What the Broncos Parade Says About Denver’s Transit System

broncos-rtd ridership
Source: RTD

Compared to a typical weekday, about 90,000 more people rode RTD trains and buses on the Tuesday of the Broncos Super Bowl parade. Ridership ballooned 28 percent, giving Denver’s transit system its busiest day ever with 409,000 boardings. To deal with the demand, RTD added service to several rail and bus lines, but also had to detour bus routes that crossed the parade route.

Service wasn’t flawless. Lots of passengers reported prohibitive lines at stations caused by RTD’s archaic payment system. At least one station ran out of paper tickets. Some buses simply didn’t show, causing fans to miss the noon parade. To smooth things out, RTD made all trips free for the rest of the day. (A nice gesture, but it’s pretty unfortunate for a transit system short on money to give up hundreds of thousands of dollars on its busiest day ever.)

Parade day wasn’t a normal day, but the jump in ridership demonstrated the potential of RTD’s system. We now have a pretty good sense that it can carry a lot more people than it typically does. But what would it take for 90,000 more people to ride transit every day?

That Tuesday, transit became a more attractive option because people realized it would be more convenient than driving. Government warnings about crowds of a million people clogging the streets will do that. Denver needs to make transit more convenient all the time.

One way to start would be to increase frequent service. RTD ran more trains and buses for the parade — how about doing that every day?

Right now people who live within five miles of downtown are more likely to drive than take transit, according to a study by the Downtown Denver Partnership. There are a lot of factors that go into this, but a huge reason is the lack of frequent service. Only five bus lines have service that runs at least every 10 minutes during rush hour.

IMG_8024
Photo: Allison Dellwo

As transit expert Jarrett Walker explains, frequency is one of the keys to unlocking higher ridership. Buses and trains that come more often reduce wait times. When people feel they can forget about schedules and hop on transit whenever they want, that makes the experience much more competitive with car travel.

Shorter headways (the time in between buses or trains) also make it much less stressful to transfer to other transit lines, and they act as a hedge against breakdowns or other service disruptions. If a bus has to be taken out of service, another one comes along shortly.

RTD’s strategic plan aims to grow ridership but doesn’t mention increasing service frequency. The first city-specific transit plan is expected to launch this year and will hopefully fill the gaps in RTD’s plan.

We know that many more people would ride transit in Denver if it was more convenient. What’s missing, so far, is a coherent plan to make convenient service the norm.

  • garbanzito

    RTD did a minimum reactive effort in managing ridership that day; they did no planning, and little or no announcements to help riders deal with the crush; they made trips free after a lot of people had already paid for tickets they were then not able to use (because of overload)

    it’s increasingly clear that RTD’s regional view is at odds with the needs of the urban parts of the district; the logical bold step (from which most politicians will run screaming) would be a complementary transit authority focused on urban needs; starting from scratch would allow a new authority to be much more nimble and tech-savvy; ideally it would be allowed to directly compete with RTD, which one can hope would light a fire under RTD’s stodgy planning process; we’ve already seen CDOT (of all agencies) step up to this challenge with the Bustang, so how about it, Denver?

    • JZ71

      . . . and how do you plan to PAY for it?! The urban part of Denver already benefits, heavily, from the taxes paid in parts of the district that receive far less and less-frequent service!

      • iBikeCommute

        Denver needs a dedicated transportation tax. I think the majority of our citizens would support this as part of a comprehensive solution to address congestion. Hopefully the new blueprint denver will point in this direction.

        • JZ71

          And to “do it right” would probably require another, full, 1% sales tax increase and/or a big increase in the city’s earnings tax. Convincing a majority of the voters to pay more in taxes is a huge challenge. You think a “majority” is on board (pardon the pun) – I seriously disagree!

          • iBikeCommute

            I think you seriously underestimate the level of discontent with our current transportation network. Even Colorado Springs recently passed a tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements- http://gazette.com/colorado-springs-sales-tax-hike-for-road-repairs-about-to-take-effect/article/1566731 People are willing to fund improvements if they know where the money is going.

          • JZ71

            Infrastructure is different than transit – the tax increase in the Springs was for “two major infrastructure problems, roads and stormwater”.

          • iBikeCommute

            “Infrastructure is different than transit”

            No.

          • JZ71

            To the voters, it is, and they’re the ones who PAY for it!

            Yes, “People are willing to fund improvements if they know where the money is going.” – that’s why FasTracks passed, more than a decade ago. There was a region-wide consensus built on why transit should be expanded across the region. And that’s why RTD was created in 1969.

            Inside the echo chamber that is this blog, yes, there is consensus to spend more money on transit and sidewalks. I just question whether the same momentum is happening among the larger populace – just because you state it doesn’t make it fact. And given the anti-tax sentiment among many voters, I’m not seeing the same groundswell of support for more transit that I was seeing 15 or 20 years ago.

            Bottom line, more transit is going to take higher taxes, and I’m not hearing any good arguments to convince the non-transit-wonk majority that they should vote for taxes on parking (to fund more transit), tolling roads (for transit), rasing the gas tax (to fund transit) or trying to impose congestion pricing (to fund and encourage transit). All I’m hearing is that we need to tax everyone else so that transit within the city (not the region) can be “improved”. I see that as both a quixotic waste of time and counterproductive to making transit better everywhere, in the city and in ALL of the surrounding counties!

        • mckillio

          How about applying the sales tax to gas?

      • garbanzito

        yes, it would take some wrangling; i would not ask the suburbs to pay a cent ;?>

        one reason to pursue a separate transit org would be to see if it could be more efficient and equitable than RTD

        • JZ71

          Efficient is always up for debate, but I believe that RTD gives the urban areas of the district more than equitable service. Denver, especially the area around downtown, receives far more service than it generates in taxes. Places like Centennial, the Tech Center, Cherry Hills, Westminster and Lakewood all “contribute” a much larger share in taxes than they receive back in services – be careful about what you ask for!

          • iBikeCommute

            I would be interested in seeing the data behind this statement. All those call-and-rides in the suburbs are pretty expensive to operate.

          • ANM

            Everyone contributes … but unfortunately for your argument, the services to the suburbs cost a lot a more per rider than center city services. See RTD’s Service Performance report, particularly pages 14-17. http://www.rtd-denver.com/documents/serviced/performance-2014.pdf

          • JZ71

            One, ALL RTD services are subsidized – only 20% comes from the farebox, 80% comes from the taxes non-riders pay. Two, yes, on a per-rider basis, many suburban services cost more . . . for the smaller percentage of riders who do ride! Three, even though downtown is very “productive”, suburban retail is where a huge chunk of RTD’s sales taxes come from – Park Meadows, Cherry Creek, Target, Walmart and American Furniture Warehouse are all way more important than the businesses along the 16th Street Mall or in LoDo or RiNo.

          • ezrarh

            I also would like to see the data for this. Downtown areas in general are the most productive parts of any city or state. If we’re going go ahead and commit to user pays, let’s go all the way and make it a point so that places only receive as much service as the taxes they generate.

      • Erik Thoreson

        Congestion charge.

  • disqus_1ovoN8fGFr

    You missed a big point here – if there were one million employees in downtown Denver (quite a bit above the current 115,000+), our transit system would look very different from what it is today. Think about the 1970s-era rapid transit system proposal with two downtown subways. The system is designed to meet the current needs.

    Also, check the current schedules: with a light rail train every three minutes in each direction on the central corridor in the AM and PM peaks, there is no room for additional trains on the double-track system with automatic block signals. The system is essentially at capacity now.

    • iBikeCommute

      Part of the rational for widening I-70 east is to have adequate capacity for the next 100 years, nevermind that the widening itself will drive this demand. RTD on the other hand builds for the minimum capacity needed at the moment (see the single tracking of the west line). RTD needs to start planning for the future.

  • Erik Thoreson

    Urban transit authority. Yes. Increase ridership within five miles of downtown.

    • JZ71

      . . . and how do you plan to PAY for all of this?! The urban part of Denver already benefits, heavily, from the taxes paid in parts of the district that receive far less and less-frequent service!

      • Paul Antony

        Looking at operational metrics, the suburban transit routes require far greater subsidies to operate than the urban routes. So, the suburbs are probably getting what they pay in, it just buys a lot less.

        Granted the suburbs probably do pay more, but that’s because they have a disproportionate amount of retail compared to Denver proper. Which means that Denver residents are sales tax subsidizers to the suburbs for retail sales. Though it may balance out a bit when you factor in sales tax for food and entertainment.

      • Erik Thoreson

        Increase downtown parking fees? Tolls for single occupant vehicles entering downtown?

        • Erik Thoreson

          Congestion charges.

          • JZ71

            Increase bus fares?! Charge a premium fare for any new streetcars? I get it, I’d love something that I don’t have to pay for, either. But you can’t have it both ways – bitching about fare increases – when the non-riding taxpayers are already subsidizing 80% of the cost of each trip RTD provides . . .

