How Will a Ride on the A-Line to DIA Compare to Rides in Other Cities?

Everyone’s been waiting for another option to get to the airport for a long, long time. Image: RTD

A little over two weeks from now, a notorious local rite of passage will end for many: Slogging in traffic to Denver International Airport.

The A-Line from Union Station to DIA opens April 22. If all goes well, air travelers will gain a reliable way to catch the plane, and airport employees will gain an efficient commute.

Transit lines connecting downtown to the airport work best when they also connect to neighborhoods in between, providing service for other types of trips. That’s in the cards for RTD, but let’s start off by looking at the trip between downtown and the airport. How will Denver’s airport transit stack up to other cities?

Streetsblog compared the A-Line’s fares, trip time, and frequency to airport rail lines in four cities: Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Seattle. Each comparison is based on morning rush hour trips from the city center to the airport. Here’s what they look like.

Denver’s Airport Transit Fares Are High, But Still Cheaper Than Other Modes

To be competitive with driving, transit needs to be attractive in terms of time and cost. Fares to DIA are higher than other cities’ airport fares, but even so, for most travelers from downtown transit will be cheaper than other modes, unless you’re traveling in a large party that can split the cost of gas and parking or an Uber fare.

city fares 2
Denver’s discounted fare for kids, students, older adults, and low-income residents is higher than other cities’ standard fare.

In-Train Travel Times Are Comparable

Denver’s airport is about 24 miles from Union Station — about twice the distance as in these other cities. But RTD’s commuter train travels at 79 mph through a lot of sprawly, rural areas, making for a relatively quick ride.

travel time
Travel time is based on transit agencies’ advertised schedules and information from Google Maps.

The A-Line’s Frequency Isn’t So Impressive

Travel time on the train itself is not the whole story, especially when you have a plane to catch. If you miss a train, how long do you have to wait for the next one? Here’s how the frequency of service in the five cities compare:

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 1.10.30 PM

On his blog Human Transit, transit planner Jarrett Walker says the best way to measure travel time is to add half the scheduled wait time to the advertised time spent on the train. Based on this principle, Denver’s train to the plane is about equal to Chicago’s in terms of total trip time.

While the A-Line doesn’t come out looking great, it’s still hard not to be excited about finally having a train between DIA and downtown. We’ll see soon enough how many people opt for the train instead of the car, but in the meantime, this comparison puts Denver’s service in perspective.

  • John Riecke

    Never driving there again.

  • Anthony

    One of the tools I use to gauge transit’s effectiveness and attractiveness is a transit:driving travel time ratio. By this measure (not counting scheduled wait time) Denver comes out pretty well. MSP is 1.6 during free flow and 0.8 during rush hour, meaning it takes 1.6 times as long to travel by train than it does by car during free flow conditions, and only 80% of the automobile travel time during peak hours. SEA is 2.1 and 1.0, SFO is 2.1 and 1.0, ORD is 1.9 and 1.0, and DIA is 1.2 and 0.6.

    This means even in free flow conditions, it’s still faster to take the train to DIA than it is to drive once you account for parking and walking to the terminal (unless you valet or Uber, then the time savings is almost a wash).

  • iBikeCommute

    Of course we don’t dare compare the A line to airport trains in other countries. It is kind of embarrassing that we are using the same SEPTA trains I rode in college 20 years ago.

    • AndrewReker

      those are new trains. just look like the old septa ones 😉

    • bikeden

      Yesterday I rode from center city Philly to the airport for $6.50. Headways are 30 min there. The seats in Denver’s Hyundai Rotem cars look more comfortable than the bench seats used by SEPTA in Philly.

  • JerryG

    Actually, Chicago’s is $5 full fare. However, that may only be coming from the airport.

  • Chris

    I do think the price should come down. I think we have many people who would use it for their whole family or a couple if the price was just undercutting the car. I’m not one to want to sit around at the airport. The train solves a lot of issues I have had in getting to the airport and I’m excited to never use Skyride again.

    iBikeCommute brings up a good point. I think we could have gotten some nice looking trains. I realize they are new, but the style is old. Unless they want them to look like vintage trolley cars they should have done modern looking cars that look like train cars in Japan, Germany, France and other places. But we will have these for the next 30 years.

  • Christine O’Connor

    I’ve been taking SkyRide from Central Park Station for years and it is fast and reliable — 25 minutes. Much faster than driving! This should be about the same. Hope they think about parking, though, if they want to reduce car trips out to DIA.

    • Anthony

      8,550 new parking spaces are coming online in close proximity to FasTracks projects this year. It seems as though providing excessive parking is the only thing RTD considered.

  • Sammy K

    Very interesting how this article leaves out the DC, Philly, and NYC commuter rails. Probably because it would show Denver as having a relatively cheap airport commute.


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