Unique express bus service fills a transit gap between Denver and Boulder

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab.
transponation smEditor’s note: This is part five of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew bicycles across the U.S. to report on transportation demand issues.

Continuing my summer cross-country bike journey east, I twice encountered situations where, to avoid what appeared to be harrowing highway rides, I hopped aboard regionally operated bus services. From Carson City, an Intercity bus connected me to Reno, and in Colorado, the express Flatiron Flyer, launched in January, brought me from Denver to Boulder.

These bus routes – in Washoe County, Nevada, and the Denver region – serve as public transportation options that commuter rail might typically provide in other large metropolitan regions. Both regions’ services play different roles than usual systems by connecting major cities and the communities in between using public bus transit, rather than private companies, such as those in the Washington, D.C., region. The Flatiron Flyer, in particular, occupies a unique space in the regional transportation system.

Service adaptation

The Regional Transportation District, Denver’s regional agency, originally planned to build its Northwest Rail Line through Boulder into Longmont, to the north, as part of its extensive FasTracks rail program. However, due to low tax revenue and increased costs, that line’s opening has been delayed until 2044. A three-decade timeline does little to serve a growing metropolitan region, and the Flatiron Flyer routes look to bridge the commuting gap in the meantime.

FlatIronFlyer-Map-0415

The Flyers provide needed service in a place where rail became financially unfeasible. The system already averages 14,428 weekday passengers, removing crucial single occupancy vehicles from a congested corridor.

A unique transit option

Denver’s transit agency markets Flatiron Flyer as a bus rapid transit system, though it does not fit the standards of typical BRT systems. Critics have insisted RTD choose a different description. The largest sticking points focus on the fact that buses travel in mixed traffic express lanes rather than along dedicated rights of way, and the route lacks efficient amenities like off-board-only fare collection.

That said, riding the Flatiron Flyer is still an enjoyable and efficient experience. Underneath the trains at Denver’s Union Station is a bus concourse with assigned gates, intuitive information displays and ticket sales that help expedite boarding, the latter a noticeable improvement on critiques, as nobody on either of my trips had to pay their fare onboard. Flyers also have dedicated ramps onto U.S. 36’s express lanes, and can travel along the highway’s shoulder to bypass slower moving traffic. Along Route 36 are six stops set back from the highway, each with shelters, ticket machines, and bike-trail access. Additionally, while Flyer buses arrive every 10 minutes during rush hour, off-peak frequencies are on 30-minute cycles, which can be a turn-off.

When I rode north during rush hour, the bus had to wait an extra light cycle leaving one stop, but otherwise cruised past the thickening traffic in the other, non-express lanes. From Denver to Boulder, the ride was only five minutes longer than it would be in a car without traffic (40 minutes by bus, about 35 minutes by car). Considering it was rush hour, we moved faster than those driving cars outside the express lanes.

The Flyer certainly functions as an express commuter service, even if it’s not a true BRT. It was also significantly more comfortable than similar long-distance routes, like the Intercity in Reno or Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s 5A to Dulles International Airport, which use traditional city buses. while the Flatiron Flyer is a higher capacity coach bus with reclining seats, WiFi and power outlets.

While East Coast intercity travelers may be more familiar with Greyhound or Megabus charter buses, the Flatiron Flyer is an integrated part of RTD’s network. I was able to travel between Englewood, a suburb south of Denver, and Boulder for $9 round trip, utilizing the light rail and local bus systems in coordination with the Flyer on a single day pass. The Flyers also have the capacity to carry up to eight bicycles, and the stops along Route 36 provide access to the U.S. 36 Bikeway, encouraging active transportation to fulfill the first- and last- miles of some trips.

What also strikes me about the Flatiron Flyer network is that it exhibits a certain level of adaptability in a space that typically lacks flexibility. For a traveling newcomer, it’s a strong service, and shows that even stopgap measures can be fairly comprehensive. The buses are comfortable and the routes are fast, working toward providing a similar experience to commuter rail.

Intercity services like this are important for growing regions lacking the necessary rail connections that exist in denser metropolitan regions. Flatiron Flyer shows how an express bus system can fill a gap where trains are not available or feasible, still providing a key transportation option.

Photo: Travelers board a Flatiron Flyer bus in a promotional image (36 Commuting Solutions, Twitter).

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