Last year was supposed to be a good one for the Regional Transportation District. RTD celebrated its fiftieth year of service, threw itself a few parties and asked the citizens of Denver to "Reimagine RTD" for the future. Sounds like a nice year, right? But mitigate those positive stories with constant service interruptions caused by lack of manpower, culminating in the departure of GM Dave Genova and “temporary” service reductions citywide. Oh, and a terribly considered opposition to a National Medal of Honor Museum that could have been one of RTD’s best PR boons…and turned into one of its worst. RTD is known in Denver as standing for “Reason to Drive.” Things are not exactly looking up.
So what can RTD do to reverse its fortunes in 2020? There are clearly no easy answers, but with a subject as radically important for Denver as mass transit, here are a few specific places to start.
Reinstate Reduced Services as Originally Promised
First and foremost, don’t play into the cynicism of a community already largely disillusioned with RTD’s various plans by turning the “temporary service reductions” into test-balloons for permanent service reductions. When a service is altered “just for the time being,” everyone expects that it’s just a corporate way to ease into something that the public won’t like. RTD only made it worse by first using the term "temporary" and then leaving it out of the proposal language completely, leading many to conclude that the "temporary" part was more or less bait-and-switch. Subvert our expectations, RTD, by reinstating services on time...or even early. Step one toward being trusted again is proving that you’re worthy of that trust.
Make the A Line the Gold Standard
It should be among RTD’s most aspirational goals to make the A Line to the airport something that Denver citizens can rely on no matter what. A high tide raises all boats, and while everyone wants their mode of transportation to run on time, it’s most important when you’re trying to catch a flight. There’s a reason that there’s been so much written about the ongoing successes and failures of the A Line — because it’s symbolic of the larger system as a whole. As goes the A Line, so goes RTD, so put a bunch of eggs in the A Line basket, RTD, and then watch that basket.
Improve Rider Notifications
There should, at the very least, be a digital sign at every light-rail stop in order to let passengers know when a train will arrive, if it’s late, if there’s an accident somewhere that’s causing a delay, or if the train is for some reason canceled. All of the above reasons are legitimate, but riders can’t be understanding if they’re never told what’s going on. Not everyone can log into an online app to see about service announcements, which are only sometimes posted in time to be helpful. In short, RTD needs to keep its customers apprised of what to expect. It's impossible to have patience for a purposefully invisible process.
Public Relations Is More than Parties
Sure, it was your fiftieth anniversary, and sure, throw a party. But don’t stop there. It’s more important for riders that they feel like they can depend on RTD in the day-to-day, not to hand it a balloon and a cupcake once in a while. This means thinking about how things are going to play on the citywide stage. What you were thinking, RTD, when you turned down donating some relatively inconsequential land in the center of town to a nationally recognized museum, no one really knows. You realized your mistake, but it was too little too late, and the museum went to Texas. Colorado doesn’t like getting beaten by Texas, RTD. We sort of hate it. That’s a PR nightmare that cake just won’t fix.
Rethink the L
The Welton corridor, serving both Five Points and RiNo from downtown, was RTD’s first light-rail line. It’s now it’s shortest and least integrated, running from 30th and Downing to the 16th Street Mall in a loop, cut off from the rest of the city by a five- to fifteen-minute wait as passengers disembark at 16th and wait for another train if they want to go anywhere but downtown. In terms of service, it was a step backward…but RTD could make the L free to ride, considering its tiny footprint (it’s not that much longer than the 16th Street Shuttle, which is already free). Little would be lost in terms of dollars, since most of the people riding the L either don’t bother to buy tickets already (because the L is rarely checked, and they’ve learned they don’t need to) or L-riders are heading elsewhere in town and would need a ticket anyway. It doesn’t solve the problem of the L being sidelined, but it would be a positive outcome of a service reduction to an important part of the city — both in terms of growth, and historically.
Or Hell…Make It All Free
RTD is going to need to rethink a lot of the way it has done business in the past, and that includes how it supports itself. Some major cities worldwide have done away with tickets and fees completely and moved to alternate funding models. It was just announced in December that Kansas City, Missouri, is moving to do the same. With all of Denver’s challenges regarding rapid population growth, it makes sense to think outside the box. Free fares? RTD, you wanted us to Reimagine how things could be. Let’s start big.