If we could speed up the history of man-in-motion around towns, cities, homes and countryside, we would see how the car has crept up on us through stealth, taking us unawares, bringing us to a present state of urban congestion and pollution which, had it been foreseen in the early years of the 1900s, might have caused us to think and plan differently. Now we're stuck with it, but we see the need to do something about it - at least to try and "thin out" some of the worst congested areas with improved public transport.

The USA has always been in the forefront of private car expansion, and thus in the forefront of pollution and the questions - if not always the answers - as to what to do about it.

Oregon, always a very environmentally-friendly State, has led the way with pioneering public transit projects in its State capital, Portland, bringing together three objectives: enhancing the urban cityscape through pedestrianisation and coordinated street furniture, providing links to the outlying areas, and most importantly, driving transit lines into virgin countryside then building commercial/residential developments around the new stations.

The Portland tram system, called MAX for Metropolitan Area Express, began in the mid-1980s with one line. The handsome townscaping in the city centre, the paving, lighting and street furniture which was combined with MAX, the convenience of parking-free shopping, the enhanced urban environment, the cleanliness and speed of the system, all combined to make MAX an immediate success.

Next, the line was extended in the other direction through largely green countryside; stations were located "in the middle of nowhere", and new residential developments created around them. The two photos below show one of these stations, Orenco, with a new low-key development of community housing built around the station. As part of the new community there are also commercial and shopping facilities.

And they're still at it, putting in tram lines when the buildings they are intended to serve are nothing more than shells - as this photo from Modern Tramway, January 2006, dramatically illustrates.

MAX now covers 44 miles across the Portland Metro area. The Blue Line is the main east-west light rail line, serving as the spine of the current system. The Red Line to Portland International Airport opened in 2001, and the Yellow Line, another branch to North Portland opened in 2004.

Portland has clearly shown the way, and though many doubters still remain, Portland's influence and success seems to be spreading to its neighbour city, Denver, State capital of Colorado.

Since 2000 the population of the Denver metropolitan area has risen to 2.6m, an increase of over 8%. Inevitably, that means snarled rush-hour traffic. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the congestion cost per peak-time traveller in Denver was $865 in 2003, while the average commuter on Denver's roads suffered congestion delays of 51 hours, the 13th-worst in the country. As its ranking implies, Denver still does relatively well compared with many big cities on the east coast or in chaotic California. But that does not stop Denver's residents, many of whom left places like Los Angeles - Long Beach (first in terms of delays) or San Francisco-Oakland (second), complaining about it.

Denver's solution involves both roads and public transit, the two being carefully integrated. New roads, such as the 47-mile E-47 tollway, which opened in 2003 along the eastern edge of the Denver region, will form a beltway - 75% complete - to relieve congestion in the centre. By the end of 2006, the scheme, budgeted at $1.7 billion, will have added extra lanes along the I-25 and I-225 freeways.

But Denver's main focus is on light rail. 19 miles of new double-track light rail will stretch from the Denver city centre to the metro region's south-eastern border. By 2016, a $4.7 billion project known as FasTracks will add another 119 miles of light and commuter rail and some 18 miles of rapid transit by bus. These new lines will curl out from Denver's Union Station like the legs of an octopus, linking up with existing bus services and giving commuters a mass transit alternative to the clogged lanes of the I-25 or US-36.

FasTracks, say its proponents, will be the biggest "build out" of a mass transit system since Washington DC began its Metro system in 1976. The aim of FasTracks is not just to ease traffic congestion, but to change the shape of the city. Each station will be the centre of various commercial and residential developments; Union Station will, in the jargon of urban planning, become a multi-modal hub for everything from buses and heavy rail to the "down-town circulator" that shuttles passengers around the tourist-friendly 16th Street Mall. Instead of simply sprawling ever farther across the mile-high plains, Denver would bring its population closer together. In a referendum held last November, 58% of metro Denver's voters agreed to back FasTracks with a 0.4 cent sales tax.

For Denver, this is something of a return to its past. Founded in the 19th-century mining boom, it still has roots in the age of rail: witness Union Station and the passenger and freight trains that roll in and out of the city. In 2002, the average Denverite made 37.1 transit trips, compared with 28.4 for the average American. And the new improvements are beginning to show - the centre of Denver is already a more vibrant place to live, work and shop.

Opportunities need to be siezed wherever they present themselves. Britain for example, is fortunate financially and environmentally in having many disused rights-of-way which can be returned relatively cheaply to public service. These can be revitalized as light rail lines, connecting towns and villages with city centres. New residential developments can be built centered around stations which themselves can become small commercial developments. In Holland and Germany, the concept of reviving disused rail-lines, and converting existing heavy-rail but little-used rural lines to tramways is already underway.

Re-using old rail lines
Midland Metro, UK

City outskirts
Grenoble, France

City centre
Montpellier, France

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