Seattle Students Get Free Passes, Pittsburghers for Public Transit Rally for Access

July 10, 2018
public transit access

Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

Recent news and events in the public transit space exhibit the power of advocacy in expanding access. With civic engagement an increasingly important component for transportation planners and smart city leaders, examples of municipalities answering the needs of their residents can be instructive in addressing future transportation programs.

Seattle Offering Free Transportation to Students

Legislation providing free bus passes to high school students in Seattle was given the greenlight by the City Council during its June 25 meeting. The City and County partnership makes Seattle one of the largest cities in the U.S. to offer free transit to young people. As detailed in a news release issued by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan after the 8-0 vote, the legislation provides free ORCA passes – throughout the year – beginning this year to all Seattle Public School high school students, as well as Seattle Promise scholars. The program partners with Seattle Public Schools, King County Metro, Seattle Colleges and the Seattle Department of Transportation.

The newly-passed legislation will use existing funding sources to provide the free passes to Seattle students through Mayor’s ORCA Opportunity Program. The program is being heralded for its effort to meet growing demand for transit options in the Seattle area, by providing new flexibility on City investments in bus service and additional capacity. The legislation will also provide more service hours on busy RapidRide lines, and increase efficiencies on heavily used routes.

“Seattle’s young people have advocated for access to affordable transit,” said Mayor Durkan. “Our students’ advocacy gave power to this idea that we are now able to make a reality. Expanding free ORCA to high school students and Seattle Promise scholars will help students get to school and their jobs safely while saving families money,” she added, noting, “We need to make transit safer, more reliable, and more accessible for all. As demand for transit in Seattle grows, we need to develop more innovative, flexible strategies to give more options for all Seattle residents.”

Up to $7 million in Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) funding will provide passes for about 16,000 high school students, in addition to the 3,000 low-income middle and high school students, according to news reporting and statements issued by the City. The program will continue to benefit students already served in the program who live more than two miles from school. Passes will be available to students starting this upcoming school year. The voter-approved STBD is funded through a 0.1% Sales Tax increase and annual $60 Vehicle License Fee, generating approximately $50 million annually to improve transit availability and access, and develop new tools to meet demand for six years (2014-2020).

During the 2017-2018 school year, 3,000 ORCA cards were given to middle and high school students. That equated to 408,000 trips, which saved the average student $206 during the school year, according to an update issued on June 26 by the Seattle City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee.

 “As our City becomes increasingly unaffordable for families, we need to make transit safer, more accessible and more affordable, especially for our young people. That’s why it’s so important that we make the investments we need in the ORCA Opportunity program,” said Mayor Durkan. She added, “It’s also essential that as Seattle continues to grow and demand increases, we need to develop innovative strategies and have more flexibility to help provide essential transit options for all Seattle residents.” Durkan expressed her gratitude to members of the City Council, and particularly applauded Councilmember Johnson, and King County Executive Dow Constantine, for their leadership on this issue. Mayor Durkan first discussed her plans for the free ORCA Program at her first State of the City address in February, 2018.

“As we saw last year through the summer ORCA youth fares, when we provide reduced costs, our increase in ridership reflects success. I’m thrilled to work with Mayor Durkan on this issue that has been an important one to me for a long time,” said Councilmember Rob Johnson, District 4, Northeast Seattle. “As a region we are committed to combating climate change, increasing economic opportunity, and decreasing housing costs,” he said. “The single best way to achieve all three of those goals is to create frequent and reliable access to public transportation, and when we can promote and increase transit ridership for our youth, we all benefit,” noted Johnson.

“Every young person should have access to transit, regardless of where they live, what their income level is or where they go to school,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien, District 6, Northwest Seattle. O’Brien, who chairs the Sustainability and Transportation Committee. He noted that the Youth ORCA Pilot Program served about 3,000 students, commending the Mayor and Committee for its expansion.

The legislation will also allow STBD dollars to be used for capital investments that help buses move faster. These investments could include transit-only lanes, queue jumps, transit signal priority, and other strategies, noted O’Brien. Capital investments could also be made to enhance the passenger experience, such as off-board fare payment and stop improvements.

Notable to Seattle’s program is research that has shown the correlation between early ridership and future use of public transportation. A closer look at such a correlation is proving instructive for elected officials, urban planes and public transit teams who seek support in expanding mobility. A research paper published in the ACSP Journal of Planning Education & Research studied how high quality public transportation influences travel behavior later in life. “We find that past experiences shape transportation futures. Exposure to transit during young adulthood in particular is associated with an auto-light lifestyle and greater transit usage later in life,” said the study’s authors, Michael J. Smart of Rutgers University (NJ) and Nicholas Klein of Columbia University (NY). They added, “This research suggests a long-term benefit for encouraging transit at younger ages to foster a ‘transit habit.’” The study and its findings, “Remembrance of Cars and Buses Past: How Prior Life Experiences Influence Travel” was published in March, 2017.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit promote “Rider’s Vision”

In other public transit news, advocates for equitable transportation in Pittsburgh have raised their voices to raise awareness of the need for additional options.

A Pittsburgh community group made news in late June when it laid out a four-pillar platform for improving access to the city’s public transportation network for disadvantaged residents. In announcing its “Rider’s Vision for Public Transit” Initiative on June 25, advocates with the Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT) called for expansion of the availability of prepaid fare cards and free transfers.

Reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other outlets detailed efforts by advocates for the Rider’s Vision Campaign. Promoting the theme that “Bus lines are life lines,” the organization issued a statement on behalf of the Pittsburghers for Public Transit and Mon Valley Initiative. The announcement  was made in conjunction with a rally which celebrated the group’s success to preserve previously-threatened funding for bus service for Monongahela Valley residents, according to local news reports.

The four planks of the Riders’ Transit Vision are: Transit as A Roadmap for Economic Opportunity; A Foundation for Equity; A Solution for Air Quality and Climate Change; and A Vital Link for Quality, Affordable Housing.

“We’re launching our riders’ vision to talk about what public transit could be in our region and to lay out a series of achievable goals that will really improve people’s lives and recognize that transit is the urban infrastructure that is critical to people being able to access everything they need in their lives,” said PPT Executive Director Laura Wiens. In an interview with KDKA, she credited Katharine Kelleman, who began as CEO in January, for helping achieve progress.

“We are really excited and grateful that [the Port Authority has] been listening to the concerns of riders,” Wiens added, noting, “Over the past year we’ve really seen an evolution of the relationship that we’ve had with them.”

Regional elected leaders, Mon Valley Initiative, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Just Harvest, bus riders and community stakeholders helped organize the plan and meeting. Representatives from the Port Authority, the Allegheny Conference, PCRG, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and the Clean Air Council will participate.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit is a grassroots organization of transit riders, workers, and residents who defend and expand public transit. The organization describes itself as a group that keep the public in public transit by mobilizing communities to advocate for equitable, affordable, and sustainable transportation systems.

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