Susman Accepts Challenge: Go Carless for a Week

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Denver Council President’s Travelogue on The Trials & Travails Of Mass Transit

By Mary Beth Susman

The editor of this newspaper calls me up and says she’s got an idea.

Last month, the Greater Park Hill News published a story on the pressures of increased traffic in the neighborhood – a direct result of Denver’s surrounding population growth. There is denser development and more traffic. Urban planners say we have to get out of our cars and opt for multi-modal transportation.

Yours truly has been an advocate of doing just that, and creating village concepts in new developments. We have those (sort of) at nearby Stapleton and Lowry. These are projects that have denser housing, and some retail. So dwellers can live, play, buy, and (for some) work without having to use their cars.

All well and good for neighborhoods and for other cities that have transit infrastructure such as subways or elevated trains. And certainly our region is a national model for our gigantic investment in light rail. Problem is, not only is light rail not within walking/biking distance from me, it doesn’t go anywhere I want to go even if I could get to it. Ditto for much of Park Hill, part of which I represent on the Denver City Council.

The Last Mile

Council District 5 has a “last mile” problem. It’s the problem of insufficient transit to get us where we want to go within the perimeter of surrounding transit.

Many Council District 5 neighborhoods were built as 1900’s mid-century or slightly earlier suburbs. They were places to get away from the hubbub of the city, built when the automobile companies successfully lobbied to dismantle our electric streetcar system. The later burbs (1960 and 70’s) were even built without sidewalks because someone must have thought we were never going to walk again.

So onto the call from the editor. She suggests that I stow my car for a week and get around my daily business without it. My first inclination is to say, “Let me look at my calendar.” But on re-consideration I said, “I’ll do it” – without knowing what kind of a week it was going to be.

It turned out to be a doozy.

I have to admit to being a little frightened. My calendar was planned with the expectation of personal car travel, so lag times are short. But no excuses: it’s time to see exactly what the transit challenges are.

The challenge began on Monday, April 14. I had accepted it just two days before, on Saturday. I jumped to prepare.

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Time to ditch the Blackberry

 OMG, as the text messengers say. I try to register for Car2Go, a new company that allows you to use MixMaster- size cars whenever and wherever they happen to be. This turns out to be impossible because:

• You need an app for that.

• You need a Smartphone.

I have a 2007 Blackberry. It might as well have been assembled in 1907. I try to download the app. “Not available on my device.”

Apps will work on my PC Computer (though kind of klugey), but how am I gonna carry around my giganto laptop when I’m searching for a car-ette?

Aha! I have an IPAD that I’m trying out. Not really happy with it. It isn’t like any computer I have ever used and I just don’t get it. Nevertheless, it can do apps and is very portable.

I spent two hours and 35 minutes trying to register for Car2Go and for the other transportation options UBER and UBERx (taxi-oid services.) I had to change my Apple ID password, my Facetime password, and my Facebook password, lord knows why, and by the time I changed the last I forgot the first. So I had to do it all over again. And still they weren’t accessible on my Blackberry.

I had to stop what I was doing to get to a haircut appointment. Sitting in the chair I actually devolved into using bad language describing my morning. But wait! There is an answer! Jimmy! The 20-something salon receptionist who speaks apps.

Believe it or not, even Jimmy couldn’t get the apps to work on my Blackberry. I’m stuck with the IPad.

By the way, I may not be able to use Car2Go right away because they need three or four days to do a background check and then they need to send you a member card.

LYFT is another option. It gives anyone the opportunity to provide a lift to anyone else by also becoming one of their drivers. I tried to register to become a LYFT rider. Here is the catch: You can only become a user if you have an IPhone or Android.

Geez, I have to ditch my Blackberry. My thirty-something aides told me I’m the last person on the planet with a Blackberry anyway.

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Reading the bus schedule

When neighbors have said in public meetings that we don’t have transit, I have often retorted that we DO have transit. It’s the RTD bus system.

So how is the bus system for getting back and forth and around my obsolete suburb? I went to http://www3.rtd-denver.com/tripplanner/start.action to plan my trips. I didn’t understand all the numbers on the site.  I called customer support. Their dear customer support person didn’t tell me what an idiot I was.  Those numbers are the times of departure and arrival. Duh. I’m going to be taking the bus a lot. I’ll be riding early morning and after dark.

My next mode to prepare is bicycle. I have been an avid recreational rider, though not so much since I have been on City Council because of the lack of time.

I have a great bike but I don’t know if it has air in the tires. If it does not, I don’t know how to put air in the tires. I have always had a husband or boyfriend to do it, so I never learned how. The editor asks, what will I do if there’s no air in the tires? I reply that I’ll have to find a boyfriend. Can I do that by Monday?

Here’s how my week’s calendar looks:

Day 1: Home to downtown and back.

