Greetings from the United States, where I’ve been helping a friend get married and generally visiting friends and family. Along the way, I got to visit Denver, where one of my two brothers now lives. Here’s a picture of all three of us hiking in a state park near the city. I’m the one in the middle:


A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about Denver’s relatively new and expanding light rail system. The city seems to be growing and changing. It’s also seeing a fair amount of spillover from the overheated Californian real estate market. So I was interested to see what the place was about.

A couple of random impressions.

Like most other American cities, Denver is built around the car. It’s big, and there are a whole lot of big roads like this:


This is a pretty typical American suburban landscape, but there are some Colorado-specific elements to it. Due to the fact that the state legalised marijuana in 2014, marijuana dispensaries seem roughly as common as liquor stores. Here’s one tucked between a brunch place and a Mexican restaurant in a neighbourhood shopping centre – the “Lucy Sky” dispensary:


At least in the older parts of the city, Denver’s residential suburbs are about as pleasant as American suburbs get. Lots of street trees, modestly-sized, attractive standalone houses, decent sidewalks, and an extremely functional street grid system. (Once you get to the places that were developed in the last few decades, it all dissolves into cul-de-sac mush, unfortunately.)

Here’s what it looks like from the air:

Denver street grid

And here’s what it looks like on the ground. Note the absence of driveways at the front of houses – cars are either parked on-street or in driveways off rear lanes. That’s smart:


We went to Washington Park, the big park in the map above, one afternoon. It was packed full of people playing pretty much every sport imaginable. It’s a very fit city by US standards – Colorado has the nation’s lowest obesity rate – and so it was a bit surprising that cycling wasn’t better catered for on streets. I saw a few sharrows and painted bike lanes, but no serious effort to make it safer to cycle.

That being said, the street grid creates a lot of low-traffic back streets, so it’s probably possible to cycle around without spending much time on high-traffic arterials.

Lastly, the rail system. I was kind of curious to see how this worked, so I took the train to the airport when leaving. Basically, it does seem to be working. Even though I was travelling after the peak, a reasonable amount of people seemed to be riding.

One of the weaknesses of the system, I think, is that it often runs alongside motorway corridors. Although rights-of-way can be cheaper here, the ambiance is somewhat lacking. This was where I caught the train: In a darkened cave next to a motorway trench:


However, on the inner stations, where the rail lines deviate from the motorway, it is very apparent that Denver’s light rail system has been a catalyst for redevelopment. There are midrise apartments clustered around a number of stations. I particularly liked these ones a few blocks away from Union Station, which sits off to the side of downtown:


And these, immediately around Union Station and the underground intercity bus terminal (!!!).


The transfer to the airport line was pretty straightforward, and the train passed through the city’s industrial belt and then a whole bunch of empty paddocks before arriving at the airport. Which is, incidentally, home to a terrifying statue of a demon horse that killed its own creator, along with a variety of other conspiracy theories.

denver blucifer
Source: Slate
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  1. Thanks for this Peter, Denver has all these facilities for a population of less than 900,000!!! Makes Auckland facilities look minute in comparison.

    Denver Parks & Recreation understands the importance of recreation and leisure activities and the role it plays to improving the quality of life to the citizens of Denver. Denver Parks & Recreation is responsible for managing a wide range of recreation and leisure facilities on behalf of the citizens of Denver. Some of our duties include the care of 250 urban parks, 14, 000 acres of mountain park land, an extensive urban trail system and 7 golf courses. We also offer fun and fitness at one of our 29 recreation centers, 19 swimming pools or the Winter Park Ski & Summer Resort. Other star attractions are the Denver Zoo, the Botanic Gardens, Mile High Stadium, and a bison and elk herd. Denver Parks and Recreation and the citizen’s of Denver share the sense of pride and ownership of or beautiful parks system and quality recreation facilities Denver Parks & Recreation Highlights At A Glance
    •360 parks
    •100 miles of parkways
    •10 Sister City Parks
    •14,000 acres mountain parks
    •130 miles of trails
    South Platte River and Greenway
    •7 Golf Courses
    New Park & Recreation Developments
    •Centennial Park– acres
    •Commons Park– 25 acres
    •Cuernavaca Park–29 acres
    •Fishback Park– 3 acres
    •Grant Frontier Park‹expansion of 2 acres
    •Gates Crescent Park‹expansion of 3 acres
    •Northside Park– 13 acres
    •Former Lowry Air Force Base ­ expansion over the next 5-7 years is 800 acres
    •Former Stapleton Airport — 1300 acres
    •Green Valley Ranch Golf Course– acres

    Recreation Facilities
    •29 recreation centers
    •Genesee Experimental Ropes Course
    •16 Outdoor Swimming Pools
    •12 Indoor Swimming Pools
    •145 baseball or softball fields
    •119 soccer or football fields
    •109 tennis court

    Special Parks’ Attractions
    •Botanic Gardens
    •Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum
    •Chief Hosa Lodge & Campground
    •City Park Fishing & Boating
    •Civic Center Park
    •Denver Zoo

    1. According to Wikipedia the wider urban area is nearly twice the population of Auckland. Still an impressive list of facilities though! I guess that like Wellington, Denver must benefit facilities-wise from serving a population beyond its own borders.

