RTD Transit Ridership Not Keeping Up With Denver’s Growth

As long as Denver keeps expanding roads and parking, transit will have a hard time keeping pace.

The Denver region has made significant investments in transit, but as long as it continues to also spend big on highways and parking, car traffic will continue to rise. Graphic: RTD
The Denver region has made significant investments in transit, but as long as it continues to also spend big on highways and parking, car traffic will continue to rise. Graphic: RTD

Total transit trips in the Denver region are gradually on the rise. But with population increasing too, transit doesn’t capture a higher share of regional trips than it did in 2004, when voters boosted the RTD transit system with the $5.3 billion FasTracks investment.

Transit’s slice of the transportation pie remains stuck at 4 percent, according to a brief report presented at a recent RTD Board of Directors meeting [PDF].

“Transit ridership has not kept pace with regional growth,” said Lacy Bell, a planner and project manager with RTD. “So while we have increased boardings, it’s not at the same rate as population growth.”

RTD cautions that the mode share numbers in its most recent “Quality of Life Report” were calculated differently than the 2006 version [PDF], which found that “77 percent of commute trips in the region were made by driving alone and about four percent were made via public transportation.” But the conclusion that transit ridership isn’t growing relative to population or driving mileage is consistent with other publicly available data.

In fact, since 2008, per capita transit trips are trending downward, according to data released by City Hall’s Denveright planning initiative:

This chart from the Denveright transit planning process shows the relationship between population growth and transit ridership. Image: City and County of Denver
Image: City and County of Denver

“I read the [RTD report] and I thought, ‘I don’t think we’re doing real well,” RTD District I Director Judy Lubow told staffers. “Because we’re not increasing transit share.” Lubow called the dismal mode share “an elephant in the room.”

RTD’s report doesn’t make any claims about why transit mode share hasn’t increased, but there are a few likely culprits.

One is that the region continues to expand roads and parking. That includes everything from parking mandated in the city zoning code, which the City Council is actually making worse in some respects; to CDOT’s road widenings; to the RTD’s own massive, subsidized parking lots at transit stations. As long as Denver keeps building more car capacity, people will drive more, and the region will get less value out of the transit investments it makes.

Another culprit is that transit in Denver proper, where the market is strongest, has been neglected. RTD reports that all the transit growth is happening on rail lines, not bus routes, suggesting that Denver hasn’t been paying enough attention to providing good bus service:

Image: RTD
Image: RTD

Denver is where most RTD trips happen. The city proper accounts for 58 percent of all bus trips and 72 percent of all rail trips in the system, according to the Denveright State of the System report. Yet the RTD’s mandate to serve less compact, far-flung areas dilutes its ability to provide more frequent and reliable service where it will be used the most.

A robust intra-city bus network that prioritizes Denver cannot come soon enough.

  • Anthony

    It’s almost as if surrounding transit stations with parking lots, running low frequency bus schedules, and the hub and spoke network style doesn’t meet people’s needs…

    • TakeFive

      I thought getting people out of their cars was a good thing or no? The busiest LRT station outside of central Denver is Nine Mile Station and its parking garage fills up by 7/8 am. In fact a lot the Park n Rides fill up. But now you’re telling me getting people out of their cars is a bad thing? I get soo confused.

      I understand that Houston was the poster child for a redesigned grid system. Over the last 15 months their ridership has been flat so that is better than many places. I understand that their weekend ridership has grown a lot which is interesting.

      If Denver/RTD wants to redesign their bus routes I say whatever would work better is worth doing. Easier said than done I suspect but one thing I haven’t the foggiest notion about is how to design a bus route system. I did read about a next gen software system that’s supposed to be great. I look forward to the cost-benefit analysis.

      • Tattler

        Comment less.

        • TakeFive

          lol, Fair point

        • Anthony

          I don’t think we should be discouraging people from commenting just because their views differ on an issue from the majority of commenters on this site doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. TakeFive’s comments often force me to think critically about my positions rather than regurgitating the talking points. TakeFive, sometimes your comments do devolve into rote talking points, but when you stimulate thoughtful conversation I find your contributions very valuable.

