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First + Final Mile Connectivity and Equitable Access in Transportation

Current trends in Denver and nationwide show that people are driving less and walking and biking more. They also show that Colorado is rapidly densifying as more people move to urban areas to live, work, and play. As one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., Denver’s population is increasing especially in the millennial age range, and with over 60% of Downtown Denver employees using transit, bike, walk, or share the ride to work, this creates enormous pressure on our infrastructure and on our neighborhoods to plan for and implement successful transit oriented development (TOD) projects to be able to move more people more efficiently.

In 2014, The City of Denver released its TOD Strategic Plan to specifically address TOD within the Denver region, identifying six core strategies critical to creating communities that are walkable, livable places and provide citizens with access to most of their daily needs. Of these strategies, the City specifically highlights the importance of first and final mile connections, noting that successful implementation of first and final mile considerations increases “the reach of a station into the community,” and improves “resident and business access to the rest of the RTD passenger rail system and the regional economy.” The plan continues by stressing the importance of removing barriers to transit-oriented development and improving multi-modal first and last mile connections around rail stations. Doing so can help “fill in the missing urban fabric between Denver’s new rail transit system, established neighborhoods, and emerging areas.”

For transit users, the hardest part of using transit isn’t actually the buses themselves. It’s everything between home and transit, transit and destination. For example, a few weeks ago, I was staying in a different part of Denver housesitting for a week. I normally bike to work, but was further away and it would have more than doubled my commute from just over 2.5 miles, along the lovely Cherry Creek Trail, to over 5 miles, the additional miles being mostly on street (with a bike lane), or just over 6 miles on trails. Always eager to experience different transportation modes around Denver, I instead opted to take the light rail, which was conveniently located only ½ a mile away from I was staying. Looking up directions on how to get to the I-25 and Broadway station safely by bike, I was surprised to find that there was no good way to get there on bike, other than riding on Broadway, a major seven-lane boulevard underneath the I-25 highway overpass (which I’d have to make a left turn at), or its narrow attached sidewalk, covered in potholes, cracks, obstructions, and even some broken glass, for at least a block.

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This section at Broadway is in no way welcoming to cyclists, so I decided to use the sidewalk. Carefully avoiding the obstacles, I eventually crossed Broadway safely, getting back onto the street which turns into the light rail station, and was abruptly cut off by a car—note that there is only one wide driving lane and no bike lane on this road–finally cruising into the light rail station with barely time to spare to catch the next train.

So what’s the big deal? I made it to the light rail, and it was only a little inconvenient, right? But that’s just me, the kind of person that relishes taking public transportation and biking. But what about the person without a smartphone, unable to look up the best route to get across a busy street? What about a mother with a stroller and young children trying to navigate the potholed narrow sidewalk along a busy street? What about the fact that I had to do it all again, in reverse, that night when I came home, in the dark? Would you just decide, with all these questions flying around in your head, that you would probably just drive instead?

These are the barriers to first and final access that drastically affect how and how often people use public transit. First and final mile planning looks at the infrastructure and environment around transit, making it safer and easier for riders to get to transit stops. The first and final mile can include any range of transportation modes: walking, biking, skating, scooter, taxi, carpool, other transit, etc, but walking is the most frequent first and final mile mode, just as in most major metro areas; in LA, more than 80% of Metro trips begin by walking to transit (Streetsblog LA, per Metro survey). With investment in first and final connectivity, transit can be more accessible to a larger and more diverse population, serving to increase ridership; encourage healthier and more sustainable modes; and also make areas around transit stops more active, safe, and economically thriving.

There are many different projects to improve first and final mile connectivity. Road diets and other various improvements to pedestrian infrastructure can go a long way toward creating a safer and more enjoyable walking commute to transit. RTD has added art to transit facilities along the West Rail Line to make the transit experience a bit more pleasurable for waiting riders. Even ideas such as updating bus signage and wayfinding signs, or making alleyways safer and more artistic, or just adding more facilities for transit users, can make a significant impact on first and final mile connectivity.

Despite the importance of understanding these first and final mile connections, there is currently little to no data in the region to inform and support these ideas, resulting in them being overlooked in transportation infrastructure planning. Last year, PlaceMatters took the first step toward addressing first and final mile considerations when we received a grant from Mile High Connects, in partnership with WalkDenver, to develop a crowdsourcing data collection tool called WALKscope. This innovative tool allows users to collect data related to sidewalks, intersections, and pedestrian counts. The crowdsourced data makes a significant leap toward addressing one of the key data gaps in first and final mile connectivity by identifying barriers and helping build the case for improvements. In less than a year, we have collected over 4,000 surveys that document the quality of pedestrian infrastructure in the greater Denver region. The WALKscope tool complements the WalkDenver pedestrian audit and the PlaceMatters Walkshop – an interactive program we have offered in four communities and deployed to more than a dozen organizations. Walkshops take people out on the streets to investigate and imagine potential changes in the built environment that would help support inclusive, affordable, and vibrant communities and connections to multi-modal transportation. We have found that the combination of an in-person event and an innovative tool is a highly effective way to engage residents in conversations about urban design, access, mobility, affordability, community assets, and economic health. These conversations have led, in turn, to data-driven recommendations for mobility and infrastructure improvements.

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As our region continues to invest in the expansion of our regional transit network (with Union Station, FasTracks, BRT, and more), we must pay attention to the transit system’s condition and the overall experience of residents using it—from start to finish. How are people getting to and from the transit network? What is their experience walking or biking to the train station or bus stop? What is the overall experience using the existing transit system? Are there barriers to access or safety that discourage or limit the use of low-income, disabled, or other typically underserved populations? Thanks to the WALKscope tool, we are becoming more informed about the pedestrian experience, but we still lack critical information on other key measures of first and final mile connections, such as biking, bus stops and stations’ quality, and transit experience. We aim to address some of these gaps by expanding on the WALKscope tool and adding BIKEscope, TRANSITscope, and STATIONscope tools to our toolkit. This additional data will be key in identifying potential solutions for more equitable transit access, as well as building awareness and a larger movement around first and final mile access issues.

We are currently undergoing major developments of this first and final mile toolkit and pursuing grants and partners to help us with this mission. A new version of WALKscope will be available by early 2015, followed by the full First + Final Mile Toolkit, and the application used to collect data will be made available as an open-source project for communities interested in using the First and Final Mile Connection Toolkit. Stay tuned to our blog for upcoming news or contact Kayla or Critter [at]

Resiliency planning in Lyons, CO

Lyons Generic 2Flooding in September of 2013 devastated Lyons, CO, causing substantial damage to almost 200 homes in the confluence and neighborhoods near the North and South St. Vrain Rivers. This has caused many of these locations to be no longer eligible for development. In a town with very little available and suitable land for development already, the challenge of where to rebuild housing in order to bring back displaced residents and restore community assets is a huge and challenging undertaking. On October 27, 2014, the Town of Lyons Board of Trustees awarded Trestle Strategy Group the work for the Lyons Housing Site Analysis Study and the Lyons Facilities Siting Plan/Municipal Campus Feasibility Study. Both studies will be a trusted source of information for the community to help build a coalition of support, and guide the Town to the best options for the community as a whole.

Through a grant from HUD and EPA’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, PlaceMatters is coordinating efforts between the Town of Lyons, Trestle, DRCOG, CU Denver, and DOLA, and working to facilitate community discussions linked to the Town’s recovery plan and implementation. A lot has happened in a short amount of time, and keeping track of progress, including events and who is involved, can be a challenge with the immense amount of activity that goes with disaster recovery.

PlaceMatters provided support during the Halloween Spooktacular festivities on October 25, 2014 by hosting a booth with flood recovery information. The booth also had the now familiar yellow ribbons for residents. The ribbons represent the still displaced residents. Community members could also sign up to receive the Lyons Recovery Action Plan – a visual tour of the effects of the flood, and each commissions’ strategy towards recovery – and books from local students with stories from the flood.

Along with Trestle, we are also helping the Town build a website and social media page so that anyone can easily find useful information about the amount of work that Lyons has done since the flood, what is currently being done, and key decisions that will be to be made in the near future. To do so, an interactive timeline (to be built built on the Tiki-Toki platform) on the Town’s webpage will link to resources and help residents see the amazing amount of background work that has been done around these challenges.

The timeline will provide a visually engaging way to explore past, current and future efforts, milestones, and opportunities for involvement and input. It will include videos, audio, images, text and links to information. Most importantly, it will bring together all of the pieces of recovery to one location to easily navigate. We are hoping the timeline will be on Lyons’ website by next week.

In addition, many people from the community have worked hard during the last year to get Lyons’ residents to tell their flood stories; we are working with those community members to gather and publish the stories they collected on a common platform. Hopefully this platform will bring recognition to their outreach efforts and continue building the community’s unique identity.

Yonkers, NY: Street Festival to Gather Public Input on Brownfields Redevelopment

In the 1940s, Southwest Yonkers had a train called the Putnam Line, which traveled between Van Cortland Park and Getty Square. However, after World War II, the line was abandoned by New York Central in 1944 after a series of legal challenges by the city (Source: WCBJ). Though the rail tracks were pulled up, the right of way still remains for the long-abandoned three-mile branch line. We are now looking at different options for this corridor and how improvements can benefit the neighborhood.

