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Denver Connector fills transit gaps in Montbello, GES neighborhoods

Jesse Hill can’t drive because of a sight impairment, so he’s long relied on family members to get around his Montbello neighborhood.

But now an easy ride is an app request or phone call away. When a van from the Denver Connector, an on-demand microtransit service, pulled up in front of Hill’s house on a recent Friday morning, he greeted driver Deloris Jones: “Hey hey! How are you doing today?” She whisked him to Planet Fitness for a workout, free of charge.

“I just started using it — my daughter turned me on to it,” said Hill, 56, during the six-minute ride. “It’s pretty convenient. I just go the gym (so far). It’s quick and easy … and the drivers make you feel comfortable.”

Denver’s transportation department launched the point-to-point weekday service in mid-October 2021. City officials’ initial hope was simple: to bridge transit gaps within an outlying part of the city where homes on winding streets are a good trek from grocery stores, community centers, rail stations and other vital services.

In its first year, the Montbello Connector took off, with monthly ridership reaching 5,201 passengers in November, according to city data. The city and its partners recently added Gateway to the original service area and, in mid-November, launched a second Denver Connector service — this time focused on Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, similarly disconnected neighborhoods located north of downtown.

The $3.2 million microtransit pilot program, recently extended through the end of 2024, is one of several Denver city initiatives aimed at finding ways to supplement the bus and train service provided by the over-stretched (and cash-strapped) Regional Transportation District. RTD serves all or part of eight counties.

Unlike the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure’s costlier transit-geared plans — including still-developing bus rapid transit projects for East Colfax Avenue and other major corridors — the Denver Connector was fast and easy to put in place.

“It’s just a crack of the door at what’s possible if we just had better transit available across the city,” said Molly McKinley, the policy director of the Denver Streets Partnership, a transit advocacy group. “Microtransit really helps meet the specific needs in the community that just can’t be served as well by fixed-route services.”

She considers car-centric Montbello and Globeville/Elyria-Swansea a “perfect fit” for the on-demand setup. Still, she cautioned that its potential might be limited in more urban parts of the city where she sees better, more frequent fixed-route bus service as what’s truly needed, even it’s more costly.

The Connector service is operated by a company called Downtowner and works much like Uber or Lyft, both for riders and drivers. There are no fixed routes. When passengers request rides, back-end software creates dynamic routes for drivers to follow, with multiple riders’ trips occasionally combined if they are near one another.

Riders initiate rides using the Denver Connector app or by calling a dispatch center (at 720-868-0560) that takes requests in English and Spanish. The service runs from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. each weekday. No weekend hours are offered as one of the program’s trade-offs.

“People are always skeptical at first. It sounds too good to be true,” said Eric Herbst, the assistant director of Northeast Transportation Connections, which has the city contract to coordinate the program. “It’s free. There’s no strings attached. So people are a little hesitant — and then I think once a family member uses it, they start to tell their friends and families and neighbors. So that word-of-mouth is huge.”

Lone Tree also has on-demand microtransit service

Downtowner runs similar on-demand microtransit programs in a handful of other places, including downtown Aspen and Savannah, Georgia, along with ski-resort towns in Utah. In metro Denver, at least one other city has experimented with a similar service to augment RTD.

In the south suburbs, Lone Tree ran a circulator bus connecting its major employers until an RTD light-rail extension opened to the city in 2019. Now it has an app-based, on-demand service called Link On Demand that works a lot like the Denver Connector.

Residents have used it not only to get to and from those light-rail stations, as Mayor Jackie Millet expected, but also to reach destinations within the small city. “We were surprised at how it was used,” she said in an interview in early 2022.

Denver’s and Lone Tree’s services are similar, in some ways, to FlexRide, RTD’s on-call service. But that’s offered only in certain areas with limited or no regular transit service, and RTD charges a fare for most riders.

Before Denver’s Montbello Connector started running, Herbst said, he and other coordinators met with neighborhood advocates to figure out what kind of service would best serve residents.

While RTD has three bus routes that travel through Montbello, the bus stops aren’t easy for many residents to walk to — either because they live too far away or due to a lack of sidewalks, says Pam Jiner, the director of Montbello Walks, an organization that advocates for better pedestrian access. The bus routes also are better suited for ferrying residents out of the neighborhood than to common commercial and community destinations.

