(TNS) — The next person to head metro Denver’s sprawling transit network will face a long list of obstacles to reversing Regional Transportation District (RTD)’s declining ridership — and, industry experts warn, that new leader will have only so much power to set things right.
“We’re in the middle of incredible change and it’s very hard to predict the future,” said Joel Volinski, former director of the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida and a former head of Broward County’s transit system.
“The same old, traditional ways of thinking may not apply in the future. A new transit director must be aware of this changing landscape.”
That landscape is marked by an increase in telecommuting and a proliferation of mobility options that were barely around a decade ago — ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber, along with dockless scooters and bike-sharing networks. Lurking on the horizon are emerging technologies, including self-driving vehicles, that could even more dramatically shift how transit agencies compete for attention.
Then there’s perhaps the biggest and most deeply rooted challenge of all facing the Regional Transportation District’s next general manager — operating in a city built almost exclusively for automobiles.
“You still have a metropolitan area that favors those who drive themselves around,” said Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. “The game is rigged. This is what your next director will face, no matter who he or she is.”
RTD Director Angie Rivera-Malpiede recognizes the challenges facing the agency in the wake of last week’s announcement by General Manager Dave Genova that he’s stepping down at the end of January after nearly four years in the role.
“We really have a lot of huge issues to deal with this at this point,” Rivera-Malpiede said. “We’re going to be doing a lot of soul-searching work.”
That work was to have begun Tuesday night with a special meeting of RTD’s Board of Directors to discuss how to go about finding Genova’s replacement. But the late fall snowstorm that hit Colorado overnight Monday postponed the session.
Ridership Drop Is National
RTD is swimming against a tide that is impacting just about every transit agency across the country.
According to a recently published report in Transfers Magazine, Dan Sperling, a professor with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, found that “U.S. public transit ended 2018 with a fourth consecutive year of declining ridership.”
He noted in his report that transit ridership fell from 114 trips per capita in 1950 to an all-time low of 30 in 1995, “where it stands today.” In the United States, transit accounts for about 2% of passenger trips and only 1% of passenger miles, Sperling found.
RTD, itself, has seen ridership drop nearly 5% over the last four years, despite the addition since 2016 of three commuter rail lines, the Flatiron Flyer bus rapid transit service between Boulder and Denver, and a new light-rail line through the heart of Aurora.
“Transit is being buffeted by external forces,” Sperling wrote in an email. “New ways of thinking, new types of collaboration and new approaches to marketing and public finance are needed.”
The troubling fact of the matter for RTD is that it has employed many of those approaches to one extent or another over the last few years. The agency has teamed up with Lyft and Uber, as well as scooter companies, to provide customers with first-mile, last-mile connectivity. It partnered with the private sector to finance, build and operate the University of Colorado A-Line to Denver International Airport, the G-Line to Wheat Ridge and the B-Line to Westminster as part of a long-term contract.
It even tested an automated shuttle bus earlier this year near the 61st/Peña rail station. And last month, the agency launched Reimagine RTD, a two-year effort to get more people onto its buses and trains and plan for the “future of mobility” in metro Denver.
Despite these efforts, passenger numbers continue to decline, compounded by the worst labor shortage RTD has experienced in its 50-year history. The shortage of drivers and operators, which has led to dropped runs on light-rail and bus routes, has the agency contemplating cuts in service while it tries to stabilize its workforce.
David Bragdon, executive director of New York-based TransitCenter, said curtailing service in a difficult transit environment like this one is “an act of surrender.”
“Nobody has ever driven ridership by cutting service,” Bragdon said.
Rather, RTD should put more focus on bolstering service where it’s most needed — where there is the greatest density of people. That means dedicating bus-only lanes along Colfax Avenue and giving buses signaling priority at intersections.
Rail is fine, Bragdon said, but it’s an expensive addition to the cheaper alternative of running buses in a way that serves the most people.
“The era of big capital spending — that era is kind of over,” he said. “I think they’re at a point now where they need some fresh leadership where they re-orient to the fundamentals.”
Inside Or Outside Pick?
Rivera-Malpiede said she had immense respect for Genova and the work he did guiding the agency, but she said she is ready for a “breath of fresh air” at the upper levels of RTD. The director, who was voted on to the board last year after having served a previous four-year term starting in 2010, said, “RTD is at a point where some change might be good.”
Whether that means choosing someone from inside the agency — as the board of directors did in 2016 when it put Genova, a 26-year RTD veteran, into the top post — is something Rivera-Malpiede and her colleagues will be discussing in the coming weeks.
“I do have hope — I think there are some excellent people out there,” she said.
Volinski, formerly with the National Center for Transit Research, said RTD’s success is ultimately less about the next woman or man will sit in the general manager’s chair and more about what the market demands in an increasingly complex and varied mobility and workplace environment.
“You may have done nothing wrong in planning your transit system and services, but people have made different choices,” he said. “It’s up to every individual to make the choice — how do they want to move, or do they want to move at all?”
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