          • Erik Thoreson

            Charge motorists a fee to enter downtown and additional fees to park downtown.

          • JZ71

            Why? They already pay variable (based on supply and demand) fees to park in any private lot or garage.

          • Erik Thoreson

            To collect money for urban transit while encouraging urban transit usage by discouraging urban motorists.

          • JZ71

            Urban transit is obviously a priority for you. To impose any sort of fees requires convincing the majority of the voters to do so, not just “preaching to the choir” on a blog! And, unfortunately, “doing the right thing” rarely resonates with a majority of the voters.

            People choose to use transit or choose to drive for a variety of reasons, with finances playing a relatively minor role. I’m a big believer in using a carrot instead of a stick. It’s far better to convince drivers that transit is better than it is to penalize them for choosing to drive.

          • Erik Thoreson

            Does imposing any sort of fee require voter approval?
            I’d love to give a carrot to everyone who chooses to avoid driving into the city. What are the carrots?

          • JZ71

            Like everything, it depends. And even if direct voter approval is not required, both politicians and voters know that unpopular fees can come back to “bite” the politicians that impose them. As for carrots, reduced-cost passes and low-cost (or free) service to special events (like BroncosRide) are both ways to attract more riders. Unfortunately, as the parade illustrated all too well, RTD does have a finite number of vehicles, operators and seats – at peak times, they really don’t want or need any more riders!

      • mckillio

        Please, the suburbs pay far less in other taxes and have way more expenses. I think placing the sales tax on gas would be a good start. We could put a tax on hotels in that area. Raise property taxes or add a fee to parking lots and garages.

        • JZ71

          Or just double fares! Pay for a bigger share of what YOU are using!

          • mckillio

            That would result in a net reduction in fares.

          • JZ71

            . . . assuming a net reduction in demand.

            For any tax increase to be approved by the voters requires making either a logical or an emotional argument about why an even larger share of their paycheck should go to the government. Paying for more bus service within 5 miles of downtown will appeal to those people who both live AND work within that small area. If you live AND/OR work outside the core, there’s little reason to support such a tax increase. Add in that a small geographic area will be surrounded by lower-tax areas, and you incentivize people to do their spending / living / working in the lower-tax area!

          • Paul Antony

            The most likely solution is going to be a Denver-specific funding mechanism in order to “buy-up” transit service in Denver proper- and say f**k the rest of the metro area- as it’s where you could see the best return on transit investment. What kind of mechanism remains to be seen. Denver’s sales tax rate is middle of the pack in the metro area so I don’t see a significant push to bump that up. The city’s property tax burden is the lowest in the metro area, so there’s room there to make a push for better transit funding.

          • JZ71

            We obviously disagree, but good luck with both your vision and your efforts!

  • SammyDEEEEEE

    Increasing frequency is an absolute must. For instance, the 16th St. Mall Shuttle. One night, we were headed to dinner at the Pavilions, but wanted to run to Larimer Square for something first. We walked the length of the mall, never seeing a single MallRide shuttle going our way. Not one.

    Finished our errand, and walked back. Guess what? Not one single MallRide shuttle going the other direction.

    I’d take those shuttle buses off the mall and reallocate those resources someplace where they could be on an actual schedule. It’ll beautify the mall and add a few more transit options to other parts of the city.

    I would also like to see a light rail line up and down Colorado Blvd. from I-70 (where there will soon be a station) to I-25 (where there is already a station). Colorado Blvd is one of the worst stretches of road in the entire country for traffic. Easing that congestion by closing from three lanes each way to two and adding a mass transit option (like the modern city we want to be) would go a long, long way towards making Denver more mobile.

    • red123

      They should re-dedicate a lane on Colorado Blvd to Bus Rapid Transit. Like the MAX in Fort Collins. There is no room for Light Rail along Colorado Blvd and all of the lights would be impossible to coordinate with the way a train accelerates/decelerates

      • SammyDEEEEEE

        It would work if we did elevated.

      • mckillio

        If there’s room for LRT in downtown, there’s room along CO Blvd. Regardless wouldn’t a street car make more sense?

        • JZ71

          More buses running more frequently would be the most cost-efficient answer IF (IF!) any new funding sources can be identified!

  • ANM

    Looks like the transportation trolls have finally arrived to Streetsblog Denver! Congrats David! You’ve made it!

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