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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.

FFM picture - Broadway I25

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] placematters.org.