Groundwork Hudson Valley was awarded a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency as part of EPA’s Brownfields Redevelopment Program to clean up and reuse former industrial sites. Groundwork has formed a steering committee in Yonkers made up of local non-profits, churches, the Municipal Housing Authority,  governmental agencies, and other project stakeholders to gather public input and identify ways in which a multi-use trail and improvements to adjacent streets could better serve the needs of the community. The path will provide a direct link to the subway and access to jobs in New York City, helping revitalize the community.

Through our grant with HUD-EPA Sustainable Communities Initiative, we were able to provide support for Groundwork Hudson Valley and the team to organize a public neighborhood Street Festival this summer on Lawrence Street, a major corridor in Yonkers, NY. The Street Festival served to demonstrate the potential of the neighborhood and to solicit public input to identify wants and needs of the community.

Along with Alta Planning + Design, we were able to demonstrate some great complete streets features in the neighborhood with street calming elements. We taped down a pop-up designated bike lane with parallel parking between the bike lane and the street, serving as a barrier to protect cyclists from car traffic. This allowed kids to ride down the street without fear of being too close to moving cars. Once we began taping down the bike lane and crosswalks, traffic on the street instantly slowed. It was great to see how quick and easy traffic calming elements really made a difference for Lawrence Street; it completely changed the street experience in less than an hour–from cars whizzing down the hill, to kids and families playing in the street. The team also recruited several local businesses and stakeholders to come “open shop” and help residents imagine new businesses and a more active streetscape with food trucks, activities for kids, music, and seating areas.


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We also collected public input from the neighborhood during the street festival. We invited participants to give feedback through:

  1. An 11-question multiple-choice/open-ended paper survey, which asked participants about their vision, barriers, and transportation mode in the Lawrence Area Neighborhood; and
  2. A visual preference survey dot exercise, that asked participants to rate 4 examples in each of the following seven category of Retail, Mixed-Use, Single-Family Residential, Multi-Family Residential, Parks & Public Spaces, Sidewalks & Trails, and Youth Activities.

We also made a version of the survey available online and through an SMS-based (mobile text messaging) survey platform called Textizen, to give residents several ways to give us feedback. With translation assistance from Groundwork’s youth team, we were also able to provide a Spanish-translated survey (approximately 11% of the surveys were administered in Spanish).

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After the July 31st charrette, PlaceMatters prepared a full report on findings for the team, which is available here. Some key findings included the identification of a priority vision to be “Cleaner” and “More Active,” and that crime and safety is a major barrier for the community. Additionally, there is a want for more cycling, bus, and Metro-North (train) access in the community, and a large majority of respondents indicated that they would use a multi-use trail. Residents are excited about improvements to their community, and seemed to be very supportive of any type of development that was an improvement to existing conditions, rather than being picky about specific styles. There was a high priority for public space improvements, including activities for families and youth, trails, and parks.

PlaceMatters is still providing minimal assistance as Groundwork Hudson Valley moves forward in the process of creating a multi-use trail. To learn more, visit the project website here. If you or someone you know lives in the area and would like to get more involved in the public process, please contact Curt at Groundwork Hudson Valley. Check out below for even more pictures!
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Webinar Materials: “Using Tools And Data to Inform Equity-Oriented Decision-Making”

Webinar Description

On October 15, 2014, PlaceMatters facilitated a webinar on “Using Tools and Data to Inform Equity-Oriented Decision-Making”. Participants were able to learn about three strategies for thinking about and improving equity in our regions. University of Maryland demoed OppMap, a web-based tool for community-driven opportunity mapping in the Baltimore region. The Kirwan Institute showed how historical analysis brought clarity to equity discussions in Cleveland. MAPC shared lessons learned about how tapping into empathy can help cultivate an open environment for discussing equity.



  • Critter Thompson, Program Director, PlaceMatters (webinar facilitator)
  • Gerrit J. Knaap, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning & Executive Director, National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, University of Maryland
  • Holly St. Clair, Director of Data Services, Metropolitan Area Planning Council
  • Jason Reece, Director of Research, The Kirwan Institute for the study of Race & Ethnicity, The Ohio State University




Additional Links:

Rebecca Sanborn Stone hired as Development Specialist

StoneRebecca Sanborn Stone is an independent consultant specializing in helping social and environmental change organizations build innovative programs and communicate about their work. Rebecca will contract part-time with PlaceMatters to help us with grant writing and communications. She has a diverse background in science, sustainability, and communications. Because of her work with the Orton Family Foundation, she is very familiar with the work and mission of PlaceMatters with an in-depth understanding of community engagement, planning, philanthropy, partnerships, and network building. She has written for a variety of publications including TED Books, E MagazineEngaging Cities, and Northern Woodlands

“Using Tools and Data to Inform Equity-Oriented Decision-Making” webinar on October 15

Join PlaceMatters for a webinar on Using Tools and Data to Inform Equity-Oriented Decision-Making.

