2024 Leg Session, Randal O'Toole, Transit, Transportation, Uncategorized

O’Toole: RTD is sinking; stop rearranging the deck chairs

RTD is facing an existential crisis. Driving, flying, and Amtrak have all recovered from the COVID pandemic. But RTD carried only about 60 percent as many passengers in December 2023 as in December 2019.

This is not likely to improve much anytime soon. The rise in remote workers means fewer people are commuting to work, which has had an outsized impact on transit.

According to census data, the number of people in the Denver urban area who worked at home grew by 177 percent between 2019 and 2022. This reduced the number driving to work by 13 percent, but it reduced the number taking transit by 47 percent.

Transit is more sensitive to the growth in remote work because RTD’s transit system focuses on downtown, and downtown office workers were more likely than most to become remote workers. The latest data indicate that downtown Denver is seeing only about 67 percent of pre-pandemic activity while at least 30 percent of downtown offices are vacant.

RTD’s downtown focus would have made sense a hundred or so years ago when most jobs were downtown. Prior to the pandemic, however, less than 10 percent of Denver-area jobs were downtown, and today the share is much lower.

RTD’s archaic downtown-centric system poorly serves people who don’t work downtown. Before the pandemic, 22 percent of Denver’s downtown workers took transit to work, while well under 3 percent of workers in the rest of the urban area commuted by transit.

There’s a good reason for this: transit is s-l-o-w. University of Minnesota researchers estimate the average resident of the Denver metro area can reach more than three times as many jobs in a 20-minute auto trip as a 60-minute transit trip.

RTD could have fixed this problem decades ago by redesigning its bus system so that it served other major employment centers in the region, such as the federal center in Lakewood, the Tech Center, Aurora, and Boulder, as well as it served downtown. Instead, it decided to spend billions of dollars building rail transit lines, nearly all of which were anchored in downtown.

It sold this rail system to the voters with a big lie, claiming the rail lines would relieve congestion by taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road each day. That never happened.

Census data show that, before voters approved FasTracks in 2004, 4.78 percent of the Denver urban area’s commuters took transit to work. After building all but one of the rail lines, the share of commuters taking transit to work in 2019 was still just 4.78 percent. Meanwhile, the number of hours the average Denver-area commuter was stuck in traffic grew from 50 per year in 2004 to 62 in 2019.

Members of the Colorado legislature have recently proposed to solve Denver’s transit problems by changing how the RTD board is selected. That’s like rearranging the deck chairs while the ship is sinking. Fixing RTD will require much more drastic action.

The most important step is to make any future taxpayer subsidies to RTD proportional to outputs, not inputs. Making subsidies proportional to inputs rewards transit agencies for spending wildly on obsolete technologies.

The most important output to fund is ridership. But agencies have a long history of overestimating ridership to gain more subsidies, so subsidies should be designed to match transit fares, which are more easily verified. Making subsidies proportional to fares will give RTD incentives to design its system to attract more riders, not spend more money on projects that few people will ride.

One way to redesign RTD’s system is to make it serve economic centers throughout the region as well as it currently serves downtown. Start by identifying, say, eight such centers and running frequent non-stop buses from every center to every other center.

Locate the bus stops next to the closest freeway exchanges to each center so that the buses spend most of their time at freeway speeds. In some corridors RTD rail lines can be adapted for such non-stop service. Finally, run eight or more local buses radiating away from each center to give every neighborhood in the region the same coverage it has today.

This polycentric system will more than double average transit speeds, making transit much more competitive with driving, and should be possible to implement without significantly increasing RTD’s operating costs. While RTD’s downtown-centric system is designed for a 19th-century city, this system is a much better fit to the 21st century urban area that Denver has become.

Randal O’Toole is the director of the Independence Institute’s Transportation Center and author of Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.


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