Report: Denver Transit Riders Switch to Cars as RTD Fails to Get the Basics Right

Riders queue for the Auraria bus. Photo: RTD.
Riders queue for the Auraria bus. Photo: RTD.

Disclosure: Transit Center, the foundation that produced the survey covered in this story, provides funding to Streetsblog Denver.

Regular transit riders are giving up on Denver’s buses and trains and hopping into road-clogging cars instead, according to a new survey.

The Regional Transportation District keeps passengers waiting too long and its routes fail to go to the places where most people want to go, according to Transit Center, the foundation that asked riders about their experiences in seven cities in a report titled “Who’s on Board.”

“Transit can’t get them to where they need to go,” says Mary Buchanan, one of the researchers who looked at Denver. “It’s faster or more reliable for them to drive.”

Elsewhere in the country, some cities are growing transit ridership. But last year, RTD’s boardings fell to 97.5 million, according to the agency. Despite a rapidly growing population, ridership has declined steadily since 2014 when riders took nearly 6 million more trips. Regular RTD riders used transit 30 percent less on average compared to two years ago, according to the Transit Center survey. But Denver is not alone: Ridership is declining in other American cities, too.

“Unfortunately that’s a trend across the nation,” says Pauletta Tonilas, the head of communications at RTD.

Reasons cited for the decline include cheap cars loans and lower gas prices, which makes driving less expensive. Uber, Lyft and scooters offer new mobility options. And people priced out of urban centers are moving to places with less transit.

But these explanations amount to excuses according to Transit Center.

“Gas and cars are cheap in Seattle, or Columbus, Ohio, or Houston,” says David Bragdon, executive director of the organization. “But these are places that are either holding ridership steady or even increasing ridership.”

In the cities where more people are riding trains and buses, officials focused on creating networks that often travel to the places where the most people live, work and play — often by creating rail and bus connections that complement each other seamlessly.

But since 2004, Denver invested billions in a regional rail network that extends far into the prairie, often stopping in sprawling towns that never wanted public transit in the first place. Meanwhile, RTD and Denver have not expanded service where it’s needed most, often catering to political realities instead.

“If you’re interested in ridership, you should be interested in where people are and where they want to go,” says Bragdon. “A transit plan that’s drawn to appeal to the voters in a ballot measure is not the same thing as a transit plan that’s designed to really serve lots of riders.”

Image: Transit Center
Image: Transit Center

RTD’s current focus on suburban-to-downtown trips means that most of its riders use the system to commute to work and for no other reason. Only eight percent of people who ride RTD use it as their primary form of transportation all the time, says Buchanan.

“It really sticks out,” she says. “This neglect of core bus service in Denver is inhibiting RTD from retaining riders.”

RTD says it plans to address these issues. It is studying places where it could add bus rapid transit service, the “surface subways” where buses have dedicated lanes and stations with easy-to-board platforms like subways.

Later this year the agency will also start a top-to-bottom assessment of its bus network.

“The bus system is the workhorse of the agency and we have a responsibility to look at how we design [it] for the future,” says Tonilas. “We will come out of it with a better picture of what our bus system of the future should look like.”

Denver has a role to play, too. Its streets and traffic signals should be designed to move buses faster. It should make bus stops easier to walk to. And it must come up with the cash it would take to fund the high-frequency network it proposed in its Denveright planning process, says Bragdon.

“That’s what Seattle does,” he says. Like Boulder, the city of Seattle pays the regional transit agency to provide a higher level of service within its city limits. “The suburbs get one level of service commensurate with their needs, and then the city has a higher level of service.”

According to the survey, just 35 percent of RTD’s riders continue to rely on the system in the same way they did two years ago. The passengers who abandoned or decreased taking the system’s buses and trains total 44 percent. But only 13 percent of the people surveyed left transit altogether, which means that most riders could be brought back to RTD if the agency, and the City of Denver worked to address the fundamental issues that make transit useful.

