RTD report on free-fare month explores ridership, crime impacts

The Regional Transportation District’s final accounting of its month-long free-fare promotion found that not only did ridership grow modestly, but the boost increased customer satisfaction and came without a major increase in crime or security problems.

But RTD’s report, released Wednesday, punted on a major question underlying the initiative: Did the free-fare month reduce air pollution?

RTD was among more than a dozen transit agencies that participated in the first of two pilots dubbed “Zero Fare for Better Air.” The program, approved by lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis earlier this year, likely will return for a month next summer.

Previously released data showed that overall RTD ridership increased 22% from July to August, with bus routes showing a bigger uptick than RTD’s rail lines. More recent data reported by RTD showed an 11% decrease in system ridership in September, when it resumed charging fares.

But the agency’s new report to the Colorado Energy Office, which was required by legislation, cited data showing better retention on weekdays in September. Average daily ridership averaged 207,472, down just 3.1% compared to August.

“Overall, RTD’s experience with the ZFBA initiative was positive, as most customers appreciated the zero-fare period and there were minimal disruptions to day-to-day operations,” the 24-page report says.

Still, RTD’s overall ridership lags pre-pandemic levels significantly, reflecting changed commute patterns as more white-collar employees work remotely at least part of the week. Monthly ridership in August was 66% of the total in August 2019 — RTD’s best performance during the pandemic — while September’s ridership was 61% of the total three years earlier.

The report, produced by several consultants, points out that free fares likely weren’t fully responsible for the August boost to ridership, with the start of the school year and seasonal trends likely playing a part.

RTD said the cost of the promotion was $10.3 million, most of that from foregone fare revenue. It expects to receive $8.1 million back from the state through a grant that covers 80% of eligible costs.

As for the impact on air quality, the report noted a lack of information for comparison. Surveying firms that contacted riders didn’t collect useful data showing the extent of any shifts from driving to transit-riding. The report says RTD “intends to garner customer feedback in this area” for future initiatives, and it recommends the development of improved ways to determine air-quality impact.

The survey of riders who used RTD services at least once during the month found that 54% said the promotion increased their level of satisfaction, while 45% said they were more likely to ride RTD in the future.

RTD reported fewer operational challenges than anticipated during the free month, and vehicle operators and security personnel said in focus groups that they experienced more positive interactions with customers since they didn’t need to collect fares.

And few buses or trains saw overcrowding.

Overall, crime data and incident reports showed no major increases in August. However, while reported assaults and security incidents were similar to previous months and trespassing was down, there were notable increases in vandalism and criminal mischief/property damage reports — both of which receded in September, as fare collection resumed.

Document: Read RTD zero-fare impact analysis

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