Favorite Transit Cities – Denver, Colorado

The City and County of Denver, Colorado.


(c) 2013 C. Walton

This is a recent adventure, and a rather surprising adventure, as Denver was a bit more entertaining to explore by transit than I was expecting. For a city out West, the Regional Transit District (RTD) system, or “The Ride” as it is familiarly called, covers quite a bit of ground, serving the City and County of Denver, including the cities of Englewood, Lakewood, Golden, Boulder, Longmont, Lafayette, Brighton, Centennial, Littleton, Aurora, Stapleton, Arvada, Wheat Ridge, Westminster, and Lincoln. It operates 6 light rail lines (C, D, E, F, H, and W) on three trunks (Southwest, Southeast, and the West line) and two Downtown branches (one serving Union Station and one serving Downtown Denver), as well as 125 local, limited, express, regional, and Skyride routes, and the Free MallRide bus along 16th Street in Downtown Denver. Fares start at $2.25 for a local or Limited-stop bus, which increases to $4 for freeway express buses and $5 for regional routes which go from one city in the region to another. Skyride buses which operate from Denver International Airport (DIA) run from about $9 to about $13, depending on what part of the regional network you are traveling to. Light rail fares are based on how far out you are riding. Within the Denver limits, it can go for $2.25, while going out one zone will cost $4, and traveling to the outer reaches of the system will cost you $5. There are daily, five-day, and monthly passes to allow riders to save a tone of money on commuting.  Here is a route breakdown:

Local buses are numerals, like the 16-West Colfax or the 15-East Colfax.  The numerals start at 0 and go up to roughly 400, though there aren’t 400 routes.  The 0-Broadway route is a very unique route, not only because it is one of only two routes in the US if not the world numbered this way (the other is Phoenix’s 0-Central Avenue line), but it runs a good length along Broadway, which divides Denver geographically into East and West.  Most of the numbered routes run within the City of Denver proper and may inch out into neighboring cities.  Some routes, such as the Boulder local routes are words as opposed to numbers like the BOUND, DASH, HOP, SKIP, and JUMP routes, which primarily serve different parts of Boulder.

Limited-Stop buses are numerals followed by an “L” to denote a Limited-stop service, like the 15L-East Colfax Limited or the 0L-Broadway Limited.  Not all Limited-stop routes follow a local nor do they have have a corresponding local, like the 79L and 83L which run from Civic Center Station to Nine Mile via Parker Road.  They do, however, run the entire length of the local route corridor for faster service to the outer sections, thus cutting local service to a major point in the middle of the line during peak ridership hours.

Express routes are numerals followed by an “X” do denote an Express service, like the 120X-Thornton and Wagon Road Express to Market Street Station or the 55X Arvada Olde Town Express.  These routes run mainly during peak hours and along the freeways, bypassing many local areas for ease of commuting from park and ride facilities.

Regional routes are lettered routes, such as the BV/BX/BMX routes from Boulder to Denver (hence the “B” in their route name) or the GS route from Boulder to Golden.  These routes have varying frequencies and varying service hours, depending on ridership.  The BOLT line (BOulder-LongmonT Connector Line) runs every hour throughout the day, so you can enjoy the mountainous city of Boulder or the flat, rural Longmont, which are both very representative of Colorado living without having to travel too far from Denver and without a car.

Skyride routes are lettered routes that begin with an “A” to denote service from the airport, such as the AB/ABA route from Boulder to the Airport and the AA from the Airport to Aurora.  These routes are considered premium routes since they run directly from the Airport grounds non-stop to major transit centers in the region.  The AF route runs from the Airport to Downtown Denver’s Union Station and Market Street Station.

Then, there is the 16th Street MallRide shuttle bus that runs from Civic Center Station to Union Station via Market Street Station and the 16th Street Mall, with access to offices, shops, restaurants, and entertainment for all ages.  It’s a free bus, started in the 1990s to encourage free exploration of the downtown district.  The Mall is open to pedestrians and the special MallRide buses equipped with wheelchair access, clean burning CNG hybrid-electric powerplants, and four extra-wide doors for easy entry and exit to facilitate hop-on and hop-off at each intersection at will.  Think of it as a 24-hour-a-day outdoor shopping mall people-mover.

