Facebook   Twitter   Instagram
Current Issue   Archive   Donate and Support    
Why Is It so Hard to Take the Bus Anywhere but to Boulder?

Why Is It so Hard to Take the Bus Anywhere but to Boulder?


Car-centric models of development create urban sprawl and make planning bus routes to low density areas more difficult.

Riding the JUMP

Cities across the United States are dealing with pressure to offer more public transit services. The Denver metro area is no exception to this. The Front Range has grown at an unprecedented rate over the last 20 years causing traffic to become much worse. Freeways like Interstate 25 are parking lots during rush hour.

Climate change is another reason to provide alternative modes of transportation. According to the Colorado GHG Pollution Reduction Roadmap Final Report, transportation is the largest producer of greenhouse gas pollution across the state. The report states, “Nearly 60% of these emissions come from light-duty vehicles — the majority of cars and trucks that Coloradans drive every day.” The state of Colorado sees our need to convert from combustion engines to electric alternatives, creating goals in the fight against climate change. With such a climate-focused population, Coloradoans need to demand more solutions to our car-centric model of transportation.

Despite Colorado’s attempt to race further and further ahead to meet these goals, consistent public transportation for Boulder County and North Metro is severely lacking. For instance, the town of Erie, located about 15 miles southeast of Boulder, contains a single bus route — the JUMP.

The JUMP starts out at the Downtown Boulder Station on Walnut Street and takes a trip down Arapahoe Avenue traveling east toward Erie. After arriving, the bus heads to the main stop at the Erie Community Center before turning around and heading southwest to Lafayette, and then back to the Downtown Boulder Station. There are limited options to get to neighboring communities like Lafayette and Longmont, and there are no connections to go east to communities like Thornton or Brighton.

To travel east of Erie you would need to take the JUMP to Boulder. In Boulder you’d hop onto one of the Flatiron Flyers to head down Highway 36 and then finally take a bus east to Thornton. This makes a car the much faster option to travel anywhere east of the city despite the rapid population growth and traffic congestion we’ve seen in these communities.

Despite Colorado’s attempt to race further and further ahead to meet these goals, consistent public transportation for Boulder County and North Metro is severely lacking.

Unfortunately, there are no signs to indicate a push for an increase in ridership from these already limited stops. When I visited the bus stop at the Erie Community Center, it was barren. Surrounded by a beautiful library, recreation center, and park with fields, the bus stop showed little indication of its potential use.

There was no structure to protect riders from the elements. The facility’s map didn’t have any indication of a bus stop. There wasn’t even a schedule to see when the next bus was going to arrive. Not to mention, there was no indication where the JUMP goes. Without any of these, each step of taking the bus would require extensive research beforehand to make any trip as smooth as possible.

The average rider would need to have the time to explore the different options before coming to the bus stop. This would need to account for all the time researching, getting to, and riding the bus. The economic component of taking public transit bleeds into this as well, meaning, “What type of ticket is best for me? Is there a stop close enough to ride my bike or walk? If I have a car, is there a spot for me to park near the station? Do I have enough money to travel where I need to today?” There is the assumption that with most of these questions, the user has access to the internet reliably. It also assumes, this person is able to walk, ride, or use a car.

RTD’s role in Boulder

The Regional Transportation District has been providing public transportation services to the Denver metro area for 54 years through a series of bus and rail routes. The district serves the communities of eight Colorado counties including Boulder County.

Boulder is the most populous city in the county with over 100,000 residents, and the city contains Colorado’s flagship university campus with an undergraduate population of 30,000 students — causing a massive influx of residents for nine months out of the year.

The city’s public transportation system is more robust than many metro areas with buses to connect you to every major part of the city. Popular destinations like Pearl Street, surrounding downtown areas, and the university’s campus are easily accessible from multiple routes. CU Boulder even has their own transportation system offering an Uber-like option around campus as well as their own buses.


Flatiron Flyer regional buses connect Boulder to the rest of Denver Metro including Denver’s Union Station, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, and Denver International Airport. Yet, the county’s remaining municipalities — Erie, Lafayette, Superior and Longmont — do not have robust transportation systems in place.

