12 November 2010

Denver Greyhound Station Seeks New Home

They days, a Greyhound bus station is a symbol of those down on their luck. Denver's fills a block between 19th and 20th Street between Coors Field and the federal court house. It is increasingly pricey real estate, and they have decided to seek less expensive digs elsewhere, ideally with good access to light rail and RTD bus lines.

This leaves Arapahoe Square in downtown Denver with a choice new piece of property to be developed, and a little less urban blight.

It leaves some other neighborhood with a new Greyhound bus station. Given the criteria that Greyhound has identified, and assuming that it can't be accomodated in Union Station with a favorable long term lease of a little space, which would really be the savvy thing for the city to do, given its overall transportation plan, the most plausible place to put a new Greyhound station would be near the I-25 and South Broadway area in my neighborhood. This is now home to the indefinitely delayed Gates Rubber plant redevelopment, some industrial property, and some strip malls, some nicer than others, as well as the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Denver. I'd like to think that the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association wouldn't oppose that kind of move, although, given the reputation that bus stations have for attracting people who are down on their luck, I have doubts about how enthusiastic they will be. A third plausible possiblity would be to put a Greyhound bus station near the Auraria Campus South of downtown Denver.

Of Greyhound and Amtrak

Greyhound goes more places than Amtrak does, marginally faster, more often on time, and for less money, without a direct government subsidy of either its capital costs or its operating costs. It manages this despite the fact that it has competition on select routes, such as trips from Denver to Mexico, and competition with heavily subsidized Amtrak. It doesn't offer glamour, but it delivers its passengers to their destinations for the cheapest available price.

Greyhound runs reasonably full buses and uses them until they have no choice to replace them, which makes it very environmentally friendly compared to any other means of intercity transportation. A Greyhound bus half full of passengers is more fuel efficient that a car pooling Toyota Prius with every seat full. And, while no means of transportation is perfectly safe, far fewer people die in traffic accidents per passenger mile on the bus than they would if they had driven themselves.

Greyhound is really the main reason that Amtrak is losing money. They are competitors in low cost intercity ground transportion market. Rail isn't economically viable when buses can get you to your destination faster and cheaper. In the age of the interstate highway, that means that the only economically viable form of rail travel is high speed rail, which can get you to your destination faster than a car, or a cab, or a bus, and ideally faster than a commercial airplane on short haul trips where a long trip to the airport, check in, security checkpoints, long boarding periods and the trip from your destination gate to your final destination add two or three hours to any trip before even considering actual flight time. If passenger rail offered a service that got you to your destination faster than a bus could, it could charge enough for the service to break even, something demonstrated by the Amtrak Metroliner in the Northeast Corridor whose "high" speed rail service is competitive speedwise with the alternatives. But, if you run a railroad on a 1950s business model, it isn't going to work in 2010.

The other reason that Greyhound has been successful is that its very low overhead operation that moves just one busload of people at a time scales well to low demand routes, so it is well suited for low population densities. Rail requires a lot of infrastructure investments to be fast enough to be competitive. It can make those investments worthwhile by moving lots of people on a single train. But, it only makes sense to sacrifice frequency of service for longer trains and higher speeds made possible by investments in rail infrastructure when you have a high volume of passengers.

Outside the Northeast Corridor, Florida and the Pacific Coast, the United States has a quite low population density, interrupted bit intermittent patches of urban density. The demise of manufacturing in the Rust Belt has greatly reduced the population density of the area from Chicago to the East Coast that used to be a bustling passenger rail corridor, making it much less viable there.

In an era where oil prices look likely to increase indefinitely, the fuel efficiency of freight rail, and the possibility that rail offers for powering transportation with non-petroleum fueled electricity, makes rail more attractive than it has been for half a century. But, rail is not a dogma. It is desirable when, and only when, it delivers better results for a lower cost, appropriately considering externalities, than the alternatives.

When rail is fast and populations densities on its routes are high, rail is a good option. When rail is slow and population densities on its routes are low, trucks and buses are better.

High speed rail would make a lot of sense in the I-25 corridor of Colorado, which has high population density, distances that are short enough to make air travel unattractive, and flat terrain that would keep construction costs modest. High speed rail might also make sense on the high volume I-70 corridor that links Denver to its world renowned ski resorts, famous for becoming a parking lot on ski weekends, if a rail line could be put in at a cost less than that to expand that mountainous stretch of road and could carry enough traffic to make a road expansion unnecessary. Colorado's ski resorts are one of the few places outside Chicago and the East Coast, where it is possible to manage just fine without a car at your destination, so it could be an attractive option.

But, unless you're too phobic to fly, can't drive, don't need to worry about getting to your destination on time, and want a long, slow, spacious opportunity to take in the scenery without rubbing shoulders with society's less fortunate, Amtrak is not the answer, and that turns out to be a pretty small market in Colorado.


Michael Malak said...

Unless the bus station is a vertical component of other uses, it would also be a waste of land if located at Gates. And because perception is real estate valuation reality, it would in fact lower property values in West Washington Park, despite any real value it would have as a transportation hub.

The specific site mentioned in the Denver Post article, the former radium processing plant at Santa Fe & Alameda seems OK. It's better than it remaining a brownfield.

Dave Barnes said...

But, why have buses when we can have a monorail?

All the politicians love rail. So porky and so politically correct.