          • TakeFive

            I take back all that nasty stuff I was mumbling about you. 🙂

      • Anthony

        Neither parking nor population density have a strong relationship generating ridership. That being said, Denver has more parking spaces dedicated to P&R along their rail network than other networks in the west, yet the mode share here is significantly lower than Portland and Seattle. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a229e91dd39311ec25fcff4c846308efeaacd853682b5744da90c6e7f929b81a.jpg

        • TakeFive

          I think you’re conflating issues. Here’s why:

          I assume you’d agree that Denver’s light rail/fastracks system is not a by the book or textbook approved design/layout? It’s mostly along old freight lines or highway ROW’s as opposed to going through urban areas (like Portland, Seattle or even Phoenix).

          I happen to be familiar with ridership per mile comparisons which I assume would be comparable – thanks to Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_light_rail_systems_by_ridership Denver’s rideship sucks (at this time). Phoenix is right up there with Portland. Seattle’s light rail ridership spiked 50% last year when they finished their extension. If you want to be impressed check out the Twin Cities’ numbers.

          The question I’d have is what kind of ridership numbers does Denver’s system generate at stations w/o parking (or very little)? I assume the reason FTA required Park n Rides is partly due to Denver’s non-urban layout? Given Denver’s system I’d assert that Park n Rides are vital, that ridership would be even worse w/o them. Exhibit A would be Nine Mile Station.

          • Anthony

            I need more time to identify the characteristics that make LRT successful in western cities, hopefully by next year’s RMLUI conference. In the meantime, here’s my presentation from this year wherein I begin that attempt to quantify physical characteristics that increase transit ridership and reduce SOV mode split: http://www.law.du.edu/documents/rmlui/conference/powerpoints/2017/Friday/DontTripOverParkingPt2/averya-todenvironment-03172017.pdf

          • Anthony

            My hypothesis is there is a direct correlation between the amount of free or underpriced parking, and mode split. Appropriate land use mix doesn’t appear in my analysis to directly result in lower SOV commutes, but inadequate land use mix or abundant auto infrastructure does appear to preclude walking, biking, and transit.


          • TakeFive

            Better article: http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/as-park-and-rides-overflow-would-building-more-parking-boost-transit-ridership/
            But I don’t like using Seattle as a peer city or model (for the most part). Consider that Amazon is anticipating accumulating 10 million Sq Ft by 2019. That’s like having 4 Republic Plazas and 4 Cash Register buildings in downtown Denver (they’re both about 1.25 million SF.). The densification of Seattle is eye popping meaning there’s specific dynamics at play that Denver will likely never emulate.

            My hypothesis is that the difference from urban to suburban is obvious and clear. What’s appropriate in one place may not be appropriate for the other. At least for the next couple of decades why not do what best promotes LRT ridership? Maybe once Regatta Plaza now the Point at Nine Mile is redeveloped Nine Mile well be a bit more walkable?

          • Anthony

            We could find a million reasons why Denver is a perfect little snowflake city that doesn’t have any peers. Seattle has multiple large corporate headquarters. Portland is more bohemian. San Francisco has a larger immigrant population/history. Los Angeles is run by Hollywood. San Diego is a tourism economy. Phoenix has a larger than normal retirement-age population. Houston doesn’t have an official zoning code. Dallas is too much bigger than Denver to compare. Salt Lake City has larger family sizes. Minneapolis has geographic constraints and frigid winters. And on and on. There are always going to be arguments why each city is different from one another, and that’s because they are different.

