CU Denver Lays the Groundwork to Fill the Gaps in Denver’s Transit Network

One Version of a hypothetical enhanced transit system. Image: CU Denver.
One proposal for an enhanced transit system. Image: CU Denver.

Unlike Boston or New York, the Mile High City grew up around cars and maintains a robust network of wide, speedy roads — infrastructure at odds with the world-class transit network the city government says it wants, and that Denver residents demand.

It might surprise you (perhaps not if you ride RTD often), but no comprehensive plan exists to enhance Denver’s lackluster intra-city transit connections. Instead, FastTracks, the massive new regional rail network, has hogged both the spotlight and the money for the past decade. But that’s about to change.

Planners will embark on developing a better connected, more efficient, and more equitable transit system tailored to Denver-proper this fall, but students from CU-Denver’s Urban and Regional Planning masters program have already given them a head start. Two teams spent the last four months developing complete transit plans for the city with the guidance of their professor and help from the city’s planning and engineering departments.

“The strategic plan basically says we’ve reached capacity. We can’t widen streets anymore,” said Ryan Billings, the senior city planner who helped with the projects. “I think there’s a long way to go and I think this plan will help us get there.”

The plans, presented at a Transit Alliance event Thursday, are not official — the city will develop the actual strategy with consultants — but are springboards to get staff thinking about major concepts.

“It’s really to the benefit of the Publics Works and Planning departments,” said Ken Schroeppel, the program instructor. “It’s kind of a pre-scoping exercise for them. To me, that’s the value for the city. It gets their head into it now before they have to start planning it for real.”

The students’ work provides key insight into what must happen for the city to become transit-rich – everything from physical engineering to replacing RTD’s obsolete payment method to combatting the social stigma of buses.

Another hypothetical version of CU Denver's enhanced transit system. (Image: CU Denver)
Another hypothetical version of Denver’s enhanced transit system. (Image: CU Denver)

Students identified critical corridors for “tier 1” (e.g., light rail, bus rapid transit, or streetcars) and “tier 2” options (e.g., buses with 5-minute headways during rush hour). Parts if not all of Federal Boulevard, Colfax Avenue, Colorado Avenue, Speer Boulevard, Quebec Street, and Evans Avenue need the highest-quality service, they say, to more seamlessly move people, better serve transit-dependent riders, and grow total ridership. The budding planners also ensured that no transit stop was more than a quarter-mile from any start- or endpoint.

They tackled the social barriers to transit use as well. Transit is not ingrained in Denver as it is in New York or Boston, and that’s a hindrance. “Dignity” was a word used often.

“Transit should not be looked upon as some inferior form of transportation that only ‘those type of transit people do,’” Schroeppel said. “We should convey through our transit system the same type of enthusiasm we do for our cars and our streets.”

That means city departments committing to the upkeep of safe, attractive, and permanent bus stops, for example, or providing lighting to remove fear from the equation when it comes to taking a late-night bus.

The students’ plans were quite thorough. Here are some other concepts and amenities they recommended to the city:

  • Universal card readers and electronic payment methods
  • Consumer apps for real-time tracking technology
  • A means-based fare system for low-income riders
  • Institute congestion pricing on enhanced corridors
  • Increase service hours
  • Decrease parking requirements

All great ideas, but how would they work in practice? The City and County of Denver will not own and operate a transit company — they would buy up service from RTD and probably rebrand the local system, like Boulder has done. Schroeppel didn’t want his students’ creativity constrained by money, but at the same the projects had to be feasible. Schroeppel estimates it would cost $1.5 billion over a three-phase, 15-to-20-year period. That’s less than one lane-widening project on I-70.

It will take some risk and perhaps some creative funding mechanisms, a la FasTracks’ tax levy, to make Denver a transit-rich city. But the CU Denver proposals managed to be simultaneously aspirational and realistic.

Earlier in the day, speaking of the uphill battle faced by the Union Station redevelopment, the mayor’s chief project officer Diane Barrett said, “We’re doing a lot more transformative projects. We’ve decided we’re not a cow town anymore.”

A truly connected, convenient, and equitable transit system must be one of those transformative projects.