Last week I had the pleasure of attending Saving Places, a three day conference that looks at historic preservation as a means of enlivening communities, strengthening economies, and giving story to the lives and cultures of past and present residents. Transportation often comes up during this event because how we move around effects how and where we build. One session I attended at the conference this year focused specifically on how Denver’s streetcar system shaped where residential and commercial developments were built, with the streetcar lines sometimes even preceding, and therefore guiding, development.

Ryan Keeney completed a capstone project for his masters degree last summer on the Denver Streetcar’s Legacy and Its Role in Neighborhood Walkability. He developed a story map that shows the growth and decline of the streetcar system over time. What started as a horsecar line in 1872 soon became a series of competing transportation businesses criss-crossing the streets of Denver. Cable cars replaced the horse-powered cars. These soon had to compete with electric trollies, which came online in the 1890s. By 1917, Denver saw peak coverage. The last new segment of rail was laid in 1923, and by the 1940s, trolley buses and gasoline powered buses started to insert themselves onto the streets.

Using the tool that Keeney developed, viewers can click through a timeline to see the growth and decline of the Denver streetcar system. It’s extent in 1874 and 1920 are shown above.

Keeney set out to examine three things, “the actual streetcar routes, the legacy of the streetcar in the built environment, and the impact of that legacy on neighborhood walkability.” He developed a tool that captures and illustrates his findings, which you can play around with online. What he discovered was that the streetcar had a tremendous effect upon development patterns in Denver. It enabled residential neighborhoods far from the City center, while encouraging commercial development near stops such that riders could pick up supplies on their way to work or a few groceries on their way home.

All of this made me wonder if the Fort Collins streetcar had a similar effect. I thought about where the stops are along the restored line of our trolley system and lo and behold, at the Howes stop there’s a church. There also used to be a school which was later replaced with a grocery store. The Howes stop is also a short distance from downtown. At the Loomis stop there’s the old Westside Grocery which held the Food Coop in the 70s and now houses the Traditional Chinese Medical Clinic. At the Shields stop there’s Beavers grocery, an icon of the West Side neighborhood. And near the end of the line, there’s City Park and Grandview Cemetery. I couldn’t wait to write all about it — though Fort Collins is, and always has been, much smaller than Denver, we still see a similar effect along our old passenger rail service.

But I knew that I’d have to verify that this really was the case. Did it hold true for the east side as well?

Just as in Denver, the Fort Collins streetcar system changed over time. This map was put together by volunteers of the Fort Collins Municipal Railway.

Nothing is ever as simple as one might hope. Not only were there small grocery stores throughout the East and West Side neighborhoods (not just along the trolley routes), but it turns out there was no such thing as a trolley stop. After speaking with Myrne Watrous, who remembers the days of the trolley as transit (as opposed to the trolley for tourism), I’ve come to find out that as long as you were standing on a street corner, all you had to do was wave down the trolley driver and he’d stop for you. The fare was a straight 5¢ no matter where you hopped on or hopped off. And the town was never so big that small commercial centers were needed anywhere outside of downtown. So the Fort Collins trolley system helped move people around, but it doesn’t appear to have driven development in the same way that the system in Denver did.

(As an aside, Myrne also said that the trolley driver would even help bring your groceries into your house before hopping back onto the streetcar and continuing on his way.)

There are two takeaways, in my opinion, from this comparison of Denver’s streetcar development and Fort Collins’. From Denver we learn the power of transportation in driving how and where development occurs. Strengthened with this knowledge, we should plan carefully how and where our transit system is used so that it becomes a catalyst to growth and not just a response to need (although that is critically important as well).

At the same time, we can learn a lot from early Fort Collins values. Our streetcar system was a means of connecting people to resources. Trolleys took kids to school, provided easy transit to work, and enabled quick access to retail shopping. But places that people would need to frequent often, such as grocery stores and churches, were scattered throughout neighborhoods, whether or not they were close to the streetcar. It was assumed that all people needed food and that it should be within a 5-10 minute walk from every house in town.

The City of Fort Collins has a program called Nature in the City that ensures that all residents are within a ten minute walk of a park or natural area. Perhaps we need to re-invest in our earlier value of connecting people to food sources within a short walking distance. Through our upcoming City Plan process, we should take a look at codes and other possible inhibitors to corner grocers. We also need to be thinking outside the Max corridor. Where will our community continue to grow? and do we have transit running through those areas that will help people to connect to these new retail and community centers without having to take their cars? And while we’re at it, let’s not disincentivize that plan by requiring outsized amounts of parking that will negate any gains that transit could give us.

We’re at a point where, with City Plan, we can rethink how Fort Collins continues to grow and develop over the next twenty years. Let’s take to heart the lessons that we can glean from the pre-car days. The more we can employ these lessons, the less congestion and pollution we’ll have going forward and the healthier our community will be.

The photo at top is from the Denver Public Library. Call number X-10997. The summary on the photo reads: “Two cars drive past trolley number 20 of the Fort Collins Municipal Railway in a residential neighborhood in Fort Collins, Colorado in Larimer County. Sign on front of trolley: ‘Pioneer Museum Admission Free.'”