A few days ago, I needed to go into downtown Denver for a meeting. This was somewhat complicated because I don’t currently have a working car, something that’s possible because I work at home, and Walmart delivers groceries. (It’s called Walmart To Go, and I really do like the service.)
The People Who Know Better About Everything have been developing a massive mass-transit system for the Denver area for, I don’t know, maybe 30 years, and with a massive construction program with light rail that is supposed to make everything wonderful. So, I investigated using the system.
Well, it’s about a half hour drive from my home to my meeting.
By “efficient, cheap, comfortable, and environmentally friendly” mass transit, the trip is nearly 3 hours: first I’d walk about 2 miles to catch a feeder bus into Boulder, then I’d catch the express bus to Denver, then I’d catch the 16th Street Mall bus to about 4 blocks from my destination and walk the rest of the way.
Oh, and have you heard about the Denver weather recently? We’ve had pouring rain nearly every afternoon for weeks.
It didn’t make sense; I paid a local car service $80 to drive me in. Luckily I had dinner plans as well, and my dinner companion drove me home. (Thanks, Donna!)
So that’s “efficient, cheap, comfortable, and environmentally friendly” mass transit for you.
I’ll give you this — in terms of the ticket cost, mass transit would have been cheap: the feeder buses are “free” and the Express bus is $2.25. But that doesn’t count the 1 percent sales tax that pays for the system. If I used it regularly, I could buy a monthly pass, which costs in the neighborhood of $150 a month.
Really, the only way that counts as cheap is that I wouldn’t have to pay for parking in Denver.
“Efficient” is right out, not with a three hour commute one way. “Comfortable,” well, have you ridden a bus recently? And I’ve very very suspicious about the “environmentally friendly” part, because in order to have even faintly adequate service, most buses run nearly empty most of the time. It would be interesting to compute just what the actual carbon release is per passenger mile.
The underlying problem is population density. It’s easy to see why the Know Betters like mass transit, because they live in places like New York, where there are millions of people who can use the subways and buses in an area a few miles across. I literally live among cow pastures and corn fields, and I like it that way. But that means where I live there are only a relatively few thousand people within the same area as Manhattan. So, to provide the level of mass transit service that people think of in Manhattan, it would have to be “efficient, cheap, comfortable, and environmentally friendly” with only a few thousand customers.
Now, let’s imagine a really “efficient, cheap, comfortable, and environmentally friendly” mass transit system that suits the Denver area. First of all, for efficiency sake, we’d like to cut back on the number of unused passenger miles — that is, no empty buses — so we would like to have smaller vehicles, and we’d like them only to run when there are passengers. We would like them to pick you up at your door and drop you at your destination — especially when the weather has you looking for a guy building a big boat. And we’d like our mass transit to be comfortable, warm in the winter, cool in the summer.
Certainly cars have their own troubles: you have to park, and you have to actually drive them. But when we consider what we really need for mass transportation, it’s apparent that the real answer, the “efficient, cheap, comfortable, and environmentally friendly” answer, it the one that has emerged over the years in the United States: cars.