DENVER, CO - APRIL 17: A driver assists two riders on the wheelchair ramp as they board the westbound RTD D-Line Light Rail train at the Colfax at Auraria Station on April 17, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Over-expansion of light rail systems and routes placed away from population density are the contributors to relatively low light rail ridership in the United States, a new analysis suggests.

The Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think tank that advocates for “economic choice and individual responsibility,” published a report on Tuesday arguing that planners’ desires to locate light rail lines along the least controversial paths and extensions of rail to suburban transit-oriented developments are to blame for low ridership and high operating costs.

“The R light rail line skirts one side of the Anschutz Medical Center, along a broad road, rather than running through it,” wrote author Connor Harris, referring to the Regional Transportation District’s line that opened in 2017. “Much of the medical center is thus over a mile from the station that nominally serves it. The main system hub, Denver Union Station, is located on the northwest edge of downtown; many riders must transfer to a free shuttle to get to their final central-city destinations.”

Harris wrote that close proximity of light rail stations to jobs and the frequency of service are the main drivers of ridership. Locating systems along freeways, as much of RTD’s routes are, is inadvisable because of the impediments to accessing those stations by foot, as well as the lower concentration of residences near highways.

"The Southeast Corridor has many of the suburban characteristics that make the provision of traditional transit services a challenge," read a 1999 environmental impact statement for the proposed expansion of RTD's light rail along Interstate 25. Low density, poor sidewalk infrastructure, and high car ownership were all warning signs cited in the report to the Colorado Department of Transportation and the federal government. Nevertheless, the report pointed to a demand among businesses for transit and delays to buses along the highway as factors in light rail's favor.

Airport lines similarly “tend to perform poorly," Harris found, because of the often-high construction costs to airports far outside of downtowns and the lower likelihood that high-density construction will happen near such facilities due to the noise and pollution. RTD’s heavy rail A Line carried just over 7 million passengers in 2018, an average of more than 19,000 per day.

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