RTD officials are justifiably pleased that their train to the airport continues to expand ridership — so much so that a recent Denver Post article credited the airport line, along with Uber and Lyft, with “helping to upend ground transportation” at DIA.
And so they have, to the extent that DIA officials no longer plan to build new parking garages despite continued growth in air traffic.
If only the RTD story were as upbeat elsewhere in its eight-county system. But it is not. Much of the ridership picture is actually a disappointment.
During a decade in which the metro population has experienced extraordinary growth and housing density has surged, total transit boardings barely budged. Or rather, they trended up for a few years but have been on a downward slide since 2014, dropping 7 percent from the peak. And this despite an operating budget that has ballooned from $467 million in 2015 to $676 million last year.
This year may turn out to be another setback. Although commuter rail boardings have been strong, light rail ridership slumped during the first five months, agency officials reported recently.
To be sure, RTD is moving to a new methodology for collecting ridership data that shows higher boardings for 2017 and 2018 than the traditional count. The new method, which involves automatic passenger counters, provides more accurate data. However, the undercounting that it reveals (mostly on bus routes) would presumably have been detected to some extent in earlier years, too, meaning the lackluster trend is real.
So what’s going on? Are RTD’s priorities misaligned with the needs of the metro area? Is the agency undercut by larger social trends and consumer preferences that are out of its control (and undermining ridership in other cities, too)?
For that matter, have politicians underestimated the difficulties in providing options to the car that actually compete in terms of convenience and appeal?
To varying degrees, the answer to those questions is yes.
Almost everyone values convenience — a seemingly obvious point that must be mentioned because of how often driving is flogged as a personal vice or “addiction.” In fact, most people won’t walk more than a half mile or so to a transit station because they value their time. And that’s also why, as the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole reminds us, “Studies show (employees) are generally unwilling to spend much more than 30 minutes commuting each way on a long-term basis.”
By a convenience standard, transit often is not a rational option for many people for a broad array of daily trips.
This addiction to convenience is a big reason for the success of ride-hailing services. RTD general manager David Genova told me recently he wasn’t aware of any data on the Uber-Lyft effect on RTD ridership, but conceded it might be a factor.
Actually, it’s safe to assume ride-hailing services have siphoned passengers from RTD given what researchers elsewhere have found. A Boston study confirming this effect, according to an AP news story, found “the main reason people opted for ride-hailing was speed.”
Another factor outside of RTD’s control is prosperity. RTD communications chief Pauletta Tonilas pointed me to a 2018 UCLA study that found “increased car ownership can likely explain much of the transit ridership decline in Southern California” in recent years. The same phenomenon is probably at play here. A TransitCenter report this year that surveyed riders in seven cities, including Denver, found car ownership rising and transit riders in five of the seven cities more likely to replace transit trips with private autos than even with Uber or Lyft.
But RTD is hardly blameless, as the agency itself seems to agree. Genova says they’ve embarked on a process to “totally reimagine the system” in order to create the “mobility plan of the future.” They’ll examine a variety of ways to make transit more relevant, he said, including adjusting frequencies and hours of service as well as seeking closer coordination with local jurisdictions and ride-hailing companies (your Uber app now has a “Transit Tickets” category).
For this project to be successful, however, RTD may have to shift resources out of low-ridership, high-subsidy service and then resist the political backlash that is likely to follow. Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge.
Meanwhile, Denver has a plan that will boost transit ridership: installing bus rapid transit (BRT) on Colfax Avenue and other major corridors at the expense of general traffic lanes. Whether these projects enhance overall mobility is another matter. Perhaps so on a corridor like Colfax where many trips both begin and end. But a BRT line that does not actually deposit people reasonably close to their destination is a poor substitute for a car and could aggravate congestion.
Convenience will define the limits of the airport train, too, a fact DIA officials seem to understand even if some Denver council members don’t. Several pushed back recently against plans to add lanes and improve ramps near the airport, with Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca declaring, “We know our planet is on fire; we know what the risk is of induced demand. And so we know better.”
Actually, if transportation’s contribution to greenhouse emissions is to be seriously curtailed, it will be through a low-carbon power supply and electric vehicles. Punishing drivers in the interim is self-righteous grandstanding. For many metro residents, transit does not compete with autos for airport trips. From southeast Denver where I live, for example, rail to the airport involves a transfer from the R to the A line and more than twice the normal travel time.
Let’s be clear: Facilitating transit ridership is a good thing, and RTD and local municipalities need to do more of it. But the task should be pursued with an appreciation that cars are here to stay as the mainstay of mobility. Just look at the past decade for evidence.
Vincent Carroll is the former editorial page editor of both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, where a version of this column first appeared. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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