Why Is Bus Ridership Plummeting in Denver? New Data Tool Offers Insights.

As RTD invests more in its rail network, service cuts, fare increases and demographic changes appear to drive dropping bus ridership. Image: RTD
As RTD invests more in its rail network, service cuts, fare increases and demographic changes appear to drive dropping bus ridership. Image: RTD

Disclosure: This story is about Transit Insights, a tool from TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation that provides funding to Streetsblog Denver.

Want to know why people are ditching the bus in Denver while ridership is growing in Seattle, Houston and Columbus?

Now there’s a way for activists, academics and policymakers to compare what’s not working in one city to what’s driving success in other places. It’s possible with Transit Insights, a new web-based tool that makes it easier to map, visualize and crunch data from the National Transit Database, the U.S. Census and route maps at Transitland. The idea is that easier access to practical information will allow better decisions to be made in the future, says a blog post from TransitCenter, the foundation that created the tool.

“Understanding why ridership is rising in some places but not in others is critical to formulating effective transit policy,” according to the post. “To gain that understanding, advocates, researchers, and policy makers need access to useful data on local ridership trends, service characteristics and demographics.”

Between 2006 and 2017, RTD invested heavily in rail and cut bus service. During that time, bus ridership plummeted as rail ridership grew. But even today, RTD provides twice as many trips on buses as trains. Image: Transit Insights

In Denver, bus service cuts, investments in rail, fare hikes and gentrification are among the factors driving down transit ridership, all insights I learned while getting a quick overview of the tool this afternoon with Mary Buchanan, a research associate at Transit Center.

“It’s a tale of two modes,” she said. “In Denver, we see that bus ridership is rapidly decreasing. And at the same time, rail ridership has increased.”

In 2017, RTD provided some 65 million trips on buses compared to just 32 million on rail. Yet as the agency increases rail service, it has cut bus service multiple times in recent years, including in January. Another round of cuts will come to bus riders on May 19.

From 2006 to 2017, RTD fares increased 49 percent — compared to a nationwide average of 17 percent over the same period, according to TransitCenter. Image: TransitCenter
From 2006 to 2017, RTD fares increased 49%, compared to a nationwide average of 17% over the same period, according to the Transit Insights tool. Image: Transit Insights

“As the agency is opening up new rail lines, RTD is not investing resources in its core bus network,” said Buchanan. But the bus network “provides about two times as many rides annually as the rail network.”

With RTD reducing the frequency and reliability of service for what now remains a majority of its riders, it is also asking more from them. From 2006 to 2017, RTD fares increased 49 percent — compared to a nationwide average of just 17 percent over the same period, according to the tool. And now, after January’s price bump, which is not included in the statistics just cited, the agency’s fares are among the highest in the nation.

“For riders there has to be some sort of tradeoff. If you’re going to be paying higher fares you’d hope you you’d be receiving better service,” said Buchanan. “That’s not really the case at RTD.”

In the Census tract that roughly corresponds with Five Points neighborhood, Census data shows the number of people who own cars going up between 3% (light pink) and 15 percent (dark pink). Image: Transit Insights
In the Census tracts that roughly corresponds with the Five Points neighborhood, Census data shows the number of people who own cars going up between 3% (light pink) and 15% (dark pink). Image: Transit Insights

The city’s changing demographics also play a part in declining ridership.

As wealthier people move into the urban core, many bring their cars and push out lower-income transit riders. In the Census tract that roughly corresponds with the Five Points neighborhood, for example, Census data shows household incomes going up 36 to 38 percent between 2010 and 2016, along with the number of people who own cars going up between three and 15 percent. Meanwhile, those who were forced out seem to be moving to places with less transit service.

“There are many neighborhoods and communities outside of the urban core where the share of households without vehicles is increasing,” Buchanan said. “Maybe it is a population that relied on transit when they were closer into the city and now are living without a vehicle in a neighborhood that does not have as good of transit access.”

The foundation launched a public beta of Transit Insights last week and this story shows a handful of discoveries made during a half-hour phone conversation. There’s more to explore, and that’s exactly what TransitCenter would like people to do. The organization welcomes feedback to guide refinements to the tool, which users can offer via an email to ridership@transitcenter.org.

This story was written in a matter of hours and RTD officials did not have time to coordinate a response in time for publication of this story.

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  • JZ71

    Does the database compare relative funding levels? Seattle has had three transit tax increases, recently, while RTD’s last was in 2004. Service requires funding, period.

    • TakeFive

      Let’s see; Seattle now has $54 billion in voter approved new tax revenue for transit since 2004 and RTD has a whopping $0 in new tax revenue since 2004. I think I see your point.

      • enguy

        Seattle’s big transit measures were for Sound Transit, which spends the bulk of that money on rail, and some on express buses to the suburbs. The more appropriate comparison for local buses would be King County Metro, which has had a couple recent tax increases: Transit Now (2006) and Proposition 1 (2014), each of which raised a few tens of millions per year. Much better than Denver, but not billions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_County_Metro#Funding_measures

        • TakeFive

          Yeah, good point. But to the best of my knowledge only about half (of ST3) or $25 billion will go for light rail. They do seem to keep adding more $’s to that pot, though.

          • mckillio

            And also the Fast Tracks tax is a percentage, so funding has been going up since 2004. Excluding the recession I’d imagine that funding is growing faster than they expected too.

          • TakeFive

            excluding the recession, yes. It cratered during the recession but starting about 2012 it has gone up nicely although less gain over the last couple of years. RTD is certainly in much better shape than many transit agencies.

