This commentary was originally published in the May 1, 2022 edition of Passenger Transport, the official magazine of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

This fall, Washington will become the first state in the country where youth can ride transit for free until their nineteenth birthday. This transformation will unlock opportunity, spur innovation and grow support for public transportation.

The Move Ahead Washington package, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee and led by Washington State Sen. Marko Liias and State Rep. Jake Fey, delivers $16 billion in transportation funding and includes much more than fully subsidized fares for youth. It takes broad steps to provide safe, reliable transit; address the historic inequity and inaccessibility in our existing transportation system; and reduce emissions to move us toward a sustainable future.

However, it’s free youth fares that both excite me the most about Washington’s future and remind me of my own past. Growing up without much money, I remember how big of a difference it made when a bus operator let me keep my 20-cent fare. Funding free transit for youth gives young people their own passport to education, jobs, museums, parks, school and more. They will be fully vested in co-creating community on transit and across our region.

In some ways, free youth fares increase the efficiency of programs that are already in place and build upon what works. For example, some school districts in King County give free transit passes to thousands of their middle and high school students to provide them with safe, reliable transportation. However, not all districts offered this benefit, and many students previously didn’t meet the eligibility criteria. Outside of the school year, we also heard from young people about the positive impact of pilot programs that connect youth from lower-income households with free transit over the summer.

As a father, I see time and again my teenagers solve problems differently than I would. Unburdened by—or even unaware of—how things were done before, they naturally come up with fresh approaches, push boundaries and use technology in new ways. While we think we’re innovative at Metro and we stress that the best ideas come from community, we are only a few months away from receiving an unprecedented infusion of ingenuity from our youngest customers. I can’t wait to build a better system alongside this new generation of transit riders.

Introducing all youth to the freedom of transit—the ability to get to a part-time job, see friends or explore without needing to ask for a few dollars or a ride—can play a big role in how together we will plan our future. Now, it’s on us to meet that opportunity by delivering a convenient, reliable and stress-free  system that welcomes youth and centers their perspectives in building what’s next.

Terry White is general manager of King County Metro, the Puget Sound region’s largest public transportation agency. Metro provides bus, paratransit, vanpool, and water taxi services, and operates Seattle Streetcar, Sound Transit Link light rail, and Sound Transit Express bus service.