RTD's service declining in the suburbs

The transportation district's new plan focuses on higher ridership areas

Luke Zarzecki
lzarzecki@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/18/22

Bus lines across Denver will see changes in service after the Regional Transportation District’s board of directors voted for a new plan that focuses more on higher ridership areas.

That …

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RTD's service declining in the suburbs

The transportation district's new plan focuses on higher ridership areas

Posted

Bus lines across Denver will see changes in service after the Regional Transportation District’s board of directors voted for a new plan that focuses more on higher ridership areas.

That means some suburb lines will be lost or see reduced service due to low demand for transit, RTD officials said. 

The plan kicked off in 2019 with reevaluations coming after 2020 and will be implemented slowly over the next five years. The move comes as a post-pandemic effort to adapt to changing travel needs.

“The plan we would have implemented in the beginning of 2021 isn't what we now think we should do with our service,” said RTD’s Manager of Corridor Planning Doug Monroe. “What the plan is looking to do is allocate the resources to areas where we’re seeing the strongest ridership over the past few years.” 

That doesn’t mean the suburbs will stop seeing transit service — just less. The board is looking to cater to higher demand and areas with higher density. 

According to Laurie Huff, a spokesperson for RTD, performance and rider retention came in as major factors to decide which routes were due for decreases.

“When routes were already performing relatively poorly prior to the pandemic and retention is poor and lagging other routes, those were candidates for reduced service or elimination. This is especially the case with RTD’s regional and express routes that have not performed well as people are not coming downtown to work,” she wrote in an email. 

Some of the routes are seeing 30-40% lower ridership than prior to the pandemic, Monroe said. 

Beyond ridership numbers, RTD is considering equity issues as well. Monroe said that low-income populations rely more on bus service for travel to work than other areas in the metro area. He said RTD refers to these populations as “equity populations.” RTD said those kinds of neighborhoods maintained their ridership numbers during the pandemic.

“Zero car households and those areas all kind of correlate to each other anyway,” Monroe said. “Those were the areas where we saw the strongest ridership retention throughout the pandemic.” 

He said Denver, Aurora and the inner parts of Lakewood will see more frequent service than today, however, it may not be that much different than in 2019. 

“It's focusing service on where the passengers use it the most, but still providing a coverage network across our large district,” Monroe said. 

Even with fixed routes coming off the network, RTD plans to institute FlexRides in some areas that are cheaper to operate, Monroe said. FlexRides allow residents to call and make appointments for rides in specific zones. 

Increases, decreases, revivals and deaths

Changes will take place all over the transit map, based on a presentation showing each change and routes that will be staying the same.  A PDF of that presentation is available at https://tinyurl.com/mryx4978 online.

RTD's Route 49 to Commerce City/Colorado Blvd, Route 44 on 44th Ave, Route 35 - Hampden Ave, Route 31 N - N. Federal Blvd. and across Mississippi Avenue are all examples of the routes that will see increased service or more reliability.  

During the pandemic, some lines went off the grid including Route LX2 - Longmont/Denver, Route GS - Golden/Boulder, Route 122X - Wagon Rd. / Civic Center Express, Route 53 - N. Sheridan Blvd./Broomfield and Route 104 - W. 104th Ave. Those services will be restored. 

Some will see decreased service. As examples, Route 99 - Federal Center/S. Kipling St. will have 60-minute weekday headways instead of 30 minutes. Route 66 - Arapahoe Rd. will scale back the evening service span by one hour. 

More than 20 routes will be taken off the grid, but some will be replaced by others. For example, the 16L route will be removed but covered with Routes 16 and 16G. Route 128 will be gone but be covered by the Broomfield FlexRide. 

Use it or lose it

Monroe explained that RTD’s service is based on the number of people that use it and maintaining a large coverage network can be difficult. 

Troy Whitmore, an RTD board director representing District K that includes Brighton and Thornton, said it's a balancing act between providing overall coverage due to the taxes everyone pays and adhering to demand. 

“There's fairness to make sure that we have adequacy for (lower economic demographics), but then there's fairness for those out in the suburbs that may be in the same economic situation, and making sure they at least have commuter routes for their traveling,” he said. “But realizing that buses are not as full as they once were, especially in the commuter routes.”

He said that it’s hard to justify a bus route with three to five people on it while making sure RTD is operating at maximum efficiency is important.

RTD Director Kate Williams of District A, which includes Denver and Cherry Creek, said the average transit network gets about 23% funding from their state. RTD gets 6%. 

“So, we can’t put buses without any riders,” she said. “Choices matter.” 

She points to the fact that after COVID, not as many people ride RTD anymore, for a variety of factors including working from home. 

Increasing ridership and demand

Whitmore said that growing commercial facilities like the Amazon warehouse in Thornton and St. Anthony’s Hospital in Westminster can increase demand for transit routes that go directly to those places of work.

Building density helps, too. To attract more transit, Monroe said municipalities can build transit-oriented development.

He pointed to the Arvada station where redevelopment is occurring for higher density and more land uses. Building train lines to stations only with parking lots isn’t good enough.

“It pains me to see light rail lines that are built to stations with only a parking lot and a quarter mile, half mile walk to the closest (land uses,)” he said. “Actually having the development at those stations really encourages ridership.”

He said it would be difficult to encourage those in single-family homes who live a few miles away from a transit corridor to use transit if they aren’t already doing so. 

RTD has embraced the park-and-ride model for the last 40 years where residents can drive to these corridors and ride the bus or train for downtown Denver. 

That model only works for specific types of trips and it requires a car, which can be contradictory since those without cars need transit more than those with cars, and those eager to ride transit may not want a car. 

However, Williams said that people need to start getting out of their cars for the sake of climate change. 

“I think that every time you get in your car by yourself, you are killing your grandchildren. We have to ride transit,” she said. 

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