Last year was one for the record books, as evidenced by historic wildfires burning throughout the state as late as October. The harsh consequences of our car-oriented transportation system become more evident each day as communities both locally and across the country face devastating wildfires, flooding, unprecedented heat, and more poor-air-quality days than good ones.
As one of the top contributing sectors to greenhouse-gas emissions, our transportation system proves the truism that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. We spend billions of dollars expanding highways without batting an eye, and what has it gotten us? Divided communities, widening socioeconomic disparities, health outcomes determined by ZIP code, an aggressively changing climate, and unhealthy air quality.
What if we didn’t do what we’ve always done?
We could lessen the impact that our transportation system has on the environment, expand access to economic mobility, and ease the burdensome health impacts that low-income communities and communities of color face.
And really, it’s not that complicated. We don’t need an expensive, fancy overhaul of the system. We can stick to the basics. If we’re serious about reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions, we have to get serious about reducing the number of people driving alone in their cars, and frequent, reliable bus service is key. We need a bus network that can compete with the convenience of driving.
That might sound outrageous considering most of us don’t currently have access to the high-quality transit service we hear about in cities across the country. But, the reality is that it’s not that far out of reach, especially in our most densely populated areas, like Denver.
According to the Denver Moves Transit State of the System Report from 2017, more than 70 percent of Denver residents live within convenient walking access to transit — meaning a quarter-mile walk to a bus stop or a half-mile walk to a light-rail station). But only 36 percent have convenient access to all-day frequent service — meaning transit that runs at least every 15 minutes.
This is an example of another one of those pithy sayings: You get what you pay for. Right now, we’re investing in bus service that is thinly spread across Denver, technically serving the entire city, but not frequently and reliably.
Historically, most federal and state transit funding has been dedicated to capital costs, such as acquiring new buses and trains, and building infrastructure. But buses and trains are only as good as the service that is provided on those routes. The right number of buses is needed, of course, but so is the right amount of operating funds, to pay for drivers and fuel and upkeep. Sufficient operating funds must be included in transportation funding packages at all levels of government.
Not only is it better for the environment when more people take the bus, investment in public transit truly is a vehicle for advancing social justice. Funding for frequent service can be the difference between someone being late to work and someone getting a promotion.
Every dollar invested in operations expands the number of jobs, services, and opportunities that people in our community have access to, and the Transit Center did the modeling to prove it.
Consider that, at our current level of public transit service, a resident of Westwood, one of Denver’s lowest-income neighborhoods, can reach 3,656 jobs within 30 minutes.
If we increased the frequency of service, so that each stop in Westwood saw a bus every 15 minutes, it would increase the number connections riders could make to buses on other routes. More connections means more ground covered in the same time, which means access to more employers. According to the Transit Center model, riders originating in Westwood would have access to 16,530 jobs — more than quadruple the number accessible today with the less-frequent service.
Think of the difference in opportunity.
Boosting transit operating funding is one of the simplest actions we can take to change people’s lives and meet the various climate and equity goals that leaders at all levels of government have set. Now more than ever, we need leaders—from Congress to City Council—to stop doing what we’ve always done. We need them to get on the bus and invest meaningful funding in public transit operations funding.
Molly McKinley, of Denver, is policy director for Denver Streets Partnership.