The group initially discussed a new fixed-route circulator bus, she said, but ended up endorsing the on-demand service.

The city paid for a three-vehicle fleet, including an 8-passenger van that can accommodate riders with disabilities and a hybrid minivan. The city’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency, which takes in proceeds from the city’s sales tax for climate initiatives, kicked in money for a fully electric small SUV.

“The seniors loved it,” Jiner said of the new service, adding with a laugh: “The thing is, the kids got a hold of it.”

That was apparent during a ride in Jones’ van on Dec. 2. Until mid-morning, several riders were teenagers headed to school. Dreion Amos, 17, was going to Montbello High School, and he said the Connector provided a good option — though wait times can get too long when school gets out in the afternoons, he added.

Dimone Wheelock, 17, and his sister, Zahareahna Jackson, 15, had a longer trip from their family’s house on Edmunds Place in Montbello to Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, a charter school they attend in Gateway, among the airport hotels off Peña Boulevard.

“People are nice, and it’s a free ride,” Zahareahna said of the service. “And it’s smooth — we don’t have to worry about it.”

“Yeah, I know I’m going to get there safely,” said Dimone, who also has used the Connector to reach the A-Line train to his job in baggage handling at Denver International Airport.

But it wasn’t all teenagers that morning. Before driving Hill to the gym, Jones took two women accompanied by a young girl to the Walmart Neighborhood Market.

She also picked up Rose Okolie at Meadows of Montbello, a senior-housing apartment building, greeting her as “Miss Rose.”

Okolie was heading to a prayer group meeting at Ascension Catholic Church on Maxwell Place. She complained that the wait was longer than usual that morning. Still, she called the service “a godsend” and said of her prayer group, “that’s where we pray for all the connectors who connect us every day.”

Longer wait times as service gets popular

Wait times are a common complaint, Herbst said. While 15 minutes is the goal, riders this fall were waiting closer to 30 minutes on average, sometimes longer. He’s hopeful that a fourth vehicle added in November, when Gateway was added to Montbello’s service area, will help.

Jones has heard other feedback from riders.

“A lot of people want us to go on the weekends,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Well, we’re not a fun ride!’ A lot of people don’t really work on the weekends, so that’s why.”

Even with its limitations, the Montbello service caught on gradually — and then beat expectations.

The city’s initial goal was to provide 70 to 110 trips a day using the original three-vehicle fleet, according to a Denver City Council presentation. Just over a year after its launch, the daily average is nearing 200 trips — with riders commonly using the Connector to get to and from the Walmart, the Montbello Recreation Center, the local Boys & Girls Club, the neighborhood’s main park and Peoria Station, a transit hub to the south that is a satellite.

The new service in Globeville/Elyria-Swansea is starting out with Montbello’s original three-vehicle setup, with the city climate office again providing an electric vehicle. So far, usage has been moderate, with 1,003 riders boarding the Connector vehicles between Nov. 14 and Dec. 26, city data show. But to city officials, it’s an encouraging start, roughly on par with Montbello’s early trajectory.

It’s not the first foray into the area for Northeast Transportation Connections. Several years ago, it tried out a circulator route that had just one vehicle running, but Herbst said it struggled to attract riders.

He sees greater potential in the on-demand Connector. The neighborhoods have good overall transit access, with several major RTD rail and bus lines running through or near the neighborhoods. But residents said they needed help reaching stations in an area divided by major highways.

Overall, he said, they prioritized a need for better connections to the grocery stores that are outside their neighborhoods, which are considered “food deserts.”

“Grocery store access was a big one for the community,” Herbst said. So the service area map includes two satellite zones: one containing a discount grocer near Interstate 70 and Pecos Street and another that includes a King Soopers and a Walmart off Vasquez Boulevard in Commerce City.

As the program grows, city leaders are looking ahead to other potential pilot sites. Back in Montbello, Jiner, the pedestrian advocate, views the Connector service as just the start — she wants to see other services to meet the area’s remaining transportation needs.

Still, she praised the Connector, saying it has made it easier to get around for people who can’t drive or who lack other options.

“You know, when you can alleviate the frustrations that people have,” she said, “you have a happier and friendlier community.”

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