Transit Systems – Ponzi Scheme or Social Responsibility

Seven Wednesday evenings this fall, I attended the Transit Alliance Citizens’ Academy.  I’m proud to report, I made it!

Certificate of Completion

Certificate of Completion

Being severely ADHD in a classroom environment, I had a concern whether I could.  Talking Heads, Videos, Discussion Groups, Planning Sessions and Tours, were fodder for a hysterical reaction and a flight for the door.  But, this was not the case.  TACA was so foreign, so different, so tactically removed from my daily routine, I soon settled in as a committed Student of Transit.

Let me come clean, I have always believed that public transportation systems were onerous Ponzi Schemes cursed on their tax payers without regard for real economic sense.  In short, I was not drinking the Kool-Aid in any way shape or form.  I went into that classroom as a Transit Anarchist convinced I would be able to hold my ground, and then walk away from the Academy with my beliefs intact.

Week #1 began as something of an introductory, welcome, hello, hello, handshake, but then without notice we were right into it.  Housekeeping, mandatory attendance, ground rules, Action Plan, and a report from RTD’s own Pauletta Tonillas the RTD Public Information Officer.  With each week, we ended with a debriefing and a written evaluation.  I learned quickly, this was not a hobby; this was a real academy of learning, exchange and self-realization.

RTD provided several fact sheets, system information and future plans, and I have included this handout here.

Additionally, Ten Toe Express 2011 was introduced to us, and I have also included the hand out here.

Needless to say, my head was swimming on the drive home.  In seven weeks, would I be experiencing guilt for having an auto-centric suburban lifestyle?  Over the next seven days, my reticular activators were already focused.  I saw buses, light rail and the shuttle in a brighter light already.  Was the Kool-Aid working?

Week #2 began with a link to Week #1, some introductions, some information, but before I could pull myself away from my email and pay attention, we were engrossed in a presentation by Brad Calvert from the Denver Regional Council of Governments focusing on The Denver Region’s Plan for Growth and subsequently MetroQuest Café’ Scenario Planning.  Our minds would not sit idle in this classroom.  We were included, we were a part of the activity and we were made to visualize the planning process.  This transit thing is not an easy one.  It is a very complex business of Money, Planning and Results.  Without results, the plan ultimately has no future.  Without a plan, transit has no future.

DRCOG’s Who is TOD in Metro Denver and The Café’ Conversation presentations are provided for your review here.

Once again, on my drive home, my thoughts raced.  My conversations with fellow Academy Fellows returned and rethought as I raced along.  I looked over as I drove south on I-25, Light Rail was heading north.  Was it all starting to make sense, or was it fatique?

Week #3 was on me before I knew it.  The Academy is giving me a new respect for all the students around the world taking night classes for years, not just 7 weeks.  This week’s presentations lead off with Crissy Fanganello from the City and County of Denver, The topic, Re-shaping the Denver Metro Region.

It took me awhile, but after the screening of Denver Union Station – A Portal to Progress” was finished, I was catching on.  You should watch it too.  The Kool-Aid will taste better along the way.

“In 1881 the largest building West of the Mississippi opened on the soggy edge of a tenacious frontier town. For over eighty years, Denver Union Station bore witness to a procession of arrivals and departures that transformed the Rocky Mountain West. From 19th century regional gateway to 21st century multi-model hub, “Denver Union Station: Portal to Progress” tells the story of the grand era of railroad travel and the awe inspiring structure that stands today at the crossroads of past glory and future promise.”

<p><a href=”″>Denver Union Station: Portal to Progress – USA Trailer</a> from <a href=””>Havey Productions</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Week #4, Holly Cow, a Field Trip; we didn’t even meet at Metro Denver’s Classroom, we met outside at Union Station, but wait, a quick orientation inside and then a walking tour of the transition taking place to this historic ground surrounding it.

Here are a couple of images from the tour.

Union Station Front

Union Station Front

Union Station Now

Union Station Now

Here is a comprehensive look at the future of Denver’s Regional Transportation Plan.

A leisurely walk back to Metro Denver’s Classroom for the piece of the transit puzzle I had never considered.  The health characteristics of public transit riders, pedestrians and bicyclists is definitive, but what I didn’t know is what Dr. Sandra Stenmark, a Pediatrician and the Director of Wellness and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction Program for Kaiser Permanente was about to show us.

