Fixing Denver Transit: Making a Place for the Bus

Image: Google Maps
Image: Google Maps

This post is part of a series on fixing Denver’s transit system, based on the city’s newly-released “State of the System” report.

If Denver’s going to keep people moving as it grows, it needs to devote a lot more street space to buses instead of cars.

When street design doesn’t differentiate between one person driving an SUV and 40 people riding the bus on a busy avenue, the result is inefficiency that slows the transportation system down. The 15 and the 83 get mired in the morass of private automobiles clogging Colfax and Leetsdale.

What Denver needs is more dedicated bus lanes.

The last time Denver Public Works gave buses dedicated space a public street was 35 years ago, when the 16th Street Mall opened. Denver has bus lanes on just two other city streets, the rush hour lanes on Broadway and Lincoln.

Cars are the least efficient way to move people, but they get almost all the space on city streets. Dedicated transit lanes can move a lot more people. Image: NACTO
Cars are the least efficient way to move people, but they get almost all the space on city streets. Dedicated transit lanes can move a lot more people. Image: NACTO

The city’s transit system has been in the hands of RTD since 1969 and, until recently, DPW has been happy to forego responsibility for transit. But the agencies will have to work together to speed up surface transit, because DPW controls the streets where RTD buses run.

“When I’m talking to city officials, I will always say, look, I know you think that RTD does your transit to you or for you,” transit expert Jarrett Walker told Streetsblog last year. “But in fact, land use and street design are also transit decisions that make an enormous difference.” Walker is a consultant on the city’s first transit plan, one of four city plans currently in development under the “Denveright” umbrella.

The State of the System report points to Seattle and Portland as cities where Denver could learn a thing or two about dedicating street space to buses.

A two-mile stretch of Seattle’s 3rd Avenue — a four-lane street — is dedicated almost entirely to transit during rush hour. There’s also a transit tunnel beneath 3rd Avenue, and 1st Avenue will soon have a streetcar with a dedicated lane.

Portland’s transit mall is comprised of two streets — 5th and 6th avenues — that provide “one lane for private vehicles and bicycles, one lane for through-running transit vehicles, and a third lane for buses and trains to stop at their respective stops and stations,” according to the report.

Where Denver does have dedicated bus lanes, ridership is high: On a typical weekday, RTD’s Mallride carries 44,000 passengers along the 16th Street transitway. Route 0/0L, along Broadway and Lincoln, carry about 8,800 passengers per day with dedicated bus lanes during rush hour. Along with Colfax Avenue, Federal Boulevard, and Colorado Boulevard, it’s one of the city’s busiest routes. But those streets don’t have bus lanes.

Dedicated bus lanes on Colfax could move 50,000 passengers each day — more than double the current daily ridership of 22,000. That’s the kind of change Denver needs to bring to its increasingly in-demand streets.

  • Ray

    What th public hasn’t understood is the government is trying to build a public transportation system on top of a heavily subsidized road network. So, the public system has to have even more government subsidies. The best way to fix the system is to start by charging congestion fees based of the road networks real economic value. Then it makes sense to use vans, shuttles, and buses to get around. Entrepreneurs are ready to develop the on demand comfortable service that people are willing to pay for. But they will never be able to compete against the automobile while the road network is cheap and congested. Nobody is going to pay more for less comfort to get to work slower.

    • TakeFive

      “heavily subsidized road network”

      I don’t buy into the whole “subsidy” talking point. Roads are paid for by those who use and/or benefit from them either directly or indirectly. Citizen/taxpayer/voters have repeatedly voiced their preferences either directly or through representative government even if there are those odd years when it only takes a majority of electoral votes. 🙂

      • neroden

        Wrong. Roads are primarily paid for by those of us who don’t benefit from them at all.

        Most roads are paid for by property taxes. Most property taxes come from dense, urban areas. Most roads are built in sprawly, rural areas….

        At the state and federal level it gets worse. State road construction is funded mostly from sales tax, often paid for by people who don’t even have cars. It is even MORE biased towards rural areas than local road construction.

        Federal road construction is paid for by, well, really by borrowing, since the government runs a budget deficit every year. But most of the federal taxes come from urban areas. Federal road building is even MORE biased towards rural areas than the state road building.

        Basically road construction is a huge transfer of wealth from urban areas to rural areas. That’s a subsidy. Why does it happen?

        Massive gerrymandering which means that rural areas have disproportionately high power over nearly every state legislature.

