The RouteAhead team visited Denver, Colorado this month, the last physical stop in our scanning tour of other successful public transit agencies.
Denver is an auto-oriented city making significant public transit investments. It has a relatively dense, vibrant downtown, along with growing suburban activity centres (post-secondary institutions, technology employment areas, Denver International Airport, etc.).
There are big differences between Calgary and Denver; there are milder winters, lower population density, and longer distances to travel in the Denver metropolitan area (for example, the travel distance from downtown Denver to the airport is 40 km, the same as the travel distance from Cochrane to Calgary International Airport). The metropolitan region in which the transit agency, Regional Transportation District (RTD), operates includes approximately three million people, while the City of Denver is home to 620,000 people.
The most successful part of their system from our perspective was the MallRide, a downtown hybrid-electric, low-floor transitway that effectively operated as a rubber-tired streetcar, and was free at all times of day. It was particularly attractive because:
- Buses arrived frequently; a bus came every minute in peak periods, and every three to five minutes during most of the day and evening.
- The corridor linked origins/destinations in the downtown with two bus terminals on either end of the corridor and LRT (light rail transit) stations.
- Multiple-door entry and traffic signal priority resulted in a quick, efficient trip through the downtown, despite the bus stopping to pick up/drop off passengers every block.
- The electric drive (hybrid) motors were quiet and clean.
Some other elements contributing to the success of the downtown include the historical width of the street (wide enough for pedestrian circulation, landscaping, street furniture and transit-only lanes), land use (high employment densities and significant residential development), and the close proximity of stadiums/arenas. Downtown Denver and the MallRide were busy throughout the day and evening.
RTD operates MallRide, LRT, and all other buses in the metropolitan region. RTD is also leading the FasTracks project, an ambitious expansion of rapid transit in the region. The project is funded in part by a sales tax and in part by federal government grants encouraging public-private partnerships. FasTracks includes LRT, BRT (bus rapid transit) and commuter rail extensions throughout the region. The plan has been impacted by declining sales tax revenues associated with the recession, and increasing
costs of project delivery. We reviewed transit-oriented development construction, LRT extensions and innovative approaches to project delivery.
The key to success for RTD will be generating ridership to support these new facilities. Maintaining their current fare recovery percentage of 12-18 per cent (compared to 50 per cent in Calgary) will be challenging when these new facilities are completed, particularly in 30-40 years when the public-private partnership contracts end and the operating costs are transitioned to RTD.
More information on the LRT systems we visited on our scanning tour is available in the report, “The North American Light Rail Experience: Insights for Hamilton” by the McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics.