RTD’s Board Told What It Takes to Increase Ridership. But Will It Listen? 

Finding a balance between increasing ridership and covering a wide area is key to a successful transit network.

RTD launched a new planning process that gives elected board members the opportunity to increase ridership by shifting service from low-density areas to places with higher populations. Photo: RTD.
RTD launched a new planning process that gives elected board members the opportunity to increase ridership by shifting service from low-density areas to places with higher populations. Photo: RTD.
Transportation planner Jarrett Walker talks to a group of officials as RTD kicks off a two year planning process. Photo: Andy Bosselman
Transportation planner Jarrett Walker talks to a group of officials as RTD kicks off a two-year planning process. Photo: Andy Bosselman

A celebrated transit planner who is so talented that he even got Houston bus ridership to increase may not be able to bring the same success to Denver for one simple reason: politics.

Bus networks should be redesigned to provide faster, more frequent service to places with the most people, Jarrett Walker told a group of elected officials and transportation professionals this morning at the Colorado History Center. 

But that means removing service from less densely populated areas. And here’s the problem: The people who run the Regional Transportation District are elected officials, many from low-density suburban districts. And it’s unlikely that they’ll have the stomach for the controversies that would arise from designing such a system.

“Your board represents electable districts. They’re each thinking about their own districts,” Walker said. “It leads people to ask, ‘Where’s mine? Is my city getting their fair share?’ And that, of course, leads to spreading service out.” 

The Regional Transportation District hired Walker to share his approach to planning as the agency kicked off a two-year program that hopes to reverse years of declining ridership. Walker wrote the influential book Human Transit and has helped more than 20 cities redesign transit networks. He suggests that when agencies look for fixes, they should focus on finding a balance between two goals: increasing ridership and covering a wide area. 

Ridership vs Coverage
“This is the question,” he said. “The beauty is that if you answer this question, the answer can actually be implemented.” 

He illustrated the difference between frequency and coverage with graphics that showed a fictional city with 18 buses. Many people lived on two corridors and fewer people lived further out. Designing for ridership meant concentrating most of the buses along the corridors to provide fast, frequent and reliable service while removing service in lower density areas. 

You forgot Mrs. Jones!” he suggested might be a complaint under a system that prioritizes ridership over coverage. “If the goal is to have a little bit of something for everyone, to go everywhere, that is the opposite of a ridership goal.” 

But a ridership goal could help the region solve other problems, like traffic congestion and pollution. 

“If you want maximum reduction of vehicle trips, either to reduce congestion or for emissions — local or global emissions – all that arises from transit being ridden. Not just from transit existing.” 

When Walker started working with Houston Metro, the agency spent about 55 percent of its budget on ridership. The other 45 percent went to coverage. But he asked the board there to define a new goal. 

“They said, let’s try 80/20. We’re going to cut coverage service from 45 percent to 20 percent,” he said. “A quarter of the whole budget is going to move from coverage-justified service to ridership-justified service.” 

The transition would be controversial, Walker warned. 

Doug Tisdale, Chair of RTD's board of directors, introduces Jarrett Walker. Photo: Andy Bosselman
Doug Tisdale, Chair of RTD’s board of directors, introduces Jarrett Walker. Photo: Andy Bosselman

“People will be furious. Large numbers of people will be furious,” he said. And he was right. “The public hearings were horrible. The meetings ran past midnight, night after night.”  

But he said that if RTD board members want to have an impact, they have to brace for the backlash. 

“Controversy is not evidence of failure. The bigger an improvement you’re going for, the more controversy you have,” said Walker. “You have to price that in. If you’re not ready for controversy, don’t even begin.”  

But will RTD’s board members have the guts to set an ambitious goal and deal with the resulting controversy? A hint may have come from Doug Tisdale, chair of the RTD board, who introduced Walker with a boast about the very thing that could prevent transformative changes. The directors are all elected. 

“Think about it, we cover 2,400 square miles. We have 3.1 million people. And they are governed by a 15-member board of directors,” said Tisdale. “There are only two or three other boards that are directly elected by you to represent their interests.”

As the agency starts its “Reimagine RTD” plan to revamp the bus network, Jill Locantore of the Denver Streets Partnership welcomes Walker’s advice.

“I’m thrilled RTD is having this conversation,” she told Streetsblog after the event. “For years the focus has been on coverage, and there hasn’t been a focus on ridership.” 

Will the board members play it safe and focus on the narrow interests of their districts? Or will the region’s problems — including worsening traffic, the return of “brown cloud” pollution days and increasing impacts from the climate crisis — prompt the board to push for meaningful changes? 

“I don’t know who would be a champion for focusing on ridership versus coverage,” Locantore said. “It’s unclear who might take that position.” 

RTD brought Walker to Denver for this speaking engagement. He and his firm will not be a part of the agency’s new planning process. 


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  • TakeFive

    Simplistic; I mean this makes sense but it also makes little sense.

    Denveright has already identified 5 high priority corridors: Colfax, Broadway/Lincoln, Federal, Speer/Leetsdale and Colorado Bvld. Add Havana which also is a high demand corridor. Next year Denver/RTD will enter the 3rd decade of planning for BRT-style enhanced but service along East Colfax. They’ve now started to study Federal Blvd.

    Props to Houston as the 5th largest MSA by population in the country their bus redesign brought their ridership up to Denver’s level which has the 19th largest MSA. Fair to say Denver is already batting well above it’s (population) weight.

    • TakeFive

      I applaud this “re-imagining” exercise but I’m not sure there’s a lot of fat that can be trimmed. Not mentioned but a critical component is that the strongest demand for bus service is during morning and afternoon rush hours… duh.

      60 bus routes already go to or through downtown Denver. Most ‘Express’ routes from the suburbs are packed. Many routes like Evans/Iliff go through both suburbs and Denver. Many suburban routes service light rail. For example Nine Mile Station which is the busiest station outside of the central city has ten routes that stop there.

      There will be some coverage routes that will be hard to eliminate but RTD continues to look for better efficiencies… every four months in fact.

      • Jenn Briggs

        Solid points TakeFive. This walker guy is bullying our board to argue his case, which doesn’t sit well. He also doesn’t address the fact that many riders are being pushed out of the city due to cost of living.

  • Mark

    Fees are also a problem that need to be addressed. Students and seniors get discounts while those of us that don’t qualify are supplementing that. Zones need to be reconfigured too. Denver has some of the highest bus fees in the country.

  • Daniel Carbray

    Such a bad transportation system. At least the light rail. Ignorant and unskilled drivers. Trains break down constantly. Trains are often 5 minutes+ late. Short cars during rush hour to the point where I’ve often seen people not be able to board. Can’t have riders if there’s nowhere for them to go. All this for the most expensive train in the country.

  • Ridership/Coverage is not an either/or but a both. Critical is making a decision of the percentages of budget that will go into each: 80/20, 60/40 or what ever.

    Once made then routes within the ridership budget are decided upon by their contribution to the highest ridership possible. So if a proposed route does not contribute enough towards generating higher ridership then it is cut out of the ridership budget.

    But, but, but… Yes exactly. Then the route is thrown into the coverage budget where decisions are made on other criteria, more often than not political. The transit agency will make the decisions on the ridership routes by whatever criteria they wish. If you don’t like their decisions then change the leadership. The coverage routes meanwhile are thrown into the political arena for decision making. If you don’t like those decisions then join the fray.