  • TakeFive

    While bus ridership may be twice what rail ridership is it’s also true that it only 5 five rail corridors to attain half the ridership of 142 bus routes. It’s also true that many bus routes make rail station stops after they open because that’s a smart thing to do.

    • TakeFive

      How about I add some context. For 2018, Houston did manage a 1.2% gain in bus ridership while RTD bus ridership fell by 4.55%. Both metros carry about 66 million passengers with Houston having a bit more. But Houston has the 5th largest MSA by population with ~7 million people while Denver’s MSA is 19th largest with ~3 million people. RTD’s ridership is much higher per capita.

  • enguy

    The May service changes don’t look too bad to me. There’s decreased frequency on MetroRide, which is a really strange bus to begin with (especially now that it overlaps with route 20 through downtown), but much needed increased mid-day service on route 15 east of Monaco, some stop consolidation on routes 50/51, and a ton of schedule adjustments.

    Of all the service changes, the worst cuts are coming to the W line—30 minute frequency during the day should never be acceptable for a rail line, given the capital costs of building the thing in the first place.

  • LazyReader

    The Answer is simple. It’s two fold

    1: Cities that spend billions of dollars on light rail projects like Denver inevitably decrease or terminate bus services to pay for the construction costs that inevitably rise beyond projected budgets when the projects were decided upon……..case in point almost every light rail project in the last 30 years; All of whom were at least…50% over budget.

    2: RTD has some of the highest fares nationwide which increased recently which alienates the poorer riders. The Poor of whom are the predominant demographic who use transit in the first place.

    But this trend is not exclusive to Denver; low-income transit riders are giving up on transit. They have been for years. Transit ridership has been steadily on the decline since 2014. Transit systems growing costs and declining service are shifting poor people into autos. Constant service cuts, the Billions in deferred maintenance debacles, exuberant rail construction costs, decreasing quality and increasing lewd behavior and criminal activity have all played their part in transits slow decline. The constant add-on of numerous redundant employees have made transit systems nationwide vastly unproductive. In 1960, when most transit agencies were private, transit carried ~60,000 trips per working employee each year. Today it is less than 25,000. In an era in which employee productivity in most industries is rapidly growing, in transit it is declining. The transit industry has become more a bloated bureaucracy and rail tycoon empire than a transportation provider. Combine ALL this with the fact the industry has evolved into a taxpayer addict; where subsidies account for over 70% of it’s operating costs and nearly ALL it’s capital costs.

    • TakeFive

      You can be so disingenuous. Because infrastructure projects take so long to plan and build accurately projecting final costs can be tricky. But if copper or cement or iron ore or lumber doubles in price it impacts all infrastructure spending including roads, bridges. dams, ports, you name it. So should we just never build any infrastructure?

      RTD doesn’t have any deferred maintenance; why do you keep bringing that up on this site? BTW, RTD rail ridership for 2017 was 28.902 million; rail ridership for 2018 was 31.977 million or an increase of 10.6%. Source is APTA.

      • LazyReader

        An enormous expenditure to get very few riders. Also RTD’s oldest rail line is nearing three decades of age, so it’s approaching the point where it has to be replaced or refurbished extensively before breakdown, failures or potential accidents may occur. All the while Streetsblog denver, posts articles remarking how inefficient RTD happens to be…….The fact is anything Denver could have done with light rail they could have done with buses moving just as many people as rail for less money. They have a farebox recovery of no more than 20%. Most of it’s money comes sales taxes and operating assistance grants (federal assistance) to pay for overblown system. Sooner or later they’ll reach a point where they’ll have to make a decision; whether to continue to expand light rail service with additional construction or devote their resources to a long term plan of maintaining their current stock.

        • TakeFive

          Same response as above. All infrastructure needs maintenance and/or rebuilding over time. Are you proposing we go back to dirt roads with horse and buggies? Should we again dump sewage into healthy rivers and streams because current systems cost too much, need too much maintenance?

          Light rail has already paid for itself from the tax revenue generated from $billions in TOD with more to come. Too many people don’t want to ride Big Bertha buses. You may be behind the times.

        • kellly

          RTD would be wise to experiment with major changes before just deciding to do it. That BRT might not be the big deal they think it’s going to be. It seems to me they ought to try it out before committing millions to making huge changes that might not work.

    • kellly

      Poorer riders have discounted fares, and the homeless ride with vouchers.

  • davsot

    Can you add Puerto Rico data?

  • james

    Its pretty simple, they are way to slow. Bike/Ebikes, e-scooters with the improved cycling infrastructure, and uber/lyft (ridesharing) are rendering SLOW bus routes obsolete except for the disabled and the elderly who haven’t discovered the power of ebiking for daily commutes/errands.

  • kellly

    The reason MY bus ridership declined to zero is because I got sick and tired of riding with people who rode with free passes from the overnight shelters. They took up 2-3 seats while they slept, forcing those of us on our way to work to stand, lest we disturb someone to ask to sit and get scary, threatening pushback from the person who thought their free pass entitled them to ownership of as many seats as they wanted. I got tired of hearing drug deals transacted right in front of me. I got tired of the fights and threats of violence, or of people screaming at the rest of the passengers because they were under the influence of some substance or other. The smells were difficult to deal with. People talking to themselves (?) or others or some invisible companion or blasting their music when the driver would never tell them to turn it down/off or put in earphones made the ride so uncomfortable, I just got sick of subjecting myself to it twice a day.


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