DENVER — Starting Monday people will be able to hop on an RTD bus or train for free. The transit service and dozens of others are offering free rides for the entire month of August.
“You hop on the bus, you hop off the bus. You don't need to provide a ticket or anything like that. I do encourage everybody to go online and check the schedules and service alerts prior to going to the bus stop just to make sure that your bus is running on a normal schedule,” said Brandon Figliolino, a senior specialist for community engagement with RTD.
The Zero Fare Better Air initiative was made possible by a law that passed this year in the state legislature set up a grant program to pay for the majority of the costs to cover the free transit during high ozone months.
There are two goals behind the free transit. The first is to increase ridership, which declined during the pandemic.
“We're hoping that it encourages people to develop patterns. So they get used to taking the train or taking the bus and it gets developed into their routine,” Figliolino said.
The second, larger goal is to get people out of their cars and cut down on ozone pollution. Denver is ranked one of the most polluted cities by the American Lung Association for its ozone.
In April the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed downgrading the northern Front Range ozone issues from “serious” to “severe” in a change that would require officials to cut emissions and pollution in the Denver metro region.
Transportation is a major source of the state’s air pollution. It ranks as one of the top two emitters. Environmental advocates applaud the move to offer free transit during one of the state’s highest ozone emitting months.
“I'm very excited,” said Danny Katz from the Colorado Public Interest Research Group during a press call Tuesday.
Still, the group says there is a long way to go for the state to achieve clean air. An independent board tasked with regulating the state’s air quality announced recently that Colorado will not meet standards set out by the federal government within the next two years.
The standards, which the Environmental Protection Agency set for the state in 2015, called for Colorado to reduce ozone emissions to 70 parts per trillion by 2024.
The state will, however, be able to reach some looser standards that were set by the EPA in 2008. Those requirements call for Colorado to reduce ozone emissions to 75 parts per trillion by 2027. Colorado is on track to meet that goal.
Katz and other environmental advocates, however, say more needs to be done to help Colorado’s air quality. The group wants to see the state held to the 2024 standard and has offered a number of suggestions to bring the state in line with the tighter standard.
“This is a pivotal moment, we can't really afford another few years of not being proactive,” Katz said. “If we fail to act that costs us time, that could potentially cost us in terms of additional requirements that will be coming down on us.”
Nevertheless, the group is celebrating free transit month and hoping drivers will take advantage of it and leave their cars at home.
RTD’s employee union, however, is concerned about the safety of passengers and drivers during the free fare month.
“A lot of operators have expressed concern about people riding the bus with no fare and possible events occurring,” said Ron Short, the vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001.
Last month, a man was stabbed several times on an RTD bus. It was just the latest incident on the transit system in recent months.
“We're encouraged that by not collecting fare that it will be minimal interaction with the operator, but again, I say that operators are concerned,” Short said.
RTD does have security that patrols its stations, buses and trains.
The free fares run August 1-31. If the program is successful, RTD and other transit agencies might be able to offer it again during future summers.