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.
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.
“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.
“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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