Seattle’s proposal to give free transit rides to all city high-school students is among the most generous such programs in the nation. Surveys and studies show that students who get free transit use it frequently and are more likely to use transit as adults.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to make buses and light rail free for public high-school students would make Seattle the largest city in the country to offer free transit service to students, the mayor’s office said.
Fewer than half of bus agencies across the country even offer a discounted (half price or better) fare for high-school students, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
In Seattle, most of the city’s roughly 14,000 high-school students already get free ORCA cards at least some of the time.
About 7,000 of those students — those who live more than 2 miles from school — get a free pass from the school district, but only during the school year. Bellevue, Lake Washington, Highline and Mercer Island school districts have similar programs.
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An additional 2,700 low-income Seattle high-school students get free year-round ORCA passes.
Those are funded through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, a program approved by voters in 2014 that raised the sales tax and added $60 to the cost of car tabs, to increase bus service.
That same funding would be tapped to give ORCA passes to every high-school student — and students at Seattle colleges on city-funded scholarships — regardless of where they live or their income.
Durkan’s office said it would cost the city about $3.8 million for one year, with King County Metro kicking in an additional $1 million.
Washington, D.C., which is smaller than Seattle, offers free bus and subway service to students, but only during the school year.
New York City offers free transit passes to a limited number of students, based on their age and the distance they live from school.
Portland gives high-school students free transit rides, but only during the school year.
This past summer, the Seattle Department of Transportation surveyed a portion of the 2,700 high-school students who had received free ORCA cards.
The survey found that the cards were widely used and valued by the students who got them.
More than 90 percent of students used their ORCA card at least three days a week, and 69 percent of students said they used it more than five days a week.
Nearly 80 percent of students said having the ORCA card improved their attendance at school, and nearly 40 percent said that they would not use transit if they didn’t get the free ORCA card.
Surveyed students also said the ORCA cards made it easier to participate in social activities and to get jobs.
Providing free ORCA cards, Durkan said, means “students can worry less about how they get places and more about their grades.”
She announced the new proposal at her State of the City address at Rainier Beach High School. Rainier Beach students have lobbied for years for free transit passes.
With Seattle-area thoroughfares filled to capacity, the proposal is also part of a long-running push in the region to get people driving less and using public transportation more.
Durkan promised to “get more creative” to continue to drive that transformation.
“Traffic’s going to get worse before it gets better; megaprojects will lead to mega-gridlock,” she said. “The good news is more people are using transit and fewer people are driving alone in their cars and we need to keep that trend growing.”
Evidence indicates that increasing access to transit — both through lower fares and through wider service, leads to more transit use.
This past summer, when King County Metro and Sound Transit slashed youth fares, they saw youth ridership jump by 35 percent, over the previous summer.
And getting young people used to riding transit makes them more likely to use transit and less likely to own a car later in life.
A study from researchers at Columbia and Rutgers universities, published this past year in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, found that “exposure to transit during young adulthood in particular is associated with an auto-light lifestyle and greater transit usage later in life.”
The researchers found that the quality of a transit system when someone was growing up can be just as important as the quality of transit in their current neighborhood in determining how often they use it.
“By encouraging exposure to transit at an early age (for instance through free or reduced transit passes for students, recent transplants or new hires), transit agencies and advocates could ‘plant the seed’ for future ridership,” they wrote.