Commentary: Rolling Out The Red Carpet For Transit

RTD 15 bus in red bus-only lane on 15th Street in Denver
A 15 bus traverses a bus-only lane on 15th St. near Welton St. (Photo: Andy Bosselman)
Matt Frommer head shot
Matt Frommer

This guest commentary is by Matt Frommer, a Senior Transportation Associate with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), a public-interest organization promoting greater energy efficiency and clean transportation in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. He’s on Twitter @MattFrommer.

Matt will speak Thursday, March 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the Get on the Bus: Transit Justice Forum virtual event hosted by Mile High Connects and the Denver Streets Partnership.

When you talk to Debra Johnson, RTD’s new General Manager and CEO, about how to increase transit ridership, she talks about rolling out the “red carpet” for transit. This is more than just a metaphor. By “red carpet” she means dedicated transit-priority lanes (often painted red) to give transit the advantage it needs to compete with driving – shorter travel times, lower costs, and more reliable and frequent service. This is the kind of visionary thinking we need to build a healthier, safer, and more affordable transportation system.

Car ownership costs almost $9,000 per year, and lower-income households spend about one-third of their income on transportation. Transit can be the most efficient way to move people around, but only if it’s set up for success. Right now, we underfund transit and force it to compete in a world built for cars. Vehicle ownership is nearly a prerequisite for participating in modern society. The result is car-choked cities, deadly air pollution, expensive car payments, rising traffic fatalities, sprawling suburbs, and a warming planet.

In 2019, Colorado passed the Climate Action Plan To Reduce Pollution (House Bill 19-1261) and set greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. The state’s new GHG Pollution Reduction Roadmap shows we must reduce transportation GHGs by 40% by 2030 through a combination of electric vehicle adoption and strategies that reduce driving by 10%. Lowering vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will require significant investments in multimodal projects that encourage transit, biking, and walking trips instead of more car travel.

Flatiron Flyer bus in express lane on U.S. 36
The Flatiron Flyer Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) uses the U.S. 36 express lane to cruise past rush hour traffic on the way to Denver. (Source: Commuting Solutions)

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and the same is true for cars and transportation planning: From behind the windshield, the obvious solution to our transportation problems is more lanes and faster traffic, but such interventions are fundamentally incompatible with our transportation goals to create a safer, cleaner, and more affordable system. We must design our system to move people more efficiently instead of moving more cars faster.

Most American cities have experienced a steady increase in car travel boosted by continued investment in wider roads and more parking. A few cities have bucked the trend, including Seattle. During the last 15 years, Seattle cut vehicle traffic by 5% and grew transit ridership by 46% by improving transit access for thousands of residents. In the same period, Seattle’s population grew by 23%, similar to growth in Denver, but instead of just increasing highway capacity, Seattle leveraged its growth to drive the evolution of a more efficient and cleaner transportation system.

RTD ridership was in decline before the pandemic. In 2020, it suffered an even bigger hit as millions of Coloradans worked and schooled from home, leading to a 60% drop in daily RTD ridership. The pandemic also highlighted that transit is essential in getting our essential workers to their jobs.

Travel behavior is hard to change, but as we emerge from the pandemic, we have a rare opportunity to reshape the way we get around and reinvigorate transit in the Denver metro area. Colorado should use the infusion of state and federal stimulus dollars to “build back better” by investing in transit. First, we need to rehabilitate our existing system by restoring ridership. Then, we need to expand our transit system by building the most cost-effective projects that generate the highest ridership per dollar while ensuring equitable access for communities that need it most.

Whether it’s for financial, health, or other reasons, hundreds of thousands of Coloradans don’t own a car. Many of these residents cannot afford car ownership. A lack of transit service can limit job access, trapping them in a cycle of poverty. In these cases, transit service is not about the luxury of options but about providing basic access to opportunity.

Earlier this year, Transit Center built a tool to visualize the relationship between job access and transit service. The results were illuminating. With current transit service, a resident of Westwood, a low-income neighborhood in west Denver, can access 3,656 jobs in 30 minutes using a combination of walking and transit.

Map of Westwood with current RTD service accessing 3,656 jobs in 30 minutes
Now: With current RTD service, Westwood residents can access 3,656 jobs in 30 minutes using a combination of walking and transit. (Source: Transit Center)

If we increase transit service by 40% in the simulation tool – upping bus frequency to 15 minutes instead of 30 or 45 – the number of jobs within a 30-minute commute quadruples to 16,530.

Map of Westwood with simulated RTD service accessing 16,530 jobs in 30 minutes
If we increased current RTD service in Westwood by 40% – increasing bus frequency to 15 minutes instead of 30 or 45 – the number of jobs within a 30-minute commute quadruples to 16,530. (Source: Transit Center)

To make transit more competitive, we need to make it more frequent and affordable. One of the best transit success stories in Colorado is the Flatiron Flyer Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Before the pandemic, the Flatiron Flyer transported 14,500 riders between Boulder and Denver every day. Passengers choose to hop on the Flatiron Flyer because:

  1. The buses leave every 10-15 minutes, giving riders plenty of flexibility.
  2. The Flyer cruises past rush-hour traffic in the Express Lane, offering a travel time and sanity advantage over driving.
  3. Many residents have an RTD EcoPass from their employers, making the Flyer low-cost or free to ride.
  4. The high cost of parking in downtown Denver discourages people from driving their cars.

Without the Flatiron Flyer, US-36 traffic could slow to a crawl, which shows that high-frequency transit is not just beneficial for transit riders, but also for drivers. We need to replicate this success all around the Denver metro area. There’s no shortage of BRT projects on city and state project lists.

In 2019, RTD completed a BRT Feasibility Study that identified eight potential BRT routes in the Denver metro area. According to the study, the eight routes would cost $544 million to build, attract 88,000 daily riders, improve travel times by up to 22%, and slash vehicle miles traveled by almost 300,000 miles per day. If coupled with new housing and jobs near the transit stations, these new BRT lines could coax even more potential transit riders out of their cars.

If you draw a massive venn diagram of all the characteristics we want out of our transportation system – safety, affordability, less congestion, less pollution, and more access that’s more equitable – you’ll find transit sitting right at the sweet spot in the center. This year, 2021, is the year to build a more robust and sophisticated transit system in Denver, and we may finally have the funding to do it. Let’s do it right by focusing investments in underserved communities and by building the most cost-effective projects that cut pollution and maximize transit ridership.

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