Riding the “Very Real” Colfax Bus

Passenger boards RTD 15 bus

When the East Colfax bus comes up in conversation, many people talk about its reputation.

A recent Twitter discussion offered the words, “storied,” “adventure,” and “very real” for the Regional Transportation District’s 15 and 15-Limited lines.

Since moving to Denver a year ago, I wondered how much euphemisms like these were coded references to race and class, especially in a city where it’s still socially acceptable to refer to a grocery store as “the un-Safeway.”

Second only to the Free MallRide, the two lines are RTD’s most traveled, with 22,000 daily boardings. The bus attracts a broad range of society, from white-collar downtown workers to those in low-income areas where social problems like homelessness and crime have been known to move from the street onto the bus.

In recent weeks, I hopped on the line for about a dozen trips. I know it isn’t much. But I had my own experiences, and I talked to four passengers who like its straight-line route and frequent service. Some even enjoy the character of its people. Here’s what they had to say — and my own unsettling observation. An update on Colfax Bus Rapid Transit follows.

Garry Waddy of Aurora rides the 15L Colfax bus to a Denver Nuggets game on Dec. 12. Photo: Andy Bosselman
Garry Waddy rides the Colfax bus on Dec. 12. Photo: Andy Bosselman

Garry Waddy rode the 15-L from his home in Aurora to the Denver Nuggets game at the Pepsi Center on Dec. 12.

“It’s a straight shot,” he said. “It’s pretty convenient.”

He rode the 15-L  daily for years until RTD opened a light rail line that offers quicker service to his job as a custodian for Denver Public Schools.

“Once they got the light rail going, it’s faster.”

When he needs the Colfax bus, he doesn’t hesitate to hop on. And other passengers don’t deter him.

“It can be entertaining,” he said. “It’s just like New York. The homeless get on, probably to keep warm. I can’t blame them.”

Jamie Bates boarded the 15-L Colfax bus after showering at the Carla Madison Rec Center on Dec. 13.
Jamie Bates boarded the 15-L Colfax bus on Dec. 13.

Jamie Bates, who sleeps outside, rides buses to stay warm sometimes. But to avoid trouble he only takes the Colfax bus to get around. He showered at the Carla Madison Rec Center at E. Colfax and Josephine on Dec. 13 before hopping onto the 15-L to get a medical marijuana card.

“I found out that when you’re on probation you can use medical marijuana,” he said. “I’m going through an intense time.”

He carried two bags that hold his toiletries, clothes and signs for panhandling.

“I’ve had a lot of problems on the 15-L,” he said. “There’s a certain crowd.”

He noted the poor etiquette of other passengers, too.

“People will keep book bags on the seats,” he said. “People could sit there.”

Julie Gonzales rides the 15L Colfax bus to her downtown job on Dec. 13. Photo: Andy Bosselman
Julie Gonzales rides the 15L bus to her downtown job on Dec. 13. Photo: Andy Bosselman

Julie Gonzales commutes to work every day from East Colfax and Havana to Broadway, a 35-minute trip she has taken for 20 years.

“I love it. I’d rather be in the bus than in traffic,” she said Dec. 13. “Especially on days like this.”

Riding the 15 gives her some cachet among her coworkers, too.

“Everybody at work gives me a hard time,” she said. “They say I get the exciting bus.”

“I enjoy people watching,” she said. “You get your business people. Your young. Your old. Partiers.”

She says she feels safe.

“I try to be cool with everybody,” she said. “And stay away from people who aren’t cool.”

Ryan Collins heads home from his downtown job on the 15L Colfax bus on Dec. 12. Photo: Andy Bosselman
Ryan Collins heads home from his downtown job on the 15L Colfax bus on Dec. 12. Photo: Andy Bosselman

Ryan Collins commutes between his home in North Aurora to his downtown job on the 15L. He appreciates the simple, straight route and its fast, frequent service.

“It’s a nice straight line downtown,” he said. “It runs frequently. I can get on a 15-L pretty much anytime.”

He and his wife share one car, which she uses to get to her job. His employer pays for his transit pass.

“I get the Ecopass from my job,” he said. “My commute is zero dollars.”

If the couple had another vehicle, he would continue using the bus due to traffic and the high cost of downtown parking.

“Even if I had a second car, I’d stick to using the bus,” he said. “I use it every morning and night. I like how fast it is.”

He hasn’t witnessed the mischief and lawbreaking many associate with the bus.

“It has a bad reputation. This bus is known for being the worst,” he said. “But I haven’t found that to be true. I’ve never seen any crime or fights. It’s just a  bus. It’s a very busy bus, but it’s never anything crazy.”

In fact, he would like to see more fast and frequent transit service.

“I wish there were more bus routes in Denver that are this consistent,” he said.

RTD buses wait in traffic on East Colfax Ave. on Dec. 12. Photo: Andy Bosselman
RTD buses wait in traffic on East Colfax Ave. on Dec. 12. Photo: Andy Bosselman

All but one of the trips I took were uneventful. Some were crowded. Others were not. On one trip, I looked around and was confused about what made this the most “storied” bus in Denver.

After riding the lines for two weeks, on Dec. 12, I realized I was the only white person on the bus. There was a transgender woman aboard. Another passenger stood by the front door and announced the stops. Was this diversity and uncommon courtesy all it took to create such a widespread legend? Was I missing something?

Then, a couple of hours later, I would experience a more boisterous — and uneasy — trip.

Around 9:30 p.m, several passengers who appeared to be homeless spoke loudly enough to include much of the bus in the conversation. The driver, though always professional, was especially nice to everyone. It earned him a hug from a woman as she left.

But what rattled me was a drunk, homeless man. He rambled loudly and incoherently while he gestured erratically.

Even though I am a very committed transit rider, in the future I might think twice about taking the Colfax bus at night. And if I, the editor of Streetsblog, am anxious about the bus, certainly others are deterred from taking it.

The answer is not to hire more police to shoo away the homeless. Instead, we must finally end homelessness and poverty.

We — as Americans, as Coloradans and as Denverites — allow an unjustifiable level of misery. We should face the problems that we created.

But in a city that desperately needs to reduce its dependency on cars, we must recognize that seeing this suffering so intimately and so frequently is an obstacle to getting more people on the bus.

We must create faster, more reliable transit. At the same time, we must end the restrictive policies that have driven up housing prices and deprived people of shelter. We must also restore the federal housing and safety net programs that we allowed to be dismantled over the last 50 years.

Colfax BRT Update

The 15 and 15-L buses mix with traffic, slowing the journey for RTD’s second busiest line. In 2017, Denver voters approved a Bus Rapid Transit project that will install dedicated, center-running bus lanes along East Colfax. Once built, it will greatly accelerate trips.

At a stakeholder meeting for the project Dec. 12, the Department of Public works said the mostly-unfunded project will begin its environmental review process next summer. BRT service won’t start until at least 2028, 11 years after voters approved the plan, according to a timeline presented at the meeting.

But passengers of the 15L have already seen segments of the line sped up downtown.

Last month, the Department of Public Works added a dedicated bus lane to 15th Street to accelerate transit lines that use the corridor. A similar change was added to 17th Street, which carries the outbound segment of the 15L.

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