Denver’s MallRide Could Be the Broadway-Blue Star Express

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Denver's 16th Street free MallRide. Courtesy of Denver RTD.

Editor’s Note: Last week the Rivard Report published an article about Councilmember Rey Saldaña’s (D4) experiences parking his car and riding the VIA bus for one week. In the wake of the May 9 General Election and the decision by voters to approve a City Charter amendment that will require a citywide vote on future light rail projects, the Rivard Report is publishing a continuing series of stories examining VIA bus service and ways to expand mass transit options in the city. We invite your ideas and comments.

Fewer than 54,000 voters sealed the fate for light rail projects in San Antonio when they voted May 9 to amend the City Charter and require a vote on any future use of public right of way for street car or light rail projects. The significance of that vote was overshadowed by the mayor’s race, which concluded with the election of Mayor Ivy Taylor in the June 13 runoff election.

Local officeholders we spoke with believe it will be years before a significant light rail initiative stands any chance of passage, and that the best course of action is to find interim ways to improve mass transit and build community confidence.

How can VIA Metropolitan Transit improve mass transit in the urban core and expand its base of users? The answer might be found in Denver, home to the one of the most expansive mass transit systems in the United States, and to MallRide and MetroRide — hi-tech, wheels-on-the-ground bus services. These center city bus services appeal to all demographics and could serve as a model for new VIA lines that take the place of the failed streetcar project.

Such a model would not require a public vote, extraordinary expense, or years of planning and disruptive street construction. Federal transportation dollars might be available to pay some of the capital costs.

The E arrives in front of the Tobin Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

The E arrives in front of the Tobin Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

Many of us who supported the VIA streetcar project believe it would have succeeded as a north-south route reaching from Broadway south of Hildebrand through Southtown to the Blue Star Arts Complex. Instead, the project grew into a dual north-south, east-west system that increased the project’s scope, price tag and critics. As a prolonged debate ensued, the streetcar project became entangled in the politics of the collective bargaining process. Firefighters helped lead a petition drive that convinced newly seated Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council to withdraw funding and kill the project without so much as a public meeting.

San Antonio is the largest city in the country without light rail, and with little or no prospect of developing such transit options, it seems incumbent on city, county and transit officials to find ways to promote mass transit that reduces vehicle traffic and congestion, improves air quality, and spurs economic development in the urban core by making San Antonio a more attractive place to live and work.

One possibility is to create what I am calling the Broadway-Blue Star Express – “The BB” for short – that is designed to attract Millennials, empty nesters, downtown office workers, and other urban dwellers and connect them to the center city’s cultural and entertainment venues as well as residential, commercial and office destinations along the way.

This would be a system for locals. Visitors, too, even conventioneers also would gravitate to these bus lines, but not because they’re designed for the convention and hospitality industry. The attraction would be that visitors could live like locals by riding.

Denver’s Free MallRide and MetroRide

If you’ve never been to Denver’s 1.42-mile long 16th Street Mall you are missing something. Denver Regional Transportation District‘s MallRide is wildly popular with riders along a street otherwise closed to vehicle traffic. It has spurred tens of millions of dollars in economic development along its path since the service was launched in the 1980s. It’s free to users and they are using it by the tens of thousands of passengers daily. Denver has nearly 1,000 miles of rail and bus lines, yet MallRide accounts for 25% of the system’s passenger traffic, according to the RTD.

Free Mall Ride Map. Courtesy of Denver RTD.

Free Mall Ride Map. Courtesy of Denver RTD.

In the contentious debate over VIA’s streetcar project, the question was often posed: Is the streetcar mass transit or is it an economic development tool? Done right, a new version of the plan will be both.

At first glance, some visitors to Denver mistake the RTD’s ultra-low emission, hybrid electric vehicles for streetcars. The buses are built low to the ground and, depending on the model, feature a series of side-opening doors with interiors that accommodate both seated and standing passengers. The buses load and unload passengers with speed and efficiency. A fleet of 38 MallRide vehicles means buses arrive at each intersection along the 16th St. Mall as often as every 90 seconds during rush hour. The first bus leaves Denver’s Union Station at 5 a.m. and the last bus leaves at 1:21 a.m. for the 14.5-minute ride that ends at Civic Center Station.

