Kids in Seattle and King County are getting a break this summer on bus and light-rail fare. Last week, King County Metro and Sound Transit launched a youth summer fare pilot program to help make transit more accessible, stanch the typical seasonal drop-off in youth riders, and potentially set the stage for making Metro and Sound Transit free for anyone under 19.
There are already several youth fare options. Riders under 18 pay $1.50 for bus and light rail. During the school year, students living more than 2 miles from school can get a free ORCA transit pass. Low-income students within the 2-mile radius can also get a free ORCA card.
With the summer program, anyone 6 to 18 can ride buses for 50 cents and light rail for $1.
“Particularly for those under 16 who may not have any other options, access to transit is really important. Living by frequent and reliable transit gives you so many more opportunities for education, socializing with friends, working jobs and internships,” says Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson.
Johnson has been advocating for free or reduced youth transit fare since he was director of the nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition and continued pushing it after getting elected to the council in 2015.
“We see something in the neighborhood of a 50 percent drop-off in youth ridership over the summer versus the school year. We’re trying to test to see if that has to do with the fare,” says Johnson, explaining the rationale for the pilot.
Unsurprisingly, transit advocates have voiced their support for the program.
“Anything we can do to get young people using the transit system is great and making it more affordable is obviously one of the ways to do that,” says Katie Wilson, of Seattle Transit Riders Union. “The habits that young people pick up early are going to shape their choices for the rest of their life. … I wish that Sound Transit would agree to go down to the 50-cent fare.”
Johnson’s long-term goal is to make transit free for anyone under 19, something he says would benefit kids, families and Seattle’s sustainability goals alike. Johnson’s twins just turned 6, aging out of the free rides for children 5 and under. “We’re fortunate to be able to afford that extra three bucks anytime we want to take the bus. There are a lot of families who don’t have that luxury. Sometimes they may choose to drive because the cost of taking transit with kids may be more expensive than driving.”
Funding for free youth passes could come from charging private shuttles from Microsoft, Seattle Children’s Hospital and others to use public bus stops for employee pickups and drop-offs. Seattle launched a pilot program to test that model this year. Johnson thinks revenues from that would easily cover the $4.5 million to $5 million King County Metro and less than $2 million Sound Transit collects from youth fares each year.
Revenue loss isn’t the only hurdle for free youth rides. Johnson says Metro has expressed concerns that people treat transit with less respect when they ride for free. Few U.S. cities have experimented with free transit, but Austin cited vandalism and “problem riders” when it canceled its short-lived free transit pilot in 1989.
“They could have a nominal fee like 25 cents, if needed,” Wilson suggests. “But we should try to make transit as affordable as possible, up to and including making it free.”
Wilson hopes that the conversation about free youth transit inspires other school districts in King County to adopt Seattle Public School’s free ORCA card model for low-income students within the 2-mile radius.
Elsewhere in the U.S., free youth ridership is not commonplace, but there are examples. Tempe, Arizona, and Charlottesville, Virginia, offer free transit passes to anyone under 18. San Francisco gives free passes to low-income youth ages 5 to 18. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is running a pilot program to give youth free bus rides during summer break.
If Seattle’s summer pilot program is successful, Johnson wants to move quickly toward launching the free youth pass.
“My hope is a year from now we’re having a great celebratory moment launching our program so any kid under 19 can get on the bus for free.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.