RTD’s fare-free August was a big success giving us momentum to improve transit across the Denver region

With a big increase in ridership, I look back at RTD’s Zero Fare August and all the work that went into making it a success so we can make even bigger improvements

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Volunteers celebrate the success of the August 2022 RTD Zero Fare for Better Air program

The initial data is out and RTD’s Zero Fare August saw a 22% ridership increase from the previous month and a 36% ridership increase from the previous year.

That’s huge. We’re talking over 1 million more boardings.

This is a moment to celebrate.

Ensuring everyone has options to get around, so they don’t always have to drive to complete every trip, improves our quality of life by cutting climate change and ozone pollution, saving lives and saving money.

But we need more people to climb aboard.

Eliminating the cost of transit for a month is one strategy. While we know a month without fares will not transform our transportation system, it clearly had a pretty big impact in August.

And more importantly, the Zero Fare for Better Air program gave the whole region a chance to use the month to unify around our transit system, building momentum for the more significant increase in services, safe stops, and reliability that we need to make buses and trains a good option for everyone.

Dozens of organizations, businesses. local governments, community leaders and transit riders came together to help maximize the impact of the month.

Follow me on a tour of the successful Zero Fare August in the Denver metro area.

 

RTD Kicks off August’s Zero Fare for Better Air Program

While the Legislature and Governor Polis stepped up to cover most of RTD’s zero-fare program, RTD still had to allocate some of their limited dollars. More importantly, they had to implement the program and they had very little time.

SB22-180 was signed on May 26, 2022. That gave RTD just over two months to roll this program out to the millions of potential riders in the Denver metro region.

Oh yeah – and their service area is one of the largest in the country. It was no small task.

RTD put together a website, a communications toolkit, and a lot of different advertisements on buses, billboards and via streaming services to get the word out.

RTD’s Zero Fare for Better Air logoPhoto by RTD | Used by permission

But with limited time and limited budget, traditional news sources, social media and word of mouth were key.

As a first step, on July 28, RTD leadership gathered with state legislative champs like Senator Faith Winter and Representative Matt Gray to officially kick off the month.

CoPIRG staff join State Senator Faith Winter and State Representative Matt Gray at the Kickoff to RTD’s Zero Fare for Better Air AugustPhoto by Staff | TPIN

CoPIRG staff were there to celebrate this clean air strategy – by July 28 our region had already suffered from 21 ozone alert days.

I was glad to join members of other groups like the Denver Streets Partnership, GreenLatinos, SWEEP, and Conservation Colorado to cheer on the launch and the month.

A Team of Transit Riders Raising Awareness

All through the month, I had the pleasure of working with a team of transit riders (we called them the Transit Champs) who stepped up to educate everyone about the fare-free program and the opportunities transit affords.

We had a central website – www.freetransitdenver.com – complete with a calendar of actions and events. There was a spanish version too – www.tránsitogratuitodenver.com

The Transit Champs fanned out and recruited.

From offering to guide individuals through their first experience to shepherding groups to Rockies games or the Santa Fe Art District’s First Friday’s event, the Transit Champs left it all on the field – or bus routes in this case.

Some hosted pop-up tables at transit stops offering free water, lemonade, coffee, donuts and even books (thanks to Book Give and the West Colfax Business District for that partnership).

Distributing free books and donuts at a transit stop on Colfax in Denver during RTD’s fare free August 2022Photo by Staff | TPIN

These events helped make riding transit a little less intimidating and a little more welcoming.

One Transit Champ continued his nationally recognized work to build and place benches at the all-to-frequent stops and shelters that are missing a simple, safe, comfortable place to sit and wait.

Another Transit Champ organized a news event highlighting the role carshare programs can play to further support transit ridership. Some of the people he recruited spoke about how, between carshare and transit, they no longer even need to own a car.

One of the Transit Champs made news with their RTD Challenge – racing to see how fast they could ride every rail line to every station in the system. 8 hours, 30 minutes and 34 seconds is now the record.

These kinds of events shone a spotlight on all the places you can get to via transit and reminded people that riding transit can just be fun.

I had a similar experience teaming up with my daughter on a Scavenger Race through Denver via transit. It was an adventure as we navigated multiple lines to take pictures of stained glass windows and street performers.

Thanks to RTD Board member Kate Williams for kicking off that community event.

 

Clean Air Colorado

One of the main reasons the state invested millions in RTD’s Zero Fare program was to reduce air pollution.

Transportation is one of the largest sources of the pollutants that form dangerous ground-level ozone.

The Denver/North Front Range region has exceeded health limits for ozone pollution for more than a decade, exposing people to lung damage and other health issues. The American Lung Association says we’ve got the 7th worst ozone pollution in the country.

Early in the month, our team at CoPIRG fanned out across the region to help transit riders and others raise their voice to call for further action from the state to clean up our air.

In Boulder County, our team was joined by County Commissioner Claire Levy to show her support. In Littleton, Mayor Kyle Schlachter and State Representative Meg Froelich joined us too.

