Colorado’s Free Month of Transit Is A Perk For Some, A Budget Saver For Others – Colorado Public Radio | Gmx Pharm

With a scooter in one hand and a large vacuum mug of water in the other, David Bledsoe was ready to try public transport.

The resident of Denver’s Central Park neighborhood didn’t like his 45-minute commute to work or the damage he knew his car — along with millions of others on Colorado’s streets — wreaked on the state’s air every day.

And he had another reason to try the Transit: it’s free this month in much of Colorado.

He boarded the Regional Transportation District’s R-Line light rail for the first time this early Monday morning. About 30 minutes into the journey, as the train sped past slow-moving traffic on Interstate 225, he broke into a big smile.

“I usually sit here every day,” he said. “Getting past that feels really good.”

Nathaniel Minor / CPR News
Wanda Pervish smiles after getting off the #15L bus in Denver on August 1, 2022.

Can free fares improve RTD air quality and ridership?

Bledsoe’s $3 fare was mostly covered by a Democrat-sponsored bill that spent $28 million to encourage drivers to leave their cars behind by making public transportation free in August 2022 and 2023, when sunshine and hot weather usually makes air pollution worse.

The success of the program depends on how many people like Bledsoe are lured out of their cars over the next four weeks. RTD has no ridership figures for Monday morning yet; They and other agencies will track the data and later report it to state legislatures.

Anecdotally, ridership seemed normal to this reporter Monday morning as he traveled nearly four hours on two light rail lines, the A-line commuter train to Denver International Airport, and three local Denver bus lines.

But the effort faces an uphill battle: RTD’s own history with free tariffs dating back to the 1970s (as well as more recent experiments) and the ongoing struggle for more staff and services suggest the pilot program could have only a limited impact.

Another major obstacle: Colorado’s communities have sprawled over the past 70 years with wide freeways and large parking lots that make driving much easier and faster, and have helped make public transit an underfunded niche mode of transportation. According to the latest census figures, only 4 percent of Denver’s subway residents use public transit to get to work, while 73 percent commute alone.

20220801-RTD-FREE-NMNathaniel Minor / CPR News
Most seats were occupied on Monday, August 1, 2022 on RTD’s #15L bus in East Colfax.

That became clear as the R line glided south to Bledsoe’s workplace near the Denver Tech Center.

Hundreds of cars could be seen taking I-225 through the suburb of Aurora at all times early Monday. The Bledsoe light rail car, on the other hand, never carried more than half a dozen passengers during the entire rush hour trip from Peoria station to Lincoln station.

“My previous experiences with public transport have usually been very full,” said Bledsoe, who used to live in London. “It’s very nice and quiet.”

The R Line, RTD’s only rail line not serving densely populated neighborhoods or work centers directly, has consistently underperformed in terms of ridership since it opened in 2017. But on Monday she seemed to have won a new convert.

“Everything went really well this morning,” said Bledsoe after getting off the train. “I was really satisfied.”

The train ride was only slightly longer than his typical ride, Bledsoe said. And the cost of a monthly RTD pass, which costs $114, is about what he pays in gas and maintenance for his car.

“I think I’ll come back tomorrow,” he said. “I will continue to do it, especially in August. And then I’ll evaluate – I think that’s something I could get addicted to.”

Bledsoe then crossed the Interstate 25 pedestrian bridge, snapped his collapsible scooter into place, and rolled the last quarter mile to work.

20220801-RTD-FREE-NMNathaniel Minor / CPR News
Vincent Morales looks out the window of RTD’s #40 bus on Colorado Boulevard in Denver on Monday, August 1, 2022.

Meanwhile, the city buses seemed to be driving much fuller.

RTD’s rail system was designed primarily for employees trying to hop on and off the city center during business hours – and on many rail lines, ridership has fallen dramatically during the pandemic as office workers continue to stay at home.

But for many buses cruising through relatively dense city corridors, ridership has remained fairly constant during this period, particularly for those serving low-income neighborhoods.

Most seats were taken on an eastbound No. 15L bus in East Colfax around 9am on Monday. Wanda Pervish was on her way to Walmart and said the free plan would save her $114 this month.

“It’s extra groceries or the electric bill,” she said.

Vincent Morales had just finished his night shift at a Safeway on Colorado Boulevard and at about 8:30 a.m. he rode the #40 bus north toward home and most days from work. But they were certainly a big deal to him.

“I spend about $30 a week on bus passes. So that’s at least $120 this month I’m going to save,” he said. “That helps a lot.”

Morales said while he’s not a regular driver, he hopes more people will park their cars for transit. He also wants lawmakers to expand the program to help both the environment and people like him.

“It’s a really good thing they’re doing,” he said. “I really appreciate that.”

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