Ms. Stenmark’s presentation was focused, to the point and demonstrative.  Her clear and pragmatic display of the statistical, the anecdotal and the personal was clear to all of us.  Public transportation can have a huge impact on our health, but also on the health of less economically fortunate.  We learned transit is part of a bigger model I had never considered before that moment.  For the most part, my Academy Fellows had the same feelings when our evening was finished.

Once again, I had a lot to digest on the way home and the week to follow.  I’m visualizing transit considerations, opportunities and communities more freely.  I can honestly say, “I am enjoying the academy!”

To this point, you’re thinking, force fed knowledge.  Sponging in the backrow, taking it all in, growth from osmosis, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The realization in the back of our collective heads is becoming front and center.  We have an Action Plan and an Academy Presentation to complete before we have successfully completed the program.  The wheels are really spinning at this point.  What to do next?

Week #5 arrives with our classroom organized into work group settings.  Tables and chairs set up to accommodate group activity.  Our collective knowledge of Transit Oriented Communities will be put to work.

Classroom Time

Classroom Time

Jacob Riger & Patrick Picard, Transit Planners, from Charlier Associates, Inc. will preside over this week’s session.  Our visualization skills will be optimized by the help of before and after photography, classroom discussion and a case study of El Paso, Texas.  Can you believe it?  As if Denver doesn’t have enough problems, we were literally seeing the before, then we were executing our group plans, and then we were seeing the after from Jacob and Patrick.  The interaction at our group tables, the discussions and the results were impressive for rookies, but then Jacob displayed the reality of transit development by demonstrating the reality of a limited budget, access to real estate and community involvement.

The evening is over, and one thing is certain; this transit thing is complicated!

Week #6 has an air of excitement associated with it for me.  First, Tom Clark, Executive VP, Denver Metro Economic Development Corporation, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is going to discuss Keeping the Denver Region Competitive.  I’ve heard Tom speak many times over the years, and I always enjoy his pragmatic style of pull no punches.  By the time Tom wraps up, we have been entertained, informed and left with a plate full of food for thought.  Gracious as a man can be, Tom actually thanks us for taking the time and effort to attend the Academy, and impresses upon us the value of our new found knowledge on Denver’s future.

But wait, there’s more!  The second half of the evening was the start of our presentations to our fellows at the academy.  I’m up third.  At this point, I am truly interested in the other ideas before me and the ones to come after.  I’ve attached my Action Plan and Presentation here.

I’m past my presentation time window, questions and suggestions are still coming in, and a couple of people offer little scraps of paper with urls scribbled down for my reference.  A team spirit has clearly evolved in just a few short weeks.  The Kool-Aid really tastes great right about now.  As a group, we are starting to pull together.  A sense of camaraderie is clear.  The Academy is working.

On my drive home, I’m rendered to constant observation along I-25 as I wonder about my next steps in executing my Action Plan.  I am starting to understand the what’s and why’s of our transit system.  For me, it’s no longer just a map on a piece of paper.  It has a life of its own.  It will reach out like the tentacles of an octopus into the communities that surround it.  Only this time, they will be helpful reaches assisting residents of all ages, abilities and needs.  I truly understand the vision, the future of Denver, the need to stay competitive in a global market place.

Week #7 is entirely devoted to the remaining Action Plan Presentations.  The presentations are as diverse as our fellows.  From Bike Lanes & Bike Sharing to Special Needs Drop Off and Pick Up, there has been no want or need left out by the time the last presentation closes.  My interest and understanding has grown from seedling to small tree.  My only hope is one day, it will be a mighty oak!

I would be remiss if I didn’t spend at least a minute telling you about Kathleen Osher our Executive Director and Cady Dawson our Assistant Director.  Without their tenacity, hard work and passion for the Academy, it wouldn’t happen.  They are the true “White Hats” behind the scenes.  They make sure the technology, the classroom, the Food & Drink, the participants and presenters are well cared for and engaged.  I know they are proud of what’s been accomplished at the Academy; I know I am proud to have been just a small part of their determination.  Thank You Kathleen and Thank You Cady, and may you have many more successful Academies like this one!

And finally, the answer to the omnipresent question is; A transit oriented community is socially responsible.  No more jokes about Kool-Aid, I promise!

About Tom & Dee Cryer

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