            Frankly, having lived in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix, and now Denver, Denver is most comparable to a blend of Portland and Seattle, and especially Seattle. Both cities came of age around the turn of the century and were gold rush boomtowns. Each transitioned to key trade locations (Seattle for Timber, Denver for livestock and mineral extraction). Both have a strong finance industry presence with large hub airports. Both cities saw their downtowns hollow out during the 70’s and 80’s with a booming suburban development pattern, and saw a return and boom to the central city in the mid-90’s. Both were hit hard by the S&L crisis, but neither was hit particularly hard during the housing recession. Both cities have outdoor loving populations with ample hiking and snow sports available within an hour drive. Denver’s MSA median income is $51k, Seattle’s is $50k. Seattle is a little more compact with about 83 square miles of land compared to Denver’s pre-DIA area of about 120 square miles. Both cities are emerging tech incubators with a highly educated workforce. They are not identical, but they most certainly are peer cities.

            I’m not going to argue that P&R’s are worthless. On the contrary, they’re quite useful at end of the line locations. 40th and Airport, Lincoln, Mineral, and Nine Mile are all great locations for P&R’s. Wadsworth, Sheridan, Iliff, and Arapahoe are so-so. My bigger issues are the ones at I-25 and Broadway, Metro Center, 2nd and Abilene, 13th and Abilene, Yale, Colorado, Littleton, Englewood, Federal Center, Central Park, Oak, and Peoria. Those are all locations where mixed-use villages would flourish, reducing overall commutes but also significantly increasing RTD ridership on the rail lines.

            The point of my inclusion of the presentation I made at RMLUI is to show that Denver has twice as much parking at rail stations as those three peer cities, but the mode split doesn’t come close to matching that in Portland or Seattle. Seattle’s rail network is admittedly fledgling, but Portland’s is robust and while slightly older, is quite similar in size to Denver’s and includes long stretches of highway-adjacent rail (see Red and Green lines, and to some extent the Yellow since it’s about .15 miles from I-5). Both cities have much higher average station population densities and see greater mode split across the metro area. My research found that higher densities closer to the city center mean more people use transit, and in suburban locations the mode split doesn’t start to be impacted until the population density starts to exceed about 5,000 persons within a 1/2 mile radius of a station. Providing parking spaces eats up valuable land that could be used to provide productive land use which in turn creates more demand for transit service. Portland has 41 of its 86 stations (48%) with over 5,000 people living within a 1/2 mile radius. Seattle has 9 of its 16 (56%), Salt Lake City has 6 of 50 (12%), while Denver has 13 of 76 (17%). Above all, parking is expensive and the ROI isn’t there. The Sheridan P&R has 800 spaces and the station itself sees approximately 2.1 trips per day per parking space. Wadsworth has 1,000 spaces and sees 2.9 trips per day per parking space. Lincoln is 3.5, Mineral is 4.3 (Nine Mile is 5.8 but has the transfer station too). P&R’s obviously bring riders, but they also limit the ridership. Meanwhile, a stop like Hollywood or NE 82nd Station in PDX are both freeway-adjacent stations with zero parking spaces and nearly 5,000 trips per day generated by the approximately 6,500 residents and the accompanying business districts surrounding those stations. While RTD has multiple high performing stations (15 over 5,000 trips per day compared to 11 for Portland), the intermediate stations much less productive. Denver has 22 stations with over 3,000 riders per day compared to 31 in Portland.

          • TakeFive

            Nvm about Peer cities, lol. Not sure of their value anyway other than for broad general comparisons. Interesting historical parallels between Seattle and Denver though. You do have amazing personal experience, I’d think, from living in those cities.

            Not all that familiar with Portland so maybe the lines aren’t as urban I’d thought. Thanks for the detail.The big advantage as you suggest would seem to be maturity. It will be interesting to see how much RTD ridership grows over the next two decades. Only the SW LIne has been open for many years and while other than the Mineral Station, I never thought of it as that good of a route I see it is actually performing quite well.

            Not saying that parking is the Be All but the jury is still out in my mind, especially with suburban locations, especially until they develop higher density. I see parking lots as a placeholder which can easily be developed later. If it’s valuable land today then it will be even more valuable tomorrow. You specifically mention the higher station densities in Portland and Seattle. Exactly, and a key point — which goes to my point that Fastracks was visionary and not by the book. Hopefully down the road TOD will change that..