Littleton Mayor Kyle Schlachter joins CoPIRG staff to show his support for the August 2022 fare-free monthPhoto by Staff | TPIN

In total, our staff rode the rails and the buses, and in three days generated 1,233 petitions and signed on 109 businesses to our Clean Air Colorado letter, which we’ll use to advance even bigger support for transit.

 

RTD Leadership, State Legislators, Mayors and Councilmembers Come Together to Highlight the Month

Many of our region’s leaders have large megaphones and it was important for them to use their platforms to highlight the fare-free month.

A great way to do that was to ride the system during August and help highlight what’s working (and make notes of what needs improving so more people have good transit options).

I had a blast riding with many of our region’s leaders and seeing their communities through their eyes.

I began the month on the far west side with State Representative Lisa Cutter, who represents a part of the district with fewer transit options. We started at Federal Center, a hugely underutilized transit station that could provide a hub for service throughout Jefferson County and connections to Bustang, Snowstang and Pegasus statewide bus services along I-70 into the mountains.

We rode the W line, using the FlexRide as the final-mile connection to downtown Golden.

Later in the month, at Denver’s Union Station, I met up with RTD Board member Angie Rivera-Malpiede who guided me to the 40th and Colorado airport line station.

I’ve passed through the 40th station on the A line a hundred times but never got out – it always looked like it was just some parking and warehouses.

But Director Rivera-Malpiede and her team at NE Transportation Connections introduced me to Prodigy Coffee, a neighborhood hub staffed by kids from the community, and home to one of the state’s first e-bike libraries, providing an important option in the area.

I had two rides through parts of Central Denver.

Denver City Councilmember Paul Kashmann took me on a loop past Wash Park to DU and back. With limited service on the buses, requiring waits of 15-30 minutes, it’s easy to see why many people in this part of Denver avoid local transit and only use the train line to downtown Denver.

It’s a shame because there are a lot of shops, restaurants and places to access via transit from South Pearl to DU if it came more frequently.

Denver City Councilmember Jolon Clark took me on a ride spanning South Broadway to Federal and down to Evans.

This is an area rich in culture with a lot of transit routes connecting the communities. The area includes the only Denver homes zoned for horses, Vietnamese and Hispanic business districts, and lots of potential transit-oriented developments.

The east/west connections have less frequent service and we found ourselves sprinting to avoid a 30 minute wait.

State Representative Jennifer Bacon was one of the sponsors of the bill that funded the Zero Fare August, so I was excited to hop aboard transit with her. We rode from Stanley Marketplace up through Central Park to the A line, across to the Peoria Station and up into Montbello (and back).

The trip really highlighted how transit and transit riders are often deprioritized in our overall system.

We saw everything including poor connections to community hubs like the Stanley Marketplace, nonexistent sidewalks or safe ways to access stops (we walked in gutters and stood in construction zones in our effort to catch a bus), missing signage that sent us wandering through fields looking for a bus stop and 30-minute wait times for buses as we sweltered in the August heat.

Back on the west side, Jaime Lewis from the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition and I rode Colfax from the Denver border to downtown Golden on the 16 bus with RTD Board member Marjorie Sloan, Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, and Lakewood City Council member Jeslin Shahrezaei.

The 16 bus connects a vibrant corridor of businesses, schools and communities but lacks the kind of dedicated infrastructure from smooth bus lanes to sidewalks that would make the street more people-friendly and recruiting, enhancing a major transit route.

Unlike the W line, the 16 goes right into the heart of downtown Golden and allows the region to access some beautiful Front Range hiking, tubing and biking.

On the east side, I took two trips through Aurora – one on the north and one in the south.

On the northern side of Aurora, I rode from Colfax down to Mississippi with State Representative Mandy Lindsay. The buses along Peoria come every 15 minutes and, even in the middle of the day, had good ridership.

Representative Lindsay took us down to Pacific Ocean Marketplace for an ice cream mochi break and to showcase the diversity you can find throughout Aurora.

I also took a ride with State Representative Iman Jodeh and Aurora City Council member Juan Marcano in the southern part of Aurora from Mississippi to the Nine Mile Station.

You could spend a month eating your way across Aurora and still miss out on some great places – many of which you see as you ride the bus on their major arterials.

Bus routes on Peoria and Havana along with the rail line along I-225 provide good connections but putting them together with any east/west routes, with the exception of Colfax, means a transit trip could easily take over an hour.

In what’s perceived as “the suburbs” and a sea of cars and 6 lane arterials, it may feel like a longshot for successful transit in Aurora but the area has “good bones” and if the buses came every 5-10 minutes, a lot of people would have a good option to access excellent places without a car.

One group of transit users that struggle to use our current system are families.

Whether it’s the cost of paying for multiple people to ride, waiting with kids at transit stops within a foot of speeding vehicles or the challenge of finding an efficient route that connects the various schools, parks, and appointments that can make up a single day in the life, our current system doesn’t make it easy.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, especially if you live near a main route.

