Why hasn’t Denver seen an increase in transit ridership?

By Rayla Bellis

Denver, CO, has one of the top transit systems west of the Mississippi today, thanks to major investments that have drastically expanded the regional transit network over the past decade. The region currently boasts the eighth largest rail system nationwide despite being the nineteenth most populous city.

Yet these recent investments—part of the $4.7 billion FasTracks package approved by voters in 2004—so far have not translated into a sustained increase in transit ridership or reduced driving in the Denver region. A recent Citylab article notes that just 6 percent of people in Denver used public transit as part of their commute to work as of 2016, while ridership was at roughly 5 percent back in 2004. Per capita transit boardings also dropped by 4 percent between 2010 and 2015, while vehicle miles traveled jumped by 12 percent.

The Citylab article examines why the Denver region has not seen the expected boosts in ridership, identifying a number of factors that may be partially responsible through interviews with a transportation educator, a Regional Transportation District spokesperson, and a public transit consultant. As the article points out, Denver’s experience is consistent with national trends. Transit ridership declined 4.5 percent across the U.S. between 2014 and 2016, while vehicle miles traveled have steadily increased in recent years, likely due largely to the low cost of gas and the rebounding economy. Denver’s experiences might help shed light on some of the factors behind the broader national decline.

One factor the article suggests is a possible mismatch between the locations of Denver’s new transit lines and the areas with the greatest current transit demand. FasTracks is regional by design, adding 122 miles of commuter, light rail, and bus rapid transit lines across the metro area in a hub-and-spoke pattern. This has meant less targeted investment in the areas with the most concentrated current potential transit use—particularly Denver’s increasingly dense downtown, where the largest number of people could be converted to transit riders. Within the City of Denver, only about 34 percent of people currently live within walking distance from stops where a bus arrives every 15 minutes or less. Providing crucial connections between neighborhoods within the urban areas, so that those residents have the option to take transit to work and non-work destinations, could be a key missing link to boosting ridership and reducing driving.

Citylab’s article also suggests that the culture of the relatively spread out Denver region may still be catching up with the transit investments. It will likely take time to see changes in residents’ lifestyles and behaviors. In particular, the article points to a persistent and still-widespread stigma against bus transit in the region. While the new rail lines have attracted the most attention and public support, bus lines are the real foundation of the system, providing critical connectivity between the rail lines. Yet people still perceive buses as a second-class service.

Could Denver increase its ridership by focusing on building out and marketing a high quality urban bus network in the next phase of investments? Some experts have suggested that outdated bus routes that no longer reflect the places riders are traveling—as well as overall reductions in transit service in many cities—may be a significant contributing factor in the decline in transit ridership nationwide. Others have pointed out that some of the few cities that have recently revamped their bus routes to be more responsive to residents’ needs—such as Seattle and Houston—have not seen the same declines in ridership.

SSTI has written previously about how emerging tools and big data have made it possible to gain a greater understanding of trip-making origins and destinations, allowing cities to make investment decisions based on a more in-depth awareness of where people are actually traveling. This type of analysis might help Denver further improve its system so people can truly build their lives around transit.

Ultimately, however, the article notes that it is still too early to evaluate the lasting impacts of FasTracks, particularly as development patterns change over time in response to the investments. Many of rail lines are still fairly new, opening in 2016 and 2017, while a few more are set to open in 2018. Others have estimated completion dates as far out as 2030 or 2044. Only time will tell how the system will influence where people choose to live and how they get around.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.