            With respect to Nine Mile, I never thought being end-of-line was that big a deal and since the R Line opened end of Feb it no longer is. Yet through May and not counting DUS or DIA, only four stations have better ridership. You know the area; it uniquely draws from a large area that let’s say includes between the Hampden Ave and Smoky Hill Rd corridors.

            I happen to think that Aurora is a sleeping giant. But how to plant those bean stalks er green shoots? I think like downtown Phoenix and for similar reasons they should offer incentives for desired development. Please pass that along for me will ya?

          • TakeFive

            Interesting. However with me context is everything. At least with sports analytics arm chair critics lose all sense of context and changing dynamics. Drives me nuts.

  • TakeFive

    Great topic. Unfortunately we’re not even on the same page or chapter. Book? Maybe. Let’s just say that the political side of the Streetsblog agenda talking points are vastly overrated and mostly an irrelevant distraction.

    I may be just an armchair transportation/transit fan but it’s not hard for me to envision what is needed. Coincidently I made a related comment earlier today which you can see here: http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?t=150276&page=533 The upshot is I found that APTA had (finally) posted their 1st quarter Transit Ridership Report. The multi-year trend of bus ridership going down continues all across the country. Denver RTD’s bus ridership was down 5.34% YOY. Among the universe of cities reporting only Phoenix, S.F., Columbus OH and Milwaukee managed to eke out an increase in bus ridership. For anyone who is interested the APTA Report is here: http://www.apta.com/resources/statistics/Documents/Ridership/2017-q1-ridership-APTA.pdf

    It’s not Rocket Science; this ain’t Brain Surgery. It’s simply a matter of understanding your market, your prospects and what they want and Don’t Want. It’s a competitive market and a 1970’s designed bus ride is NOT what they want. Wanting to outlaw the competition is pointless; it’s a non-starter. Instead try stepping up and offering a competitive product. Act like the 2020’s will soon arrive and commit to offering a competitive, alluring product. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

    • iBikeCommute

      It’s hard for RTD to compete when funding is so lopsided. Just after RTD completed the painfully slow, value engineered W line, CDOT spent $100 million to widen a couple bridges on 6th avenue. Imagine if that money had been spent to acquire better ROW for the light rail so that travel times could actually be competitive with driving? Of course CDOT has no incentive to try to actually get people out of their cars.

      • TakeFive

        Yes and no. For starters I haven’t the time or energy to worry about CDOT. That’s more of a Straw Man fallacy and needless distraction. But that’s politics and I’m more interested in transit opportunities which are begging.

        With respect to the W Line as an engineer/blog friend suggested it was a drainage project masquerading as a transit project. Yuge benefits from that though and they also had to rework as lot of track around Auraria etc. There were also some interesting engineering challenges and bridge work as well. The Good News was that FTA funded their typical portion; the Bad News – and I wasn’t as optimistic as many – but even I was surprised at how bad the early ridership has been. Oh well, it can only get better from here and it will.

        • iBikeCommute

          CDOT is anything but a distraction. How do you expect people to chose transit over driving when all our resources are poured into highway expansion? Of course it’s a political question. Ridership on the W line will not get better as long as CDOT keeps expanding 6th Ave while the train creeps along its single track.

          • TakeFive

            Are you referring to the 6th Ave approach to the I-25 intersection that was recently improved? I’m not aware of any other expansion?

            According to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W_Line_(RTD)

            The corridor then travels west along the Lakewood Dry Gulch and 13th Avenue until it reaches the Lakewood Industrial Park, where it turns south along the Remington spur to reach the Denver Federal Center. From the Federal Center the line narrows to a single track line and travels west along U.S. 6 and Colfax Avenue to the western terminus at Jefferson County Government Center in Golden. This section is single track with the exception of an intermediate stop at Red Rocks Community College, which is used as a passing siding.[7]

            The W Line has 9 miles of double-track which don’t run along 6th Ave and 3 miles of single-track. While ridership from the Taj Mahal station is reasonably decent Red Rocks is barely used but I understand the politics and thinking. Perhaps you weren’t aware of the limited single tracking bcuz the two stops and 3 miles are not a problem.

