Transit agencies, school districts, can benefit from fare-free transit for students

By Aaron Westling

While universal fare-free transit has been a hot topic of conversation in the last couple of years, some transit agencies have found a promising middle ground providing free transit programs to youth. Fare-free transit programs for youth, including programs directly targeting high school and college students, have been around for decades. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more agencies see the initiative as a way to introduce young residents to their local system and recoup ridership that has fallen since 2020, while school districts see the programs as a way to address operational challenges that also have been exacerbated since the pandemic.

School districts around the country are battling an extreme shortage of school bus drivers. According to an upcoming survey previewed by USA Today, 92% percent of education and transportation leaders surveyed report that their operations have been affected by the driver shortages, while 40% of those surveyed said they’ve had to reduce transportation services. This crisis is playing out in real time, exemplified by Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky being forced to cancel classes due to a “transportation disaster”.

While not feasible for all districts, some are taking advantage of local public transit as an alternative to traditional, yellow bus service. In 2022, citing driver shortages, the Lansing School District dropped its contract with a school bus provider and instead partnered with the Capital Area Transportation Authority to provide free passes to high-school students, which they could use for any bus trips. The district expects to provide more reliable service through the partnership and to save as much as $100,000, which it can redirect toward traditional school buses for elementary and middle school aged kids. Due to lower ridership since the COVID-19 pandemic, CATA can support the program by providing additional buses on main routes during the before and after school periods.

Similar programs have been implemented in other parts of the country, including in Hawai‘i, where, in order to overcome staffing shortages, the state has partnered with counties to launch its EXPRESS program—Expanding Ridership to Educate Students in Schools—providing high-schoolers with free bus passes.

The increased ridership benefits transit agencies partly because it introduces a new crop of customers to systems that they can use outside of school hours. In Minneapolis, forgoing traditional school bus services and providing free transit passes to high school students produced 3.5 million more rides on Metro Transit over a one-year period. Trenton, New Jersey, recently expanded its program from daily passes for school trips to monthly passes that are good for any trips. Other agencies, like those in SeattlePortland, and Madison, are taking this type of program one step further by providing free transit passes to high school students all year. This ensures that students can access summer school, jobs, or recreational activities.

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