
In addition to being an Academy graduate, you also participated in our Human Transit book club. What did you take away from that book and the discussion?
The single biggest thing I appreciated was (author Jarrett Walker’s) conversation about allocating funds, money, and time to whatever goals you identify, because coverage and ridership can be conflicting goals. Having a specific allocation, a goal in mind, is absolutely crucial whether it’s transit, walking, biking. We have to have clear goals in mind for planning. That’s something I’ve mentioned to both the pedestrians and trails and transit teams for Denveright.
We’ve noticed at Transit Alliance that an increasing number of our applicants belong to the youngest age group. As a Millennial, why do you think members of your generation are getting involved with civic opportunities like the Academy?
I see and hear stuff all the time about Millennials—they’re lazy, they’re hard to engage, entitled. I really don’t like those…What I see, especially with the people that I know, is that maybe we’re harder to engage from the get-go, but it’s because we want to really be involved in what’s getting on every step along the way. If there’s a way to really include Millennials, they’re all for it, especially if it’s something that impacts their daily life (like transportation). We want to move into the city, get rid of our cars, and live a more free lifestyle. [When getting involved] Millennials want to know how you get from point A to point B to point C. We don’t want people to say to us, “Hey join us at Point B, and then maybe we’ll talk again at Point D.” That volunteer management versus relationship building is really crucial for Millennials. One of the things that Transit Alliance is really good at doing is getting people involved at every step along the process, and Millennials are really intrigued because they want to be included in the whole picture.
A lot of people will also say that millennials are idealistic, but I honestly think that’s one of our greatest traits. We should never be afraid of opportunities to make things better for our neighbors and communities.
November: Joel Noble (Spring 2007) chats about the Rail~Volution conference in San Francisco
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Transit Alliance Program Manager
Joel Noble graduated from the Citizens’ Academy in 2007 and has put his Academy knowledge to use as Co-Chair of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation’s Transportation Committee, member of Denver’s Planning Board, Boardmember of the Five Points Business District, and immediate past President of Curtis Park Neighbors. He is also involved in the Denveright planning process, serving on the Blueprint Denver and Transit task forces. This October, Joel traveled to San Francisco with a partial scholarship from an NRDC grant to Transit Alliance to learn even more about building livable communities with transit at the Rail~Volution Conference.
This was Joel’s first year at Rail~Volution, and he said it was clear that Rail~Volution is not just about transportation; it’s also about building healthier cities:
“I’d never been to Rail~Volution before and I went in with the assumption that it was a transportation conference. What I experienced from end-to-end was a conference […] focused on a range of topics that make cities great: transportation, healthy communities, and the built environment. The final talk was given by Jeffrey Tumlin and Dr. Anthony Iton, and they provided an inspiring summary of the range city-building topics at the conference, including transportation, Vision Zero, planning and zoning, and how they all relate directly to health and how our citizens can thrive.
And about equity:
“One of the many reasons to rethink a transit network to provide frequent, rapid, all-day service is fundamentally an equity issue. We’re shifting more and more to a service economy and more of our population is working hours that aren’t necessarily 9-to-5. In a lot of cities, Denver included, when you’re going to take trips outside that core window you have very few options on how to go and you can spend a lot of your time waiting for transit to come. Rather than having transportation that fits your life, you have to change your life to fit the transportation. That equity issue extends to health because people have to spend more time away from their families and less of their day taking care of themselves. The equity issue runs very deep. Right now, as Denver is updating Blueprint Denver and developing our transit plan, we have to be aspirational in envisioning what we want to become over the next 20 years.”
One session stood out in particular with lessons for Denver as it moves forward with the Denveright process:
“One of the sessions that I really thought important for where Denver is now and where it could go with its transit plan was a session with four cities that had recently redesigned their transit system to provide frequent, rapid, all-day service to replace their previous diffuse and infrequent service. The speakers were from Jacksonville, FL; Portland, OR; Houston, TX; and Rockville, MD. While some of the cities are smaller than what we think of as peer cities […] I came away with the sense that they’re all ahead of us in terms of redesigning transit to serve all people and provide the freedom to go where they want when they want.”
I suggested that turning to Texas for advice may be a little un-Coloradan:
“Well, Houston might not have everything that Denver has, but when it comes to taking a hard look at its bus network that evolved over many years and asking the question ‘how would we best design this from scratch, within our existing budget?’ I think there’s a lot we have to learn.”
