Free transit pass programs for youth could help fight climate change

Ryan Wiggins Headshot

Even as the Governor was loaning the first $500 million in auction revenues from cap-and-trade to the General Fund, many innovative transportation programs have been launched at the local and regional scale that could be models for how to spend next year’s funding.

One low-cost, high-value program that is spreading throughout the state is subsidized or free transit passes for students. Already, a number of mostly pilot and some permanent programs throughout the state are providing free or reduced transit passes for students at the K-12 and college levels. These programs can reduce climate change pollution, reduce transportation costs, and provide real transportation choices to connect people to the services they need and the opportunities they need to improve their lives and spur the economy.

The most robust program in place already is in San Francisco where low-income youth now have access to free transit passes over a 16-month trial period. According to a survey conducted by People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), 57% of transit riders in San Francisco use public transportation to get to school, yet 48% say they often don’t have enough money for fares. For families struggling to make ends meet, this program provides reliable and affordable transportation options that reduce dependence on cars, not to mention the high costs of owning and maintaining them.

Other programs that have been in place for several years, such as Santa Monica City College’s “Any Line Any Time” program, have been resounding successes. Fully 40% of staff and students now take public transportation to campus during rush hour. The program boasted a total of 2,540,000 boardings in 2011–2012.

When the California Air Resources Board held its final workshop on cap-and-trade in Los Angeles in February, students from Santa Monica City College as well as other high schools and community colleges throughout the region turned out to discuss what these transit pass programs have meant to them. They cited transit passes as critical for them to be able to afford school in the face of rising tuition costs and the high costs of car ownership. They also talked about their improved ability to access internships and jobs, and their pride in being able to help the environment by reducing emissions.

Other communities throughout the state are pushing hard for transit pass programs as well. San Diego City Council – spurred by the advocacy of local group Mid City CAN – recently approved a pilot project to supply 1,100 passes to high school students with the most need.

Existing federal and state transportation funds are largely restricted from being used for transit operations, so cap-and-trade auction revenues represent possibly the most promising revenue sources for funding these programs. Investing in youth in particular can shape habits that last a lifetime, reducing emissions all the while.

Transit passes can catalyze a whole generation to adopt transit as a key part of their future transportation choices. But the San Diego program and others around the state will need more reliable sources of funding to grow and move beyond a one-stop pilot project. The clock is ticking and the state should move quickly to ensure cap-and-trade revenues are available to fund transit passes and other programs that can have an immediate and long-lasting impact on protecting our environment and advancing the health of our communities and economy.

 Photo Credit: Shane Global Language Centres

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.