My family joined State Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez’s family for an evening out on Federal Boulevard in northwest Denver.

While we struggled with the unsafe and unwelcoming bus stops, Federal is a good example of an arterial with frequent service and lots of places to go including the Vietnamese restaurant we ate at and the ice cream shop we rode to for dessert.

Service tends to decrease in the evening and on weekends, which is a hindrance for families, but the fare-free month dropped a major cost barrier for our combined group of eight.

One place that has seen steady progress in improving transit service is Boulder.

I rode with RTD board member Lynn Guissinger and Boulder Transit Manager Danny O’Connor, getting a view of the investments already made and the improvements coming.

While in most parts of the region, routes are mostly known by numbers or letters, Boulder routes have names like SKIP, HOP and JUMP. These names help brand the routes, and the overall transit system, making it easier for new and old riders alike to navigate.

I got a chance to see their 100% electric-powered HOP bus moving people without the tailpipe emissions.

One of the 100% electric-powered HOP buses in BoulderPhoto by Staff | TPIN

We also scoped out some roadway changes and stop improvements that should increase the reliability and speed of buses on routes through congested parts of the city, offering time benefits to transit users and encouraging others to leave their car at home.

It was interesting talking about the challenges around transit stops. In my mind, RTD owns and operates all of them but I learned that’s not true. Depending on the stop, a city, county, RTD or private owner could be responsible. It’s incredibly complicated and creates a barrier for us to ensure every stop is safe, clean, comfortable and welcoming.

With all eyes on RTD during August, I was excited to be able to ride with the “RTDLadyBoss” (her twitter handle), RTD’s CEO and General Manager, Debra Johnson.

We took a ride along both trains and buses in a circle from Union Station through the northwest part of Denver.

When it comes to stations and stops, General Manager Johnson underscored the complexity of the current system. RTD is not currently responsible for many of the stops and if we wanted them to be, there would need to be additional money so they could fund the improvements and maintenance so many clearly need.

One major opportunity in the transit system right now is along Federal Blvd where we hopped on the 31 bus. General Manager Johnson pointed out that the service is frequent enough that if the right improvements were made to provide the buses with dedicated lanes, we could have a form of bus-rapid transit (BRT).

Those improvements require partners though. RTD doesn’t own the streets and needs collaboration with cities and the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Given the 31 has some of the highest ridership of any RTD bus, and follows along the congested I-25 central corridor, BRT’s reliability and speed benefits would have a huge impact in an area where we need better transit to meet safety, air pollution, and accessibility goals.

If we’re looking for a place to focus some of the momentum from August and show people what’s possible, this would be a great corridor to lean into.

The Region is Hungry for Better Transit

RTD’s August Zero Fare month showed people are hungry for better transit.

We saw over 1 million more boardings just by dropping the fares for one month.

The groups and Transit Champs I worked with spoke with hundreds of people, happy to use the service but also quick to point out the need for more reliability, more frequency and safer stops.

We also spoke with dozens of bus drivers and train operators who felt their job was safer and more enjoyable during August because they no longer had to act as the “fare enforcers.”

I want to emphasize, we had limited time and a limited budget to even get the word out but we still saw a 22% ridership increase between July and August.

From Aurora to Golden, Boulder to Littleton, I saw and rode lots of buses and trains, highlighting that we have a transit foundation.

But that foundation is uneven. There are clear gaps that need to be filled and holes to be plugged.

Time and again, the key themes that people brought up were more frequent service and better stops and connections to those stops (sidewalks, crossings, bike/scooter lanes).

RTD cannot tackle service and stops alone.

August gave us a chance to come together to celebrate RTD’s transit and what we’ve got right now. We did.

As August fades in our rearview mirror, we need to remember the most important lesson we knew even before the month – One free month will not transform our transit system.

But it gave us a sense of possibility for what we can do when we come together.

Let’s keep this momentum going and come together to truly transform our system.

More frequency. Safer stops. Reliability.

Climb aboard.

 

 

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Danny Katz

Executive Director, CoPIRG Foundation

Danny has been the director of CoPIRG for over a decade. Danny co-authored a groundbreaking report on the state’s transit, walking and biking needs and is a co-author of the annual “State of Recycling” report. He also helped write a 2016 Denver initiative to create a public matching campaign finance program and led the early effort to eliminate predatory payday loans in Colorado. Danny serves on the Colorado Department of Transportation's (CDOT) Efficiency and Accountability Committee, CDOT's Transit and Rail Advisory Committee, RTD's Reimagine Advisory Committee, the Denver Moves Everyone Think Tank, and the I-70 Collaborative Effort. Danny lobbies federal, state and local elected officials on transportation electrification, multimodal transportation, zero waste, consumer protection and public health issues. He appears frequently in local media outlets and is active in a number of coalitions. He resides in Denver with his family, where he enjoys biking and skiing, the neighborhood food scene and raising chickens.

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