RTD Can’t Market Away Low R Line Ridership and Shouldn’t Fund Empty Rail Over Full Buses

You can't blame low ridership on bad marketing when there's no one around to ride the R Line. Photo: David Sachs
You can't blame low ridership on bad marketing when there's no one around to ride the R Line. Photo: David Sachs

RTD is wedged between a rock and a hard place. The agency wants to serve the most people possible on a tight budget but has to appease suburban officials who don’t want service shifted away from rail lines with extremely low ridership.

The underfunded transit agency faces gloomy revenue forecasts, a severe driver shortage that’s stranding riders, and a legislative screw-up that shorted the agency millions. RTD is stretched too thin, so it’s cutting service to make ends meet.

Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan, naturally, doesn’t want those service cuts to hit the six-month-old R Line, even though ridership is minuscule — under 40 boardings an hour. That’s the lowest of any light rail line in the district, so the agency proposed cuts in August that would end R Line service at Florida station outside of rush-hour and on weekends. Riders would have to transfer if they wanted to travel further south into the suburbs and exurbs.

“We have RTD that does a good job at building things but doesn’t seem to do a good job at advertising the fact that they exist,” Hogan told 9News.

rtd rail ridership
Image: RTD

Hogan’s assertion is unfair. Walkable and dense land use, frequent transit service, and a good network design — not advertising — is the recipe for ridership. As Streetsblog reported when it opened, the R Line is surrounded by car-centric, suburban sprawl. Hogan can change if he wants to.

“All the other lines received the same type of marketing that we did for the R Line — the H Line and the new B Line and the A Line — and from day one, we met expectations in terms of ridership or exceeded them,” RTD service planner Jessie Carter said during the RTD Board of Directors meeting Tuesday.

Nevertheless, RTD walked back its proposal. The new proposal leaves the weekday schedule intact, while weekend trains would arrive every 30 minutes instead of every 15. RTD staff also revised planned frequency cuts to the W Line to Golden. If Board members end up adopting the change, an original savings of about $3.3 million will become a savings of about $1.75 million.

And it’s bus riders who will suffer, District M Director Natalie Menten said.

“If we are boosting up this weaker — right now — part of the system on the shoulders of the bus riders… then I don’t think that’s fair to the system or the riders overall,” Menten said. “Because just under 70 percent of our riders are bus [riders].”

Don’t get it twisted: Cutting frequency is bad for transit, and that’s not lost on the Board. “To increase our demand, we have to make it reliable,” said District K Director Paul Solano. “And if they don’t know if it’s gonna be cut from one season to another, I mean, they’re not gonna rely on it and they’re not gonna use it.”

But RTD has a state mandate to serve a giant region, so it has to put its service where the riders are. That’s in places where the land use supports transit with population density and walkability. If Aurora develops these characteristics as planned, the service can always change — RTD revises service three times a year. In the meantime, if Hogan and other suburban officials want more service, they can pay for it themselves, like Boulder does and like Denver is considering.

Asked whether money going toward low-performing rail might have gone toward the bus system, here’s what Scott Reed, assistant general manager of communications, told Streetsblog in an email:

We do have a certain amount of flexibility in our budgeting process, but I will need to get more info as to how much we could move around if we were to fund more service. It’s not zero sum, per se, but it is obviously limited.

“Our core mission is not necessarily running vehicles. Our core mission is moving people,” said assistant general manager of bus operations Bruce Abel. “And so it’s an attempt to match the service delivery to the ridership.”

The RTD Board will vote on the final changes, which will go into effect in January, next month.

This article was updated to correct Director Natalie Menten’s district, which is M, not G.

  • TakeFive

    But RTD has a state mandate to serve a giant region,

    That’s news to me; source?

    Walkable and dense land use, frequent transit service, … is the recipe for ridership.

    That’s one but not the only criteria and unfortunately Denver in general is NOT a dense city or metro area.

    Nine Mile Station – Not counting DUS or DIA only four rail station/stops have better ridership. Nine MIle Station is hardly walkable. Density? Nine Mile lies on an axis which is Parker Rd. For half of the pie the density is virtually nil. It’s reservoir, freeway, soccer fields, ball fields, a golf course and a cool bike trail. The other half has decent suburban density.

