Touted as the “train to the plane,” the region’s 3-year-old airport line has delivered on its promise of ferrying thousands of people a day from the city to their flights, helping to upend ground transportation at Denver International Airport. But a funny thing happened on the way to DIA: A similar number of people — more than 3 million last year — still ride to and from the airport in cars. Just not their own. It’s the rapid rise of Uber and Lyft that took airport officials by surprise in a span of four years that also saw the long-anticipated start of the Regional Transportation District’s University of Colorado A-Line. DIA began allowing ridesharing services in late 2014, and since then they’ve done more than jolt the taxi industry. Their meteoric rise has drawn business not only from former taxi passengers and travelers who used to be dropped off by friends or relatives, but also those who once frequented the airport’s parking garages and lots. At the same time, DIA has experienced an unprecedented period of growth in passenger traffic, which increased nearly 20 percent from 2015 through 2018 — a situation that normally would have meant skyrocketing demand for parking. Instead, the rise of alternatives has resulted in DIA brass kiboshing their plans to build two new parking garages. DIA doesn’t need them, because its existing garages, close-in economy lots and the shuttle lots are seeing less use in recent years, despite the explosive passenger growth. Data provided by DIA shows that overall, the nearly 4.7 million vehicles stashed in its public lots last year were down nearly 87,000 from 2016, the last time parking peaked. Airport officials can’t say for sure how many of the users of ridesharing services and the A-Line, which started running in April 2016, would have used its parking lots instead. Its parking chief said DIA isn’t trying to drum up more business, though last year’s nearly $185 million in parking revenue accounted for a healthy share of nearly $1 billion in total revenue. “We’re really trying to provide what the passenger is asking us for,” said Herald Hensley, DIA’s acting senior vice president of parking and transportation. “So it’s not really a decision that we make — or that we try to influence — as to what method of transportation a passenger might take.” How travelers get to and from DIA has been a hot topic this summer, with controversy swirling around its plans to expand Peña Boulevard. Last month, the airport’s shift of positions for Uber and Lyft pickups and drop-offs from the upper level to Level 5, where taxis, shuttles and limos come through, fanned tension amid crowding and backups; DIA says it’s been working to smooth out problems, with some success. In the last week, The Denver Post heard from hundreds of frequent and occasional DIA travelers who replied on social media to a question about their transport preferences. Many have become ardent fans of Uber and Lyft and of the A-Line, despite some well-publicized, occasionally dramatic service hiccups in the commuter rail train’s first couple years that still leave some hesitant to trust it. Aubrey Hill of Denver tweeted: “A line. Changed my life.” Still popular are RTD’s SkyRide buses, which fan out across the metro area, and privately run shuttle services relied upon by many residents and tourists alike to ferry them greater distances, including to mountain communities, Boulder County and Fort Collins. But ridesharing and public transportation are ascendant at DIA.

Uber and Lyft are thumping taxicabs

Drivers for the two ridesharing services notched 3.4 million pickups or drop-offs at DIA last year, a nearly fivefold increase since 2015 that has dwarfed the use of taxicabs. DIA’s data shows about 335,000 pickups by cabs last year, down 32 percent since 2015. Because cabs don’t pay an access fee for drop-offs, that figure isn’t tracked, making total cab traffic at DIA unknown. Nine cab companies operate at DIA, which remains a big toehold for the industry as Uber and Lyft out-compete them even more heavily in the city. Cab drivers long have complained that they face more stringent regulations and state requirements than rideshare drivers. “We are losing a lot of drivers, because they are trying to do this for a living … whereas Uber and Lyft drivers sometimes are doing this for a second job,” said Mohammed Walio, a manager for Green Taxi Cooperative. Midy Aponte, a Denver communications consultant, said she tries her best not to drive to the airport, often defaulting to Uber to get from her home near Sloan’s Lake to most flights out of DIA. But on the return trip, she has grown frustrated with the hassle of connecting with an Uber driver at the airport, a recurring complaint that some passengers say hasn’t been eased by DIA’s recent location change for rideshare pickups. “Most times on my return, that’s where I just take a cab,” she said, “because I just don’t want to deal with it.”