Once you figure out how the route system and the fare system works, a map and a plan are all you need to explore this wonderful city, and all without a need to rent a car.  Granted, most bus routes run every 30-60 minutes, with some routes as frequent as 15 minutes, but once you figure out how much time you want to spend at an attraction or restaurant, using the system is a cinch.  The MallRide buses run every 2 minutes during the peak hours and every 5-10 minutes all other times, which makes it a very convenient way to access different shops and eateries.  It also is a way to bridge the gap between transit centers when some trips from one side of the region to the other require a transfer downtown but different buses stop at different stations.  Commuters take advantage of the free service to go from Civic Center Station, where certain lines like the 79L/83L and 122X are available, to the Market Street Station, where buses to Boulder are available.  Some might use it to get a seat on a C train from Union Station even though the D train at 16th/Stout is closer to where they work; the C and D both go to Littleton.  Others might use it to go to Union Station simply because the W train is only available at Union, or go to 16th/Stout simply because the H train is only available at Stout.  It allows commuters to avoid a transfer at 10th and Osage further down those lines (the W does not stop at 10th/Osage) and the possibility that they will not have neither a seat nor any space to board once they transfer.

The best way to see the network and the beauty that is Denver is by combining several bus and light rail lines one day, then trying out a few regional lines another day.  You might decide to start at Market Street and take a BV/BX from Market Street to Boulder Transit Center, then the BOLT line along Diagonal Highway from Boulder to Longmont Transit Center, then take the L or LX back into Denver.  The views of the mountains as you travel along US36 to Boulder are just as breathtaking as the views of the plains as you travel along Route 287 from Longmont to Denver or along Diagonal Highway (Route 119) from Boulder to Longmont.  The locals are not only friendly and very helpful and conversational, but they are self-appointed ambassadors to their communities as well as RTD, since most of the community members ride RTD buses daily instead of driving.  Or, you can explore the light rail system by taking the C or D lines to Englewood, backtrack to I-25/Broadway and take an E or F to Lincoln, then backtrack and grab an H to Nine Mile, where you can take in some breathtaking views of the distant suburbs, the Front Range, and downtown Denver.  The light rail lines run mainly along railroad tracks and highways, except for the W which meanders through alleys and backyards, but do afford opportunities to check out station artwork and the urban Colorado way of life.  The regional bus routes are a great way to criss-cross the region without backtracking into Downtown Denver, but the light rail system allows you to cover ground a lot faster with very long stop spacing and 55-MPH speeds (much like HBLR’s Bayonne Line).  Both do offer impeccable views, once you feel out where to ride and where to get off.  If you happen to try to cover ground and have to transfer Downtown, the 16th Street MallRide is the best way to go, with frequent service, four doors per bus to make it easier to jump on and off, and large windows to take in the sights as the bus straddles down the Mall.  You can find the Denver Pavillion, Market Street, the Hard Rock Cafe, Chipotle Mexican Grille, and many other attractions.

Who can forget Union Station and Uptown?  The Historic Union Station is getting a makeover and a transformation, with a full restoration of the old building, and a new Union Station to replace the Amtrak Station about a mile east but will also include shops, an underground bus terminal much like Market Street Station, a connection to the current light rail station, and platforms for their upcoming Commuter Rail System slated to begin in 2016.  There is already development just north of the light rail tracks, with more coming nearby, including a hotel at the station, new luxury residential towers, and park and greenway space to complement the numerous parks and bikepaths around the city.  There is bikeshare stations all over the region, mainly in Denver and Boulder (both separate but use the same hardware vendors), and bike lanes as common as there are cowboy hats and pickup trucks.  Union Station is set to be the centerpiece of the new face of Denver, which will soon greet millions of visitors from the Airport when the East Rail Line debuts (currently Airport passengers from Downtown must use the AF Skyride bus) and will remind the taxpayers who use RTD of the progress their city has seen with improved transit and other mobility improvements.

Overall, a city I feel I must come back to in the near future.  And NOT rent a car, unless I wanted to take the drive to the Rockies or even as close as the Front Range.

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