Joel also chimed in about Denver’s new commitment to work toward zero traffic deaths as a Vision Zero city. At one of the sessions Joel attended, a speaker was addressing the messaging around Vision Zero:
“While we all agree that the only moral goal to aim for is zero traffic deaths, there might be a tendency to aim for a less difficult goal. The speaker’s suggestion was that this happens because there may be a tendency to not think about these deaths as real people. He asked how many deaths would be a reasonable number to reduce to in your city. Then he continued, saying that if you’re thinking of any number other than zero, ask yourself how many deaths would be reasonable for your family. This is serious – literally life and death.”
One of the unique features of Rail~Volution is mobile tours that take conference attendees out on field trips around the city and region. Joel went on two mobile tours, both by bicycle:
“I came a day early to go on a bike tour of the ever-evolving Mission District […] On the second day there was a tour on which we biked through Oakland, and over the Bay Bridge to Treasure Island. The region has spent quite a lot of deliberate time and money to build a bike and pedestrian path on the bridge which will be completed in the coming years. Of the major bridges in the area, they are getting closer to all having important bike and pedestrian connections. This is what happens when people are serious about providing infrastructure for transportation choices.”
Rail~Volution will be hosted in Denver next year. Joel is hoping that people from all walks of life come out to attend and learn from the conferences national speakers:
“I want to be sure that we get a lot of attendance from people in Denver—and not just people at RTD and with careers related to transportation, but everyone who’s interested in city-building and the relationship between land use and transportation. We need to celebrate this conference coming to Denver and take advantage of all the great speakers who are going to be here.”
Jamie’s Note: There are ways to get involved without waiting until next year’s Rail~Volution. To learn more about how cities are adopting rapid all-day transit service, come to our 6th Annual Transit Event to hear from speaker Jarrett Walker, who revolutionized Houston’s transit service. Stay tuned for future book club announcements and look out for opportunities to help plan next year’s Rail~Volution!
October: RTD Board Chair Tom Tobiassen chats about his 8 years on the RTD Board
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Transit Alliance Program Manager
Tom Tobiassen has represented District F on RTD’s Board of Directors since 2008, and served as the chairman of the Board this year. In 2007, Director Tobiassen graduated from the Citizens’ Academy’s inaugural class, and I caught up with him to reflect on his past eight years on the RTD Board. We discussed topics including the future of RTD, how technology is already changing transportation, and what it takes to serve on the Board and make progress. [Tom Tobiassen was awarded the Citizens’ Academy Graduate of the Year at the 6th Annual Transit Event on November 17th, 2016]
Director Tobiassen joined the Board in 2008, and some of the proudest of his accomplishments during his term are from those early years:
“I started this in 2008 and the FasTracks program was in serious jeopardy. Because of the rapid escalation of commodity and labor prices, they were talking about stubbing all the corridors…and then the recession hit in late 2008-09 and the economy tanked, people were out of work. Because of the drop in interest rates and work hungry contractors, RTD was in the position where we could start making good progress on many of the FasTracks corridors. The Eagle 3P project was the first and biggest and became the catalyst for getting a lot FasTracks done. What I’m most proud of is how much progress we were able to make on FasTracks…and then actually using the FasTracks program to put people during work during a very deep recession. I spent a lot of time working with various jurisdictions with RTD being one of the only organizations that had jobs to offer. So we did what we could to find people work in not only construction in FasTracks but also in bus operations, helping people get through some really tough times.”
Speaking more about the recession, Director Tobiassen echoed what many Academy grads have learned—that a recession is a terrible thing to waste:
“From an infrastructure spending perspective, we were at the right place at the right time to take advantage of low interest rates and a hungry labor force. It was amazing, because it was tough times and people were apprehensive about spending money, but this was the best time to be investing in long-term infrastructure projects. Today we forget about where we were.”
I asked what’s next for RTD as FasTracks nears the end of its buildout:
“We’re going to open two more corridors in 2016, then we’ll have completed a large portion of Fastracks. We’ll still have two more corridors opening in 2018, which will be the North corridor and the Southeast Extension, so we still have those projects that we’re working on. The next big thing for RTD over the next ten years is going to be operating all of these lines. We are transitioning from a construction operation to a “move the people” operation and we need to do that smartly and efficiently, while we’re watching the pennies…we don’t have a lot of room for extra spending”
And, of course, we couldn’t speculate about what’s next for RTD without talking about technology:
“We can look at what’s next in terms of transit expansion and the technologies we’ll be developing over the next ten years. I think technology development will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before in terms of new mobility options. We’ll have to carefully watch where the trends go over the next ten years and adapt transit to work with those new mode options…I think it will be stunning. Plus you’ve got these autonomous vehicles, driverless cars – let’s see how that all fits into the picture. Also…everyone seems to think the autonomous vehicles coming up in the next year or two are going to solve all these problems, and I’m not sure that’s going to happen. But, certainly, there’s something out on the horizon, and it may be things we can’t even imagine today.”
