Young transit riders in most of Washington won’t pay their bus fares today or any day until they turn 19, as agencies across the state pivot toward providing free rides for people 18 and under.
While there are many examples of individual cities offering free rides to young people — or to everyone — Washington’s actions as a state are unique.
The shift is one piece of a massive 16-year, nearly $17 billion transportation funding measure passed mostly along party lines during the 2022 legislative session in Olympia. While the package included billions in new spending on roads and highways, Democratic lawmakers set aside more than $3 billion for transit in the state, over the opposition of the minority Republicans. About half of that is available to local transit agencies on the condition they make trains, buses and ferries free for youth. Every agency has signaled they will do so.
In a funding package that may feel intangible to Washington residents in the short term, free transit represents an immediate and noticeable change for families in the state, which proponents say will lower transportation barriers and train the next generation of riders to think outside the car.
“We were clear that we wanted to make an early impact,” said the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood.
Skeptics, meanwhile, view the spending as misplaced, even framing the Democrats’ strategy as government indoctrination, and question the new program’s enforceability.
“We’re teaching our kids that there are things in life that are just free,” said ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. “And we all know that when you analyze it, there’s nothing that’s free.”
The deadline for implementing free youth rides is Oct. 1. But as of Thursday, nearly every bus agency in the state — including Sound Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit, Pierce Transit and more — already no longer require fares for people under 19, timing the rollout with the start of a new school year.
Washington State Ferries and Amtrak won’t begin their programs until Oct. 1.
For Addie Trask, 11, free transit means freedom for both her and her family, as she gets ready to begin sixth grade in North Seattle. Her school is close to where she lives, but walking there would mean crossing one of Seattle’s most dangerous arterials. So she and a group of friends plan to ride Metro every day together, leapfrogging the road and freeing her parents to take her sister to a different school farther away.
“Free ORCA cards for kids is going to help people save money and be able to ride on the bus and ride transit more,” she said.
The turn toward making rides free for youth comes at a precarious time for public transportation. Ridership is still lagging — hovering around 50% of pre-pandemic levels for King County Metro — even as car traffic ticks upward.
Opening the doors to young people is unlikely to resuscitate those numbers; youth make up around 5% of riders on Community Transit in Snohomish County, said Chris Simmons, manager of system planning for the agency.
But the hope among transit agencies is to weave public transportation more into the daily lives of families.
“I think it encourages youth to think about transit as something that’s not just for school but for other activities as well,” said Sean Hawks, director of communications and marketing for King County Metro.
Pierce Transit provided around 750,000 youth rides last year, said CEO Mike Griffus. The agency isn’t setting any hard goals for this year, but Griffus said he hopes and expects to see that number tick up by 20%, maybe more, as a result of eliminating charges.
“I think it will give them an opportunity to go places they haven’t gone before,” he said.
Lilianna Kully-Rivera is starting high school next week. The Seattle freshman won’t commute there by bus, but will use transit for extracurriculars, like dance or to meet friends for ice skating. She’s used the bus system her whole life, and imagines that will be easier for her and others now that she doesn’t need to think about fares.
“It just makes it easier for so many people who couldn’t necessarily otherwise ride,” she said.
Near Puget Sound, agencies that use ORCA coordinated their policies to begin at the same time, the result of monthly calls among bus and rail services between Snohomish and Pierce counties to cut down on rider confusion.
Other agencies got a head start: Everett Transit has not charged young people since July 1. Pacific Transit in Southwest Washington started the program Aug. 15. In some less-populated parts of the state, like Jefferson and Island counties, ridership was already free for youth.
The biggest question has been implementation: How would transit agencies know who was 18 and who was 19? The state has asked for tallies of youth ridership.
The first year is likely to be informal. ORCA agencies are working with schools to get cards in the hands of young people for them to tap, even if they’re not being charged. But that will take time — especially because there is a shortage on hard materials for the cards. Meantime, students can flash school IDs or simply board.
“We really just want them to show up and take transit,” said Hawks. “A year from now, we’ll have more cards in place and have more opportunities for people to show their age,” he said.
Among the critiques of the program is enforcement.
“This whole process is tough to enforce,” said King. “How are you supposed to know if the person is 16, 18, 20, 22? Are you going to check every person who gets on the bus?”
Griffus acknowledged there would likely be some squishiness around enforcement. “There’s always bad actors,” he said. “We expect that there will be some people like that. Our instruction to operators is to let them ride and not get into an altercation.”