To Meet On-Time Bus Service Goals, RTD Will Aim Lower

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

Don’t expect more reliable bus service any time soon.

RTD has been falling short of its goals for on-time bus performance for years, according to agency staffers. But rather than try to hit those targets, RTD is poised to move the goalposts.

What’s more discouraging than waiting for a bus that never comes? If bus service doesn’t stay close to scheduled arrival times, people lose faith and give up.

The current target is for buses to arrive within five minutes of the schedule 88 percent of the time. And back in 2011, RTD seemed to be hitting the mark. But then the agency began measuring performance with GPS systems on buses instead of manual counters. A few hundred data points per day became 18,000, painting a more accurate picture. And it looked a lot less rosy.

On-time performance now hovers consistently between 83 and 86 percent. Instead of taking steps to improve performance, however, RTD Assistant General Manager Bruce Abel wants the Board of Directors to drop the target to 86, which he says is more “realistic.”

“I would venture to say to y’all that overnight our performance did not drop,” Abel told the Board during a committee meeting last Tuesday. “I would venture to say to y’all that we have a more exact measurement tool, and we were now getting a more realistic picture of our actual performance.”

One could also venture to say that RTD should strive to do better for bus riders.

RTD says that bus runs are taking longer than they used to (a problem that suggests traffic congestion is getting worse and slowing down transit). The agency could make up for slower speeds, somewhat, by making more runs.

It would cost $2 million to add service to reach current on-time performance goals, according to RTD documents. But even if RTD scrounges up that money, the agency is having a hard time hiring bus drivers, Chief Financial Officer Heather McKillop told the Board.

“I think we could find the $2 million a year to pay for this,” said Board Member Natalie Menten. “I disagree with the statement from people that we can’t. But I will wholly agree with the fact that I don’t think we can find the drivers to cover that.”

On-time performance is about a lot more than drivers, though. It’s also influenced by fare collection methods (systems that let riders board at any door are less prone to delays), traffic congestion, and other factors.

If traffic is getting worse, for instance, Denver Public Works could allow buses to bypass congestion by setting aside dedicated bus-only lanes, or work with RTD to set up traffic signals that hold green lights a few seconds longer for approaching buses.

But in Denver, decision makers prefer the easier path of letting bus service stagnate. The push to weaken on-time performance goals is not new — staffers asked the Board to approve changes in 2015, the same year it voted to raise fares.

“The Board was very explicit,” Abel said. “They said politically it was not appropriate to be lowering our goal for on-time performance at the same time that we were going to increase fares.”

Given that the changes passed committee 12-1, with Board Member Tina Francone voting no, higher standards face an uphill climb. The Board will take a final vote on lowering its standards tonight.