Is Mayor Hancock Going to Let Albuquerque Beat Denver on Bus Rapid Transit?

Albuquerque is planning to make its upcoming BRT project as effective for bus riders as possible, despite some noisy opposition. Denver? Not so much. Image: City of Albuquerque

Denver Public Works is planning a watered down version of bus rapid transit for East Colfax Avenue that will start service in five years, if we’re lucky. Meanwhile, our southern neighbor Albuquerque is laying the groundwork to get real, center-running bus rapid transit up and running on its main drag, Central Avenue, by 2017.

As Streetsblog USA’s Angie Schmitt reported last week, the BRT project will add a full-time busway down the middle of Central. It was a bruising political fight:

Recently, Albuquerque has gotten a good look at the insanity that can grip people when confronted by the idea of reallocating street space from cars to transit. The city is planning to add center-running bus lanes along Central Avenue — its main street — and for months public meetings about the project featured people standing on chairs and shouting, actual fights, and the occasional police escort out of the building.

But this week, cooler heads prevailed. The Albuquerque City Council voted 7-2 to accept $70 million in federal money and get started on the project, called ART, which is backed by the city’s Republican mayor. Now, after a long and tense drama, it looks like ART is a go.

Like Central, Colfax is simultaneously our “main street” and a highway. Both corridors carry huge numbers of bus riders, yet are decidedly car-dominated. Some sections of Central are about as wide as Colfax, though others are wider.

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Denver bus riders will get a rush hour lane on Colfax, but not the kind of full priority that Albuquerque bus riders will get on Central. Image: DPW

The main difference? More people travel on Colfax, so it’s more clogged with cars and has almost three times more daily bus riders than Central — both reasons to go all-in on transit.

But instead of bus service that can bypass traffic at all hours, the transit lane on Colfax will only be in effect during rush hours. And instead of running in the center, where buses don’t get slowed down by drivers trying to park or turn right, the Colfax design puts buses between the parking lane and a traffic lane. These are design decisions intended not to maximize the effectiveness of the project, but to make the changes more politically palatable, consultants said at the last Colfax Corridor Connections meeting.

Albuquerque’s project could become one of the country’s best BRT systems, thanks to a mayor and city council who had the guts to support major changes despite the cantankerous opposition. Here in Denver, Mayor Hancock only seems willing to anger people if it means building a big highway through their neighborhood.

Albuquerque is showing how a city can grow by prioritizing transit, getting more value out of the same amount of street space. And if Albuquerque can do it, why can’t Denver?

Hat tip to Dan Majewski.