By comparison, it’s 3.2 miles from the Witte Museum to Blue Star, but the longer San Antonio route shares a lot in common with 16th Street. Both are flat and ideally suited to the TransTeq buses. The Mall itself is densely developed with hundreds of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes, as well as street performers, art galleries, and apartments. The neighborhood is alive with people, day and night, and the human scale of the linear space creates community where locals and visitors blend together seamlessly. Within 10 years, that same kind of density is only possible along Broadway, it’s probable as more and more River North projects come online.

MallRide connects riders to Denver’s Performing Arts Complex and Theater District, major museums, the Colorado Convention Center, Coors Field (home to the Colorado Rockies MLB team), and LoDo, downtown Denver’s oldest neighborhood and teeming restaurant and nightlife district.

The average weekday ridership is 44,000, Saturday is 25,500 and Sunday is 17,000. There were 13.6 million riders from December 2013 through November 2014. It costs the RTD just under $13 million a year to run and maintain the fleet and the right-of-way. The Downtown Denver Partnership, which is similar to Centro San Antonio, maintains the pedestrian mall, including the sidewalks, landscaping and trash removal.

MetroRide

The free MetroRide, launched two years ago, grew out of the success of the free MallRide. It offers downtown workers a faster commuting option during daily rush hour traffic, and there is no doubt that it’s reduced the number of individual vehicles in Denver’s center city as a result. It makes only limited stops between the same two venues that anchor MallRide, the bus concourse at Union Station and the Civic Center Station, running along 18th and 19th Streets, just a few blocks from the MallRide on 16th Street. What’s unique about MetroRide is that it operates between 6-9 a.m. and again from 3:30-6:30 p.m. Commuters don’t have to wait long. MetroRide buses arrive every 5-10 minutes.

Denver's free rush-hour MetroRide. Photo courtesy of Denver's Regional Transportation District.

Denver’s free rush-hour MetroRide. Photo courtesy of Denver’s Regional Transportation District.

Broadway-Blue Star Express

A Broadway-Blue Star Express line would serve the University of Incarnate Word and Central Market at the north end,then pass by Brackenridge Park, the Witte, the new Do-Seum, and the Pearl. In River North, it would offer a convenient stop only a short walk to the San Antonio Art Museum, and pass within blocks of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. As it passed through downtown it would connect visitors with major hotels, multiple River Walk entrances, the Alamo Plaza, Hemisfair Park and the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. Events at the Alamodome would be a short walk from the line as it stops on South Alamo and Market Streets and the entrance to Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair Park.

As new development continues to follow a southern path along and near the San Antonio River, The BB would introduce more visitors to Southtown and the growing Blue Star Arts Complex. The line would promote usage of both the San Antonio’s Museum Reach and the Eagleland Reach, and serve as a commuter line for the thousands of apartment dwellers living along Broadway and south to the Blue Star-Cevallos Lofts district.

Weekdays would see urban commuters using the line from home to office, allowing them to leave their cars at home, thus reducing congestion and pollution.

Unlike MallRide, which is free and underwritten by the country’s most ambitious mass transit system, VIA could charge for its service. San Antonio doesn’t have the wealth of Denver, and a fare-supported system would make it an easier proposition for VIA and the City. A dollar-a-day for unlimited rides, or $25 a month, would be affordable, and would take many vehicles off Broadway, lighten traffic through downtown, and make the popular north-south route far safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

One VIA executive estimated it would take at least 16 hybrid, low-emission buses at a purchase price of $1 million each to service the line every 5-7 minutes, with annual operating expenses of $5-8 million. That’s a significant sum for VIA, which operates on an annual budget slightly over $200 million. One mechanism for helping with the costs would be to solicit startup contributions from the City and from private sector interests along and near the route that would benefit directly or indirectly, just as the City and Centro SA now support VIA’s “The E,” the free, evening bus service that ferries locals and visitors to various downtown arts and entertainment venues. The Broadway-Blue Star Express could switch from a fixed fare to free from 11 p.m.-1:30 a.m. and serve as “The Last Call” service to reduce drunk driving in the city.

