RTD free-fare program pleases riders, but early impact is unclear

Like many metro Denver residents, Sujata Fretz’s transit experience in recent years mostly has been limited to taking the A-Line to the airport when her family travels. She usually drives to work in Lakewood, though on rare occasions, she hops on her bike.

But during the first week of the Regional Transportation District’s free-fare August, Fretz decided to dabble more with transit.

That’s the kind of curious attitude RTD and state leaders are hoping to see more of this month — though in the first few days, preliminary boarding numbers hadn’t yet shown “a dramatic increase” over normal levels, RTD’s chief operating officer Michael Ford said. As the state-subsidized promotion began at RTD and about a dozen other transit agencies around the state, officials cautioned that it would take time for people’s habits to change, even if only to try something new.

Still, Gov. Jared Polis, state lawmakers and some transit advocates have expressed high hopes for reductions in road traffic and air pollution at the height of ozone season. The program, dubbed “Zero Fare for Better Air,” is funded in large part by $28 million in state money set aside for free-fare pilots around Colorado this year and again in 2023.

Some transit experts caution against high expectations or a lasting impact: While zero-fare transit programs elsewhere have produced big bumps in ridership, including a 16% increase in weekday boardings on metropolitan Salt Lake City’s system during a free February program this year, those tend to fade noticeably once fares are reinstated.

The promotion comes as transit agencies are struggling with slow ridership recovery from the pandemic, with RTD’s boardings still sitting at just 56% of normal levels as of May. RTD now typically records more than 1 million boardings a week.

For the first few mornings this week, Fretz rode her bike south from the West Highland neighborhood to catch the W-Line train. That line took her near the St. Anthony Hospital campus in Lakewood where she works as a doctor. One evening, she took a bus to meet up with a friend in Cherry Creek North.

The routing options weren’t always ideal. But the free fares made it easy to try things out.

“I think for getting to work, it’s been super easy,” said Fretz, 45. “That is absolutely something I would think about doing in the future. I think for social stuff around town, I’d be less likely to do that — just because it is often inconvenient and usually involves transfers.

“If we had a more robust system, I would gladly take it more often.”

That observation highlights a shortcoming of the promotion: If a bus or train trip doesn’t take riders where they need to go or involves too many time-consuming transfers, they’re less likely to ride. No matter how much it costs.

“If you have bad, infrequent service, it doesn’t matter that it’s free if it’s not really serving many people,” said David Bragdon, the executive director of TransitCenter, a New York City-based research and advocacy organization.

Attracting significant numbers of riders requires investing in a better system, he said, characterizing free-fare pilots as “a political gimmick for politicians who want to be perceived as doing something for transit without really doing something.”

The environmental impact also has faced skepticism. David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, wrote in an April piece for Bloomberg that research around the globe has found such pilots reduce car trips less than intended.

“Data from other fare-free transit programs suggests that making travel free enticed those who, due to limited income, would have otherwise walked, rode a bike or foregone the trip entirely,” Zipper wrote.

“I hope more people use it,” rider says

Still, while it’s underway, fare-free August has given new and regular riders something to like — a rare public relations win for RTD.

“I mean, there’s a lot of issues with RTD, for sure,” said John Martinez, 35, after stepping off the A-Line train at Union Station on Wednesday morning.

But he lauded the free-rides promotion. The Aurora resident, headed to work as a physics lab coordinator at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said he’d noticed “a little bit more people” on the train in the first few days.

He has an EcoPass through the university that normally covers his RTD trips, a benefit that he estimates saves $270 a month in parking costs. He said his family was considering ways to explore RTD’s system during August. He and his wife have an 18-month-old son.

“We’re planning on maybe taking a trip up to Boulder or down to the Lincoln (station),” where the R-Line terminates, Martinez said. “I think he’ll like the train.”

Aboard buses and trains and at stations, loyal RTD riders, many of whom work lower-paying service jobs or can’t afford cars, expressed appreciation for the money they’re saving on fares or monthly passes.

RTD’s standard fares, which are under review as part of a long-term study, start at $3 for local trips and top out at $10.50 for the A-Line to Denver International Airport, while a monthly pass costs $114. Discounts apply for some groups.

At midday Tuesday, the Route 12 bus up and down Downing Street in Denver was busy, with riders using it to transport groceries a few blocks home or get to work across town.