      1. Remember that the Interstates are all funding by Washington, mostly from general taxation. The big urban economies of New York and California pay for the freeways of the flyover….

        Does Denver fund its rail capex with a city or state sales tax? That’s the most common US means. Of course AKL isn’t allowed to even consider such a thing by our government.

        1. Wait, so what you’re saying is that people don’t like paying tax? What a profound epiphany!

        2. Don’t supermarkets pay rates on their car parks? And your bill pays for the car park’s land and construction, too.

        3. I pay for your carpark every time I shop at the supermarket; I only ever do it by bike, and the vast and unlovely carpark cost is clearly in the price of every item on the shelves.

        4. Patrick people driving to the supermarket means the store can sell more goods so they can give lower costs to you. You really should thank the people who drive. If it wasn’t for them all you would have is a corner dairy selling groceries at corner dairy prices.

        5. Without cars and carparks, your groceries would be costing you a LOT more in real terms, along with your costs of housing space, and everything else. Take a look at pre-automobile “economic rent” conditions, both in the west’s own history, and in lesser developed economies with an absence of automobility today.

          Why are so many experts so blind in the face of the evidence that is almost common knowledge even to non-experts?

        6. So funny you car paranoids; no-one is suggesting taking your toys away. Simply point pointing out a fact; which is that non-driving customers cross-subsidise the driving ones, that’s all.

          Oh, and there’s is no justification what so ever for the city to mandate the number of parking spaces any building or business requires… but hate to get you all worked up, John.

    2. Denver is a lovely and great city, the official population of Denver only is a bit misleading as the greater Denver area has over 3 million people.

      Peter raises a good point about the obesity rate in Denver. This is true in Colorado as a whole. Besides the fact that people in Colorado tend to be quite active in general (the low humidity and generally nicer weather sure helps), the main factor is that most of the state is at high altitude. Denver itself is called the mile-high city. The effect of altitude is that it changes the composition of blood in the body to retain more oxygen and as a general result increases in number of calories burnt (particularly carbs – which of course are a greater part of people’s diets these days due to processed foods etc so anything that negates their impact is helpful).

  2. There appears to be a “third rail” in that view of the LRT line. But the power supply is overhead. Any idea why this is? Maybe a check-rail of some sort? A return-conductor rail? Dual gauge at this point?

    1. It appears to be a catch rail, usually used on bridges and tight corners where derailment would be especially likely/risky. Bit strange to have one there only running for the length of the platform. Perhaps those pillars to the left aren’t rated for train impact so the catch rail is a backup for the unlikely event of derailment on a straight flat section of track. Just guessing.

      1. Check/catch rails tend to have an angled lead-in and be closer to the running rail and be in pairs (except at turnouts), Nick. I will make a WAG that it is part of a door interlock mechanism.

        1. If the rail were a door interlock mechanism there would surely be one on every track at every stop, but a quick Google shows that that’s not the case; the system (and all current railways) around Denver are standard gauge, so it won’t be dual gauge (and there’s no sign of any wear on the top).

          It appears to stop just before the LRV in the distance, starting beside the platform and the supports for the overhead structure. It’s unlikely to be related to the platform as there are other platforms without it, so it does seem likely that it’s a check rail (which often aren’t in pairs, and without an angled lead-in) protecting the overhead structure. That thinking applies at the tram stop underneath Manchester Piccadilly station, where the massive columns supporting the station are protected from the relatively flimsy trams because the latter were seen to be a risk to the former.

  3. You mention Denver’s expanding light rail network, but it’s newer heavy rail one (the first electric one in the US since BART, I think) is expanding even faster – as you’ve seen with the airport ine.

  4. Mods, could you delete my 5.17 post and this response? It’s an earlier vrsion of my 5.08 post that made it through later – no idea how that happened,

  5. Why wouldn’t an investigation on the ground and reportage on a city by an urban economist, include a look at the median multiple house price and the factors behind it? Denver has hit 5.1 last year on its way up. Apparently it suffers from a more recently adopted policy of containment of its fringe growth.

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