Solo Car Commuters Now Outnumber Transit Commuters Downtown

Transit commuting was down 1 percentage point in 2016, while driving solo went up about 2 points. The share of people biking to work rose by just .1 percentage points while walking rose by .4. Image: Downtown Denver Partnership
Transit commuting was down 1 percentage point in 2016, while driving solo went up about 2 points. The share of people biking to work rose by just .1 percentage points while walking rose by .4. Image: Downtown Denver Partnership

Continuing a troubling trend, last year the number of downtown workers who drove solo to their jobs exceeded the number who took the bus or the train, according to the annual Downtown Denver Partnership commuter survey.

It’s the first time driving alone has exceeded transit in the five years since the Partnership finalized its methodology, despite the Regional Transportation District opening two commuter rail lines and the Flatiron Flyer bus service along U.S. 36.

Meanwhile, the share of people who bike to work downtown remained essentially unchanged, while the share of people who walk decreased slightly.

What else does this new data tell us?

Transit is more appealing to some suburbanites than for Denverites

In some far-flung areas, transit commuting is more common than in closer-in parts of Denver, the survey found. More people from Littleton, Broomfield, Ken Caryl, and Superior use transit to get downtown than any other zip code RTD serves. Those residents can ride trains that don’t get bogged down in car traffic, or take buses that can bypass congestion in HOV lanes (or the shoulder) on the U.S. 36 corridor.

Screen Shot 2017-01-23 at 11.57.22 AM
Image: Downtown Denver Partnership

Most Denver neighborhoods, on the other hand, rely on buses that don’t come frequently and share lanes with rush hour car traffic. Even people who live within five miles of downtown are more likely to drive solo than take transit (though they are much more likely to walk or bike than people who live farther away).

“I absolutely think that transit services from the suburban areas of Denver offer very competitive service with driving alone,” said Aylene McCallum, director of downtown environment for the Partnership. “When you look at the transit service in central Denver, even though this group of commuters probably has the most diverse set of options… those options may not necessarily be very competitive with driving alone. They stop very frequently, the services are delayed, they still don’t come at a frequency that is desirable for those riders. So it’s just not a very competitive service.”

Better transit service could win a lot of converts: 57 percent of solo drivers said they’d take transit if the service was “faster or more frequent.” The Hancock administration is considering buying up RTD service to make it more frequent as part of the Denveright transit revamp, which would help. So would prioritizing transit on streets with true bus-only lanes separated from general traffic.

Employee benefits, or lack thereof, make a big difference

Downtown employees who receive parking passes from their employers are 88 percent more likely to drive alone and 44 percent less likely to use transit. Conversely, when firms pay for transit passes, their employees are 67 percent more likely to ride the bus or train, and 28 percent less likely to drive alone.

RTD’s EcoPass, which offers unlimited rides at a discounted rate to bulk buyers, is a great way for downtown businesses with five or more employees to incentivize transit, McCallum said. The EcoPass is a bargain: Parking spaces cost $150 to $200 per month, on average, according to the report, while EcoPasses cost an average of $40 per month per employee.

Image: Downtown Denver Partnership
Image: Downtown Denver Partnership

“We know that when those [transit] passes are put into people’s hands, they’re far more likely to use them,” said Aneka Patel, transportation outreach specialist for the Partnership. “A lot of companies are also providing parking benefits, and so when you have to choose and if you’re getting a significant discount on parking, even if you still have a transit pass, a lot of people are more likely to drive.”

The Partnership wants companies to know the benefits of subsidizing transit for their employees.

“It really has a lot of impact on employee retention, their satisfaction,” McCallum said. “And how happy they are and how stressed out they are, and how ready they are to work and how efficient they are at work.”

Image: Downtown Denver Partnership
Image: Downtown Denver Partnership

The trend is, obviously, headed in the wrong direction

The survey results come on the heels of 2015 census data that show the citywide solo car commuting rate is at 73 percent and rising. The Hancock administration’s stated goal is to get that down to 60 percent by 2020.

An audit released last week found the Hancock administration guilty of setting those sustainability goals — which also include a biking and walking mode share of 15 percent — without a real plan to get there.

Denver is falling far behind its American peer city that’s leading the way. Seattle is working to get its share of single-occupancy vehicle trips down from 30 percent to 25 percent.

  • John Riecke

    Ms Patel has it right. Parking benefits encourage driving.

    • rst1317

      The question isn’t if they influence the decision but how much do they influence it. How many companies subsidize downtown parking? How many spots are they subsidizing? How much is the subsidy?

      From my experience working downtown, there are more than plenty of people willing to shell out $5, $10, $20 / day to drive just to avoid transit. Taking Transit is already much cheaper than that. For those people, it’s unlikely event free transit pass will change their behavior. They’re valuing things other than money.

      • John Riecke

        Peoplw who prefer driving will continue to drive, but the removal of a subsidy can do a lot to change preference.

        Many companies downtown subsidize parking. If they all stopped I bet we’d see immediate and substantial changes in mode preference.

        • rst1317

          Again, the question is “how much”. ” a lot” isn’t how much, just a guess. As we’ve seen, people who are close to downtown are driving and choosing to spend quite a bit of their time and money to do so.

          How many spots are subsidized by companies? How much of the cost do they cover?

          Also, how many city parking spots are there? Is the city covering some or all costs for building those?

  • iBikeCommute

    Rather than buying up service the city should provide free eco passes for low income residents. This would provide funds for RTD and more demand for services- a virtuous circle.

    • JZ71

      EcoPass does NOT provide additional funds to RTD. EcoPass just rearranges the cash flow – more people, each paying less (the EcoPass discount), results in the same net revenue to RTD. And, there is no such thing as a “free” EcoPass – your concept would be that non-riding taxpayers would further subsidize “low income” riders, over and above the 80%+ subsidy taxpayers already provide RTD!

    • Chris

      I agree that we should have a city wide pass for any Denver resident. Extend beyond low income individuals. But to do that and make it really work we will need to increase services and frequency to the residents in the core.

  • Vertigo700

    It’s no surprise less people are taking transit. RTD has one of the most expensive fares for any transit agency in the country and they keep making service cuts. I live blocks from the W line, which just lost 22 rush-hour trips. The result is customers are paying more for worse service. Since gas prices have been lower in the last year or so, people are making the choice that it’s easier and maybe even cheaper to drive to work instead of take transit.

    • Brian Schroder

      It didn’t make much sense to me that they would cut trips on W line. The cars weren’t full like Japan, but they are fairly full of people during commute time. Many times I say to myself should I take the train or bus and then realize that if I run or bicycle I will get someplace faster.

      • rst1317

        Fares covered 21% of operating expenses in 2016. RTD’s Operating costs in 2016 were ( unexpectedly ) about by @12% just over 2015! They just don’t have the money.

        Check out Denver Business Journal’s piece. RTD is financially in a pickle. In fact, a valid case can be made that come the next downtown, they may financially implode.

    • Chris

      They did cut service on the W line, it didn’t bother me a whole lot since it would be an extra 8 minute wait for me during rush hour. But do agree frequency should go up and we should not stop at the Sport Authority Field station. It’s a waste of a station and takes up time. I also think they should go above 35 mph along the route from Decatur to Federal Center.

  • Brian Schroder

    Every time I get in the car and drive I ask myself how do people do this every day? It’s dangerous and a time waster to just look at brake lights the whole time.

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