Director Tobiassen shared his perspective with me on what he wishes more people realized about RTD and transit in general:
“Transit is part of the background infrastructure that is just there and everyone just assumes is going to be there, like water coming out of the tap…when the reality is, just like the water system, transit is a complex system. There is a lot going on behind the scenes, there’s a lot of good people that make it work and make it work reliably, and that it takes good people at lots of different levels to keep it running. It’s complex and it needs care, feeding and nurturing just like any other system we count on. We take it for granted, assume it’s going to be there…but it takes a community to keep it working.”
Since we’ll be electing eight new RTD Board members this election day, I asked Director Tobiassen if he had any advice for incoming Board members:
“Listen. Listen and learn. Getting on the RTD Board is likely going to be like something you’ve never done before and there’s a lot to learn and it’s the proverbial drinking from the firehose with all the information. It’s a very complex system, there are a lot of people and personalities, there is a lot of turf protection since some board members are protecting the interests of their district and regionalism needs to be emphasized. There is a lot to learn, so sit back, listen and read, take in everything. Don’t rush to judgement, which is tough.”
He particularly emphasized the importance of building relationships:
“There’s the people part of it, learning about people and how they interact and how to get along, how to get things done and build relationships—with other board members and staff, with other elected officials in the region’s local jurisdictions, with other staffs from other government organizations…you are really working tightly with lots and lots of different people…Getting along and working for the common good is something else that comes with the job and needs to be developed. It’s huge.”
Before I spoke with Director Tobiassen, I looked up his application to the Academy from 2007, and something about it really stuck out to me. On that application he said that this greatest skill was a “positive can-do attitude.” So I asked him if after eight years on the board, he still feels that way:
“Absolutely. Not that I can say that I can solve all problems and get all things done, but I tend to look at problems and then look for solutions…there’s plenty of problems, but at the end of the day you say we’re going to figure this out and we’re going to do what it takes to get it going—and at the same time I’m not going to get in the way.”
And, of course, I asked him how the Academy helped inspire his or inform him as a director:
“When I got into the Academy I was pretty active in community engagement. I was on the Aurora Planning Commission, water advisory board, and I started the bicycle advocacy club in Aurora, so I was actively involved in transportation. Getting into the Academy further engaged me in the public transportation side of things. A lot of what we did in the Academy at the time was higher density housing, transit oriented development, transit options for people…I feel like when I got on the board I had some background in those kinds of topics coming in. We worked a lot with transit oriented development right off the bat because now we’re building rail lines and what we wanted the station areas to look like around those lines…I was working with Aurora and Denver on the station area plans…My experience in the transit Academy fit right in with what I was walking into on the board. It was well worth the time and the great relationships we built with other academy members and the Transit Alliance staff was invaluable.”
As we wrapped up, Director Tobiassen offered some inspiring words for Academy participants and graduates:
“The transit Academy provides perspectives on parts of transit that you’re not going to get by just observing around you. You dig in on topics and get some background on topics, and it’s a license to learn…what I would encourage is that Academy graduates seriously consider getting involved long-term with transit and RTD.”
And some final thoughts on the RTD Board:
“There’s no magic to being on the RTD Board, let me tell you. We just need good, solid, thinking people to be on our Board…I wish more people would get interested in being on the RTD Board.”
September: Daniel and Melanie talk about Centennial/Lyft Partnership
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Transit Alliance Program Manager
The City of Centennial has been moving their citizens to new choices with the launch of Go Centennial, an innovative first and last mile program to connect people with light rail. I caught up with Daniel and Melanie, two Citizens’ Academy alumni who helped make Go Centennial possible as members of Centennial’s Innovation Team.
JAMIE, TRANSIT ALLIANCE PROGRAM MANAGER: First, congratulations on the launch of Go Centennial! At Transit Alliance we know that you have been working very hard over the past year to see this project come to fruition.
MELANIE, I-TEAM DATA ANALYST: Thanks! We hope everyone finds it as exciting as we do.
JAMIE: For those who haven’t heard about this project yet, can you give an overview of the program? Who are the partners involved in this?
