Free Muni for kids makes sense

Pub date April 17, 2012

EDITORIAL San Francisco is a transit-first city that has spent millions of dollars over the years trying to convince people to ride Muni. And yet, one of the best and most effective ways to get people out of their cars is facing surprising opposition.

Sup. David Campos has been pushing for months to get Muni to allow young people to ride free. It makes immediate sense: The school district, perpetually short on funds, is cutting back bus service (which is preferable to cutting back classroom instruction). For low-income families, the disappearance of a yellow school bus, which offered transportation free of charge, is a financial obstacle — and the last thing anyone needs is another obstacle to keep kids out from coming to school.

Reduced-fare youth passes are already available — but they aren’t easy to get. Parents need to show up in person, during the day, with a birth certificate, passport or other government ID; that’s hard for a lot of working parents. The school district ought to be able to sell the passes, but right now nobody has the resources to make that happen.

It’s possible to create a system to identify and offer free service to low-income families, but again, unless it’s done through the schools, where that data is already kept (for reduced-price lunches), we’re talking about creating a complicated bureaucracy that isn’t remotely necessary.

According to Campos, the cost of providing free service for all youth is only $8 million a year — and he’s identified regional transit funds to pay for much of it. Muni has a deep budget deficit already, and anything that costs more money has to be carefully evaluated, but there are so many ways to cover the price tag. (Why is Muni still paying the Police Department tens of millions of dollars to get cops on the buses when that’s part of the department’s job already?)

And this goes beyond Ethe very clear needs of low-income families. Getting young people onto the buses is an excellent way to convince the next generation of San Franciscans that it’s not necessary to own and operate a motor vehicle in the city. The message is already getting out — according to an April 5, 2012 study by the Frontier Group, the number of car miles driven by people between 16 and 34 dropped 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. That trend crosses class lines — in fact, among young people who earned more than $70,000 a year, public transit use rose 100 percent over the decade and biking by 122 percent.

In other words, it’s proving to be a massive challenge to get older people out of their cars, but the kids are already moving in that direction. With a little help and push, San Francisco could make giant strides in the next few years.

And a significant reduction in car use would more than pay for the cost of free Muni for youth. Every car off the road means less road maintenance, less air pollution — and perhaps more important, less congestion to slow down the buses. Faster buses means more riders and more fares (and less money spent paying drivers to sit in traffic).

So it’s a great idea that pays for itself and helps the environment. And yet some city officials (led by Sup. Scott Wiener) still resist. They should back off; the city should move to approve this plan immediately.