        Same thing happens at an even worse scale in the federal government (the Senate has two Senators from Wyoming, with no population, and two from California, with over 10% of the country’s population). Electoral college means the same thing happens with the Presidency. And the House is gerrymandered.

        This is also true in most cities and counties (rural areas have more power over the local government than their population should numerically speaking). And there’s some more complicated stuff going on involving freeloading by areas which aren’t inside the city limits, where the outer suburban areas pay nothing in taxes to the city, but drive on the roads of the cities creating congestion, causing the cities to think that they need to widen their roads. (When really, they should put toll barriers at the city boundary!)

        It’s actually amazing, if you dig into it, how bad it is. The bias towards outlying rural and sprawly areas is massive.

        • TakeFive

          lol, you’re all over the blogosphere. Are you paid?

          Sales taxes and property taxes are generally collected at the city/county level and typically voter approved. People vote for what they want, that’s America. I have no idea where you are from and I’m at a disadvantage as I certainly am not familiar with all 50 states. In any case I’ll disagree with you on all points but I wouldn’t know where to start except to say that you are delusional.

          • mckillio

            He’s actually completely spot on.

          • TakeFive

            So you would agree then that the ~$5.7 billion FasTracks investment is a Yuge Gubment subsidy? And the ~$475 million Union Station too?

          • Ray

            If the government is providing a resource at less than its free market price, I consider it a government subsidy. This is the case for any congested urban road. When a city is initially planned, it is built with a road network to support a finite capacity of homes and businesses. However, with growth a city inherently needs, there is usually a great increase in job density, a minor increase in home density, and no increase in transportation density. This densification causes real estate prices to rise, with office and housing rent increases. The road network, being controlled by the government, isn’t allowed to increase in price, so rather than paying more dollars for the resource, we pay with wasted time. It’s of course a completely inefficient system. It would make more sense for the road network to increase in price as well, which will correctly lead to the increased transit density the system requires. Private companies are already designing the on demand ride sharing vans, shuttles, and buses the system should be operating on to eliminate congestion.

          • TakeFive

            The Gubment isn’t some foreign boogie man. It’s our elected representatives. Funding comes from citizen/taxpayers even if it’s over time. There is no money god in the big sky.

            I stand by my original statement.

          • Ray

            Let me put this another way. Water & Electricity usage is basically rationed by governmental regulations & pricing to insure that neither system collapses due to overuse. However, with the road network, congestion is a sign of the system collapsing due to overuse. We should have proper controls in place to prevent this collapse of the system, as it results in inefficiency and ultimately places an financial burden on the public. (wasted time, wasted gas, extra pollution, etc)

      • TakeFive

        In an attempt to be on the same page, I’ll reframe the argument.

        All so-called subsidies are no more than our elected representative enacting what (a majority of) the voters want. All subsidies are the ultimate responsibility of the citizen/taxpayers to pay for either in real time or over time..

      • Walter Crunch

        Look it up. Gas taxes pay for a small fraction of surface streets

        • TakeFive

          Yes it depends on which streets you are referring to. For example, in Denver they use both tax supported General Fund as well as property taxes especially when it’s a part of a bond issue like Better Denver Bonds.

          CDOT uses whatever Colorado collects in state gas taxes plus license fees (FASTER), normal federal pass-throughs plus matching funds for specific projects that receive grants. Additionally, P3’s do some of the lifting on specific projects.

          • Walter Crunch

            You responded to your own statement. Congrats.

          • TakeFive

            Roads are paid for by those who use and/or benefit from them either directly or indirectly.

            Yes, sorta

          • Walter Crunch

            Keep pumping that myth

  • R.W. Rynerson

    A few additions: Denver should get credit for the bus docks on 18th Street and Lawrence Street, which save having the buses forcing their way into traffic on the way to Union Station. There is also a queue jump signal for buses on 18th Street, similar to the lunar signal at Lincoln/13th. Measures such as these may actually smooth out traffic by making it more orderly.

    The article does not mention that other RTD bus routes and CDOT’s Bustang also use the Broadway-Lincoln bus lanes.

    RTD was formed in 1969, but did not take over bus operations until 1973-74. The City and County of Denver ran the service through private contractors in the interim as “Denver Metro Transit”.

  • Walter Crunch

    Calling downtown Denver congested is like referring to Ivanka Trump as far comparatively, Denver is well under capacity save for a few hours of the day.

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