    • Tattler

      So your argument is that subsidized parking, road expansion, and crummy transit provision in the city core don’t affect transit ridership? Okay bro.

      • TakeFive

        What subsidized parking and road expansion are you talking about?

        The only road expansion that comes to mind is a short stretch along So Broadway They did expand U.S. 36 to Boulder by adding a 3rd Express/toll lane. The result of that was the competing Flatiron Flyer (BRT) bus routes have been so yugely successful that they need to tweak the schedule and add more buses. Way to destroy transit, eh?

        Do they need better transit especially in the central city. Absolutely. I’m all about doing better transit. You must not have read nany of my comments to have missed that.

    • Kevin Withers

      This >> “Let’s just say that the political side of the Streetsblog agenda talking points are vastly overrated and mostly an irrelevant distraction.”

      One can only dream of neutral transportation and streets reporting, without the bias/spin/posturing.

  • Camera_Shy

    “Transit ridership has not kept pace with regional growth,”

    Is there any chance that transit ridership has kept pace with the cost of gasoline? 😉

  • TakeFive

    I’m looking at the (2015) State of the System report. Light rail gobbled up 32% of the operating costs and I’m sure that’s even higher now. Aside from the R Line all other lines run through a piece of Denver proper. In any case light rail is what it is and a permanent part of the transit landscape.

    With respect to bus service Denver local routes eat up 37% of the operating budget. “Other local” adds another 9%. Skyride is 3%. That puts us up to 81% of the operating budget. So roughy 20% is left to meet regional needs and btw many of the Express routes do have good ridership. Not sure why the pity party around Denver’s allocation?

  • Boulder Wanker

    Hmmm. Lack of security is why I don’t use RTD rail after dark. A thug hood rat stole my bike at knife point at the Lakewood Federal stop last year. When filing report with RTD they treated me like a criminal. Also, in another unrelated tangent, I was consistently harassed by a female RTD officer that my company sponsored EcoPass needed to be updated. I checked with RTD HQ to look at my EcoPass and it appeared up to date. After the 3rd time being harassed by the RTD officer, I videoed the encounter and threatened legal action if she didn’t let it drop. ‘Guess I reminded her of her old white father. Closing out, RTD needs to improve the quality of the rider experience to help improve ridership. I don’t feel safe on rail system. I’m ex-military police BTW.

  • neroden

    Or, you know, build the rail lines within Denver? Central Corridor? Colfax Light Rail? Stuff that’s been proposed for 20 to 50 years?

    • TakeFive

      Denver needs to build an Urban Signature Line from Civic Center Station down So Broadway and then along the Speer Blvd/Leetsdale Dr corridor to the (phase 1) intersection of Parker Rd/Mississippi Ave/High Line Canal Trail – Plus an extension along So Broadway to the I-25 Station.

  • Cat

    Well, my views may be a bit skewed on this topic, but I’ll jump in anyway. I think that part of the reason ridership has gone down is that fares have gone up. This is especially true for trips within the city rather than commuter trips. I mean, the whole point here is that transit should be cheaper and more convenient than driving. I think for suburban commuters we’re starting to get there with light rail, but if you just want to get to the grocery store a mile or two down the street – paying over $5 for a round trip is really sort of ridiculous – not to mention the challenge of scheduling your trip with Denver’s lousy and infrequent network. I think adjusting the rate scale to lower the cost for a local trip would be a huge step in the right direction.

    I also wonder what impact the building boom in the highlands, RiNo, and downtown has had on ridership. In theory, many of these new areas are being built with an eye toward walkability. Might some of the change in numbers be that people are simply travelling less by any mode? Not sure if the mode share numbers could really capture that or not, but I would definitely see that outcome as a win.

  • Emmeaki

    Denver needs a rail system like NYC and Chicago that can get you anywhere you need to go. Buses have to deal with traffic, but trains stop at a point and keep moving. Make the trains go through the whole city, not just the outskirts.