space traveling warriors tier list : To improve air quality, Colorado Democrats are ready to fund a free public transportation program. RTD’s past suggests it won’t help much

Denver’s air was dirty. Vehicles were a major contributor. And Colorado politicians thought they had a solution: encourage drivers to ditch their cars with free public transit rides on the Denver subway.

“A lot of people are talking about air pollution these days. It’s nice to be able to announce that the Regional Transportation District and we at the State Capitol are really able to do something about it.”

This quote, from the then Gov. Dick Lamm, is from March 1978. But today it echoes. State leaders are once again prepared to make transit fares temporarily free. ONE Democrat-sponsored bill nears final passage would provide $28 million to help clear traffic during the state’s misty summer months over the next two years.

“This is a bill to help clean our air,” state senator Faith WinterD-Westminster, said ahead of a Senate floor vote in April.

A spokeswoman for RTD said the agency plans to waive tariffs in August 2022.

But opponents don’t believe the temporary free fares will get enough drivers into traffic to improve air quality. It is a report commissioned by the federal government in the 1978-79 RTD experiment, as well as the most current research from around the worldsupports this skepticism.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Denver’s air quality is not visibly good as of Aug 20, 2018.

Passenger numbers have increased, but not enough

In January 1978, a banking executive told participants at a growth seminar that free transit would help cut through the “heavy brown funk” that hung over Denver.

RTD dropped the fares just a few weeks later. Early press reports were positive, citing passengers who were happy to save money on gasoline.

The federal report on the results of the experiment showed that the free fares resulted in a significant increase in passengers over the 12-month program. But it also found that only about 12,000 bus trips a day were made by former car drivers or passengers, which equates to such a small decrease in driving that it was indistinguishable from the typical daily variations in driving patterns caused by things like climate.

“In general, a free transit program alone does not appear to be a very effective strategy to improve the environmental quality of the urban area,” the report concluded.

Public transport accounted for less than 3% of all trips in the area in the late 1970s, the report noted, so even a doubling of passenger numbers could only reduce car trips and pollution by a small amount.

Federal, state, and local governments had been driving car travel for decades, subsidizing sprawling suburbs, large parking lots, and massive highways that made car travel almost necessary for most. Denver’s “brown cloud” just got better after the federal government raised vehicle pollution standards.

The new law will not be a ‘panacea’ for air quality, but it will bring other benefits.

Cars are much cleaner than they were in the 1970s, but their emissions are still an environmental and health issue. Vehicles are a major contributor to summer ozone concentrations that have reached record levels in recent years and prompted the US Environmental Protection Agency to declare the Front Range a “severe” violator of air quality.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to say that this will be a panacea,” said the project’s sponsor, State Representative Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver. “But… we have to try as many things as we can, because what is happening here [with ozone] It is so dangerous for our health.”

Bacon said the free fares will have other benefits, such as increasing access to opportunities for Colorado residents without a personal vehicle.

A survey of low-income pilots found that they preferred buses and trains to run more frequently and to more places at cheaper fares. But it’s unclear where RTD could get the revenue to significantly increase the service. A 2021 state law that will raise billions of dollars for transportation has no new funding dedicated to RTD.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Western History, Denver Public Library/Rocky Mountain News Collection
A crowded RTD bus on Colfax Avenue in Denver in 1978

The free-fare experiment made work harder for drivers. RTD doesn’t want to repeat that this time.

“Free Bus Rides Plus Kids: Chaos,” read a June 1978 Denver Post story that detailed “disorder and play” and more serious problems. Vandalism, drunkenness, and assaults on passengers and drivers have increased substantially because of free fares, according to the federal report.

Sally Frederick, who started driving RTD buses in 1978, said a passenger threatened to break his arm when she said he needed to pay his fare during rush hour.

“I think everyone thought it was a big mistake,” Frederick said of the free fares. “At least the drivers did.”

Safety and security are top concerns for union leaders and RTD, whose struggles to hire and retain more drivers and attract passengers are limiting the service they can offer. Use of drugs and another “unwanted activities” at Union Station and throughout the RTD system are seen as major impediments to these goals.

“I believe in the program,” RTD General Manager and CEO Debra Johnson said of the toll-free account during an RTD board meeting in April. “But I also have an obligation to ensure that our employees have a safe working environment.”

It’s unclear whether the state’s money could be used for security expenses. And even if it is allowed, said RTD spokeswoman Pauline Haberman, the agency is still having trouble hiring security personnel.

RTD vehicles became “mobile shelters” at the start of the pandemic when the agency temporarily suspended fare collection, said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001 President Lance Longenbohn. That dynamic persisted on some routes, he said.

“If [commuters] get off and see a bus full of people smoking fentanyl, which unfortunately is happening… they won’t come back,” he said.

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