MELANIE: Go Centennial is a pilot program providing a solution for transit users to easily get to and from RTD’s Dry Creek Light Rail Station. By integrating with the Go Denver app and partnering with Lyft, we have created an easy, cost effective and efficient model for transit users to reach their destinations without having to drive. The Go Centennial pilot program allows transit users to schedule free Lyft Line rides to and from the Dry Creek Station within the existing RTD Call-n-Ride service area. To qualify for a free Lyft Line ride you must be registered through the Go Denver app and be traveling to or from the existing RTD Call-n-Ride service area and the Dry Creek Light Rail Station Monday through Friday 5:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. We’ve had a lot of support throughout the pilot. RTD has been included in our conversations since the inception of this project and is eagerly awaiting data from the pilot.
Here’s a list of our partners:
• Lyft is providing rides to and from the Dry Creek light rail station.
• The Go Denver app, powered by Xerox, allows users to seamlessly plan and book trips within the service area.
• The City’s 24/7 Citizen Response Center, operated by CH2M, will assist in the booking of rides for people without cell phones.
• Denver South Transportation Management Association is a funding partner for this pilot, with the hope that lessons learned can be applied for the benefit of all businesses in Denver South.
• RTD is helping to coordinate logistics at the Dry Creek Station and providing input on trip booking and payment integration through the Go Denver App. Through this pilot, we hope to provide data to RTD to help optimize service to light rail stations throughout the metro area.
• Via is providing transportation to people with disabilities and others requiring an accessible vehicle.
JAMIE: Wow, that is a lot of partnerships. So cool that you found a way to make this program accessible for everyone. That makes me wonder who you think will use this program the most. Are you targeting people who already ride transit or is the greater goal getting people out of their cars? And won’t this just serve the Millennials who are already familiar with Lyft?
MELANIE: We understand that travel is a complex problem and one solution doesn’t fit all. There are a lot of potential uses we hope this pilot can address. The program’s operating hours primarily support commuter trips. In a recent survey by the Denver South Transportation Management Association, roughly 20% of Denver South employees said they did not take light rail because it was too difficult to get from the light rail to their home or workplace. This group makes up our target market of new light rail users. Millennials might be the first people to adopt this program, but we are working closely with the Centennial Senior Commission to conduct travel training and digital literacy outreach through the Mobility Ambassador Program.
DANIEL, INNOVATION TEAM MANAGER: We’re particularly proud of the pilot’s focus on accessibility. We’ve taken strides to make sure the pilot is fully inclusive so we can test how on-demand models can benefit people with different travel needs. Through our partnership with Via and Lyft, users that need an accessible vehicle will be provided the same on-demand user experience and level of service. Lyft has ensured that the Via vehicle can be hailed through the Lyft App by selecting the Lyft Access option. In addition, travelers without smartphones can call the Centennial Citizen Response Center at 303-754-8000 to book a qualifying Lyft ride by phone. Anecdotally, it is difficult to find a parking space at the Dry Creek Station. Encouraging residents in the service area who currently use the Park-n-Ride to access the station via Lyft should free up some parking spaces, allowing residents who live farther away to park at the station.
DANIEL: The trending focus on getting transit users to or from their destinations, known as the first and last mile problem resulted from the discovery that just because you build something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people will use it. After “backbone” infrastructure such as light rail lines and bus routes were put in place, transit agencies and planners began observing that the reach of transit is limited by how quickly and conveniently people can access it, especially in suburban environments such as Centennial. While there are currently solutions for the first and last mile problem to get people to and from these connections, in most cases they aren’t very quick, convenient or user friendly. Our approach is based on the premise that if we have any hope of making impacts we need to make transit competitive with single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). As such, we believe that solving transportation and mobility issues requires simplicity, positivity and some level of cool factor.
Transit agencies have done a good job over the past few decades providing high levels of service under constrained budgets, especially considering that planning processes can take years or even decades. But times are changing, and tech companies like Lyft and Xerox are entering into the transportation space due to market demand. While they have great grasps on transportation systems, they particularly excel at understanding the user’s experience, such as how people prefer to book trips, how to pay, when to get to the station, how to coordinate multiple modes, etc. Traditionally these systems have been convoluted and complicated, but through public-private partnership we have the opportunity to enhance transit by harnessing the strengths of the tech economy. Ridesharing in itself is innovative and it could be a great complement to public transit systems. However, we believe that ridesharing combined with integrated trip planning and booking could be a game changer, as now users have the option of a simple and seamless commute experience from door-to-door.
