Jeffrey Evans: What did Bus Rapid Transit do for Aspen?
It has long been assumed that a major barrier to increased mass transit use is the longer travel time associated with riding a bus. If buses could be made more competitive with the private vehicle, mass transit might experience a whole new level of ridership. Thus was born the idea to install a $50 million Bus Rapid Transit system in the Roaring Fork Valley.
We now have three full years of operational/ridership information with which to assess the performance of BRT. An analysis also seems in order given the current half-million dollar study underway to determine whether the Entrance to Aspen should have a $159 million redevelopment to improve the performance of BRT, or a $428 million project to build a light-rail system.
The last full year of operation with the pre-BRT bus system was in 2012, and 2014 was the first full year of pure BRT, so these two years are appropriate for comparison of operational differences.
However, for a broader context, it seems more relevant to go back to 2007 for a base year because that was the last year of Aspen at full throttle —construction projects, hotel occupancy levels, etc. — prior to the Great Recession of 2008. 2016 also is a comparison point of interest given that it is the most recent year with full reporting, and because we all seem to share a general sense that Aspen is peaking once again.
The “local” bus service between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, which stops at every reasonable location, takes about 90 minutes to cover the entire route. Prior to BRT, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority did have express service, and those buses made the trip in about 60 to 65 minutes. BRT buses perform at a slightly more consistent 64 minutes, measured from 27th Street in Glenwood. If you can make the drive from downtown to downtown in your own vehicle in less than 55 minutes, you are probably subject to a speeding ticket. All travel times above are averages which are subject to time of day, day of the week, weather conditions, etc.
The travel time difference between private vehicles and bus travel has indeed shrunk to a point that it would no longer seem to be a major factor. Although the time difference between the old express service and BRT is minimal, the increased frequency can only be described as huge. There were only six express buses per day in 2007 to 2012, but that number swelled to 72 upvalley winter weekday BRT trips during the period from 2014 to 2016.
In addition, as described by Dan Blankenship, CEO of RFTA: “There are more intermediate stops served between Glenwood Springs and Aspen than there were with the pre-BRT Glenwood Springs express buses. … So, more origins and destinations are served by BRT, with roughly the same travel time when compared with the pre-BRT express service.”
This enormous increase in service and convenience is also reflected in the operational statistics. Miles driven on the valley route increased by 49 percent from 2007 to 2014, and that equals more than 1 million actual miles per year. During that same seven-year period, the operating and maintenance costs for the entire RFTA system increased by $12 million per year.
Comparing 2007 to 2014, bus ridership on the Highway 82 corridor route increased by nearly 263,000 people, which is a very sizable number. However, that means it required a 49 percent increase in bus operations to obtain a 16 percent increase in ridership. In the past two years, ridership on the corridor route has dropped, and the difference between 2007 and 2016 is about 114,000 riders — yielding a 7 percent improvement. The law of diminishing returns is alive and well.
Determining the effect on the number of cars entering Aspen requires some assumptions and division by the number of days in the year. That process suggests that BRT has reduced the number of vehicles entering and leaving Aspen by an average of about 144 per day, or 0.6 percent.
Any candidate for Aspen public office who relies on platitudes about mass transit when asked about relieving congestion at the entrance should be required to answer this question: What are you imagining that could possibly provide a 20 to 30 times better result than the recent expansion of service provided by BRT?
David Bach and I discussed this issue in more detail on his radio program last week. You can listen by visiting http://www.entrancesolution.com.
Jeffrey Evans lives in Basalt.