Why Denver Needs to Get Cracking on a Grid of Frequent Bus Service

With a frequent transit grid, people can get anywhere they need to go in the city with only one transfer. Image: Jarrett Walker + Associates
With a frequent transit grid, people can get anywhere they need to go in the city with only one transfer. Image: Jarrett Walker + Associates

If there’s one thing Denverites want from transit, it’s not having to wait for the bus. In a recent city survey of 2,400 people, “higher frequency bus service” was the top result when respondents were asked to rank how they would spend transit resources.

A grid of frequent bus routes is the foundation of any good transit system, according to Jarrett Walker, one of the country’s most influential thinkers on transit and a consultant for the city on the transport portion of the four-pronged Denveright plan.

It sounds simple enough, but Denver doesn’t have a good frequent bus network. Currently, 70 percent of Denver residents don’t live within easy walking distance of transit that comes at least every 15 minutes during rush hour.

“I know you’re talking about rail projects, I know you’re talking about bus rapid transit projects,” Walker said at a Denveright meeting last week. “Those are all great. Those are things that have to start, though, with the bedrock of frequency — the bedrock of being able to offer a high level of certainty that the next bus or train is coming soon.”

A grid of all-day frequent transit service is important because it frees people from having to worry about schedules. If you know you can walk a short distance to get to a bus or train that will come every few minutes, no matter where you happen to be in the city, you can leave your home in the morning confident that the transit system will take you where you need to go.

Drivers (including many political leaders who shape the transit system) don’t realize what it’s like to wait for the bus — the closest they come is when they have to stop at a traffic light. A more accurate analogy, said Walker, would be having a gate in the driveway that only opens once an hour.

“One of the reasons we pound the table about frequency is that frequency is hard to explain to our friends and constituents and, often, leaders who are themselves motorists and tend to be thinking in terms of a motorist metaphor,” Walker said.

Structuring the frequent transit network as a grid means most trips won’t require more than one transfer. It also makes the system very egalitarian.

“Wherever you can layout the frequent grid, you don’t have to pick favorites,” Walker said. “We transit planners love the frequent grid because we don’t have to have conversations about who’s more important than who else. Because where we can afford the frequent grid, it’s just equally useful for everyone.”

A frequent transit network is essential, but it’s not free. It may require adding service, buying buses and hiring drivers. And it works best when streets designed to prioritize transit — with bus lanes and signal priority where needed, but also with good pedestrian infrastructure so walking to the stops is convenient and safe.

Denver can make these things happen if it takes the lead instead of leaving everything up to RTD. The regional transit agency is dominated by a suburban board of directors, and unless Mayor Hancock and other city leaders assert themselves, Denver won’t get the transit system it needs.

The ability to operate a high-frequency transit grid will depend on how much service Denver is willing to buy up from RTD — like Boulder does. On some of the city’s most important transit corridors, like Colfax Avenue and Federal Boulevard, general traffic lanes will have to be converted to exclusive bus lanes in order to run more buses reliably. It will be up to Mayor Hancock to claim that street space for transit.

Before Denver buys more service, transit planners have to map out the frequent network. That’s the next step in the Denveright transit planning process — identifying and ranking streets where frequent bus service will run. The final plan is expected to be released in December.

  • TakeFive

    Thanks for the link to the Aug 3rd meeting results.

    Interestingly, and I’m not clear why the difference but on Pg. 17 it shows rail transit as a slightly higher priority preference than buses. Not disagreeing as I see where your claim came from on Pg 14. I did recall from earlier meetings that everybody would love to ride the rails; buses not so much.

    BTW, I did fill out and spend my $100; not sure if it counted as I was honest about living out-of-state. 🙂

  • TakeFive

    A grid of frequent bus routes is the foundation of any good transit system, according to Jarrett Walker… A grid of all-day frequent transit service is important because it frees people from having to worry about schedules. A frequent transit network is essential, but it’s not free.

