The San Diego Association of Governments announced on Friday that those age 18 and under in San Diego can ride public transit for free beginning May 1st.
According to the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (SDMTS), all MTS and North County Transit District services, including all local buses, trolleys, the Coaster, and the Sprinter line with a youth PRONTO card or associated app account. Proof of eligibility must be carried at all times if ages 5 or above, with the program set to end in June 2023.
The Youth Opportunity Pass pilot program was first approved by SANDAG in October 2021, to help help improve both mass transit ridership and to help serve underserved areas.
“Providing free transit passes for youth is the single greatest investment our region can make to ensure that transit ridership grows in the future,” said San Diego City Councilwoman Vivian Moreno in October. “Free youth transit passes also have an immediate benefit of connecting youth to school, work, internships, and other education and career opportunities. The community has been fighting for these youth opportunity passes for years, and their persistence has paid off.”
With one way fares costing $2.50, those under 18 who use public transit to get to schools, work, and another places stand to save around $1,400 by the time the program ends next summer.
A test case for greater free public transportation access
However, besides using the free year of trips to help encourage younger generations to use public transit more, the pilot program also serves as a test case to see how popular the free fares would be and how much ridership would go up as a result. SANDAG has other public transit plans in the works, including a possible plan to make public transit free for all riders by 2031.
“San Diego ridership has gone way up in recent years,” light rail planner Alex Keeves told the Globe on Friday. “In terms of rail, and not including well-established subways like New York or the BART up in the Bay, San Diego has the fifth most light rail riders in the U.S. Only the Metro in LA, the Muni Metro in San Francisco, Portland, and Boston have more. Among non-underground rail systems, they are outdoing Dallas, Philadelphia, and other systems that are either older and much more established or have a larger system.”
“And they want to keep this up in the future, so that’s why this pilot program is starting up next month. Seed them in, and, based on how successful that is, expand free ridership for everyone. Upside is, anyone can ride when they want. And if it is New Year’s or going to a Padres game and having a few too many, that can be enticing for older people to eventually get. For younger people in their teens with not a lot of money, this is a free way to travel across the city.”
“The downside is that a lot of people are never going to ride this and really challenge it. ‘Why do I pay for this system I never use?’ And that is a very valid point and one that city officials need a good answer for, especially if ridership does not tick up during this pilot program. The last thing they want to do is defund public transit. And with this pass, there are no guarantees. San Diego will either have proof of concept for the future or may have to completely rethink the free model of public transit. They really don’t want to make taxpayers mad here, or rather, more mad than they currently are.”
The Youth Opportunity Pass pilot program is set to run from May 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023.