“Transit riders want reliable and frequent service in Denver,” says Buchanan. “They don’t want to be waiting for the bus forever.”

Read more on the survey at Streetsblog USA: How Can Transit Agencies Win Back Their Riders?

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  • JZ71

    The vast majority of the growth in the Denver region has happened, and continues to happen, in less-dense suburban areas, where transit is not an attractive option. It’s that “last mile” challenge – without serious density, there simply aren’t enough riders to justify the frequent service levels that will actually attract and retain riders.

    • Riley Warton

      Quite true, but growth has also been happening in downtown and near downtown as well. It is also true that denver does have areas with high density that deserve higher frequency transit, namely Capitol Hill.

      The last mile challenge is very much a challenge indeed, but I believe that if buses run more frequently, even in the suburbs, then people will be more willing to use it. This is despite the fact that suburbs aren’t exactly designed with transit in mind.

    • mckillio

      A big part of that is that there aren’t sidewalks to get to many stops in the less dense areas. The city should focus on completing sidewalks within a quarter mile of all stops.

      • kim80

        This is a huge red herring that ignores the inconvenience, rigors and dangers of walking. Sidewalk are good, but don’t change weather, neighborhoods or distances.

        • mckillio

          I’m not clear if you’re calling my comment a red herring or not but it certainly isn’t .

    • TakeFive

      Quite true; it’s become a tale of two cities. Denver ‘region‘ includes places like Parker, Castle Rock, Brighton, Broomfield, Louisville etc. or adjacent areas like Lone Tree and the prairie near Denver International Airport.

    • Bob Smith

      Imagine taking the light rail from Lincoln station in lone tree to the airport, Have a few hours of your life to waste?

      Leave your auto in the parking garage when you get back expect a ticket or multiple tickets.

      The new expansion of 2 miles of rail in lone tree, over 200 million dollars. Is their the best use of tax payer dollars?

      Roads? CDOT rebuilding 15 miles of freeway over 4 years. Another wonderful government agency totally clueless. Ever wonder what there are only a half dozen people working on a freeway expansion.

      Ever wonder why bicycles and EV’s are not taxed as they use our roads?

      Ever wonder why they build a rail line to the airport when it was uneconomical at best?

      Is it RTD or all government in colorado?

      • Fed up

        Whats your solution

        • Bob Smith

          It certainly isn’t light rail and RTD has proven itself inept at best.

          Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) has entered what is known in the transit industry as the Transit Death Spiral. Ridership has fallen 7 percent since 2015. This reduces the funds available to operate RTD buses and trains, so RTD has cut service and increased fares to be some of the highest in the nation.

          Reduced service and higher fares will depress ridership further. This will force RTD to cut service and perhaps raise fares again. And so it goes.

          Much of RTD’s problem stems from its mania for an obsolete form of transportation: trains. Trains are great for moving freight, but for urban transit they were surpassed by buses more than 90 years ago. Since the introduction of what was called the Twin Coach bus in 1927, buses could move more people per hour, faster, at a far lower cost than rails.

          • mckillio

            But what’s your solution?

          • donco6

            Evidently, bitching and listening to Fox News.

      • TakeFive

        The SE Extension was 2.3 miles with 3 new stations and Lone Tree put up a lot of their own money; it came with a $92 million FTA grant.

        It resulted in the recent announcement that Fortune 500 company, Kiewit Construction will open a new regional office for 1,100 well paid employees. Kiewit ofc builds roads and other things like the $450 million DUS transit Hall.

  • TakeFive

    Elsewhere in the country, some cities are growing transit ridership.

    I love how ‘transit’ is often conflated with bus ridership. With respect to Seattle it’s all about one thing: Amazon. Amazon has accumulated office space the equivalent of 12 new skyscrapers to Denver’s one new skyscraper to date with Block 162 now under construction.