Broadway as a Complete Street

A Broadway-Blue Star Express not only means no election, it also means Broadway does not have to be re-engineered for rail. That means less business disruption and far less cost and aggravation for taxpayers and business owners along the route. Reduced vehicle traffic also would make it easier for city officials to undertake a “road diet” project on Broadway and dedicate a lane in each direction to bus service with room for protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks. The street will never be the same as a vehicle-free mall like Denver’s 16th Street, but the slower traffic flow would attract more people to restaurants, cafes, bars and shops along the line, especially with more tree plantings, shaded bus stops, and thoughtful landscape architecture.

Most of the thousands who have attended events at the newly-opened $47 million Do-Seum might not have noticed that the utility lines in front of the museum have been buried, thanks to the $20 million gift from Charles Butt, Chairman and CEO of H-E-B. Burying the utility lines the length of Broadway from the Witte Museum to downtown would be a truly transformative act of place-making. It would allow for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, more tree canopy and shade, and very different streetscape views.

DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd speaks to the crowd. Photo by Scott Ball.

DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd speaks to the Opening Day crowd. Photo by Scott Ball.

CPS Energy has never been seriously challenged to undertake such a project, but there is every reason for the energy utility to embrace such a progressive move with the support of City Council, Centro SA and the business community. It would fit neatly into CPS Energy’s commitment to sustainability, and make it easier to transform Broadway into San Antonio’s very first Complete Street, one with fewer vehicles and a lot more people.

These are the kinds of projects that would excite San Antonians eager to build a better city, and the kind of projects that would generate media attention nationally that would elevate the city’s standing as a destination city for smart workers.

Local officials will get some help from the Texas Department of Transportation, which is deeding back to the City a 2.1-mile stretch of Broadway from the University of the Incarnate Word south to I-37. Federal grant dollars also are available, as could be funds from the 20-year River North/Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which was designed to provide developers with incentive dollars for projects located within the 458-acre zone. Funds could be designated for Complete Street work within the Midtown stretch of Broadway.

The project also could spur a new wave of sensitive mixed-use development along the perimeter of Brackenridge Park and activate the lightly visited park itself on weekdays and evenings. It’s hard to find another urban park the size of Brackenridge Park and located as centrally anywhere in a major U.S. city that has so few daily users, and so little surrounding residential and mixed-use development. Brackenridge Park has attracted far less attention than the San Antonio River and Broadway over the last decade of urban redevelopment in San Antonio, but as the area continues to draw more residents, retail, and convening of people, it seems only a matter of time before San Antonio rediscovers its biggest inner city park and its unrealized potential.

The proposal here to consider a Broadway-Blue Star Express line will draw critics. People who say it won’t work. Many in San Antonio will agree with me that the city is in urgent need of a public conversation about expanded mass transit options. Some might even agree “The BB” is a good idea, one we ought to take for a ride.

Coming next in the series: A trolley company pitches VIA on an all-electric fleet and an ambitious routing map that goes north-south, east-west, and reaches many of the major venues inside Loop 410.

 

*Featured/top image: Denver’s 16th Street free MallRide. Courtesy of Denver RTD. 

Related Stories:

Rey Saldaña Drops His Keys and Boards the Bus

Vision Zero: Making San Antonio’s Streets Safe

Transportation Pieces Take Shape for VIA, Comprehensive Plan

Commentary: Charter Amendment Derails San Antonio’s Transportation Future

Commentary: Transportation is a Quality of Life Issue

36 thoughts on “Denver’s MallRide Could Be the Broadway-Blue Star Express

    • I love the proposed solution in the linked article: “I paid a local car service $80 to drive me in.”

