Providing transit passes to high school students boosts attendance rates, transit ridership

By James Hughes

In a Minneapolis study, providing free transit passes to high school students produced a 37.6% reduction (Data behind paid TRR Log-in) in excused absences and a 3.5 million ridership increase on Metro Transit over a one-year period. To qualify for a “Go-To” pass with the City of Minneapolis, students must meet one of three requirements: live inside the school attendance zone and outside the school walk zone (a two-mile radius around the school); be eligible for free or reduced lunch (FRL); or be enrolled in a citywide learning program that requires students to travel during the school day.

The City of Minneapolis decided to transition from yellow school bus transportation of students to public transit in 2014 due to the increasing complexity of student transportation, including sports/after school activities and varying destinations after each school day. The reduction in yellow school bus use for high school students also contributes to lower traffic congestion during rush hour and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. To accommodate for the additional trips, Metro Transit supplements routes frequently used by students during AM and PM rush hours to ensure reliable transport for students.

The program had the largest impact on the attendance records of those students within the two-mile walk zone from school, where children were eligible for passes based on FRL status. From indication of FRL status, researchers assumed these children may have a higher difficulty finding reliable transportation to school compared to higher socioeconomic status students.

“Both pass use and pass eligibility were associated with improved excused and total attendance for FRL-eligible students living within a 2-mi radius of their school, with higher estimated treatment effects than those of the general sample. This implies that FRL-eligible students may have found more benefit than students who became eligible through the distance criteria. It is likely that FRL students had fewer transportation options before the beginning of the program. Additionally, these results imply that student passes are useful even for students who live close to school.” (Pg. 11)

School attendance plays a large part in student performance and lifetime achievement. School districts should ensure that children with potential transportation challenges have many options to get to school on time, a free transit pass being one.

From Minneapolis, other large cities can take the research presented to justify a movement away from yellow school buses and to support their municipal transit system both for student and city benefit. Students are allowed more frequent and reliable transportation, while the  municipality benefits from  increased ridership and reduced competition for transportation services. With this transition, students are provided another transportation option and are introduced to transit at a much younger age—potentially creating transit riders for the rest of their commuting lives.

Photo credit: Tony Webster via Flickr, unmodified. License