Thanks in large part to free transit passes provided by five school districts in King County, transit is an attractive option for students in the Seattle area. With the ORCA cards, students get access to King County Metro buses, Seattle streetcars, and Sound Transit light rail and buses. But when the school year ends, the cards are deactivated and youth ridership drops. On Metro buses, youth ridership goes from about 400,000 rides per month during the school year to fewer than 100,000 per month in the summer.
Last summer, to curb that drop-off, Metro and Sound Transit launched a pilot program offering deeply discounted youth fares. Riders from ages 6 to 18 could hop on Metro for 50 cents and light rail for $1 rather than the usual $1.50 youth fare.
Metro and Sound Transit released results from the pilot in November, and Metro bus youth ridership jumped 35 percent over the previous summer for a total of 376,000 boardings. Light-rail ridership increased 42 percent. On streetcars, the increase was 25 percent. The big jump in transit uses illustrates that fare cost is a motivating factor for youth riders.
“We weren’t surprised,” says Chris O’Claire, Metro assistant general manager. “We knew that bringing down the price would have an impact. If we can build a culture within youth that likes transit, needs transit, we can build the next generation of riders.”
The pilot program came about, in part, thanks to Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson. The former transit advocate began lobbying the county to create it as soon as he took office in 2015. “It took a year and a half, but it really paid off,” says Johnson.
When the summer program launched, Johnson said he would push for making transit free for youths if the pilot was successful. Given the marked summer increase, Johnson says that is still something he wants to see happen, but he admits he’s limited in what he can do in his role as a city council member, since Metro and Sound Transit are regional agencies.
“I’m going to rely on my friends at the King County Council and the King County executive to lead the charge on this,” Johnson says. “The next step is to work with them to consider making this an annual tradition. Or to just reduce the base youth fare down to 50 cents or less.”
O’Claire says, “At this point we hope to build on the pilot for next summer, but we’re not looking at free fares for youth.”
Metro relies on about $12 million a year in bus fare collection for its budget. “That’s a significant chunk of service hours,” says O’Claire. “One of the things we constantly balance is where do we need to subsidize access to the system and where do we need to target revenue through fare collection?”
In addition to possibly repeating the youth reduced fare program next summer, Metro is working on two other pilot programs using state grant funding. One is with the Highline and Lake Washington school districts, on a similar summer youth subsidization program but with free transit for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The other is with low-income students in Pierce and Snohomish counties who will receive a free ORCA card preloaded with $10.
“We want to do even more outreach to low-income and minority populations,” says O’Claire. “We know that [maintaining high transit ridership] in the future will depend on transforming youth. A little bit of that is about the fare. But much more, we need to understand what it takes to get people better access to the systems.”
Johnson thinks the role of reduced fare should not be discounted.
“I’m hard-pressed to think of anything else we could do to generate an additional 1,000 riders a day. It’s an impressive statement about how impactful the pilot program was,” he says. “It shows there’s huge demand and is evidence that one of the biggest impediments for youth is cost.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.