Op Ed: Transit Can't Solve Denver Congestion

Op Ed: Transit Can't Solve Denver Congestion
Urban planner Drew Willsey’s January 28 op-ed favoring spending more money on transit makes all the usual wrong-headed planning assumptions about transportation. Willsey takes it for granted that transit is good, cars are bad, and increasing transit ridership is a cost-effective way of relieving congestion. All of these assumptions are wrong.

Transit in Denver is the brown form of travel. According to the Department of Energy, the average car uses about 3,000 British thermal units (BTUs) of energy per passenger mile, and the average SUV uses 3,800. But the National Transit Database reports that RTD used 3,800 in 2016. While the average car emitted about 212 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger mile and the average SUV 268, RTD produced 272.

Nor does transit automatically reduce congestion. A bus may take a few cars off the road at any given moment, but it occupies as much space as several cars and frequent stops and starts add more to congestion. Light-rail lines occupy street space or frequently cross streets and can easily add more to congestion than the cars they take off the road, especially when the trains are given priority over cars at traffic signals.

Nor is it clear that spending more money on transit will get people out of their cars. Since 2000, RTD has spent billions of dollars on light rail and other rail lines, yet the share of Denver-area commuters who take transit to work has declined from 4.9 to 4.6 percent.

Willsey at least recognizes that more rail is not the answer. Instead of building the Longmont commuter line, he suggests using that money — money that doesn’t exist, as RTD can’t afford to build that line — “paying people to take transit.” Since RTD carries about 100 million people a year, paying people 25 cents a ride, he calculates, would cost $25 million a year. If this were done, he predicts, “transit ridership would instantly skyrocket.”

Willsey forgets that RTD currently collects fares averaging $1.32 a ride. Paying people 25 cents a ride instead would effectively cost $1.57 a ride, or about $157 million a year for current riders. If this causes ridership to double, as Willsey hopes, the cost would increase to $182 million a year, about 625 percent more than Willsey’s estimate. Since some buses and trains run full at rush hour, RTD would have to increase service, running up costs even more.

Willsey also claims doubling transit’s share of commuters would “decrease substantially” the need for expanded roads over the next 25 years. RTD’s share today is about 4.5 percent, so doubling might take 4.5 percent of cars off the road. But the Denver area’s population grew by 75 percent in the past 25 years and is likely to grow about that much in the next 25. Taking 4.5 percent of those new commuters off the road is almost inconsequential.

Most importantly, Willsey totally ignores the transportation elephant in the city, which is ride sharing and the prospect of driverless ride sharing in the next few years. Ride sharing has already significantly reduced transit ridership nationwide since 2014. One investment firm estimates that driverless ride sharing will cost users about 35 cents a vehicle mile. This is only a little more than average transit fares and, if more than one person is traveling, far less.

General Motors promises to begin driverless ride-sharing services in the San Francisco Bay Area by 2019, and Ford promises to begin in other urban areas by 2021. Even if these dates slip a little, it is practically certain that, before 2030, moving someone by a driverless ride share in Denver will cost less than transit. So why should taxpayers spend even more money on a transportation system that will soon go extinct?

Traffic congestion is a problem. But efforts to get people out of their cars have failed because, even with congestion, cars are faster, more convenient, and more efficient than transit. The solution is to make more effective use of the roads we have.

Roads are unique in that, when they get filled up, their capability to move traffic declines. A freeway lane that can move 2,000 vehicles per hour at 50 miles per hour can only move 1,000 vehicles per hour at 25 miles per hour. Keeping traffic from slowing down can actually double road capacities during rush hour. This would benefit everyone in the region.

Since cars are the green form of travel, planners like Willsey should stop obsessing with last century’s form of travel. Instead, they should spend their time finding cost-effective ways to keep roads from becoming congested, especially as driverless cars enter the highway system.

Randal O’Toole is the director of the Independence Institute’s Transportation Center and the author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It. Find out more about him here.

Westword occasionally publishes op eds on matters of interest to residents of metro Denver. Want to submit one? Email

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.