16th Street and Larimer in Denver Colorado at night RTD bus MallRide

An RTD MallRide bus on the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver.

How does Denver better connect residents to public transit? It’s a question of addressing the pesky "first and last mile."

That phrase refers to the distance between home and transit options -- such as the nearest bus stop or light rail station -- as well as the gap between where transit ends and your  destination.

“When people think about the amount of time typically associated with that last or first part of that connection, it makes transit in general a difficult choice to make, as far as a transportation option,” said Paul DesRocher, planning coordination manager with the Regional Transportation District. “But what happens is, transit doesn’t become an option at all.”

In addressing the first and last mile, RTD hopes to curb waning ridership on its buses and trains over the past 3-5 years.

DesRocher shared RTD’s strategy for addressing the first and last mile in metro Denver with city officials during a recent Denver City Council committee meeting.

The district begin to study first/last mile issues in early 2018. The study zeroed in on 15 so-called urban core, suburban-mixed and residential transit locations in Denver.

Those locations were chosen based on the local population's high-accessibility needs, such as disabled or low-income residents who heavily depend on public transit. Also chosen were transit spots close to high-traffic locations like Broncos Stadium at Mile High, among other criteria.

Following the study, DesRocher said RTD plans on launching some pilot programs. Among those pilots is the creation of "mobility hubs" -- spaces where public and private transit operators can co-mingle and provide users lots of mobility options.

RTD's "FlexRide" curb-to-curb transportation-by-arrangement service is an option users could access through a mobile app or phone call to help connect with transit. It’s currently a shuttle ride, but RTD is working on bringing in multiple new providers, so the service would offer a network of different options like Uber, Lyft and other ride providers.

RTD would also add new wayfinding signage about transit services through the pilot, DesRocher said.

“If people are seeing information about RTD more frequently it has the potential to have an indirect impact on people’s use of transit,” DesRocher said.

Additionally, RTD would work to repurpose infrastructure like converting an existing parking space into a slot for e-bicycles or e-scooters.

The plan also recommends improving infrastructure like sidewalks, and continuing to invest in private mobility options like e-scooters, ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft and microtransit.

DesRocher said that 78% of people who use public transit currently access it by walking.

“We want to be able to capitalize on that existing momentum,” DesRocher said.

In studying first/last mile, DesRocher said it is clear a lot of transit stops that are rather difficult to get to in the confines of the City and County of Denver. The city has long tried to get Denverites out of their cars and into other modes of transportation like bicycles or public transit.

RTD’s strategy focused largely on the nature of different city neighborhoods, some of which have plenty of sidewalks which make it easy for pedestrians to walk to transit locations, and others without many sidewalks and lots of traffic, causing a much longer and difficult walk to a transit stop.

During the study process, RTD officials set up at Denver transit locations and surveyed riders. It also reached out to riders through social media. DesRocher said transit users were asked to log into an online RTD map and pinpoint transit stops that were difficult to access.

However, getting to the crux of the issue, DesRocher said the responsibility of tackling the first and last mile in Denver largely falls at the feet of city officials. Whereas RTD owns its stations, the first and last mile fall under the city’s jurisdiction.

“We never really saw this as an RTD study.” DesRocher said. “We wanted this to be a study in which we shared, we had buy in from our stakeholders, because we recognize that ultimately the recommendations we are going to come up with weren’t necessarily going to be implemented by RTD.”

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