    How important is frequency? It depends on context and other factors.What say you USC researchers?

    The different ways riders leave and arrive at the stops closest to home and workplaces — what researchers term “first- and last-mile access” — can close this gap, even more effectively than more traditional and costly public transit measures like increasing transit frequency by adding buses and drivers.

    Bingo

    Those distances that bookend a commute are crucial, according to the study’s lead author, Marlon Boarnet, a professor of public policy and chair of the department of urban planning and spatial analysis at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

    • KK

      RTD is a special taxing district set up by the state to serve what is one of the largest (in miles) transit areas in the country. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regional_Transportation_District.

      • TakeFive

        The CO legislature passed an enabling law for RTD. The state, not wanting to be in the transit business passed an enabling provision that allows for special taxing districts to be created anywhere in the state for the purpose of public transportation. Examples: RFTA, Transfort, Summit County Stage, Durango, Grand Valley Transit etc.

    • MT

      The Park N Ride at Nine Mile works only because the other end of the line is downtown, where you won’t need a car to get that “last mile.”

      • TakeFive

        Wait… wut? For those that get on at Nine Mile to go to somewhere the chances are that at some point they’ll want to return to home. I was speaking to the first which later also becomes the last mile with respect to Nine Mile Station riders.

        But it’s fair to say I agree with Marlon Boarnet that there’s a 1st and last mile importance at both ends whether it’s to a downtown or some other destination. BTW, I included buses (although it could be a van or Uber etc) along with cars as being a 1st and last mile option. Riders getting on at Nine Mile may be going to Colorado Blvd, DU, Broadway etc as well as downtown.

        • MT

          DU, Broadway, and to some extent Colorado Blvd are all more walkable destinations than Nine Mile. When you get off there are destinations you can get to without a car.

          Really, at Nine Mile, your “first mile” is likely a lot more than one mile. For most people it will require driving or a not insignificant bus ride. If the conditions were the same at your destination, you’d be very unlikely to ride the train. You won’t be able to drive the rest of the way, and another long bus ride after transferring once already is more than most people want to deal with.

          My point being, a Park N Ride station like Nine Mile can attract riders, but only if the destination at the other end is walkable. The R line doesn’t really serve any places like that. Most of its stations are more like Nine Mile than they are like downtown. That’s not going to attract many people to ride it.

          • TakeFive

            Nice of you to reiterate and confirm that which I’ve stated above in my posts.

  • The Overhead Wire

    This is the result of an initial bad policy to not run light rail through the Tech Center versus across the freeway from it. Would you rather dive down the freeway and park your car or would you rather walk over a freeway to your work after getting off the train?

    • TakeFive

      Yup and that was the original plan. In the early 1980’s I was in a DTC developer’s office where he showed me a model of the park with light rail running along the east side of I-25. What they should have done is where they built the flyover for I-225 light rail, made it wider to accommodate a train that would have dropped down along DTC Blvd and could have similarly to the Yosemite overpass crossed over to the Arapahoe Village Center Station.

    • KK

      The entire segment is bad policy. FasTracks was passed because there was something for everyone. And now we have alignments that don’t actually make any sense to operate.

      • TakeFive

        The SE Light Rail Line through the tech center was a part of the T-REX project. FasTracks, while it may not be a ‘textbook’ design, will prove itself over time. When the Metro opened in Miami nobody cared or rode; 30 years later it is indispensable.

        FasTracks was a visionary plan that took advantage of existing ROW’s and will serve its purpose of creating denser development over the next 3 decades and beyond. The cost of light rail if built today would be easily double the cost spent on FasTracks. Seattle, for example, while I commend their plans will cost prolly four times as much per mile as FasTracks’ $58 million per mile for rail.

        • KK

          Fair point. But until the area around it is built out and the demand exists, it is unfair to the rest of the district to demand RTD operate service capacity of over double what is actually required at the moment.

