In Denver, It Pays to Drive

The price of taking transit in Denver is out of line with the city’s goals – especially when compared with the cost of driving.

Alana Miller

Policy Analyst

Denver residents hopping on transit in the new year were greeted with higher fares. As of January 2, the cost to ride a bus or train locally rose by 15 percent (from $2.60 to $3.00), while regional fares went up nearly 17 percent. According to estimates from Streetsblog Denver, the fares now make Denver one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. to ride transit.

Increasing the price of taking public transportation is completely out of line with the city’s (and state’s) transportation and climate goals – especially when compared with the cost of driving.

For instance, my fiancé and I both work downtown. For both of us to take the bus to and from work, it now costs $12 total, roundtrip. At a parking garage next to my fiancé’s office – in the heart of Denver’s business district, surrounded by the city’s tallest buildings and most expensive real estate – a full day of parking costs $11.

Not counting the cost of gas (which is also inexpensive at the moment), it is now cheaper for two people to drive their personal 3,000-pound vehicle into the center of downtown and park it in a dedicated spot for nine hours than it is for those two people to take the bus.

That’s insane, and it hinders the city’s ability to hit bold climate and transportation goals. In 2017, Mayor Hancock laid out a mobility action plan for the city, outlining goals of reducing solo car commutes to 50 percent by 2030, while doubling the number of people walking, biking and taking transit to 30 percent of commutes.

These are laudable, strong goals, but they will be nearly impossible to hit by incentivizing people to drive or disincentivizing them to take transit. The latest census estimates indicate that car commuting in Denver dropped nearly 2 percentage points between 2016 and 2017 (to 68 percent of commute trips) mostly, it seems, from people working at home. The number of people biking, walking and taking transit, however, has barely increased in recent years, with 2.2 percent of commuters biking, 4.4 percent walking and less than 7 percent taking transit. At the same time, meeting Denver’s climate goal of an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 will require tackling transportation, which makes up 30 percent of the city’s carbon emissions.

Getting hundreds of thousands of residents out of their cars and onto more efficient modes like buses, trains, bikes and feet will require pricing that adequately reflects our overall priorities (not to mention reflects the external costs of air pollution, carbon emissions, land use, etc.). It will also require improving the experience of using those modes. The bus to my office only comes by my house every half hour (every hour on the weekends), which makes it challenging to plan around on busy mornings. Though it carries dozens of passengers, it doesn’t have its own dedicated lane and consequently gets stuck in traffic behind cars carrying a single passenger.

Currently, even people who desperately want to take the bus (like me) face many disincentives to doing so. Lacking more appropriate pricing and safer, more efficient infrastructure, my conscience and support for transit are often among the only things that keep me from driving to work every day. As my colleague Tony Dutzik recently posited, if you consider the factors that influence a shift to a more sustainable transportation system, people’s attitudes towards different modes are far less important than the infrastructure, service quality, or costs of the various options they face every day.

Denver has set bold goals and has the opportunity to be a leader on transportation and climate action. The city has been taking important steps – expanding protected bike lanes, rezoning areas for density – but 2030 is quickly approaching. Some actions, like changing infrastructure and land use patterns, will take years, even decades, to have an impact. Changing pricing to reflect Denver’s priorities, however, could immediately help move us toward the future we want to create.



Photo Credit: City and County of Denver


Alana Miller

Policy Analyst

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