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Inside RTD’s Decision to Cut Bus & Train Service During Denver’s Protests

When protests erupted downtown two weeks ago, RTD had a tough call on its hands. Here's how its leaders made the decision to halt service—and how vulnerable communities were impacted.

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On May 28, when thousands of protesters first took to the streets near the state Capitol building, buses and trains were running downtown. At that point, no one knew quite how large the crowds would grow. In light of what was already happening in Minneapolis and other major cities, the events that followed shouldn’t have been particularly surprising: the Denver Police Department (DPD) deployed pepper spray and fired rubber bullets to quell the movement, vehicles were weaponized, and many demonstrators were arrested.

Caught in the chaos was one of RTD’s street supervisor cars, which was surrounded by demonstrators and had its tires slashed. The driver was not hurt, but the incident worried leaders at the transit agency. “Thursday, we saw a little more aggressive behavior than we were expecting, and we saw it across the downtown area,” says Mike Meader, RTD’s chief safety and security officer. “When we saw it escalate, we had to pull our service out—get those vehicles and trains away from downtown because it wasn’t isolated to the Capitol area.”

As a result of the previous night’s unrest, RTD suspended service indefinitely downtown the next day, May 29. “We made the decision because our primary concern is for the safety of our employees and passengers and the public around us,” Meader says. 

That decision, though, did not come without urging from the city. Meader says RTD was in constant communication with DPD Thursday and Friday. And, according to Meader, “They began to say: ‘It would really be best if you didn’t have your vehicles down in the midst of all this.’” 

DPD didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Meader stresses the decision was chiefly about keeping employees and riders safe, and that even if DPD hadn’t recommended suspending service, RTD would have reached the same conclusion, just as many metros across the country, including Boston, Chicago, and Miami, did.

As the protests continued without trains and buses ushering demonstrators (or anyone else) into downtown, plenty questioned RTD’s motives, says Laurie Huff, senior communications specialist for the agency. “We did get a lot of complaints from protesters who were suggesting we made this decision because we wanted to quell their ability to gather and protest,” she says. “That is absolutely not the truth. The conversations were guided by safety.” 

Some members of the Black community, particularly those who depend on public transportation, remain unconvinced.

“The majority of the bus riders are Black and brown folks, and the people who are disproportionally affected by police brutality are Black and brown folks,” says Jenee Donelson, a Denver resident and founder of the Rocky Mountain Bus Riders Union. “When you put two and two together, you’ve got a whirlwind of inequities that could have been avoided by showing solidarity with those folks. Instead, RTD chose to cut services.”

Futhermore, some riders—even those who were not trying to protest—were left in the lurch. Despite efforts from RTD to inform riders and various news reports about service suspensions, not all commuters got the message. Loretta Stevens, a Target associate who has used RTD’s service downtown for nearly two decades, felt blindsided when she went to work the first week of June. As she prepared to make her way to the store on the 16th Street Mall, a fellow rider informed her the connecting bus was not going any farther. She was forced to walk from 9th Avenue and Lincoln Street, which took about 40 minutes due to arthritis in her knee. “That information [about service suspension] was not easy to find,” she says. Target arranged a ride home for her.

Jamie Lewis, a transportation advocate with Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, wrote in an email to 5280 that he understands RTD’s decision and, from a safety perspective, thinks suspending service was probably the right call. However, he noted, many people in Denver—particularly those who struggle with disabilities—rely on the trains and buses to access care. “Many of our population depend on caregivers that use the bus, depend on daily medications and help from others to perform simple tasks like grocery shopping,” he wrote. “My concern is that if this was a prolonged cancellation of bus service how would these needs be met?”

Meader is aware of these concerns. “As we go through the process, it’s not an easy decision,” he says. “Because we’re trying to balance the safety of people against the fact that the service we provide is a lifeline to some people as well.” 

Beyond accessibility, complicating safety concerns at RTD is the fact that its service is already scaled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 16th Street Free MallRide, for instance, was not running even before protests broke out, and large crowds on public transportation could have made the agency’s vehicles vectors for an outbreak of the coronavirus.

“Obviously, if we did have people rushing the buses, [COVID-19] was a serious concern of ours,” Meader says. But regardless of the pandemic, RTD would have suspended service because of how dangerous the protests near the Capitol became, he adds. 

After canceling downtown service from May 29 through June 1, RTD offered limited bus and rail service in the week that followed. On Friday, June 5, the agency resumed normal service but had to suspend it again the following day due to ongoing protests; all protest-related service suspensions ended on Sunday, June 7.

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