RTD’s Flatiron Flyer Is an Upgrade, But Don’t Call It “Bus Rapid Transit”

Photo: RTD

On Monday RTD offered free rides on its just-launched Flatiron Flyer bus routes between Denver and Boulder. The transit agency calls the system “bus rapid transit” or BRT, a phrase that’s been diluted with ho-hum projects in the United States.

Mexico City, Bogota, Brisbane, and Curitiba in Brazil — these are the cities with BRT systems worth copying. Buses travel in dedicated lanes that don’t mix with general traffic. The boarding process is fast, like rail — you pay before you get on the bus and board at any door, from a platform that’s level with the floor of the bus. Traffic signals hold green lights for approaching buses to minimize time stopped at intersections. Those are the types of features that Denver should put to use on Colfax Avenue.

A spoiler: The Flatiron Flyer is not BRT. It lacks almost all of these key elements. Still, it will run much more frequently than the services it replaces, with 4-15 minute headways much of the day instead of a schedule where gaps in between service could stretch up to an hour. The Flatiron Flyer also has some significant upgrades over RTD’s old service, and I wanted to see how the new ride stacks up.

So I rode roundtrip between Denver Union Station and Downtown Boulder Station on Monday during afternoon rush hour. (In a wonk move, I live-tweeted the experience.)

I was looking for a few things: the Flyer’s convenience, quickness, punctuality, and comfort. In short, the quality of service. How does it compare to the bus lines it replaced? And will it be good enough to lure people out of their cars?

I queued for the 4:20 FF2, the express route with just three stops, in Union Station’s modern underground bus concourse. The gate had an electronic display that clearly conveyed which bus was next and what time it would depart. It was intuitive, and if I missed the bus, I could see that another was coming in 10 minutes, so no worries. (The FF2, one of six routes, comes every 10 minutes but only runs during rush hour.) Boarding was quick only because the trip was free. When RTD starts charging fares, the process will take just as long as on other bus routes.

Aside from the lingering new-bus smell, the Flyer is a comfortable way to get to and from Boulder. I leaned back in the reclining pilot seat, which sports RTD’s signature 1990s color scheme. Above me were adjustable fan vents and reading lights. Passengers have access to electrical outlets and USB ports. The inside of the coach does feel more like a train than a bus.

I thought getting on the highway from downtown Denver would be a bit stop-and-go, but it wasn’t, because the bus has its own ramp, no cars allowed. But that was the last time the Flyer had its own right of way. We traveled in the U.S. 36 express lane with other cars, and on this day there wasn’t any congestion heading west. If the express lane gets clogged, the plan was for buses to cross two lanes of traffic and drive in the shoulder, but it turns out that’s illegal and requires a legislative fix.

Twenty-two minutes after leaving we arrived at McCaslin Station. One of six new “BRT” stations, McCaslin’s proximity to the highway meant pulling in and out took just a few seconds. It was quick. At Table Mesa Station, though, some turns and a traffic light made the stop clunkier. As the Flyer hit Broadway in downtown Boulder, the lack of a dedicated lane and bus priority at traffic lights meant a slower ride.

Still, we reached Downtown Boulder in 42 minutes — four minutes ahead of schedule. Once people start paying fares, that will probably eat up a few more minutes.

I hopped on the 5:10 FF2 back to Denver as congestion began to build. We merged into idle traffic after stopping at Broadway-Euclid, but hopped into the express lane and didn’t see any congestion the rest of the trip — until we hit Park Avenue in Denver. Again, traffic lights and no dedicated lane meant a slow procession into downtown. We arrived 55 minutes after leaving Boulder, which was right on schedule but significantly longer than the trip west.

So what’s the verdict? The bus-only ramp, express lane on the highway, and streamlined stops should shave a few minutes off the old run times. Combined with the increases in frequency, the Flatiron Flyer will make bus trips faster and more reliable. The old routes had about 11,000 daily passengers, and that number should climb as the new service lures some people to leave their cars at home.

As for showing Denver what BRT is all about — that’s not what this project does. To make buses a first-rate travel option inside the city, we’ll need to change our surface streets too. Denver needs to claim that space from cars and give it to transit riders.