    • ATK87

      Buses are transit, so I’m not sure how it’s “conflated” in the proper sense of the word. It isn’t just Seattle seeing increasing bus ridership. Systems that are investing in frequency and/or restructuring their systems to form a frequent grid, like Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Indianapolis, are seeing increases in bus ridership.

      • TakeFive

        Transit is the general class; buses are one specific piece. When they’re used interchangeably it can be deceptive, often by intent.

        Systems changes can make a difference, sure. I’m all for RTD taking a fresh look. I enthusiastically support emphasizing ‘high priority routes’ which RTD wants to do. This has been the best strategy with agencies that have invested in specific routes. With respect to Columbus:

        The redesign was the first time the entire system had been systematically rethought in 40 years. Every bus route was reconsidered and reworked to emphasize frequent service in high-ridership areas and make the system easier to navigate and use.

        Makes complete sense to me; both their fresh look overhaul and focusing on high value routes. Through the 3rd quarter of 2018 Columbus ridership is up 2.33% while Cleaveland is down 15.3% and Cincinnati is down 4.7%. It’s also worth noting that Columbus like Phoenix/Tempe have the two of the largest universities ~60,000 students.

  • Grrizz

    Prime Example: I live 3.5 Miles from my office (in RiNo), and RTD’s route planner to get from my house (By Regis University) to work says it would take 44 minutes, and include over 20 minutes of walking, if I opt for the “least walking” option – 1 hour and 8 minutes. Google maps says I could just walk the whole way in an 1 hour and 12 minutes, or I could drive and it will take me 9 minutes. I ride my bike in the summer and it takes 20 minutes. RTD is Awful.

    • TakeFive

      Once the G Line opens that would get you to DUS; not sure from there?

      • Grrizz

        nope. I’m smack in the in middle of Fox Street and Pecos Street stations – neither of which I’d really like to walk to. In theory I could bike to one, then get the train, then I’d get off @ the 38th/Black Station, then ride the rest of way…which by that time I might as well save the $4 and just ride my bike the entire distance.

        The G Line doesn’t serve Chaffee Park at all, even though it runs parallel to it, neither station is within walking distance

    • kim80

      RTD is NOT for citizens. It is designed for politicians to get kickbacks and campaign contributions from contractors and financiers. Grow up.

  • Dale Nichols

    Your graphic shows a higher percentage of increased or adopted ridership in Denver than in any if the other six cities, but the text of the article doesn’t seem to notice that.

    • kim80

      Yeah, but the decrease/abandonment numbers dwarf those increases. I guess you didn’t notice that……

      • Dale Nichols

        Of course I did.

  • The biggest problem here is RTD’s shrug of a response: “Unfortunately that’s a trend across the nation.”

    Bullshit. Major metro areas like Seattle are seeing a huge increase in ridership BECAUSE they’re investing in service.

    RTD continues to cut service, then wonder aloud why people won’t ride more. Anyone at RTD who thinks a response like that is acceptable ought to lose their job.

    The correct response is: “We believe RTD can be a world-class transit system. These numbers show we’re not there yet. We will not rest until we’ve built a system that gets riders where they want to go, when they need to be there.”

    Here’s what it looks like when a city invests in transit and is dedicated to constant service improvements, rather than covering their asses. Be transparent where you can get better. Don’t claim there’s nothing you can do about it.

    • TakeFive

      That’s a little harsh. 🙂

      Seattle is NOT comparable for a number of reasons. I referenced one reason below. Additionally, Seattle has $53 billion pot of gold (ST3) to play with on top of a previous multi-$billion pot (ST2). Give RTD a new miserly $10 billion pot and let’s see what they can do, Okay?

      • There’s no doubt RTD has created a chicken/egg problem for itself. It can’t even get its current expansions working right (hello, G line!), so it’s not in a position to ask for more capital.

        But in order to turn this around, they first have to own up to the problems they’ve created by not delivering reliable service, or explain why more capital will solve the problem.

