Denver Fools the Wall Street Journal

“Denver rethinks the modern commuter,” heralds the Wall Street Journal. The article goes on to say that, instead of building parking lots at its rail stations, Denver is encouraging developers to build high-density, mixed-use developments. Somehow, this is supposed to be news.

Let’s think this through. First of all, no one is “rethinking the modern commuter.” The Census Bureau reports that transit carried less than 5 percent of Denver-area commuters in 2010, while more than 85 percent drove. Instead, what RTD, Denver’s transit agency, is rethinking is the role of public transit.

The old-style public transit system used cheap, flexible buses whose routes could be altered overnight to take people from where they were to where they wanted to go. When Denver first built rail, it substituted expensive but glamorous trains for inexpensive buses, but still allowed people to go from where they were–provided they were willing to drive to a park-and-ride station–to where they wanted to go–provided they wanted to go downtown.

Under RTD’s latest “rethink,” transit will no longer take people from where they are to where they want to go. Instead, planners will try to coerce and entice people to live in places served by rail transit and go where those rail lines go. On one hand, this is far more intrusive on people’s lifestyles; on the other hand, it is a far more limited view of the purpose of transit. Instead of “mobility for those who can’t or don’t want to drive,” the new purpose is “mobility for those who are willing to completely rebuild their lifestyles around transit.”

This has been tried before, of course, most notably in Portland. How well did it work there? In 1980, under the old bus-transit model, transit carried 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters to work. By 2010, with seven different rail lines and scores of transit-oriented developments, transit carried just 7.1 percent of the region’s commuters to work.

The sad part is that the Wall Street Journal not only thinks this is newsworthy, but that it is laudable. In fact, it is government at it worst: inefficient, coercive, and unable to learn from past mistakes.

Transit should serve people and not the other way around. It is time to rethink the rethink.