Does Denver’s Regional Transportation District Have a Marketing Problem?

Recently, a close relative of mine was considering a job in Denver for which she would have needed to take commuter rail into Union Station. However, being unfamiliar with taking public transit she was concerned about waiting on the train platform in the cold. I’m not entirely sure what was more important to her: the waiting or the cold; however, I think that a certain degree of confidence in the reliability of public transportation can cut through those concerns. And yet, where do we see RTD promoting itself in compelling and convincing ways?

As it happens, the A line has been in the news recently. A November 2018 Denverite article quotes the General Manager and CEO of RTD remarking that the A and B Lines were experiencing “flourishing ridership” combined with a 97 percent “on-time” rate. Music to my ears. I can attest to this too from my own experience these past six months relying (and enjoying) almost daily on the A Line to get to and from work.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that you just don’t see that kind of information in the public sphere as much as it should be. That’s basically my assessment of how RTD is promoting itself.

I will say that a quick skim of RTD’s Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube pages revealed little in the way of commentary about where it shines (there’s this but it’s long) let alone a compelling narrative that suits the modern attention span. Searching for something better, I came across a well done commercial from Metrolinx, which manages transit for greater Toronto.

What I’m driving at is an assessment of how RTD is promoting itself. That being said, I don’t work in advertising or marketing and will avoid using this space to throw out ideas or pretend to know what I’m talking about when it comes to actually putting together a marketing strategy. I believe there are gains, albeit small compared to what major modal capital expenditures can produce, to be made through RTD investing resources in developing compelling narratives around the aspects of our transit system that do work well.

To those who would reject this idea and reference RTD’s current challenges, consider that in 2017, customer satisfaction for the overall quality of RTD’s services ranked high, averaging between 4.00 and 4.49 on a five-point scale (see, 2017 Customer Satisfaction Survey and note that the survey is conducted on a three-year cycle).

I’d love to see RTD make a sustained, concerted effort to get out the word about its reliability on behalf of those who do have accessible, convenient transit options but choose to drive instead. Perhaps the simplest way to summarize my point is this: ask yourself, when’s the last time you saw an RTD ad that made you think or feel something about the benefits of using public transit in Denver?

By |2019-01-26T17:29:37+00:00January 11, 2019|Categories: Advocacy, Infrastructure, Transit|14 Comments


  1. Kyle January 11, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    I agree 100%. Having moved a year ago from Seattle, RTD could definitely do a better job a self promotion. Which I think would go along way in helping to “de-stigmatize” public transportation. In cities that have decent public transportation, it seems that people from all walks of life utilize public transportation. In Denver (anecdotally at least) I don’t see too many suits when I hop on the bus, and the trains are only nominally better. Nobody batted an eye in Seatlle about taking the bus, here people make statements like “I never take the bus, its too smelly.” I think good marketing could help more people be open to the idea of utilizing public transportation.

    • Freddie January 12, 2019 at 7:39 pm

      It is smelly. Much like Denver’s central library, it smells like homeless people. I used to love using public transportation when I lived in San Francisco. Denver has been a different story. I gave up on riding the bus about a year ago after two experiences that took place within days of each other:

      One day on my way to work, a homeless man sat down right next to me and brushed up against me. He smelled so bad it made my stomach turn. For some reason he was cradling an old hard-hat filled with bloody tissues. I stood right up and tried to get as far from him as possible, but somehow his smell followed me to work and I felt disgusting the whole day. Days later I got on the bus to go to work and accidentally sat down without first looking and sat in a puddle of urine. I didn’t notice it until it soaked through my pants and I felt something wet. That was it for me. I started taking Uber/Lyft to my job in Commerce City from that point forward. It’s way too expensive of a commute but at least I can get there in 20-25 minutes instead of an hour and a half.

      Speaking of Uber/Lyft, my Lyft driver on Friday was telling me he grew up in Denver and used to take public transportation to school starting when he was 14. He said it was really difficult at that age. “Some of the things I saw on that bus basically traumatized me.” He brought this up during a conversation about how he was recently promoted at his day job so now he’s, “successful enough that I’ll never have to ride the bus again.”

      I don’t know how Denver ever turns a corner and “de-stigmatizes” the bus. Despite all the recent increase in population density, ridership has only fallen apparently. RTD recently reduced the frequency on a bunch of routes and even got rid of some bus stops, including the one closest to my apartment. The only hope for “the bus” is if ridership increases to the point where the ratio of normal commuting worker to “riff-raff” dramatically improves. But how does that begin to happen when nobody wants to ride a stinky bus? Chicken/egg I guess. Maybe the implementation of rail to resolve the “last mile” problem with our mass transit would do it. It seems ridership on the rail lines is high and the “ratio” is just fine.