        • TakeFive

          Try explaining wireless software talking to hardware to the masses; It’s been a mess.

          But if you followed what Seattle has gone through they’ve plundered through one yuge mess after another. Their city Move Seattle that passed in 2015 has been a rolling disaster that will deliver only a portion of what was promised. ST3 will spend 5X as much per mile on their light rail as RTD spent on FasTracks. It will be nice but RTD didn’t have $25 billion to spend on light/commuter rail.

    • kim80

      A better answer:

      Government can’t compete with entrepreneurship. Ever.

    • Fed up

      Just how much do you want to spend AND subsidise?

      • Puget Sound voters approved a $53 billion expansion in 2016, for a similarly-sized metro area. That kind of investment, coupled with good management, would be transformative for RTD.

        But we’re a long way off from RTD management being able to effectively run projects that big. It’ll probably require hiring folks from functioning transit systems like Sound Transit and TriMet.

        • TakeFive

          Denver =/= Seattle.

          Downtown Denver is fast approaching 130,000 employees; Seattle is fast approaching 300,000 employees or over 2 1/3 X the density of Denver.

          Denver is replacing their I-70 viaducts with a $1.3 billion road project. Seattle replaced their viaducts with a ~$4 billion tunnel and a 6-lane avenue where the viaducts were. Denver doesn’t have that kind of money to blow on ‘urbanism’.

          RTD’s execution of FasTracks despite the wireless glitches has been admirable by comparison to ST. It’s just that we know the local warts but not Seattle’s extensive blunders.

          • Clearly Seattle has physical challenges that make infrastructure growth much more expensive per mile. Denver, by not having a giant lake on one side and the ocean on the other, should be able to do a Sound Transit-style expansion for a whole lot less money. Or an even bigger expansion with the same amount of money. But we’re not even in the ballpark.

          • TakeFive

            Point well taken.

            Also consider that with sufficient funding, Seattle’s light rail lines will all be grade separated. If RTD had the money to do grade separation on their commuter rail, they wouldn’t have needed to screw with crossing gates at intersections.

    • Charlie

      Why should people who don’t use a service pay for it?

      • Because every rider who does use it frees up space on the roads for those who don’t. Drivers need to subsidize transit if they want roads to drive on.

        • Charlie

          The facts presented in the article contradict your statement. Ridership is declining. The money is going into the pockets of the bureaucracy and contractors as they continue to demand more money as ridership declines.

          • Oh, I’ve got plenty of complaints about RTD. They do it wrong in many, many ways. That’s a reason to do it right and get rid of the RTD board, not get rid of transit.

          • TakeFive

            If the City of Denver wants tax revenue from the greater metro area they’ll need to put up with representation from the areas being taxed. There’s nothing however preventing the city from creating whatever transit they wish for with their own tax revenues.

            I understand that Portland is their own fiefdom but they will require voters to approve the pending $20 billion transit proposal in 2020.

          • Totally. And if the City of Denver wants transit to truly be a better option than driving, they could start by giving light rail priority through the Auraria/Convention Center/Downtown corridor. They could easily trim 5 minutes off a trip and move far more people per hour by deciding whether cars or trains are more important.

          • TakeFive

            I wouldn’t disagree but there’s a conflict in doing that with buses moving in a different direction along the streets.

            They are in the middle of a complex analysis of the whole downtown grid; changes coming.

          • TakeFive

            Over the last 10 years RTD ridership is up 31%. The problem is that bus ridership is up only 12% while rail ridership is up 95%. Buses have been in a notable downtrend since 2014. Those agencies around the country that have invested in ‘high priority’ bus routes have seen the best results. That’s what Bus Rapid Transit on East Colfax represents.

  • kim80

    The Board can’t get any additional kickbacks form bus transit. That is already juiced. The only way they can get the vig….is to BUILD EMPTY TRANSIT. And this they do with glee.

