An inspired way to use cap-and-trade funds: discounted transit passes for youth

Start a habit young and it’s likely to stick for life. That’s one of the reasons Safe Routes to School is such a critical component of TransForm’s work, and why Zipcar has a thriving presence on campuses across the country. Using public transportation is no exception. So we’re hoping that Governor Brown’s budget plan, to be released next week, will offer significant investments in public transportation operations and ridership programs – including free transit pass programs for high school and college students that have already proven successful across the state.

Students are the ideal audience for these programs, which provide unlimited free or deeply discounted travel and can significantly reduce driving to campus. Many don’t own or need cars, and millennials – people between the ages of 18 and 34 – are driving less than their parents and would rather give up their cars than their smartphones.

Residential colleges and those located in urban centers are where many students first experience and enjoy a walkable, transit-rich environment. At UC Berkeley, the student government has supported the ClassPass card for more than fifteen years, which has increased revenue for AC Transit while steeply discounting individual costs.

Community colleges, which draw students from a wide local area and tend to have a lot of car commuters, have also had success with free transit pass programs.

Santa Monica College, the largest community college in the LA area with 34,000 students enrolled each semester and a major feeder school for UCLA and USC, launched its “Any Line Any Time” program in 2008. Since then, the program has grown more than 30%. A traffic study conducted in 2010 shows that 4% of Santa Monica College students and staff arrive at the main campus by means of public transit during the morning rush hours.

A similar program at CSU Long Beach, with a $7,000 marketing budget, brought ridership from 1,700 daily boardings at the start of the fall semester to an average 8,000 daily boardings at the end. It has since been adopted as a permanent program.

In March, San Francisco’s Muni launched a 16-month pilot program of free bus and streetcar rides for youth ages 5 to 17 whose household income is at or below the city median to keep students from missing school when they cannot afford transit fares. About 20,000 youths have already signed up. However, the program has been controversial because the Muni system is underfunded, and the passes are perceived as competing with other pressing operations needs.

That’s why we’re so hopeful about next week’s budget release. California’s regions desperately need funding to fulfill our state’s plans for a future where more people can choose to walk, bike, bus, or train to wherever they need to go. The revenues from cap-and-trade auctions could bolster existing transit pass programs, and help create new ones to serve even more of our youth. This would reduce congestion, save students money, and open the door to a lifetime of car-free or “car-lite” commuting. We give the idea an A.

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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.