DENVER (KDVR) — The Regional Transportation District offered free fares in an effort to reduce ground-level ozone for two months over the summer, resulting in over one million additional rides this year.

The Zero Fare for Better Air initiative was made possible with SB 22-180, which provides grants to RTD to cover costs so the community can utilize public transportation during peak ozone season.

This year was the second time RTD provided free fares. Last year, the initiative was only during August, and RTD saw a 36% increase in ridership compared to the same time frame in 2021.

Free fares brought more riders to public transportation

From July 2022, when fares were not free, ridership increased by 22% in August 2022 when riding was free.

This year the initiative was twice as long, lasting through July and August. Ridership during the free fare initiative this year increased by an additional 10% overall, according to a report from RTD.

Compared to the same period last year, there were an additional 1,106,567 boardings on RTD’s system this year.

ModeJuly 2022
(no free fare)
August 2022July 2023August 2023
Light Rail1,222,8321,393,6081,153,9291,134,846
Commuter Rail724,454832,433882,657894,360
RTD ridership increased by 10% overall during the 2023 Zero Fare for Better Air initiative compared to last year.

According to the report, ridership increases varied by transportation mode. Bus ridership saw a 16% increase, commuter rail saw a 14% boarding increase and paratransit saw a 50% increase.

Meanwhile, light rail ridership actually decreased by 13%, but RTD said much of that can be attributed to maintenance projects impacting the E, H and R lines.

While overall ridership increased significantly, those numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels.

However, RTD said this year’s free fare period brought the most riders that RTD has seen since the pandemic.

Impacts of Zero Fare for Better Air

According to RTD, ridership growth continued into September of 2022, even after fare collections resumed.

Last September, RTD reported that weekday systemwide daily ridership averaged 207,472, which was lower than in August 2022 with 214,214 free rides, yet higher than ridership in July 2022 which had a weekday average of 178,468 riders.

RTD surveyed its frontline employees about the initiative’s impact on their jobs, and found that about half of the employees surveyed felt that the initiative fostered a welcoming environment for customers, and more than half were somewhat or strongly supportive of the agency participating in a similar initiative in 2024.

“As RTD looks ahead to the future, the agency is focused on providing value over volume to ensure the region’s mobility needs are met,” General Manager and CEO Debra Johnson said.

RTD also asked customers for their input:

  • 74% of respondents said that the zero-fare initiative influenced their decision to use RTD’s services on the day they were surveyed
  • 84% of respondents said that cost savings was an important factor regarding their decision to use RTD’s services
  • 85% of respondents indicated that the environmental benefits of the initiative influenced their decision to take a bus or train
  • 72% of respondents planned to increase their usage of RTD’s services during the initiative
  • 33% of respondents said that the primary purpose of their trip was work-related
  • 23% of respondents indicated that they would have driven themselves if they were not using RTD’s services

RTD said it is working with the Regional Air Quality Council to analyze the overall impact free fares had on emissions and ground-level ozone. Those findings are expected to be released in November.

Additionally, RTD began a Zero Fare for Youth pilot program in September, offering free rides for Coloradans 19 and under through Aug. 21, 2024.