Back on Tuesday, March 3, more than 370,000 people boarded RTD’s buses and trains. Seven weeks later, on Tuesday, April 21, RTD booked just 100,943 boardings—a drop of 73 percent thanks to people staying at home and a 40 percent cut in service.
That dramatic drop will have long term impact on RTD. Though ridership is slowly ticking upward and the 16th Street Free MallRide is operating again—both are small feats toward the agency’s uncertain recovery. “Whatever our new normal is, we will face it head-on,” says Pauletta Tonilas, RTD’s head of communications. “Through gradual steps, RTD is working to get the region moving again.”
What is unknown is if the pandemic’s impact will force RTD to address the problems behind the crisis it faced before anyone had heard of COVID-19. That list includes declining ridership, driver shortages, paralyzing debt, and chronic under-funding. Will the agency make significant reforms or simply restore previous levels of service and go back to its problematic status quo?
RTD could bring back its pre-pandemic timetables—but the virus might slow a return to the past. “We are really suggesting this will go on for 18 months to two years,” said Dr. Kristine Moore, an infectious disease expert and medical director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) in a recent presentation to the RTD board of directors. She compared the COVID-19 outbreak to previous influenza pandemics, which did not achieve a vaccine or herd immunity sooner than that. The new coronavirus will likely follow the same pattern, she said.
Bill Sirois, a senior manager at RTD, points to the 1918 flu pandemic as a model. “After 1918, people did come back to transit, in 1920 and 1921,” he says. “We’re hoping that through data and other means we can get people using transit faster.”
But several things have to fall into place before people start hopping onto buses and trains. First, potential riders need places to go. Bars, restaurants, and cultural destinations (including events like concerts and ball games) must continue to reopen. People need to return to work, too. But for many, working from home may become the new normal.
Jeff Walker, an elected RTD board member who represents parts of Denver, Englewood, and Lakewood, says he is not planning to go back to his day job’s office until next year. Many companies have decided to let workers continue working from home for the foreseeable future, or even permanently. “Will we need 40-story office buildings downtown?” he asks.
People also need to feel safe when riding buses and trains. And data is starting to show that transit may not be as risky as once thought. Recently, studies from Japan and France have indicated that no clusters of people have contracted the new coronavirus from public transportation. And in The Atlantic, Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and a co-author, pointed out that Hong Kong, a city reliant on transit, saw far fewer cases of COVID-19 than Kansas did.
Locally, RTD is tracking COVID-19 cases to learn more about the virus’ impact on the agency’s roughly 3,000 employees, the vast majority of which are drivers. Just seven RTD operators have contracted the virus (all have fully recovered); among RTD’s much smaller pool of other employees, six fell ill.
But many people feel anxious about riding RTD, says Deyanira Zavala of Mile High Connects, a nonprofit that advocates to improve transit for low-income communities and communities of color.
To help people feel safer, she offers several suggestions. First, RTD should more forcefully urge riders to wear masks. The agency should make passengers more aware of its extensive vehicle cleaning process. And it should help people keep their hands clean, she says. (Dr. Moore, in her presentation, suggested placing hand sanitizer dispensers on every vehicle, but the cash-strapped agency balked at the price.)
Perhaps most importantly, Zavala says RTD should provide better service to the bus lines that have maintained the highest ridership since the pandemic, like the 0 and 15 lines in Denver. More frequent buses mean fewer people and less crowding on each bus. The people who have continued riding transit are “essential riders,” she says, those traveling to jobs at hospitals and grocery stores, going to medical appointments, and using buses when they have no other transportation options, she says.
RTD is well-positioned to make such service changes now, says Tonilas. The agency created a tool to more quickly analyze ridership information and adjust service to meet changing demands. It was developed as a part of the “Reimagine RTD” process to revamp the agency, which launched last year.
But if the agency adds significant service to high-ridership lines in the short-term, its leaders may be tempted to bring back service to low-ridership suburban lines, which contributed to RTD’s years-long trend of declining ridership.
Part of RTD’s focus on suburban service stems from each member of RTD’s board of directors representing one of 15 geographic regions, each with bewildering boundaries. (Do you know what RTD district you’re in?) But the districts give each board member an incentive to bring service to the areas they represent. And that can result in nearly empty buses and trains running in low-density suburbs at the expense of faster, more frequent service where more people are likely to ride transit.
But if large numbers of suburban workers forgo trips to the office as they work from home, there could be even less demand for such pre-pandemic levels of service. And if RTD wanted to restore previous service levels, the agency likely won’t have the cash to do so for many years, thanks to stalled service, low ridership, and decreases in sales tax (a significant portion of RTD’s budget).
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), a federal law intended to address the economic shock of the pandemic, filled much of RTD’s loss in revenue for this year. But officials aren’t counting on similar infusions of cash in the future. “We’re projecting a substantial shortfall in revenues next year, which is going to impact our ability to provide service,” says Sirois. “We’re expecting a sustained level of reduced service.”
Amid drastic budget cuts, RTD also must continue paying back billions in debt it took on to finance the FasTracks rail system, which will primarily serve the suburban workers who might not return to downtown offices. And last week, Gov. Jared Polis added to the agency’s financial pressures when he insisted RTD build its promised train to Boulder and Longmont. The governor has no plans to help the agency find new funds, either, according to Conor Cahill, his press secretary.
Instead, the governor and legislature last week created an independent accountability committee to review the agency’s operations and make recommendations. But it may be difficult for the committee to make deep structural reforms.
Like so many other things right now, little is certain about RTD’s future. But if the pandemic lurches the agency from crisis to calamity, it could force the Denver metro to take a hard look at its transit system. Such reflection could be an opportunity to reshape the agency from the ground up to ensure that it provides the type of equitable service that the metro will need in the future. Such reform wouldn’t return RTD to “normal,” but it could lead to a much better transit system.