Day 2: Home to downtown and back. Then to Lowry for a meeting in the evening.

Day 3: From home to downtown to Denver International Airport and back to home.

Day 4: From home to Uptown on 18th Avenue to the Jewish Community Center on Leetsdale, to the downtown Sheraton Hotel for a function with 20 minutes to spare in between each (pray for me).

Day 5: From home to Einstein’s on Lowry to West 26th Ave. Back to downtown, to Highlands and back home.

Day 6: Saturday is my hunting and gathering day. Fortunately there are enough neighborhood embedded retail/services that my bicycle will do.

So here’s how it went

MONDAY: 9 a.m. I nervously gather all my belongings, check things thrice, and exit my door for the two-block walk to the bus stop. No sidewalks to the bus stop. Melting snow in my shoes. $2.25 in quarters held tightly in my hand.

 The bus is on time, the driver greets me kindly and the ride is uneventful, although the 20-something who is reading Shakespeare makes me nervous. Who reads Shakespeare voluntarily?

After City Council meeting that night I meet the 6:47 p.m. at Colfax and Broadway. A darling mother waiting with two kids in a stroller is blowing bubbles with and for her little ones.

The ride home is pleasant. Home itself is not. I have locked myself out of my house. The change in routine has been unsettling, as I was to learn throughout the week. I always leave by the back door to get to the garage. This morning I left by the front door to walk to the bus. So, I failed to unlock the storm door, which can only be unlocked from the inside. And I haven’t had a key to my (very secure, the locksmith said) front door since about six months after it was installed 20 years ago.

When the locksmith arrives, he takes one look at the front door, shakes his head, and asks to see the back door. To my elation and horror he opens that storm door with a folded piece of cardboard. $102 later, I go straight to bed.

Monday Transit Cost: $4.50 (and $102.00 for locksmith) 

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TUESDAY: Up early. Like at 5 a.m. Very nervous. Monday was not so good. What does Tuesday hold? Have to look at the bus schedule. Do I have the times right? Don’t leave by front door! Unlock storm door! Think about neighborhood traffic meeting at 6 p.m. at Lowry. Have to get to work, get home, get to Lowry. Leave house at 5:45 a.m. Get to the City and County Building 6:30 a.m. Feeling seasick (tried to read on bus.) Lie down on couch in reception area.

Have my morning meetings but am still feeling sick. Have to get a ride home from aide. But am determined to get to our traffic meeting in the evening, so I suit up for a bike ride to Lowry. I am joyous that the weather is a lovely 50 degrees and the feeling that summer is on its way. Never mind that a driver yelled out his window at me, “GET ON THE SIDEWALK!” Don’t people know that except for very few places in Denver, bicyclists are not allowed on sidewalks? The enmity between drivers and bicyclists reminds me of the battles between the farmers and cattlemen of the old west. Can’t we all get along?

I never could find my headlight for my bike, although my flashers are working mighty fine. And yes, there is air in the tires.

Tuesday Transit Cost: $2.25. 

WEDNESDAY: I’m feeling like a pro. Get to the bus stop four minutes before it gets there. Say howdy to the driver who is just as friendly as the last three I’ve encountered. Learn that being of a certain age, my fare is $1.10 instead of $2.25.

Today is trains, planes and SkyRides for me. I have to get to work downtown and get out to DIA for an opening of Steve’s Snappin’ Dogs around 5:30 p.m. and get home after that. It’s a pleasant walk to work in the morning from the bus stop and I am more relaxed. I appreciate the beauty of Civic Center Park and our City and County Building architecture.

I walk to the 16th Street Mall around 4:30 p.m., grab the mall shuttle to Market Street Station. I get on the SkyRide. What a pleasant way to get to the airport. After this, I don’t recommend driving to DIA ever again.

 The only problem? The battery runs out on my mobile phone. Here’s the thing: you have to bring all your chargers with you if you’re going to take multi-modal. I’ve already learned transit requires sensible shoes. Granny shoes. Nuns’ shoes. Sherpa shoes. Now I’ve got an addendum to the dress code: Ditch the purse. Bring a backpack.

I had planned to take the Super Shuttle back home from the DIA function, but just can’t face waiting and spending another hour dropping passengers off on the way. I am tired. I succumb to taking a Yellow Cab taxi.

He is a great taxi driver recently from Dallas, a naturalized citizen from the Middle East, finding a new life in America. We have an engaging conversation about the new transportation network companies like UBER and Car2Go and how he perceives them as unfair competition to the traditional taxi and rental car companies. He tells me about the struggles he makes to pay for his car and overhead.

 The fare home is $63.00 plus $14 tip: $77.00 total.

Wednesday Transit Cost: $89.10

THURSDAY: I take the bus that drops me off right at the Einstein’s on Lowry, to sit in one of my district’s coffee shops for a few hours where constituents are invited to stop by and talk about whatever is on their mind.

