Imagine: You are in the central square of a beautiful European city, on holiday with your family. You are seated under an umbrella, in front of a cafe, sipping on a Trappist ale and munching on croquettes.

You can hear a street musician playing the hurdy-gurdy off to your right, while a crowd of tourists poses for a picture in front of the belfry. A couple seated to your left are marveling together at the beautiful architecture of the buildings surrounding the square. The kids run off to play by the public fountain with some new friends. You think of what to do next: a walk along the canal, perhaps. Maybe you’ll find a shop that sells nice stationery, a gift for your mother. A thought strikes you: people actually live here! 

Now you’re back at home, and you want to take your family out. You consider the obstacles: loading everybody up into the car, battling traffic on the interstate, securing a parking space, finding a gas station along the way to refill the tank. You decide to give it a try anyway.

Oops – you don’t account for the gridlock caused by a fender-bender on the highway. As you snake along, you feel a strong irritation toward your fellow man bubbling up inside you. Every other driver is an enemy. When you arrive 20 minutes late, the host informs you that your reservation has been forfeited. There is another restaurant nearby, but it sits on the other side of a busy stroad, and there are no pedestrian crossings in sight. It’s back into the car with all of you. 

The purpose of this thought exercise is to help you feel, in your body, the difference between life in a place built for people and life in a place built for automobiles. To make our cities enjoyable, safe destinations, we must break out of the cage that is automobile dependence and embrace the freedom of public transportation.  

Many things need to happen to transform a car-infested city into a walkable, bikeable, kids-playing-in-the-fountain-able city, but none are both as unpopular — while at the same time as important — as this one: we need to kick our habit of driving our cars everywhere we go.

Automobiles are a danger to pedestrians. Despite Denver’s commitment to eliminate traffic-related deaths by the year 2030, its streets have actually gotten more dangerous over the past decade.

Traffic creates air pollution and noise pollution. It does not cause congestion — it is congestion.

And yet, car culture is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche. During the Regis University mayoral debate in February of this year, the candidates were asked to stand if answering yes to the following question: “Should it be harder to drive in downtown Denver?” The level of confusion amongst the candidates was palpable. Several didn’t seem to understand the question, though it was phrased simply enough.

The moment demonstrated just how little our decision-makers understand what makes a city strong: Only by making it harder to drive downtown will transit become an attractive option. 

A common refrain is, “American cities can’t be like European cities. American cities were built for cars.”

False and false. European cities were not always pedestrian-friendly. Amsterdam, for example, was a car-choked hellscape at one time, too. Take a look at these photos of Amsterdam streets in the 70s – they bear an uncanny resemblance to many streets in Colorado cities today.

Nor is it true that  American cities were built around the automobile. Private automobile ownership did not start to take off until the 1920s. Denver was already a city of hundreds of thousands of people by 1920. Los Angeles’ population was already greater than half a million. Our cities are car-dependent today because they were altered to accommodate cars, which means they can be altered again if its citizens so choose. 

Organizations like Denver Streets Partnership are working toward this vision, and media like Not Just Bikes are doing a great job demonstrating the quality of life upgrade we can collectively win if we rethink our cities’ designs. 

Seattle is a city that is moving in the right direction. Only 25% of Seattle commuters drive themselves downtown to work. And despite adding 60,000 jobs over a 7-year period, the proportion of drivers actually decreased. They did this by aggressively supporting transit.

Colorado’s cities must follow suit. The more we support transit, and the more that citizens get involved in the way transit develops across our cities, the closer we get to a city in which it is actually faster, safer, and cheaper to ride public transit than it is to drive a car — a place with town squares bustling with people; a place where you might overhear a visitor saying, “People actually live here!”  

If, after reading this column, you find you have become “transit-curious,” and if you live in the Denver metro area, then you’re in luck – RTD is free for everybody through the end of August, and anyone under 20 can ride for free until September 2024

Eugene Roach lives in Denver.

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Eugene Roach lives in Denver.