  2. Tim January 11, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    I use the A Line almost daily and have relied upon buses in the past. I can definitely praise the train, while buses can be somewhat less reliable for predictability and commute time. So, on the whole, I like using RTD services. That said, RTD has some major elephants in the room that make it difficult for people in the region to respond to marketing with anything but cynicism (a lot of people in Denver still say RTD stands for Reason to Drive). For example:

    1. The fact that the A Line has had never-ending problems with the crossing arms that threaten its viability as well as prevent the G Line, or any other commuter line , from opening until it’s fixed.

    2. This is a big one: The fact that the estimates for the B Line to Longmont were so horribly bungled that it won’t be until 2042 before the whole line is built, if it is ever built.

    3. The fact that the N Line’s construction has been delayed because of unexpected problems.

    4. The fact that the R Line’s service has been curtailed so much because ridership estimates were way off.

    5. The fact that RTD has had two steep fare increases recently, making it the most expensive transit service in the nation. (I know RTD will say its peer agencies get more tax support and can thus keep fares lower, but it’s still a fact that the fares are what they are.)

    People don’t like to use the buses because the headways aren’t frequent enough and because they get stuck in street traffic because so few have dedicated lanes or signal priority. So, the bus can easily take two times to three times as long as driving. The fact of the matter is that Denver badly needs BRT and enhanced bus services (we’re almost certainly not going to get a streetcar). If this happens, it will take a lot more money. It also probably means RTD voters, who think they’ve been lied to repeatedly, aren’t going to approve another tax increase. So, it would have to be Denver voters who do it. It could be a tall order when people review the promises that have been made but not kept. For all these reasons, marketing that simply touts RTD services as a convenient alternative are likely to fall flat with a lot of people, especially if they aren’t already transit users.

  3. […] guest commentary originally appeared on the Denver Urbanism Blog. Last week, the Regional Transportation District announced that in February Pauletta Tonilas will […]

  4. […] visitor commentary initially appeared on the Denver Urbanism Weblog. Final week, the Regional Transportation District introduced that in February Pauletta Tonilas […]

  5. Freddie January 12, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    On a related note: Chicago has “The L;” the Bay Area has “Bart;” D.C. has its “Metro,” etc. Denver on the other hand has “The Light Rail.” Even when it’s not actually light rail at all, it’s still, usually, “The Light Rail.” I constantly hear people from our metropolis making comments like, “I took the light rail to the airport,” or, “I noticed they’ve still got those crossing guards at the light rail.”

    RTD should be concerned about this and come up with some sort of branding that people will use (although I worry “The Light Rail” has irreparably been cemented).

    I can’t remember if RTD vehicles still say “The Ride” on them, but I know that for decades – probably going back to before I was born – they did. I suppose back in the 70’s or something, RTD thought that branding would take. It certainly did not. Imagine if you told a fellow Denverite, “I took The Ride downtown this morning.” You would almost certainly get a confused look. “What do you mean, THE ride? What ride? You mean like Uber or Lyft? What are you talking about?”

  6. Logan January 14, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    I guess for me, it’s a pretty good experience overall. I walk two blocks to the 28 bus, ride it for 5 minutes, get off at 15th and Delgany, then walk a couple blocks to Union Station. From there, I hop on a FF2 express bus (runs every 10 minutes during commuting hours) to Boulder where I hop on a work shuttle to my office. Door to door with no expense (ecopass). The one thing I have really grown to love isn’t just being able to work on the bus, or avoid traffic headaches, but it’s the experience I get when I return home and walk back to the 28 bus. The Union Station area really is a fantastic TOD neighborhood now with Whole Foods, King Soopers, various restaurants/bars, and a beautiful grand hall inside. It’s inviting, and usually gives me some civic pride when I walk through after getting off the bus.

    There’s no doubt that RTD has experienced growing pains. Yes, the A line has had some “issues” with the gate crossings, but as this article states, it’s on-time rate is 97 percent, which is pretty good. I have never had one issue taking the train to the airport, and I have heard they are blasting through projected ridership. I suspect when the G line opens, that too will have ridership that exceeds expectations. I agree that the fees do seem a bit steep. Perhaps this could be mitigated in the future with more transit funding from a state/federal level. However, the voters seem apprehensive on funding that, so it is what it is for now.

