To Combat Inequality, Denver Must Do More for People Who Walk to Transit

Household income of transit riders, broken down by how they get to the bus or the train. People who walk to transit tend to make much less than people who drive, but the RTD prioritizes driving anyway. Image: RTD
Household income of transit riders, broken down by how they get to the bus or the train. People who walk to transit tend to make much less than people who drive, but the RTD prioritizes driving anyway. Image: RTD

The vast majority of Denver transit riders don’t drive to the bus or the train — they walk. But these transit riders get the short end of the public policy stick: Parking lots at transit stations get huge subsidies, while the city’s sidewalk network is a patchwork mess in dire need of more support from City Hall.

People who drive to transit are much more affluent, on average, than people who do not, RTD found, with 65 percent of drive-to-transit households earning more than $50,000 each year, compared to just 23 percent of walk-to-transit households who earn that much.

The stats on how people get to transit come from a newly released RTD field survey and GPS data initiative that covered 66,000 riders from 2015 [PDF]. The results clearly show that if Mayor Michael Hancock truly wants to tackle inequity in Denver, his administration, RTD, and Denver City Council have to prioritize transit riders who walk to the bus or the train.

A resounding 76 percent of all transit riders walked to catch the train or the bus on average last year. Among bus riders, 85 percent walk to their stops, and among train riders, 55 percent walk, according to the survey.

The people who drive to transit probably don’t head to a bus stop, but to a rail station — where RTD subsidizes their trips to the tune of $22 million each year with free park-and-ride accommodations. (Keep in mind that the survey occurred before the A and B lines opened this year, which added more than 4,650 parking spaces.)

Meanwhile, lower-income Denver bus riders go without benches and shelters at bus stops, and without functional sidewalks to provide safe, comfortable routes.

Screen Shot 2016-11-22 at 9.16.56 AM
Eighty-five percent of bus riders walk to their stop. Image: RTD

The survey makes a strong case for RTD to start charging higher rates at its park-and-ride lots. Revenue from parking could buy things like sidewalks, wheelchair ramps, better bus stops, and more frequent service to and from transit stations, supplanting car trips. To implement that policy, the Colorado General Assembly will have to change an inequitable law that forces RTD to give away its parking spaces for free.

RTD is not allowed to collect revenue from parking, but it is allowed to lease or sell its facilities to the City and County of Denver, which could operate garages and lots and improve the public right of way. After all, Denver Public Works controls the streets, not RTD.

Between this transit survey, an RTD study on the high cost of its free parking spaces, and last year’s revelation on shoddy first-and-last-mile connections, the evidence is clear: Decision makers are spending taxpayer money on the wrong things, helping affluent people while ignoring the needs of low-income residents.

What remains to be seen is what they’re going to do to fix this situation.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the survey covered nearly 100,000 riders. 

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