This op-ed originally appeared in The Seattle Medium on Aug. 29, 2022.
Although we as adults sometimes hate to admit it, this generation of youth are doing many things better than we ever did—from concern for the environment, to cultural awareness, to technological know-how. The freedom to move is no different. My right of passage was borrowing the keys to a gasoline-powered vehicle. This fall, this generation’s freedom will come in form of a Free Youth Transit Pass that unlocks clean, green public transportation across King County and beyond.
Thanks to the Move Ahead Washington statewide funding package, every young person 18 and younger will be able to ride free on King County Metro starting September 1. And, from one parent to another, you’re welcome. Finally, your kids won’t need to ask for a couple bucks or a ride to get to friends, grandparents, jobs, parks, museums and countless other destinations.
While many students took Metro to class during past school years, we’re now welcoming all youth to take transit all year long. Since school-issued cards used to expire every year, added benefits of free youth transit include reducing the plastic waste of expired cards and cutting schools’ administrative burden to distribute new cards. We’re also working to develop future ways for youth to forego cards entirely in favor of affixing a “smart sticker” to their student ID, tapping their smartphone or using a “wearable” such as a bracelet.
So how will it work this fall? Starting Sept. 1, all youth can ride transit for free. Riders age 13 and older are encouraged to use their Youth ORCA card if they have one. (Youth ORCA cards issued by schools during the 2021-22 academic year will continue to work through June 30, 2023.) Tap your card to board and, just on Sound Transit light rail, tap when you exit, too. You can also show the driver your current high school or middle school student ID.
Importantly, youth who do not have a Youth ORCA card or a student ID can still ride for free. Young people and their families count on Metro to provide safe, reliable service and we will never deny service to youth.
Free transit for youth is a historic moment that reminds us of the values that transit embodies and the bright future it makes possible. This generation wants downtowns and neighborhoods that are built for people, not vehicles. They understand the importance of green spaces to enjoy and dedicated paths to bike, walk, roll and run. And they understand how important it is that all young people—no matter their background—can access opportunities.
This generation—and future generations—will also unfairly bear the impact of the devastation being done to our environment. While transit has always been green, the urgency of the climate crisis led Metro to commit to transition to a 100% zero-emission bus fleet by 2035 or sooner. King County is leading the way, driving needed innovation in the private sector and sharing our blueprints with transit agencies around the world so they can follow suit.
Getting people out of cars and electrifying transit are also essential to cutting local pollution and reducing the instances of related illnesses like asthma, cancer and heart disease. South King County has higher pollution levels and is where more of our BIPOC residents and residents with lower incomes live. That’s why Metro’s first order of new-generation of zero-emission, battery-electric buses are already being introduced in south King County, bringing cleaner, healthier air and new well-paying jobs.
In addition to Metro, youth can also ride free on Community Transit, Everett Transit, Kitsap Transit, Pierce Transit, Seattle Streetcar and Sound Transit. Starting Oct. 1, youth will also be able to take Washington State Ferries for free as a cyclist, pedestrian or vehicle passenger. Together, youth can fully benefit from our integrated, regional network of buses, ferries, light rail, on-demand services, paratransit vans, streetcar, water taxis and more.
As we head into a new school year and an exciting new era, allow me to be one of the first to say to the youth of our region, “Welcome aboard!”
Michelle Allison is King County Metro’s Deputy General Manager. Visit FreeYouthTransitPass.com to learn more about free youth transit.