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Bay Area Transit Agencies to Study Impacts of Free Student Passes

A two-year pilot project will study the transit use of students who are given free passes across the San Francisco Bay Area. The project includes more than a dozen transit agency partners.

A BART train stopped at a station.
The Bay Area is joining a movement to bring free transit to students and others as more agencies realign themselves around transportation equity.

Up to 50,000 college students and residents of affordable housing are eligible for the Clipper BayPass, which will offer free rides on Bay Area buses, trains and ferries across a nine-county region. The two-year pilot project is a joint effort between the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

“The program is designed to measure the potential impacts on travel habits of having access to an all-system pass,” said Chris Filippi, a communications spokesman for BART.

John Goodwin, assistant director for communications at the MTC, echoed the that two-year pilot will be useful in understanding how the students or others with access to free transit use it differently than those with more limited access.

The project is also notable for its collaboration across so many transportation agencies. In addition to MTC and BART, the partners include ferry services, CalTrain, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA); Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit); SamTrans; Marin Transit; Petaluma Transit; Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART); Solano County Transit (SolTrans); Sonoma County Transit; Union City Transit; Fairfield and Suisun Transit (FAST); Santa Rosa CityBus; Tri Delta Transit; Vacaville City Coach; Napa Valley Transportation Authority; Western Contra Costa Transit Authority (WestCAT); Union City Transit; Contra Costa Transportation Authority; and Bay Wheels.

“This pilot program is an exciting step toward fare coordination among transit agencies and toward making it easy for organizations to prioritize and promote transit as the preferred mode of transportation in the Bay Area,” said BART Board President Rebecca Saltzman in a statement. “Studying a regional fare pass using students and residents of affordable housing communities makes clear our commitment to building a more equitable fare system.”

The project is initially open to all students from Santa Rosa Junior College, and will expand to about 25 percent from other area higher learning institutions, such as San Jose State University; University of California, Berkeley; and San Francisco State University; as well as residents from the affordable housing community MidPen Housing.

“Bottom line is that Clipper BayPass definitely is an example of collaboration among transit agencies,” said Goodwin, adding the project is the first implementation from recommendations made by the Fare Coordination and Integration Study and Business Case, an 18-month initiative also led by MTC and BART.

And at least in the near term, it’s not just students getting deals on transit. BART is offering 50 percent off rides in September in recognition of the agency’s 50th anniversary. BART is also back to full service, as it rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic slowdown.

Other transit agencies have been experimenting with offering free or reduced fare transit to students. Last summer, Los Angeles Metro began moving forward with a plan to make transit free for K-12 and college students, as well as low-income riders. Known as the GoPass Program, in the 2021-22 school year, the program had 51 K-12 school districts and 14 community colleges participating, according to LA Metro documents. The pilot, now in its second year, has more than 20 additional school districts participating and two additional community colleges.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.


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