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Could free transit for kids help California beat climate change?

The California legislature is considering giving free rides on public transportation to those who are 18 years old and under.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s mid-afternoon at the 4th Avenue/Wayne Hultgren light rail station on Sacramento’s blue line. Alexandra Curtis, a senior at nearby C.K. McClatchy High School, glances up the tracks, awaiting a south-bound train. But the ride’s not going to cost her anything.

Under a new Sacramento transit program, kids from pre-kindergarten to high school get to ride the region’s buses and light rail for free year-round, at any time of day. Student ridership has soared in the months since the program was introduced. Overall ridership is also up. Amid a nationwide trend of declining transit ridership, Sacramento’s success makes it an outlier.

Now, lawmakers are considering a proposal that tries to emulate the Sacramento Regional Transit District’s program statewide. Assembly Bill 1350, from San Diego Democrat Lorena Gonzalez, would require all California transit agencies to offer free passes to anyone 18 or under in order to get state funding. Making transit more affordable is one motive, but the main point is combating climate change by creating a new generation of lifetime public transit users. 

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After passing the Assembly without a single dissenting vote, the bill is now in the state Senate.

But how much would it cost, and more importantly, will it actually work elsewhere?

Curtis says that before the program was introduced, she rarely took public transit. “I used more cars. And I know that puts more carbon emissions into the environment,” she said. “I can go more places without worrying about spending money or asking other people for a ride. I can just get there, and it’s free. And the network is pretty expansive.”

So far, Assemblywoman Gonzalez says, the state has mainly focused on reducing emissions with electric vehicles — but “that alone isn’t going to do it.”

“We have to get young people basically to never think about getting in a car,” said Gonzalez. “Opening up access to public transit and encouraging access to public transit is one way we can do that.”

In addition, there’s the equity issue.

“I live 12 miles from the ocean, and I have young people in my neighborhood who have never been to the beach,” she said.

Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, agrees. She says the bill would reduce localized air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions because fewer people would drive their kids to school.

“If you’ve ever gone by a school, you know that it can get pretty crowded in the morning — there’s a lot of idling, and idling creates a lot of pollution,” Phillips said. “The (programs) that work the most are when you just do an across the board, every kid, every student gets free transit.”

Under Sacramento’s RydeFreeRT program, which started in October 2019, all K-12 students in Sacramento Unified School District get a sticker affixed to their student ID that serves as their pass for free, unlimited rides every day of the week. The program also includes eight other local public school districts, homeschooled students and students at 33 private and charter schools.

Jamie Adelman, the district’s vice president of finance, says it was an effort to combat declining student ridership.

“Back in the early 2000s, we were seeing peaks of 7 million students riding a year,” he said. “And in the past several years, we’ve seen as low as 1 to 1.5 million students a year.”

That parallels a nationwide trend going beyond students. For the past few years, transit ridership has declined in almost every major American city, with transit experts describing the situation as an emergency in a 2018 Washington Post article. Los Angeles Metro, for example, has seen a 20% drop in systemwide ridership over the last ten years.

Why? According to a 2018 study, new bike-share programs cause increases in rail ridership while deterring bus users. But ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft seem to have a larger effect — rail and bus ridership drops every year once they enter the market. And in Southern California, a separate 2018 study found rates of car ownership have dramatically increased since 2000, especially among low-income households.

But last year, Sacramento’s ridership increased more than 4% over the previous year. The transit agency attributes that jump to increasing light rail service on weekends, revamping the bus network and expanding the number of dedicated fare inspectors.

The wild success of the free student passes, however, shouldn’t be discounted — to attract riders, you can’t beat free. Both October and November 2019 had a more than 40% increase in student bus ridership compared to 2018. December, a month where student ridership usually craters, saw a massive 72% jump. That trend continued into January 2020, which saw a 106% increase in student ridership over January 2019.

The agency does not keep detailed records of student light rail ridership; it’s an open system with no turnstiles, but the agency says it has also increased. An estimated 75% of all its student ridership is on buses, with the rest on light rail.

Adelman says the December jump is an especially big indicator of the program’s success. In previous years, students would typically not purchase a student pass for the second half of that month as they were not in school.

“It got them out on the system at a time they normally wouldn’t ride — and they’re going to Christmas parties, or going shopping with their family or going to the ice skating rink downtown,” Adelman said. “This is not just about getting to school.”

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But will this really create the next generation of transit riders? 

That assertion is backed up by some data — according to a 2018 study, people exposed to public transit as young adults are more likely to choose it over a car later in life.

That holds true even if they move from a transit-rich area to a comparatively poor alternative — in other words, former New York City residents are more likely to hop on Metro once they move to Los Angeles than are lifelong Angeleños. But the ridership gains are still small when compared to those brought on by service improvements.

Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA, says riders are typically much more conscious of how long using transit takes rather than how much a ride costs. And if the service isn’t good, making it free won’t attract people. That’s why, he says, the effects of AB 1350 will likely vary widely across the state.

“In the right environments, it could have a big effect. In most environments, it’s going to have a modest effect, or negligible effect,” Taylor said. “It would likely be most significant in the most built up areas with the lowest income students with the highest-quality transit service.”

Taylor, who is also the director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, says the best way to combat climate change would be to make driving more expensive. That leads to increased demand for transit and the dramatic ridership changes that have climate effects.

“We start having more frequent bus service. And we have more frequent bus service, we can justify bus only lanes,” Taylor said. “It goes in this virtuous cycle where it becomes exceedingly competitive with travelling by automobile.

Despite that, Taylor says AB 1350 is no “fool’s errand” — it’s a small step in the right direction that could have positive effects. It would be best, he says, as part of a broader package to improve transit.

“We’ve built cities around car use, and then we say look at these alternatives! Come on over here, let’s try those!” Taylor said. “No single improvement to public transit — no new rail line, no under the bay tube, no extension of the Gold Line — is on it’s own going to have a dramatic effect as long as the elephant in the room, which is all that unmetered road use, goes on unchecked.”

How much will this cost? 

So far, Gonzalez’ effort to scale up the Sacramento program statewide has broad political support — the big question is funding. Details are still being hashed out, but a source could be the state’s cap-and-trade program, which offers up pricey pollution permits to various high emissions industries. Gonzalez says another could be education dollars, as California school districts get funding per pupil in attendance.

A simpler funding idea? Transit agencies could just raise fares on everyone else to cover the cost of free student passes. The California Transit Association, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s various public transportation agencies, says that’s a bad idea.

The association currently holds no position on the bill. Its lobbyist Michael Pimentel says that without additional state dollars, there would likely have to be service cuts or higher fares for everyone else. And that would be bad for both ridership and transit equity.

“Transit riders are generally very price sensitive,” Pimentel said. “Added state support to facilitate the goals of the bill is probably the best outcome for making sure that transit ridership does increase.”

Pimentel says the bill would probably cost at least $100 million annually in lost fare revenue, but cautioned that as a rough estimate based on an in-progress survey of the state’s various transit agencies. And that doesn’t include any needed increases in service.

A spokesperson for Gonzalez says the bill does not currently have a cost estimate or fleshed-out funding details, but that both would be added as part of the legislative process this year.

In addition, Gonzalez says the funding formula will be tailored so it’s possible for both small transit agencies and large ones to afford the free student passes. And as part of the bill, student trips will be counted as full paid fares in determining ridership levels and eligibility for state funds.

“People like the idea — the devil is going to be in the details of the funding and how we can make it work,” Gonzalez said. “We have to quit thinking of public transit as just a tool for low income communities.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.


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