 At noon it is time to get across town to West 26th Street. I try UberX for the first time. I “call” on my IPad for a ride. Keith is going to pick me up in four minutes! IPad has a photo of Keith and his car (a Passat) and a graphic showing his progress toward me.

When he arrives I jump into the front seat and let him know where we’re going. Keith used to have a construction company but the Great Recession did it in. He loves doing what he’s doing and is never without fares. He remarks (kindly) that I’m not his typical demographic; he generally transports 20- and 30-somethings. With UberX no cash changes hands, not even the tip. Your credit card is automatically charged. It is the easiest transaction I have ever experienced. I get an email with the full account of the trip, including the name of my driver, where I went, what the charge was, and a request to rate the driver. I arrive at my meeting on the west side and bum a ride back to the City and County Building from a colleague. Take the bus home.

Thursday Transit Cost: $2.20 (bus) + $20.65 (UberX) = $22.85

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FRIDAY: I have an early morning doctor appointment. I call for UberX. Again it takes only four minutes for the driver to arrive. I planned for an aide to pick me up and deliver me to my next appointment, reading the One Book Colorado to a pre-school class. However, I’m finished at the doctor an hour earlier than I expected. I wonder if I could just walk up and down the block and find a Car2Go and use it with my new membership card. (Yes, I did get it this week.) I step outside the clinic, and voila! There is one parked right in front!

And, it couldn’t be easier. You hold your membership card to the windshield gizmo, and the car unlocks. You get in, car starts talking to you. Punch in your pin, rate the car, take the key out of its doohickey, and put it in the ignition. Start the car. Putt-putt and away.

 I park in front of my home for an hour. Car still there when I walk out. A curious neighbor comments she would be afraid to drive one of these. Hah!

After the pre-school read of Grumpy Bird (I can relate) I go with my aide back to work. Then a walk to the Sheraton Hotel for a speech at the Metro Realtors Association luncheon. Walk back to City and County Building then home that afternoon with a lift from my aide. Needed some things for dinner, so hopped on my bike to Pete’s, our corner market.

Friday Transit Cost: $9.58 (UberX) Car2Go $0 (Apparently I merit a beginner’s promotion.)

SATURDAY: Bank, dry cleaners, groceries at Trader Joe’s – all within a block. Easy-peasy. When our city was being built it was common to create small retail areas within neighborhoods that we could walk to. Zoning calls it “imbedded retail.”

Sadly many were razed during the suburban mentality of the 60s, 70s and 80s, but my district still has several: Holly and Cedar, 22nd and Kearney, 22nd and Oneida, 3rd Ave and Holly, among others. One of the best is at 8th and Colorado Blvd. As a young graduate student I lived at 8th and Albion. That corner had Hatch’s Drugs, Annie’s Café, laundromat, liquor store, copy center, dry cleaners, and 7-11.

It has since morphed into several other retail shops, among them the famous/infamous Trader Joe’s. It still is a local center easy to get to by walking or biking. Load up my backpack with my groceries and bike home.

Saturday Transit Cost: $0.00

Total Transit Cost for the week: $98.68 

‘This is a great diet plan’

It is the end of the week’s car-less challenge. Ironically, I gained more mobility than I lost. I now feel empowered, more independent, and definitely more cool. I know how to summon Uber. I know how to do Car2Go. I know the bus route, and how much the fare is. I know where to buy my SkyRide ticket.

Wait, I did lose something. Three pounds. This is a great diet plan.

While it cost me a little more than usual because of some choices I made, I realize that if I relied on the bus, I would find friendly, efficient, inexpensive, reliable service for about $10 a work week. And there would be one less car on the road.

The same week I took the challenge to go car-free, City Council announced transit is its number one priority, with focus on that last mile.

RTD does a wonderful job with its resources. But RTD is a revenue-based system that has to have riders before it can provide buses. Also, it is a regional system that has obligations to multiple municipalities. A single neighborhood’s needs are difficult to meet in this kind of system.

If we want to make people leave their cars home, we need to make certain kinds of transport easier than cars. For us in east Denver, small bus circulators could shuttle us from Park Hill/Stapleton to Cherry Creek to downtown and back. Same with Lowry/Windsor Gardens. We could use a circulator that runs up and down Leetsdale / Speer Ave to downtown and back.

Council is going to study what financing opportunities there might be to provide circulator-style transportation. Are there ways for us to create a TIF-like fund for transportation? Could we loan against future fares, as we have with land-use TIFs which are a loan against future sales and property tax produced by a new development?

As for me and my week’s experience, it has changed my life, and you don’t think you have that many opportunities to do so – especially in my demographic.

Buses, Trains and SkyRides: Photos courtesy of Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman, except where indicated.