Rediscovering Public Transportation

Since I wrote this article in August, the Colorado Department of Transportation has released a survey to gauge interest in a passenger rail connecting Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins. If you live in these areas and want to voice your opinion, check out the Front Range Passenger Rail Survey.

As a kid, I had two options to get anywhere: by foot or by public transportation. My family didn’t have a car and I didn’t get one until I was in my twenties. So I walked a lot, and when I went out of town, say to New York City for the day, I’d just take the train to Grand Central Station and then walk or take the subway wherever I wanted to go. After high school, I moved to Boston for college and without a car, I learned the subway system (or “T” as they call it in Beantown) fast.

Eventually, as I began to travel, I used public transportation everywhere: the Underground or “Tube” in London, Métro in Paris, Metropolitana in Rome, and Vaporetto system of water “buses” in Venice. They all operated very similarly and figuring them out was dead simple, but even if it had been difficult, I would have mastered all of them. Nothing makes you figure out public transportation faster than not having a car, wherever you are.

In recent years, I’ve pretty much abandoned public transport. Why take a bus when I can jump in my private little car and go anywhere I please? Well, that changed this summer. No, I didn’t have my car repossessed. I just ended up in a lot of places where sharing a ride on the public system made a lot more sense.

It all started in July at Rocky Mountain National Park. Camping in the park on a weekend in the middle of summer is asking for trouble when it comes to parking, and as Colorado’s parks have become more popular with vacationers, the situation has gotten much worse. So rather than getting up at the crack of dawn to drive to all the trailheads I needed to visit (and praying for a spot to squeeze in my little car), I decided to use the free shuttle. Pickup started at 7 am, and there was a stop at the edge of my campground. So I got up at 6, and after a camp stove breakfast, I packed up, filled my coffee cup, and made my way to the Moraine Park Campground shuttle stop. This was the smartest thing I did in the park that weekend. Besides not having to worry about parking, I didn’t have to retrace my steps after every hike to get back to the car, which saved me a lot of extra steps. For example, after hiking from Bear Lake to Lake Haiyaha; Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes; and finally Lake Bierstadt; I continued down to the Park & Ride (instead of back to Bear Lake) where I picked up a bus back to camp. I didn’t even have to think about my car. If you’re thinking of using the RMNP shuttle, the map and schedule are online so you can plan your route ahead of time. And if you’re not into camping and want to stay in Estes Park, there’s even a stop in town at the Estes Park Visitor Center.

Emboldened by my shuttle experience, I decided to check out Denver’s light rail system a few weeks later. I had the perfect excuse, too: a Rolling Stones concert. The thought of getting in and out of the lot at Broncos Stadium along with tens of thousands of other fans – in various stages of, um… exuberance – gave me the heebie-jeebies. So instead, I enjoyed free parking at a downtown RTD station and bought an all-day local pass that took me right to Mile High. The next time I go, I’m exiting off I-25 south of Denver at RidgeGate near Lone Pine, where I can park and get an all-day regional pass (required to cross three “zones”), then ride into the city for dinner and a show at the Pepsi Center. The cool thing about many of these RTD lots is that they’re located right off a major road, so you’re not zig-zagging your way through traffic before and after parking. Before you go, check out the Denver light rail map and fares online.

My third recent public transportation experience was last week, visiting the Maroon Bells Scenic Area in Aspen. I hadn’t been to Maroon Lake and Crater Lake since I climbed “the Bells” in 2005, and things sure had changed. Like the rest of our state, Aspen has become a super popular destination for travelers and getting to the scenic area during the summer and early fall between 7:30 am and 5 pm requires taking a shuttle bus from the Aspen Highlands Village parking lot. This isn’t a free shuttle like the one at Rocky Mountain National Park – in fact, it cost me $16 to park for the day and $8 for the bus fare. Still, it was a glorious day to be at the lakes, looking up at those big old peaks. Leave the limited parking to people who are disabled, or the early-morning and late-evening hearty hikers hauling their big packs into camp at the lake and climb Maroon Peak or North Maroon Peak, or to the weary souls returning from the Four Pass Loop. The shuttle is fine with me. If you go, check out the RFTA site for the schedule and current fees.

An unexpected bonus of my travels was meeting some really cool people. In Rocky Mountain National Park, I sat next to a couple from Rockrimmon (literally two miles from my home). En route to the Stones concert, packed onto the E Line and hanging on for dear life from the Colorado Station to Mile High, I had a conversation with two women from Fort Collins and Florence, also on their way to the show. The Aspen shuttle to Maroon Lake was jammed with tourists and every one of them I spoke with was from New York.

I love to drive, and I do a lot of it. It’s nice to have that independence of being able to go where you want, when you want, and not have to deal with other people and their schedules. But as Colorado gets more crowded, it makes sense to check out all your options. Burn less gas and put less pollution into the air. Get your car off the road faster, save some money, and lower your stress too. Pad your time a bit, because it might take a little longer to get around. And sit back – or stand up – and enjoy it. I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more public transportation, and a lot more of each other along the way.

This blog first appeared as a column in the August 28, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

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