Academics & Research / Winter 2018

Geography grad student explores Denver’s streetcar legacy

Ryan Keeney, a recent graduate student in the Department of Geography and the Environment, created an interactive digital map of every streetcar line that ever existed within the modern boundaries of the city and county of Denver, from the system’s inception in 1872 to its demise in 1950. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library Digital Collections

Alumni who took classes back in the days when the University was nicknamed “Tramway Tech” know that Denver once boasted a world-class public transportation system in the form of streetcars. In fact, many of the city’s buzzing commercial strips and distinctive neighborhoods — Colfax, Broadway, South Pearl — were once accessible by the tracks that used to cover a large portion of Denver proper.

Thanks to Ryan Keeney, a recent graduate student in the Department of Geography and the Environment, an interactive digital map is now available for urban planners, history buffs and others interested in Denver’s streetcar legacy.

For his master’s capstone project, Keeney pored over historic maps and narratives in “Denver’s Street Railways,” a three-volume collection by Don Robertson, Ed Haley, Morris Cafky and Kenton Forrest. Using GIS mapping software, he then digitized every streetcar line that ever existed within the modern boundaries of the city and county of Denver, from the system’s inception in 1872 to its demise in 1950. The resulting map on his website, “Denver’s Streetcar Legacy and Its Role in Neighborhood Walkability,” allows users to zoom in and out and switch between historic aerial and modern map views. A time slider also lets users view lines by year.

“While it was tedious going through so many history texts to map the lines in such detail, it was really interesting to discover that Denver once had an excellent transit system that was very localized and arguably served the city better than Denver’s current transit system,” says Keeney, who graduated in August with a master’s degree in geographic information science.

In addition to creating the map, Keeney took the project one step further by exploring the way that streetcar lines spurred commercial development and neighborhood walkability.

“Many of the city’s neighborhoods have quiet, pedestrian-friendly commercial areas tucked within them, which developed in symbiosis with the streetcar,” he says. “As people disembarked after commuting from downtown, they would patronize local businesses before walking home. Despite the end of the streetcar, these commercial nodes remain with us today and enhance the functional walkability of the city by virtue of their close proximity to many residences.”

The map allows users to zero in on what Keeney terms Streetcar Neighborhood Commercial Development (SNCD) clusters and view data for each individual SNCD. He hopes that this tool will help local urban planners identify holes in walkability.

“Ryan’s project is completely original and provides urban planners and urban enthusiasts with an interactive resource that reveals early 20th-century transportation and neighborhood history and its impact on today’s city,” says professor Eric Boschmann, Keeney’s advisor in the geography department.

Having grown up car-dependent in suburban Indianapolis, Keeney reports that upon moving to Denver, he was immediately impressed by the city’s walkability.

“I’ve always been interested in how the built environment affects our lives, our happiness and environmental sustainability,” he says. “This project has been a fun way to discover what makes Denver varied and unique.”

 

One Comment

  1. Donald G. Loach says:

    I was born and raised in the 1300 block of So. Vine St., one block from the end of the No. 5 streetcar line at the corner of South Gaylord and Louisiana Ave. My father road the No. 5 daily to and from his office on 17th St. I road it to Byers Junior High School when I wasn’t riding my bike. I graduated from South High School in 1944 and from DU in December 1949. I’d be happy to participate in an Oral History project, if anyone’s interested.

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