      If money is no object, you probably don’t understand that San Antonio has a transportation problem. I don’t know of really any city in the world where your transportation woes can’t be solved with a private driver.

      There is now and always will be a tradeoff between convenience and cost. The trick is striking the right balance and expanding the array of options between popular destinations. Reliable and expedient transportation can and should be affordable.

  1. Bill Badger, biggest problem with that article(blog) is that the person didn’t even live in Denver! I lived in Denver proper area and the transit system is incredible, though nothing compared to the northeast. The mall ride was so practice to get from one section of downtown to the next and then the connecting transit was effective to reach all parts of the Denver proper area. I’ve often wondered if our officials will eventually see the value in transit other than cars for in-city commuting. (Not out of city)

  2. “One VIA executive estimated it would take at least 16 hybrid, low-emission buses at a purchase price of $1 million each to service the line every 5-7 minutes, with annual operating expenses of $5-8 million. ”

    That sounds expensive, but it would be much much cheaper than the $100 million a street car line would have cost, without all the street construction and ugly overhead electric lines. This is a much more viable option. Plus, it allow flexibility that, if nobody rides it, the cars can be redeployed elsewhere in the system.

  3. I’m in Denver attending a conference at the convention center over the past few days and have ridden the Mallride bus. I was immediately struck by how appropriate and feasible such a thing would be for San Antonio. Amazed to wake up this morning and see this essay.

  4. The author notes that Denver’s “average weekday ridership is 44,000, Saturday is 25,500 and Sunday is 17,000.” To me, this shows that most riders use it to get to work or school, not to get to entertainment destinations.

    • Not necessarily. True, a majority of the weekday riders are probably going to/from work, but some could be riding to/from non-work destinations. Just as some of the weekenders could be going to work. And some riders, regardless of day, could be riding for both work and entertainment. Hard to interpret from the totals only.

  5. The problem usually with buses is that there isn’t enough sheltered areas to wait. With light rail and heavy rail, the more permanent infrastructure supports more extensive stop improvements.

    Part of the cost advantage of bus is the future flexibility of route changes, which goes against investment in sheltered stops.

    All I see when I visit San Antonio are people standing around in the hot sun on corners waiting for the bus, or huddling in the rain nearby under whatever tree or overhang there is close. Terrible.

    • I don’t think cost and flexibility should be conflated. I agree that part of what makes rail more attractive has been infrastructure investment, including stations. I’ve waited at too many shadeless “stick by the road” VIA stops wondering if the bust has already come or will ever come.

      Part of the attraction of tire-based transportation is that we should be able to use some of the cost savings (derived from not having to reroute under-street utilities and put in rail lines) to improve passenger infrastructure. We’ve done that to some degree with existing BRT systems.

      You can really improve bus systems with: better stations and shelters, better communication about realtime bus arrival times, and more frequency on each route. It’s not terrible to miss a bus if the next one is coming in 10 minutes. If they are only every 30-60 minutes, it’s a much bigger problem.

      What’s the biggest problem with buses? Sharing right-of-way with other traffic can completely disrupt the schedule. But this was a problem with streetcar as well. The only way to guarantee schedules is with dedicated rail or lanes. Portland’s streetcar system, for example, has some pretty long expanses of dedicated railway.

      • I’m not conflating cost and flexibility – something flexible can be very expensive or cheap – depending on what it is. Maybe a better word is permanence of the route. What I get out of people’s resistance to the “expense” of light rail or streetcars is that buses are “cheaper” because they can be rerouted if demand doesn’t grow and it lowers the risk of “wasting” money. I find that spills over into people’s hesitancy into spending anything above minimum on stop improvements.

  6. Bob,
    GREAT article and very thoughtful and researched proposition. Your enthusiasm for our city’s potential is infectious–we are lucky to have you here in San Antonio. I feel like our city leaders are so sensitive to any semblance of dissent, which has led to years of inaction and “Band-Aids” over the status quo. Why not give this a whirl? At the very worst, it’s still better than the nothing we have now.