Steven Childs, a home-health aide, got on at Ninth Avenue with a client who uses a motorized wheelchair. The bus driver secured the chair in a space near the front for their short trip north to Colfax Avenue.

Childs, a frequent RTD rider in the past, has relied more recently on his car. But he was excited about RTD’s free August, naming ways he might use the opportunity to leave his car at home more often to visit his health clients this month.

“I think this is a great promotion,” he said. “I hope more people use it when it’s all over with — and keep taking the bus.”

The promotion improved service in some ways. Buses lingered less at stops, since there was no need for each boarding rider to pay for fare or show a pass.

At the same time, RTD’s challenges persisted. Operator and security staff shortages occasionally caused bus and train runs to be canceled, leaving riders to wait longer at stations and stops. Complaints to RTD on social media included left-behind trash or food, along with drug use aboard vehicles.

Aboard a southbound Route 40 bus on Colorado Boulevard early Tuesday evening, rider Delores Trimble said the free service had smoothed the usual conflicts between riders and bus drivers or train security — over attempts to evade fare, hassles over the types of passes or transfers presented by riders, and other tensions arising from fare-check interactions.

“I haven’t felt that animosity — the last couple of days have been really peaceful and pleasant,” said Trimble, 60.

She can’t drive, she said, because of lingering effects from a car wreck that resulted in her moving from Vail to metro Denver, where transit is more convenient. On Tuesday, she was making a roughly hourlong trek from her home in Broomfield to a 24 Hour Fitness in east Denver to swim and do physical rehabilitation for a more recent injury. Owing to the pandemic, she said, that was now the closest location that’s along a bus stop.

During RTD’s promotion, Trimble is saving on her monthly pass. But she’d just as soon see the free fares made permanent.

“I’ve always said RTD train and bus services should be free,” she said, given the diverse ridership that depends on it. “It’s a prejudiced way of doing business.”

Fares have offset lower share of budget

RTD relies mostly on sales taxes for operations, but it reported that fare revenue offset nearly 16% of operating expenses in 2019, a significant contribution. During the pandemic, that ratio has hovered around 8% as altered travel and work dynamics have kept ridership way down.

The agency has estimated it will lose out on $9.2 million in fare revenue this month. To help offset that and secondary costs of the promotion — together adding up to an estimated $10.9 million — the state approved an $8.7 million grant, said Doug MacLeod, RTD’s chief financial officer.

RTD is responsible for picking up the rest, or 20%, under Senate Bill 180, which created the state free-fare program.

Agency officials say a state-required evaluation of the promotion likely will be done by late November, ahead of a Dec. 1 deadline.

This isn’t RTD’s first foray into free fares. It ran a 12-month program in 1978 and 1979 that made riding free — but not during the morning and afternoon rush hours, a significant difference with the current all-day pilot.

And two years ago, during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, RTD suspended fare collection and instituted rear-door boarding on buses as safety measures for a few months.

Ford, the chief operating officer, said ridership wouldn’t be the only measurement of fare-free August’s success. Also important will be evaluating security incidents, customer survey results and vehicle operators’ impressions, he said.

With RTD aiming to attract riders back — even as many downtown employees are working from home or on hybrid schedules — the free-fare program could help the agency assess its future.

“We are still going through COVID,” Ford said, “and I think that’s changing how transit is looking these days — and we have to kind of reinvent ourselves in a lot of ways, around service and how we do things.”

Both the ridership and environmental impact of the Utah Transit Authority’s fare-free February were encouraging, said the Salt Lake City agency’s final report this spring.

Weekday boardings increased just over 16% across all of UTA’s services compared to late January, the report says, while on weekends — when ridership is typically lower — the increases were at least double that, including by 58% on Saturdays.

UTA roughly estimated that the increase in riders saved 12 tons of air pollutants from being spewed into the air. That was based on the assumption that 47% of them would have driven instead.

Since February, UTA ridership has dropped off from that peak, according to the agency’s boardings data. But monthly totals through the spring showed ridership appearing to sustain some of the gains, with June boardings reaching 75% of the level seen in June 2019.

TransitCenter’s Bragdon urged caution on interpreting those figures, noting that many variables are at play in transit nowadays.

“It’s hard to isolate the multiple factors that are going on with ridership right now,” he said. “Even in the best of times, it’s hard to draw conclusions based upon a short time frame.”

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