As of Sept 1, 2022, youth up to age 19 in King County ride Metro transit for free all year round, thanks to a vote taken by the King County Council this summer. Sound Transit now joins Metro, Community, Kitsap, Piece, and Everett transit systems in the creation of a region-wide free ride network for young people.
The council adopted a policy dropping youth ride fares for ages 6 to 18 on county transit from $1.50 to zero, allowing the nearly 329,000 students enrolled in public and private schools in King County to ride buses, light rail, streetcars and water taxis for free. Free ridership ends on a teen’s 19th birthday.
To learn about how to board for free, go to Freeyouthtransitpass.com.
Mobility and environmental stewardship
King County Executive Dow Constantine believes the decision will not only “connect youth to the freedom of transit,” but also reduce carbon emissions.
“Knowing the ease of riding transit to get around means today’s youth will be tomorrow’s transit commuters,” Constantine said in an announcement prior to the vote. “That’s good for traffic, the economy, and the environment. Transportation is our biggest source of climate emissions locally, and choosing clean, efficient transit is good for you and the planet.”
For several years, King County Metro has provided free ORCA passes to middle and high school students for use during the school year — and extended free rides in summer for youth in need. However, only about 22,000 students hold school year ORCA cards. Policy writers hope making rides free to all students will dramatically increase youth ridership for all public transportation modalities, including buses, light rail, streetcars, and water taxis.
Move Ahead Washington
Under Washington State Department of Transportation’s Move Ahead Washington funding package passed by the legislature earlier this year, King County became eligible for an estimated $31.7 million if the county adopted a zero-fare-for-youth policy before Oct 1. Move Ahead Washington will spend $17 billion on transit, highway, pedestrian and other transportation improvements between now and 2038.
King County’s cut of Move Ahead Washington is a huge increase from the $10 million in annual fare revenue that Metro typically receives from WSDOT for youth. Today’s vote met the WSDOT deadline and immediately set the new year-round program in motion.
Increasing youth ridership
Youth ridership went up substantially (35 percent) when the school-year free ride ORCA card was introduced several years ago, although all public transit saw a dramatic ridership decline during pandemic shutdowns. Use of public transportation is slowly rising again, and the year-round youth ride free program is expected to keep those numbers trending up. King County Council member Dave Upthegrove who co-sponsored the new policy, expects the program to open work, activity and education doors for teens.
“We know that the ability to move throughout our region easily and efficiently improves opportunity in life,” he said in a release. “This is as true for our county’s youth as it is for our workers.
A boost for engagement?
And at least one advocate hopes the new program will lead to higher rates of youth civic involvement.
Samara Pendley, a youth member of the Metro Mobility Equity Cabinet, explained her hope this way: “I believe (transit) freedom leads to more community engagement. I feel youth should always be supported to join the bigger picture of making effective decisions and this pass represents the changes being made to open up space and consider future generations in county processes.”