    And yes….. the B line never made it to Boulder. I get it, it’s frustrating. However….. I can understand why RTD focused more on other train lines first before blowing a ton of money on the B line. That’s the one line I could see having lower ridership given it’s route. Most people commuting to Boulder in the morning are going to campus or downtown, and they are coming from the 36 corridor. This line would bypass Broomfield, and only stop near the Google campus. Great if you work near there, and live in Denver/Westminster, but inconvenient if you are on campus or downtown. I could see most people sticking to the FF buses as they run very frequently and stop right at campus and downtown. That’s not to say a train shouldn’t be built, but I can understand where they are coming from here. Perhaps in the future, a different mode/route can be mapped that would serve more people on both ends.

    RTD has issues it needs to work out for sure, but for a city the size of Denver, it’s doing a pretty good job. I left Minneapolis three years ago and they had two light rail lines. I arrived here with way more options, and a great transit hub (Union Station).

  7. Elizabeth B January 14, 2019 at 5:35 pm

    I’ve been riding RTD buses and trains for years and I’ve almost never had negative experiences. The gross stuff is pretty route/time dependent. I’ve also had plenty of positive experiences that would never be possible in a car. Seeing my neighbors smile and catch up with each other’s news brightens my days.

    RTD really should publicize their reliability a lot better. The buses I ride are usually pretty close to schedule, and bus lanes on all our arterials would really boost that. It’s not always the fastest option (though sometimes it is, especially when combined with biking) but it’s nearly always more predictable, especially when no transfers are required.

    The best thing they don’t publicize is real-time bus and train tracking. It was a game-changer for snow days, and reduced time spent waiting in the cold significantly. There are phone apps that make getting to our not-always-well-marked stops in just enough time for the bus really simple. (Transit App’s my favorite.)

    • Kris January 25, 2019 at 7:06 pm

      Elizabeth B – I am looking for the Transit App you mentioned, but am not finding it. What is the name of the developer of the app?

      Thanks – Kris

  8. Ryan January 16, 2019 at 10:59 pm

    There’s some class stigma out west that’s going to take a generation of hard work to overcome. I recently had a conversation with some co-workers who were outlining a dilemma about getting to the Pepsi Center for a concert on-time after work. “It’s going to take forever to fight through traffic, park…” etc. When I mentioned we work a quarter mile from an E-Line stop and how it takes just 25 minutes to arrive right at the arena, they looked at me like I was crazy.

    Part of RTD’s problem is that its flagship services cater to people in the suburbs who think they’re “above” it. If RTD would dedicate the same resources to people in the city, we’d be developing a much more effective “inside-out” transit culture rather than “outside-in.”

    That and you need a two-part poster. (1) Me smiling while reading a book, headed into the office. (2) Me banging my head against the steering wheel in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

    You can’t promote efficiency numbers to people who don’t get it. You have to promote LIFESTYLE enhancements. Because that’s exactly what public transit is.

  9. John Pezzuti January 23, 2019 at 7:08 pm

    I think that the information is available and easy to find for those who seek it. I agree it would be nice if RTD could market all of the best features and amenities that surround any of their transportation hubs but I think it would be expensive for them to do that. I would rather not have rates go up to cover those costs.

  10. […] This guest commentary is cross-posted at the Denver Urbanism Blog. […]

  11. David February 5, 2019 at 8:36 pm

    Not pertaining to marketing per se (or at all), but this seemed the smartest place to leave a reference to this article regarding autonomous shuttling for first/last mile — the article mentions they will have an “ambassador” aboard, but it would be a major marketing miss if this caught on but the district didn’t try pilot deployments at other locations, ideally not Park-N-Rides but locations that otherwise serve multiple routes. Conversely, it’s a major marketing opportunity to get people acquainted with and comfortable on autonomous vehicles:

    Cheers and keep up the great work!

  12. Darrel March 9, 2019 at 6:32 pm

    I am convinced that Denver’s RTD the only major transit agency in the country who’s website doesn’t offer a downloadable PDF map. Just an “interactive” online map that literally is from the 1990s, is very hard to position the map where you want it, renders bus routes very slowly, and extemely difficult to read and follow a route. Offering a clear PDF map with good legends to see where the bus/light rail/commuter rail can take you would be a great start.

    I’m hopeful that the transit aspect of the Denverite initiative will improve RTDs services (the Colfax BRT is a great start), and that good marketing will follow.

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