JAMIE: This program is a pilot project and this is so cool because you’re really the first to do it. Can you provide any insight into how this program is being evaluated?
MELANIE: The Bloomberg i-teams program, and the City of Centennial, are very data-driven organizations. We know data will be extremely important to demonstrate the pilot’s impacts, and partnering with Lyft and Xerox provides us great access to data. Some of the “hard” factors we will be looking at are the number of Lyft Line rides taken, RTD light rail ridership, average cost per ride and waiting time.
DANIEL: We also plan to conduct surveys to assess ease of use and riders’ comfort with the service. We designed the pilot with an emphasis on user experience, as traditional transit systems can often be confusing and time consuming for users. Most last mile solutions tend to be based on circulator shuttle models that require the user to transfer from another mode, in this case the light rail. New tech platforms, such as the Lyft and Go Denver Apps, allow users to have trip coordination, payment and booking information at their fingertips. We aim to evaluate the two tech platforms powering the pilot to enhance the transit user’s experience to make daily commutes as seamless and frictionless as possible.
JAMIE: Are people going to stop riding the bus, walking, or riding their bike because they can take a Lyft ride? Will you be measuring whether this project has an effect on local bus service ridership?
MELANIE: It’s possible, but hopefully only because they would prefer to take a Lyft, for example, when it is snowing. We’ll still encourage biking and walking – in fact, the I-25/Dry Creek Road Interchange Corridor Study is investigating potential bicycle and pedestrian improvements in the area.
Dry Creek Station is actually not served by a bus line, hence one of the needs for this service. (The service area is roughly equivalent to the Dry Creek Call-n-Ride boundary below) The service area allows riders to connect with the 66 (North, on Arapahoe) or the 402L (South, on County Line).
DANIEL: As a suburban environment that is more distributed than more urban environments such as downtown Denver, we have to keep in mind that cars will probably always be part of the solution to getting people to transit, as not everyone will want to walk or ride a bicycle. While Lyft’s platform is based on the use of cars, we’ve intentionally built Lyft Line (Lyft’s carpool option) into this model to fill more seats. While we certainly hope people will also consider walking or biking, filling more seats in a rideshare vehicle not only requires less parking but has greater positive impacts on VMT and emissions than the high SOV rates we’re currently seeing.
Jamie: What kind of press is Go Centennial getting? Is there anything about the program you want people to know that isn’t getting covered by the media?
MELANIE: We have received a lot of interest from the press, which is exciting to see. . We’ve been covered in Citylab, the Denver Business Journal, and the London Times, among other national publications
Our partnership with Via has not been getting as much press as our partnership with Lyft. Via is a non-profit that offers mobility solutions through on-demand paratransit, individual and group travel training, and mobility options information and referral. From the beginning, we were adamant this service would be available to all riders, and we are proud users requiring an accessible vehicle can now hail one through the Lyft app in Centennial.
JAMIE: Is Go Centennial available for anyone to use? Can I ride it even though I don’t live in Centennial?
MELANIE: Yes! Anyone over 18 within the service area traveling to or from Dry Creek Station can use the service. Supporting Centennial’s residents and businesses also means supporting their visitors and customers. In the near term, we plan to share a list of restaurants and retail that are accessible through the pilot.
JAMIE: Ok, that’s great news for me when I want to come visit you two at work! So, I met you this past Spring when you were participants in the Academy. Now that you’re graduates, will you share any “aha” moments that you had during the Academy and how the Academy influences your thinking as members of the i-Team?
MELANIE: The Citizens’ Academy broadened my view of a “transit stakeholder.” Transportation affects everyone – the resident and the planning professional, but also the small business owner, the Fortune 500 CEO, the physicians and the grandparents. Everyone views the problem a little differently, but there are definitely synergies in the solutions.
DANIEL: The Citizens’ Academy broadened my view of what people consider transit. I thought that for many people this was assumed to be an extension of public transit, but through interacting with the very large cross-section of Coloradans that made up our class, transit seems to be more synonymous with general mobility based on peoples’ own experiences. Public transit is one set of tools for getting around, but transit now seems to include a spectrum of multi-modal mobility options. This can include biking, ridesharing, car sharing and driving as well as ease of access in the built environment, such as retrofitting accessible sidewalks Transit doesn’t just have to be accessible any more – transit is accessibility, among other things. Transit has become a customizable and personalized term, just as users now expect on-demand service and information at their fingertips.