    While perhaps logistically true I don’t agree this should be Denver’s priority.

    Denver can make these things happen if it takes the lead instead of leaving everything up to RTD. The regional transit agency is dominated by a suburban board of directors, and unless Mayor Hancock and other city leaders assert themselves, Denver won’t get the transit system it needs.

    A very misguided notion IMO and I Yugely disagree. I believe it’s mere fantasy and fool’s errand to think that Denver can accomplish all this w/o RTD’s financial help although this assumes RTD would get significant additional funding. Too many reasons and it would take up waay too much blog space to explain so I’ll just leave it at that.

    • JerryG

      I disagree with your last point. When it came to improvements along Colfax, be it BRT or streetcar, RTD made it clear that their focus, from a financial point of view, would be completing FasTracks first. Denver should coordinate its efforts with RTD and RTD should cooperate with what Denver wants to accomplish. Denver could buy additional service to increase the frequency on key routes and corridors. That additional service would not necessarily have to extend along the entire route; only the part that runs through the city proper or perhaps just beyond the city’s borders. Limited service like that on existing routes is not unusual. The residents of Denver get improved service and RTD financial investment is minimal.

      Given that RTD is a commuter-focused agency that serves the entire metro area, it would be politically difficult for them to provide any significant financial help to improving transit in just the city Denver proper. That would be perceived by suburban users and taxpayers to just be helping the residents of the city of Denver, even though in reality it would be helping many more than that.

      • TakeFive

        Fair point about frequency within the city.

        With respect to East Colfax BRT, I sure hope they decide on the center-running design. The issue (either way) is funding. The center-line design will cost about $165 million. Assuming the voters pass the bonding in November that’s $55 million. Let’s assume an FFGA is awarded; this year cities received about two-thirds of what they wanted. For example, Tempe AZ which is building a $170 million streetcar line received $50 million. Let’s go with $50 million. Then what? I get that they can phase the project so would they hope to finish it by say 2030?

        Just like other metro areas Denver needs a metro-wide funding plan. I envision RTD getting about $6.5 Billion over 20 years which should leverage up to about $9/10 billion in investments. Set aside $3.5 billion for light rail including an Urban Signature Line and that still leaves a boatload of money for buses etc.

    • Cat

      I totally disagree with both of your points, but I think your comment is a good illustration of how people living in and outside of the city have very different priorities for public transportation. Peak frequency is nice, but it really only serves commuters, whose main goal is to get in and out of the city quickly. For those of us who actually live in Denver proper, and don’t want to be car dependent, what’s needed is a reliable system for travel within the city. This is obviously not a priority for RTD, so I think it’s incumbent upon the city to take matters into its own hands. Whether that’s financially feasible or not, I don’t know, but it’s never going to happen if all decisions are left up to people whose needs and priorities don’t align with the people actually living inside of the city.

      • TakeFive

        Nice comment and I have no real disagreement with your points.

        What’s sad is that Denver is but among cities from D.C. to L.A. that have experienced falling bus ridership for a few years now. In fact, I just checked and APTA now has 1st quarter figures for 2017. RTD’s bus ridership is down another 5.34% YOY. http://www.apta.com/resources/statistics/Documents/Ridership/2017-q1-ridership-APTA.pdf

        To know what I think about RTD and transit check out this recent humorous post: http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=7861014#post7861014

        So far as what Denver may be able to accomplish on its own I have no issue other than being skeptical that it will amount to all that much.

        • mckillio

          While paying for increased service might be out of reach for Denver, there are a lot of little things that they could do to help ridership and at least the experience for transit users.

          They should make sure that there are complete sidewalks within 1/4 mile of all high frequency transit stops. Have reasonable shelters, lighting and landscaping at all stops.

          • TakeFive

            Absolutely

            Today’s choice/millennial rider wants a 21st century smartphone experience and it all starts at the station/stop. Connectivity, safety and comfort including real time info are all important.

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