Date: October 15, 2014

Time: 3:30 pm – 4:30 pm EDT


Join us to learn about three strategies for thinking about and improving equity in our regions. University of Maryland will demo OppMap, a web-based tool for community-driven opportunity mapping in the Baltimore region. Jason Reece of the Kirwan Institute will show how historical analysis brought clarity to equity discussions in Cleveland. Holly St. Clair of MAPC will share lessons learned about how tapping into empathy can help cultivate an open environment for discussing equity.

Questions? Contact Critter Thompson at PlaceMatters.

This webinar session is provided through the Sustainable Communities Learning Network. The primary audience is members of the network, but anyone who is interested may participate.


Change & Continuity

As an urban designer, I was taught the principles of good urban form that make for successful, integrative, and healthy environments. However, my education and early career offered less clarity about how cities decide what sort of places they will become. What are the decisions that need to be made, and by who, in order for us to build better cities? What information is needed to support those decisions? How do we present that information so that it matters – that it clarifies, sharpens, and leads to better decisions?

The last 3 years at PlaceMatters have allowed me to work with some wonderful people to tackle those questions. We’ve improved decision-support tools, integrated data and technology into the decision-making process, and built technical capacity for dozens of communities. We’ve helped nurture tools that communicate complex ideas, and built a few of our own.

Along the way, I’ve become increasingly convinced that we need tools and methods that do a better job of both analyzing and communicating the tradeoffs of the decisions facing cities. My time at PlaceMatters has been an enviable vantage point from which I’ve seen the tools and the practice of scenario planning shift towards that spirit of communicating, visualizing, and building understanding.

This vantage point has been ideal preparation for my next position. Starting later this month, I’ll be joining the UrbanFootprint team at Calthorpe Associates. I’ll be helping them use and build out UrbanFootprint, a web-based scenario modeling tool that’s been used extensively in California and elsewhere. It’s already a great tool, and I’m excited about contributing what I’ve learned in the last three years about how technology, analysis, and user-centered design can shape the way we build cities.  Although I’ll miss the people and work at PlaceMatters, I’ll continue to be involved in the network of folks that have been part of the PlaceMatters family.

Thank you to all the smart, kind people I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the last few years; I hope we have a chance to work together again someday soon.

Tools for Aging in Place

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One of the more pressing issues facing many communities is the changing needs of residents as they age. Driving becomes difficult, building design can be a burden, and the amenities seniors need can be very different than the needs of young families or singles. Lifetime Communities are places designed to take into account the changing needs of residents at all age levels. The challenge is that we don’t have enough of these places in most parts of the U.S. PlaceMatters recently partnered with the Center for Aging at Indiana University to build the Lifetime Communities Tool, a survey that gauges current and prospective residents of Bloomington, IN on their lifestyle preferences while teaching them about the relationship between different aspects of the built environment and aging in place.

The tool starts out by asking residents to choose a community type. Participants can explore community types to see what sorts of homes and transportation options fit within different community types. There’s also lots of information tucked away about each type of community and home for those that want to dig deeper.

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Selecting a community type shows the homes that match.

Selecting a community type shows the homes that match.

Participants are then asked to choose a type of home according to different parameters: home size, cost, and universal design features. As they make choices, the tool filters out homes that aren’t a match. Participants choose from the matching home types, and are taken to the next set of preferences: amenities. A common question for relocating families is the distance of their new home from amenities.

For each participant, the tool asks them two questions: How close would you like this amenity to be, and how often would you imagine visiting it? Destinations like hospitals might not need to be terribly close if visits are spread out to only once a month, but a grocery store might need to be closer if the resident wants to shop every other day. As those two questions are answered for each amenity, a chart updates to show the total mix of trips that could be taken by each mode of transport. In other words, how many of the trips I take could be made on foot, by bike, by car, or by transit?

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After that, we ask a few demographic/lifestyle questions and then report back the results. The tool will be launched in the coming days, and the goal is to use the results to help decision makers in Bloomington, IN decide what policies and designs will best suit future residents. We’re hoping this can become the beginning of a tool that builds understanding both for survey participants about aging in place and for researchers about what features matter the most to potential residents.

