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Why experts say offering free public transit won't impact local air quality

“If the product you’re trying is free but it's substandard, it’s a poor quality product. It doesn’t matter that it’s free.”

DENVER — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill earlier this month that will funnel money toward the state’s transit agencies, allowing them to offer fare free days during the summer, when ozone issues cloud the state’s air quality.

But many experts in public transit say offering free fares has little impact on the environment, as data is mixed on whether the free fares encourage people who would have driven to give up their car trip.

“It’s symbolic to say well we’re going to remove the fares for one month when actually the real obstacle to growing ridership is that the service isn’t frequent enough,” said David Bragdon, the head of Transit Center, an advocacy group that researches public transit systems in the US.

“People aren’t going to change their habits on the basis of they’re going to save $1.50 to $2 for a particular month of the year,” he said. “People are going to change their habits because the service is going to be there for them and be reliable all year round.”

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Bragdon said money invested in offering free fares would be put to better use beefing up the struggling transit system. In Denver, an operator shortage and other financial challenges have stopped the Regional Transportation District (RTD) from reinstating pre-pandemic service levels.

“For a couple of decades they were so focused on building new stuff that RTD did not focus enough on serving the people who are the most loyal riders of transit,” Bragdon said. He said RTD’s new CEO is more focused on increasing frequency, though.

State Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster), who sponsored the bill, said the goal of offering free fares is to allow people who wouldn’t otherwise take transit to sample the service.

“We need all the tools in our toolbox and part of reducing vehicle miles travelled is making transit easier, more accessible,” Winter said. “And if having a free month or free months of transit shows people they can use it -- over the long term, that’s going to have a big impact.”

“We’ve worked with RTD and they thought that they could have enough drivers, enough reliability, that when people do come and try it out in August, it’s going to be a good experience and they’ll stick around after the free month.”

But Bragdon said offering people a sample of current service may not be enough to win them over.

“If the product you’re trying is free but it's substandard, it’s a poor quality product. It doesn’t matter that it’s free.”

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