Manager of corridor operations, Doug Monroe, assured there were programs in place to incentivize more ridership with two main ways to go about it — financial incentives and services provided.

RTD’s EcoPass program, employer passes, and college passes offer rides at a huge discount. Other financial incentives Monroe pointed to include RTD’s monthly pass options.

However, the real incentives lie in RTD’s service. Monroe notes, “I think that’s more difficult to quantify and, I guess, tell how that’s actually impacting things because we serve a huge area. We serve 2,340 square miles, and we’re collecting sales taxes on that whole area, and we’re trying to provide as much service to as many people within that area as possible.”

He explained that based on the feedback given to RTD, people overlook the financial aspects of the process, focusing instead on an increase in the number of services offered.

Expanding service

Unfortunately, simply providing an all-encompassing service is not an option due to the organization’s own financial constraints for projects, workforce, and land use.

RTD was able to provide details of the district’s choices on planning the routes for these areas. Nataly Handlos is senior service planner and scheduler for RTD on the North Team. Handlos works closely with service planner Greg Filkin. Together these two outlined some of the barriers RTD faces when planning service routes. The sheer sprawl of the communities in the northern corridor makes public transportation planning more difficult.

Unfortunately, simply providing an all-encompassing service is not an option due to the organization’s own financial constraints for projects, workforce, and land use.

Public transit is mostly designed for high-density areas. Consequently, the low-density suburban housing of the northern service area makes it difficult for RTD to create routes. Additionally, there are no attractions within Erie’s town limits that would constitute the creation of a robust public transit system.

Handlos states, “They are a suburban community, right? They don’t have a downtown. They don’t have a destination per se. You have to have an origin and destination in order to establish a strong transit corridor, and they do not have that. To build out a full transit network — such as in Boulder — would not make sense for Erie, or even Louisville and Lafayette.”

Cities in the northern corridor build out without little regard for the transit system and expect RTD to provide services without building the infrastructure that can accommodate routes.

The premise of this logic makes sense and has recently been echoed by state officials like Governor Polis. Building high-density housing is just one way to build stronger transit systems, but the main resource making these systems successful are the people who need them regardless of the type of housing in a given area.

As a service for people, the main priority should not be on how these systems can make money. Instead they need to focus on the real world wants and needs of people. Greater access to bus routes provide more opportunity for people in need. More employment opportunities would present themselves to people without their own cars; you could live in one area and reliably work in another with expanded bus access.

Planning new routes can be lengthy, and decisions are based on the resources RTD has at hand. Municipalities will typically come to RTD asking the organization to look at its proposals. Once the proposals are modified, there is a public process where a service change is put forth.

The service change process at RTD takes shape three times a year — January, May, and August. These proposals are brought to the public for feedback which is then used by RTD to look into financial impacts on the area, resources, and equity of service.

Planning new routes can be lengthy, and decisions are based on the resources RTD has at hand.

Handlos asserts, “What is equitably compared to the rest of the street? So, we can’t just add service in one area and not add service in the other areas. So if something were to be added in the Boulder area, I’d have to look to my partners in the East and West Team[s], ‘Hey, do you have anything that you can add?’”

The approach allows for the deep, meaningful work attributed to providing services to people disenfranchised through systemic factors of racism and ableism, but the method takes years of planning — delaying needed services. New routes cannot be adopted at this rate to fix any issues caused by our car-centric society. Once the proposal has made it past this stage of scrutiny, it makes its way to a board who votes for or against the service change. Although, this is all determined in the end by RTD’s available resources.

Bus drivers wanted

RTD has been dealing with an operator shortage since 2015. The shortage was only made worse by COVID-19. Even if a service change has all other resources, there is a lack of sufficient staffing to make new routes or provide route extensions.

Currently, RTD is using a guide known as the System Optimization Plan to strategize its service implementation through 2027 and projects it will have 85% of pre-COVID resources by 2027. Using this projection, the district is making preemptive moves to allocate and implement new services throughout the remaining period. This plan does rely on a bit of optimism. These are merely projections and would expect patrons to wait out the rest of the decade for the possibility of new services.