A-Line stats are tough to pin down

Though RTD tracks A-Line ridership by the month, it doesn’t break out the number of monthly or annual riders who pass through the airport station. But ridership tracking showed that between last August and January, the airport station was the second-most popular of all RTD rail stations behind Union Station on an average weekday, with 12,259 riders getting on or off there. Comparisons to other stations on the A-Line suggest that roughly half the A-Line’s 7 million riders last year started or ended at DIA. “I think it’s a great line,” said Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a member of the Denver Streets Partnership. “It gets you to the airport quickly. It’s convenient. As transit advocates, we know that fast and convenient is an important factor.” For Luke Henderson’s family, which lives near Brighton, the A-Line has become a travel tradition that excites his train-obsessed son. They park at DIA’s newer cut-rate lot at the 61st/Peña Station and take the train in. But Katz and others also cite drawbacks to the train service. Plenty of potential riders must weigh the hassles and costs based on how long they’ll be away, where they live, whether they’re traveling with children, and the relatively high airport fare — recently increased by RTD from $9 to $10.50 per person, each way, for most riders. Often, Uber or Lyft provides a vital link, at additional cost, if an easy transit connection to the A-Line isn’t available. Count Ben McKee and Elizabeth Bureman among frequent travelers who want to take the train but typically can’t justify it. They use it only for longer international trips, because if the Athmar Park couple are gone for less than about a week, it’s cheaper for them simply to drive and pay $8 per day at one of the airport’s shuttle lots. “I was and continue to be a huge advocate for the train,” said McKee, 36, a videographer for Denver Public Schools. “For a certain group of people, it’s amazing. … The real big problem is the (lack of) connections to the train,” as well as its cost.

Plenty of people still drive and park

The existence of more alternatives than ever hasn’t kept millions of people each year from parking. For one thing, as a DIA spokesperson points out, it’s a regional airport that draws from deep across three neighboring states’ lines, meaning parking will always be in demand. Two new off-site private shuttle lots have opened in recent years, offering 10,500 more low-rate spaces to compete with DIA’s on-site lots. The airport’s lots have 42,000 spaces, more than 40 percent of them in the far-flung Pikes Peak and Elbert shuttle lots. While DIA has no plans to expand parking, it’s considering more convenience-focused changes, potentially including more reservation options. And last November, the provider of a bag-check in the transit center began piloting a bag-drop in the shuttle lots, a now-permanent free option that nearly 30,000 travelers have taken advantage of, according to DIA. But there’s no doubt DIA has lost out on parking income, even if it pockets a $2.60 surcharge for each Lyft and Uber ride, totaling nearly $9 million last year. By comparison, the average parking fee paid across DIA’s various lots last year was $39.42. DIA restructured and increased some parking rates last year after a market study, causing revenue to increase after it had stagnated in recent years.

Ideas for improvement

Katz, the CoPIRG director, urges DIA to take a more active role in fostering improvements in ground transportation — and taking aim at remaining gaps. He outlined three ideas: working with state transportation officials to expand its Bustang regional service by adding routes to the airport; supporting an incentive that would discount the rates for pooled-ride options in Uber and Lyft, encouraging more users headed to the same vicinity to group up; and working with RTD to find a way to cut fares on the A-Line or provide discounts. Beyond the airport, Katz said the A-Line isn’t as useful as it could be. Transit-oriented development hasn’t filled in around many of the stations yet, resulting in few people living within easy walking distance of some stations. Instead, they have large parking lots. “The fact that a lot of people in Stapleton basically have to drive to get to the station,” Katz said, “likely means many will keep driving to the airport.”

By the numbers

4.7 million: Vehicles parked in DIA’s public garages and lots in 2018, down nearly 2 percent since 2016. $184.6 million: DIA’s public parking revenue in 2018, up 8.4 percent since 2016, largely because of rate increases. 7.1 million: RTD’s A-Line ridership (including nonairport trips) from April 2018 through March 2019, up 29 percent from the same period two years earlier. 12,259: Boardings and alightings at the Denver Airport rail station on an average weekday (Monday through Thursday), August 2018 to January 2019. 3.4 million: Uber and Lyft rides starting or ending at DIA in 2018, up 490 percent since 2015, the first full year ridesharing services were allowed. $8.8 million: Surcharges collected by DIA from Uber and Lyft rides in 2018. 334,844: Taxicab pickups at DIA in 2018, down 32 percent from 491,389 in 2015. 64.5 million: Passenger traffic on flights through DIA in 2018, including connecting passengers. Sources: Denver International Airport data and Regional Transportation District Correction (12:38 p.m. on July 23, 2019): Due to a reporter’s error, the “By the numbers” box at the bottom of this story misstated the percentage growth in Uber and Lyft traffic at Denver International Airport. The sentence has been corrected to reflect that the 3.4 million rides starting or ending at DIA in 2018 reflected a 490% increase since 2015.



2 thoughts on “Uber, Lyft and the A-Line train have changed the game at DIA — shelving plans for more airport parking

  1. Message me onTwitter. Have a great day!

  2. Walter Tello says:

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