          • jmfay

            Do you know how bad the buses are in DTC? and they used to be alot better but now they force people to use the call n ride which doesnt operate when the trains are running in full. It also does not operate on the weekends. To get from where we live; just north of DTC to Arapahoe and Revere on a Saturday; its 90 minutes on the bus / train including 2 connections. BY car; its 15 m.

            We also got little new bus service to the r line. They gave us a train and then told us find a way to get to it. So you can get it from 9 m which alot of people do but the rest of the line is bealy used because people cant get to it.

          • KK

            I do know. However, land use policy from the municipal level goes a long way to solving the issues you’ve highlighted. And that is not solved in a year. That is a generation of work. I’m not saying the ridership won’t be there in 20 years. I’m saying right now, the district has to put resources back into service that is justified. For example, when the E and C lines were implemented, service started infrequent. Now that DUS is built out, RTD is attempting to shift resources into that area.

          • TakeFive

            I have no argument with RTD allocating their resources in an efficient manner. In fact, in the near term they need to do what they need to do.

          • TakeFive

            I understand but RTD is pinched in their operating budget presently. The service can only grow if they have the resources to support that growth. The entire system, though, is waaay over my head.

  • TakeFive

    and a good network design

    Agreed. The R Line starts out at Lincoln Station (until the SE extension is finished) and half of it doesn’t even run through Aurora but that seems to be your only obsession.

    There were, in fact, yuge design flaws with both light rail through Aurora as well as specific route design of the R Line. There should have been an ‘express’ route along the freeway with an additional stop SEC of Alameda; the part through Aurora Metro Center should have been its own segment. As is, the R Line should be abolished. Light rail through Aurora should (in effect) become an extension of the H Line.

    • KK

      It included an extension of the H line. To Florida.

      • TakeFive

        Indeed, the H Line now ends at Florida and also includes the Iliff Station. Florida actually has more ridership than Sheridan. That’s a head scratcher.

  • jmfay

    Unless you are going to be adding new feeder buses to the r line; how is this going to grow? The best feeder buses is to 9 mile and this is cut on the weekends. All the other lines have good feeder buses and they are packed (though dont know about the w line).

    Meanwhile; how is this helping with the bus driver shortage?

    • TakeFive

      jmfay… there’s two issues here. It was pure folly to think that people would want to ride from Lincoln Station – let alone Ridgegate when the extension opens – to Peoria through the slo-mo segment into the the Aurora Metro Center when you can hop on a bus at Arapahoe Station, make one stop at Nine Mile and off to DIA you go. Is it any wonder that bus is usually standing room only?

      North of Florida the ridership is Not Good. This part of the line predictably will take some time to nurture, like a decade. Aurora seems to have made a strategic mistake at Iliff as I suspect there’s resistance to paid parking. They should have eased into that plan. Longer term IMO Aurora may have the best potential due to being density friendly. But that will take a decade or two. For its part Aurora should consider some local van service to stations; yes, other municipalities are doing this.

      • jmfay

        Is the cost of the bus the same $9? you are right about that if it is. People though will take it for shorter routes to dIA though as they dont have to haul trhough US. That is a huge plus

        Why havent they stopped the buses if they have a train now? granted it has problems but they have stopped so many other buses and forced people onto the trains.

        Lonetree has a small van bus. Not sure how far it goes though and not sure where it goes. Englewood has the art bus which is very handy. Aurora could do the same.

        Maybe but RTd needs to look at paid parking because parking lots / structures are not free to build and why should the money for them come out of other transit needs when people can afford a car?

  • jmfay

    Natalie Menten is district M.

  • Mike McDaniel

    I liked the part where he said RTD was good at building things. That was funny.

  • jmfay

    Why is there no thought to remove the AT buses and put people on the train? They consolidated alot of services when we got the trains so why do we still have this bus? Yes its very convenient for alot of people and fast but its also hurting the r line.

    If the price of the AT is the same as the regular train / bus regional ride; then it makes sense to eliminate this bus and use the drivers to cover the other routes where there is shortages on. Might make people mad though as we are told this is very fast way to get to DIA as opposed to the r line but why isnt RTD considering it?

    Packed AT buses but riderless r line; makes no sense.

  • Camera_Shy

    More people are riding the R line than the G line! 😉

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