Colorado transit agencies convinced the state legislature to subsidize free transit for the month of August based on the flimsy claim that doing so would reduce air pollution. At the end of the money, the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies claimed the program was a great success, with many agencies seeing 30 to 50 percent increases in ridership compared with August, 2021.
The problem with this claim is that Colorado transit agencies were already seeing 30 to 50 percent increases in ridership compared with 2021 before they offered free transit. Colorado transit ridership in the first half of 2022 was 37 percent greater than the first half of 2021. Most of the increase in August was due to the recovery from the pandemic, not to free transit.
Pueblo transit saw the greatest increase, at 59 percent, followed closely by Archuleta County (Pagosa Springs) at 56 percent. Yet together these two transit systems normally carry less than three-quarters of a percent of all transit riders in the state. Almost all other agencies saw increases of 2 to 40 percent.
Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD), the state’s largest transit agency, participated in the free-transit program but hasn’t revealed how many riders it carried in August. This is kind of important because RTD normally carries more than 90 percent of all transit riders in the state.
Anecdotal evidence is that free transit increased Denver area ridership by 5 to 7 percent. RTD says that it will release ridership data only after it analyzes survey data “that was garnered through customer intercepts on the system during the zero-fare period, in addition to online and telephone surveys of employees and the public alike that will commence within the next few days regarding those individuals’ opinions, attitudes and perceptions of the program.” It sounds like the agency plans to bury poor results from the program with a mountain of irrelevant survey data, which may not be available for several months.
It is most likely that the free-fare program had almost no measurable effect on Colorado air pollution. Yet the state legislature has already committed to funding free transit again in August 2023. All this shows is that transit agencies and their advocates will say just about anything to get more transit subsidies.
Randal O’Toole is a land-use and transportation policy expert and author of numerous books, including “Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.” A version of this article originally appeared in his blog, The Antiplanner.
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