RTD ridership rose by 22% during free-fare promotion, data shows


The Regional Transportation District’s free-fare August promotion delivered on its promise, with new data showing ridership increased by 22.1% compared to July — and hit the highest level since the pandemic began.

Still, the increase appears modest in the big picture. Compared to August 2019, prior to the pandemic, ridership on metro Denver’s transit system reached about two-thirds of normal levels during the free month, according to data in a monthly report released Friday.

And it’s unclear how much of those new riders continued boarding trains and buses in September, after RTD resumed charging fares. Debra Johnson, the agency’s general manager and CEO, is among those eager to see that data as they assess the results.

RTD plans to release its final report next month for the state-supported Zero Fare for Better Air program, which is set to repeat for a month next summer at RTD and several transit systems across the state. RTD, which received an $8.7 million state grant to offset most of its costs and lost revenue, will include that September ridership data in the report, along with results from rider and employee surveys that might shed more light on whether new riders reduced their car trips.

There are other ways to compare the August ridership totals, but all are imperfect because of the ways the pandemic has scrambled commute patterns and made RTD’s patterns less predictable.

Compared to August 2021, ridership during the free month increased a full 36% — but a gradual ridership recovery over the last year accounts for some of that.

“With regard to zero-fare, how much of that was a causal factor?” Johnson said in an interview. “I’m looking forward to seeing September data so we can see how much of that increase was sustained into September.”

Beyond that, she said, the numbers from this year’s fare-free month will serve as a useful baseline when the promotion repeats next year. Ridership totaled 6.4 million, the highest since February 2020, just before the pandemic sent ridership plummeting.

RTD’s year-over-year comparison is in line with double-digit percentage increases experienced by most of the 14 smaller transit agencies that participated, according to zero-fare program results reported by the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies at the end of August. Leading the pack was Pueblo Transit, which reported ridership was up 59% compared to August 2021.

Transit advocates in Denver seized on the promotion to launch a new alliance of groups that will push for greater investment in public transportation.

The free fares generated enthusiasm from regular riders, who cited the money they were saving in interviews. When it came to new riders, the new data shows the largest ridership increases from July to August were on buses, with the Flatiron Flyer express buses between Denver and Boulder notching a 40% increase and fixed-route buses up 29% overall.

Ridership increases on light rail and commuter rail train lines averaged about 14%.


Source link