Using Digital Storytelling to Find Common Ground in Lyons, CO

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A resident walks through the wreckage at Riverbend Mobile Home Park in Lyons, CO. photo credit:

Last September, in the middle of the night in the small town of Lyons, Colorado, the water rushed in and homes were swept out. Tragically, one person was lost. Many more were left without their home and everything they’d ever known. As with most natural disasters, those hit the hardest were the town’s low-income residents. The site most affected was a mobile home park near the river, home to many of the artists and musicians who give the town its funky, artsy vibe. With limited affordable housing options in the area, many of these residents were left with no choice other than to relocate elsewhere. In a town as charming as Lyons, one can imagine it would be hard to leave.

The Town of Lyons is now wrestling with many issues, including:

  1. Does the Town facilitate the replacement of affordable housing units lost in the storm?
  2. If so, how many of the units should it look to rebuild?
  3. Where should it go?

Most of the conversation has centered on rebuilding affordable housing in current open space and parks since there aren’t any other known viable options, leading to strong opinions on both sides. In response, the town has chosen to undergo an intensive public engagement process to answer these questions.

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PlaceMatters staff give feedback to University of Colorado Denver students presenting public engagement and site plans. photo credit: Jennifer McGinnis

This summer, as part of my Master’s in Urban Planning program at University of Colorado Denver, I took a Housing Development Post-Disaster Workshop which focused on Lyons at the same time as I was interning at PlaceMatters. Our project consisted of two parts: creating potential site plans for replacement affordable housing and developing a public engagement plan to address the varied opinions of a multitude of stakeholders. The value of engaging planning students in this situation is that they can explore options with very few barriers. Students are allowed to throw ideas out there and push further on ideas that have already been discarded. There aren’t a lot of consequences to our decisions, yet we have enough experience to produce something that at the very least inspires thought and conversation.

The engagement strategies our class decided on included a mix of “tech-y” and more traditional strategies, both of which have their benefits. When planning for a population where many have been displaced, digital strategies serve an important purpose. For instance, those that don’t have the time or money to travel and go to a long meeting can still participate in the conversation. They also serve other populations; some might work non-standard hours and be unable to attend a meeting scheduled around traditional hours and still others may simply feel shy speaking up in a room full of people.

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The City of Victor engaged residents from all walks of life in its digital storytelling project, including youth. photo credit:

One such strategy is digital storytelling. Digital storytelling is a form of digital media production that allows everyday people to share aspects of their life story or community through photos, video interviews and other non-physical media with the goal of finding common ground. It involves the creation of a communal blog where users from a given community can post stories or anecdotal reminiscences about a particular place. One town that achieved success with the storytelling strategy is Victor, Idaho. Victor, a scenic small town near the Grand Tetons, experienced a 73% increase in population growth in just 6 years and tensions subsequently developed between old and new residents. Using both digital storytelling collected on their Community Almanac site and in-person at local events, they were able to discover the values that the two groups shared and prioritize actions based on a shared community vision.

In a place where opinions are swirling and emotions are running high, digital storytelling might be just the tool to help Lyons’ residents, both displaced and not, understand each other’s needs and the desire to return home.

For more examples of communities that used storytelling in planning, visit Community Expressions.


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The Dramatic Transformation of NYC Streets

Not too long ago, New York City was like many major American cities where the prime directive of the transportation department was moving cars. That began to change in 2007, however, when the Bloomberg administration released a citywide sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC 2030.  The plan sparked a major public discussion about the city’s transportation problems and how to solve them.  This in turn led to the adoption of the city’s first strategic transportation plan, which set specific benchmarks to implement transit-priority corridors, reduce traffic deaths, and increase bicycling.  Under the visionary leadership of Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and often with little more than paint and planters, streets and intersections across the city underwent a radical redesign from car-choked to people-oriented.  The protected bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, “pop-up” cafes, and bike-sharing system were not without their critics, but in many ways responded to neighborhood groups that had been calling for more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets for years.  Subsequent polling indicates that New Yorkers love their more livable streets.  Perhaps the greatest sign of success is the extent to which the ideas first tested in New York City have spread across the country.  Protected bike lanes are the most prominent example – almost non-existent in American cities just a few years ago, now dozens of cities have built bike lanes with physical buffers protecting cyclists from adjacent motor vehicle traffic.

The before-and-after photos below dramatically illustrate the major transformation of New York City’s streets that has taken place over the last several years.  We hope they will continue to inspire other U.S. cities to imagine what is possible.

Allen and Pike Streets in the Lower East Side 


Herald Square


Broadway at Times Square


Delancey Street in the Lower East Side  


Union Square


All photos courtesy of New York City Department of Transportation.