One of the more notable efforts is the CO 119 BRT project to add faster and safer services for commuters between Longmont and Boulder. The project looks to include proposals for new transit stops between the two cities as well as a new Park-n-Ride station and a commuter bikeway.

Additionally, Monroe points to the Northwest Rail Peak Service Study being undertaken by RTD to provide rail extensions to the north Denver metro area including Boulder and Longmont. Proposed service would extend the existing commuter rail service B Line from Union Station using existing BNSF rail lines. The project works as a commitment to the voter-approved FasTracks plan of 2004, which has been struggling with financial funding for the last 19 years. Projects like the Northwest Rail Peak Service Study, however,’ will not put trains on tracks. The study has three main goals: providing updated engineering cost estimates, designing infrastructure for the system to include future sprawl, and aligning RTD with the goals of stakeholders in the project but with no set date to start service.

There have already been success stories. Route 228 had a successful reconfiguration to serve the city of Lafayette in a more effective and equitable manner. Handlos added, “With Lafayette, the 228 extension was one of those, ‘How can we try and serve that area better?’ to route connection that was needed between the low-income housing and Kestrel and you know, Walmart and Sister Carmen for instance. We were able to get it into the SOP to get route extensions for the DASH and the 225 to the new low-income housing that’s being built at 120th and Emma.”

It is important to include the extension of these routes so people in lower income areas can access transportation and continue to advocate for themselves. Previous to the 228 extension, existing routes did not extend to Lafayette’s low income communities. This created a lack of accessibility. Time is another finite resource needed to get from A to B, to attend a meeting, or develop a sense of community  — time that could be used as a means to pay for food or bills.

Projects will be carried out when the resources to make, operate, and support new transit are available: There needs to be operators. The land being used must be zoned properly. The money to build and sustain this infrastructure must be at RTD’s disposal. There must be a push from members of the public.

Conversely, potential passengers may be deterred from taking the bus because of its price. Even with financial incentives provided by the RTD, commuting can be a pricey affair. A local day pass gives you access to travel within one or two fare zones and costs $6 or $42 per week. A regional day pass is $10.50 or $73.50 a week.

Though the monthly passes are considerably cheaper, it could still be difficult to purchase one living paycheck to paycheck. A local monthly pass comes in at $114, and the monthly regional pass is $200 at full price.

Other perks, like the college pass, leave students who are full-time during the academic year  without a pass if they remain during the summer months. Even business passes can be distributed based on your hourly status at work. Part-time employees often receive fewer  benefits and may not meet their organization’s eligibility requirements for passes.

After its recent launch of an extensive fare study, RTD appears to be aware of these barriers to increasing ridership, marking community involvement as a priority when dealing with issues. While recommendations that came out of the study are slated to become a reality in 2024, Handlos, Filkin, and Monroe stated multiple times that getting opinions from the public is a priority in the implementation of any services.

Getting involved might be one of the best ways to advocate for better service in your area. Riders have the ability to carry weight in a conversation that involves stakeholders and local governments. Time and resources can make it difficult to get involved in this capacity, but RTD has embraced transparency in this process.

Riders have the ability to carry weight in a conversation that involves stakeholders and local governments.

Each of the projects mentioned above can be accessed on their website with goals and outcomes or expected outcomes. These pages include the status of a project, the background information to understand the intent of a project, and potential timelines for service implementation.

Finding projects and routes within your area could prove to be a difficult task. The district covers a vast network spanning over 2,000 square miles, but the Community Involvement page could make this task easier.

There are multiple options to engage with RTD on the page. A calendar provides dates, times, and locations when the organization plans to interact with the public. Many modes of communication exist on the page from an online Customer Comment Form to contacting your representative on the RTD Board of Directors. Resources to stay informed and information on RTD making an appearance or presentation at an event also exist on this page.

Commuters on the Front Range deserve better transit services across the expanding metro area. RTD strives to provide these services for the people, but in an area that’s years behind in dealing with pressing issues, are its efforts, even after creating an SOP extending into 2027, enough?

Leave a Reply