  • Lew Schiller

    “Road clogging”?…you forgot “Gas Guzzling” which I thought was mandatory in all transit articles.

  • KitS

    One thing I dislike about articles like this is that it doesn’t really look at the “bigger picture” – RTD’s district covers more than just Denver. People living in the suburbs are in the RTD district too. It’s like seven counties. The article makes it sound like the suburbs are rich with transit service, but this is not true. In Denver, it is possible to get almost anywhere, even if it does take a while. This is not the case in a lot of the suburban district – including in places with a lot of population density. There is no service whatsoever.

    I’m also puzzled by the “prairie” comment – where is transit going to the “prairies” aside from going through some development-restricted lands on the way to the airport? This is hyperbolic – maybe trust readers to understand without applying rhetorical artifice.

    The “us versus them” city/suburbs dynamic doesn’t help anyone. Despite politics these days, we don’t always have to be at war with someone.

    • TakeFive

      Props for the Best Comment of the day.

      Yes, the prairie reference has to be for the most important rail line that was built; the A Line from DUS to the 5th busiest airport in the country.

      Urban dwellers thing RTD should have built a system just for the city of Denver. The dirty little secret is that nobody is stopping the City of Denver from building whatever transit their heart desires with city of Denver taxes.

    • donco6

      Yeah, the “prairie” comment had me scratching my head, too. Where are they talking about? Westminster? Thornton? Is that “the prairie?” It’s jarringly odd.

      And they poo-poo the concept that people are being forced to move much further out into the ‘burbs to afford housing, which I daresay is a huge number of people. They have to drive miles and miles just to GET to the end of a commuter rail line and then they’re supposed to switch? It won’t happen.

  • SufferingFromFools

    RTD has a well-earned nickname from decades ago, Reason To Drive.

    It still applies.

  • Orwellwasrighton

    I light rail to bus to DT, and is clear RTD would rather we stay off the trains and buses. Empty buses sit stacked waiting for their “schedule” to move the 200 – 300 ffet to their designated pickup spot, no matter what the weather is. Clear, rainy, blowing snow…Must wait in a long line till one of the 2-3 buses decides to move to pick up passengers.

    And the goofy taking seats outta the trains for “Handicapped”, how is a handicapped person supposed to schelp their wheelchair, etc up those 3 steep stairs to get on a car with limited access in the middle of the train. Stupid. If we all stay off then they can keep their toys cleaner and only worry about running people over.

    • I’m actually down with the trains that have taken seats out during rush hour. You can just fit more people in there, rather than cramming them all into the aisles. It’s a sign that trains work. I was on a D Line this week that was literally completely full — passengers physically could not get on at Auraria. That’s a sign that RTD needs to expand service and make the trains longer. But it hasn’t.

      • TakeFive

        In the near term adding frequency is a better option; problem with that is there’s already a light rail traffic jam through the downtown area. A potential fix for that is being considered. The D Line does have twice the passengers as the C Line though.

        Perhaps at some point in the future adding length to the trains would be an option but they’d have to redo every station-stop to accommodate the longer trains.

        • Right. And that gets back to the need for grade separation or traffic signal priority so trains don’t have to stop for red lights. RTD must have numbers for how many more trains you could run an hour if they didn’t have to stop at Colfax and Speer?

  • LazyReader

    After spending billions of dollars they still cant get a lot of patronage.

    Between 2000 and 2016, the number of commuters taking transit to work grew by 1.1 percent. This can hardly be considered a success. In that same time period, the number of people driving alone to work grew 38%. Like it or not, 86 percent of Denver workers drive to work, and Denver residents use automobiles for an even higher percentage of other travel.

    City planners can’t wave a wand and suddenly double transit ridership and/or walking and cycling. So the city should plan for what people will do. Private microtransit, which is just buzzwords for “vans” and minibuses and just let them roam the city for passengers, find a migration pattern and charge a nominal fee.



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