  7. Its the elites nature of the BB Line that brought down the light rail plan. Except for a few lines that run till the wee hours you have to plan on being home by 9:30 or your out of luck. They should have smaller buses that run till 11:30 or 12:30 on weekends like world class cities do.

  8. In a future article, please explain how a “slower traffic flow would attract more people to restaurants, cafes, bars and shops along the line” while it would benefit a bus company to “service the line every 5-7 minutes” or even “as often as every 90 seconds during rush hour.”

  9. I used this method of transportation for the first time last weekend while in Denver and I was impressed! I am originally from SA and just recently moved to Colorado and couldn’t help but think why we never had that back at home. What also impressed me was the timeframes in which they operated. I went to some bars, then proceeded to a club and rather than take a cab all the way back to my hotel, the mallride was available, even at 1:30am. Why is SA so behind in times?

  10. Just to add . . . today I rode PRIMO downtown for a mid-morning appointment (roughly the same distance as Witte to Blue Star – which along Broadway & Alamo St is 4.2 miles).

    I like the PRIMO system as it provides some reassurance to passengers via real-time signage that buses are arriving and offers a distinctive (if not the most comfortable or easy to walk or roll to) waiting area at most stops. Other buses are scheduled to run just as frequently to downtown from the area where I board but they don’t provide the same e-signage and reassurance and often have worse waiting conditions (no seats or shelter) and integration with the surrounding area – particularly, poorly timed and aligned pedestrian crossings . . . which, surprisingly, aren’t particularly good at most PRIMO stops, either.

    Once on board, the ride to my downtown location was much faster, comfortable and relaxing than if I had driven and sought parking; I also got in many more steps than if I had driven. However, there were only 10 passengers in total aboard the 60ft PRIMO bus during my ride.

    I know from experience it is different on PRIMO at peak times and late evenings, but San Antonio would likely benefit from some form of limited stop minibus (24-36 passenger) option at this point in time – apparently as has been proposed recently with an electric trolley bus system. Fixed rail or even new BRT route advocates could see the electric trolley (mini) bus proposal as a way of building the station / stop, service and sidewalk qualities that support current transit users and are necessary for any transit improvement in San Antonio.

    Related to the proposed ‘BB’ above, I hate to point out that there’s currently direct VIA service roughly every 10 minutes from the Witte to Blue Star and back with some walking involved (the 43 / 44 / 9 /10 bus); one bus and only 30 minutes door to door to cover 4.2 miles including a brief walk/ roll isn’t terrible by mass transit (or even urban driving) standards and is on par with my walk and limited stop PRIMO BRT journey this morning.

    However, is VIA’s current Witte to Blue Star service comfortable or re-assuring to visitors or new riders? No. Is it easy to spot or identify? No. Are waiting conditions great and stops well integrated with route destinations? No. Are single fares or passes easy? No. Are current protected street crossings timed and placed well from a pedestrian standpoint? No. Are walking/ rolling routes to destinations unobstructed, clear and comfortable? No.

    Running with the idea of a BB, I would say that the City and VIA should start with addressing the naming and infrastructure branding of the current 43 / 44 / 9 / 10 route between the Witte and Blue Star, sidewalk and bus stop maintenance, and the timing of pedestrian crossings near stops along this route. From there, move to items like sidewalk and stop improvements including seating, shelter and real-time signage and the matter of ticketing or going fare free on VIA services inside the 410 – or within a 4 to 5 mile radius of the Alamo.

    Riding the 43/44/9/10 bus a few times would likely help pinpoint other issues and opportunities more specific to VIA’s current frequent and timely Witte to Blue Star service. Perhaps it could be re-routed to take in another mile or so of Alamo St. north of Blue Star (duplicating the 305 / Blue Trolley route that provides this currently). Regardless, riding the current VIA system and walking the existing sidewalks and paths is likely key to helping to improve existing services as the City and VIA explore new transit services and improvements for the greater city.

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