To Become a Great Transit City, Denver Should Follow Seattle’s Lead

On Seattle's Third Avenue, buses rule and cars are "essentially disallowed" during rush hour.
On Seattle's Third Avenue, buses rule and cars are "essentially disallowed" during rush hour.

With apologies to enthusiastic headline writers, Denver has a long way to go before it’s a great transit city. But Denver could earn that label if the Hancock administration follows through on its transit promises.

There’s an excellent blueprint to follow in Seattle, which has used citywide and regional funding measures to deliver a much-improved transit system. The city’s transit renaissance is documented in this Streetfilm, and it will make Denverites salivate.

Seattle officials not only mustered the will to ask voters to pay for more bus service and rail infrastructure, they followed through by putting that money to excellent use, providing tangible service improvements that benefit tens of thousands of people each day.

Everything that Seattle is doing provides a model for Denver:

  • Increasing bus service so the vast majority of residents live within walking distance of transit that comes at least every 12 minutes.
  • Dedicating space on busy downtown streets exclusively to transit, so riders don’t get bogged down in car traffic.
  • Implementing off-board fare collection and all-door boarding so buses spend much less time standing still at stops.
  • Targeted improvements like queue jumps, which give buses a head start.

Like Seattle, Denver is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. The need to handle that growth with better transit is just as urgent here as it is by Puget Sound, but Denver has a lot of catching up to do.

While Seattle is working to get its share of single-occupancy vehicle trips down from 30 percent to 25 percent, Denver is trying to get SOV commutes down to 60 percent (and is heading in the wrong direction). Transit’s share of all trips in the Mile High City has gone down 1 percent since 2000, while in Seattle, transit ridership is growing faster than the city’s booming population.

The Denveright planning process is a promising starting point for a better transit system, but the real test will be the follow-through from Hancock and other officials. Will they raise the revenue Denver’s transit system needs and spend it effectively to deliver better service?

  • John Riecke

    I love the idea of dedicated transit lanes downtown. Get the people who are doing the right thing out of traffic and on their way.

  • Sarah

    While dedicated transit lanes, frequency and the other things you mention are pluses for Seattle, they too have a long way to go. One big problem for new riders and visitors is the lack of a regional transit company. You will find that, while you probably can get where you’re going via transit, you can’t figure out how to do it. Even Google often can’t figure it out, and calls to the help line, or use of their online planners often yield useless results. One time I was told, “I wouldn’t know about that route, as it’s a different company.”

    • EPLWA_Is_Relevant

      There is a regional transit company, Sound Transit, that operates commuter rail, light rail and express bus service between the counties that make up the Seattle area. Generally, commuters will use their local service (e.g. King County Metro) and transfer to Sound Transit services when needing to head across regionally. The transfer is painless and free with the integrated ORCA fare card and the agencies learned to get along, so there’s no redundant routes or scheduling headaches. They use the same stops and transit centers, too!

      • Sarah

        Yes, that’s true, and, yes, the Orca card is great (RTD needs to just copy it for its “Smart” card), but, as I said, because of the different companies and very poor trip planners, new riders and visitors to the city are hard-pressed to figure out how to use transit to get where they’re going in Seattle. I say this as a frequent visitor to and transit user in Seattle.

  • What does the tipping point need to be for someone in office to say, “We can’t handle anymore cars”? How do we change status quo of traffic, and SOV design?

    • Anthony

      There are many factors which include things like geographic constraints, namely water (which is influential in places like Seattle, less so in Chicago, nearly non-existent to thiis point in Denver, but may become influential in the future since we now can’t go any further west), population density (as density goes up, per capita VMT goes down; http://www.planetizen.com/node/60168; Seattle has 96k people living within 1.5 miles of Downtown which includes approximately 1/3 water compared to 54k in Denver, according to ACS data [http://mcdc.missouri.edu/websas/caps10acsb.html]. Seattle has 1.1% of the population living at densities over 35k per square mile, 1.7% over 30k, 5.5% over 20k, and 28.3% over 10k per square mile. Likewise, Denver has 0% over 35k, 1.1 over 30k, 3.3% over 20k, and 17.2% over 10k (source: http://www.city-data.com/city/Denver-Colorado.html)), employment density which allows transit, especially a hub-and-spoke network like we have, to work more efficiently enabling higher frequencies and more routes (Seattle’s downtown employment is 265k [https://www.downtownseattle.com/downtown-seattle-employment-statistics/] compared to Denver’s 123k [http://www.downtowndenver.com/category/key-facts-rankings].

      Many of the things Seattle, King County, and Washington State has in place have contributed to the renaissance of Seattle since its population decline in the 70’s. The state has an urban growth boundary, the county allows the transfer of development rights, which is a form of environmental conservation they use to preserve open space and in return developers can build more dense throughout the city. The city doesn’t have a minimum parking requirement in the central core and has recently eliminated minimum parking requirements along frequent transit lines, which has made parking downtown more expensive (average about $300/mo with a range of $160 – $518 between Denny, Yesler, and I-5), compared to about $150 in Denver with a range of $40 in Arapahoe Square to $250 at the Sugar Cube; nothing below $135 between 20th, Broadway, Speer, and the river).
      The way to expedite this process is to implement tolls on our freeways. If it costs $2.60 each direction to drive or take a train/bus, all of a sudden transit becomes more desirable.

  • Cat

    Buses every 12 minutes! Now THAT would be a game changer. It would mean that you could hop on a bus whenever you needed to rather than having to plan your entire day around the bus schedule.

  • Walter Crunch

    The roads in Denver induce traffic. There is far too much capacity for cars. Every downtown arterial could lose a lane for a dedicated lane for bikes 10 feet wide with bollards. That would be bold. Reports aren’t bold.

  • BarkingUnicorn

    The author of this article knows bupkis about Denver transit. The Regional Transportation District is not ruled by Mayor Hancock. “Queue jump” traffic signals are already in use downtown. Busy routes like the 15 and 76 run every 15 minutes most of the day.

    • David Sachs

      Queue jumps are few and far between. Some routes are actually more frequent than 15 minutes. It’s not enough. Frequent transit doesn’t reach 75 percent of Denverites. Hancock doesn’t control RTD, but he controls the streets RTD uses, which is why his administration is thinking about changing the streets to make transit more efficient, and also buyig up service from RTD to make it better. Like Seattle did.

      Hope that clears things up.

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