In a region of 3.2 million residents, young people ages 6 to 18 years old can ride the public buses for free in Orange County – anywhere and anytime the buses run – for the foreseeable future. 

It follows Orange County transit officials unanimously voting Monday to permanently keep their Youth Ride Free program, a bus pass initiative which started last September, by incorporating it into their policy around bus fare – rates aren’t expected to increase, as state money subsidizes the free rides.

The decision was made by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) Board of Directors during their Feb. 14 meeting, with directors Lisa Bartlett, Andrew Do, and Steve Jones absent.

Leaders at the transportation authority say they hope the decision moves the county closer to having a more dominant public transit culture in a metropolitan area which, in many parts, is built around the car as the dominant mode of transportation.

The free bus pass program has already spiked certain ridership numbers to noticeable effect. 

Youth ridership was estimated to account for around 2-3% of fare purchases across the bus system before the pandemic. 

Now that number is 10% with the help of the free fare program, said Darrell Johnson, the CEO of OCTA, at the Board of Directors’ Feb. 14 meeting. 

Ridership across the bus system has also been increasing on a weekly basis in general, said Sam Kaur, the agency’s manager of revenue and grant administration. 

OCTA board members said the program may make younger generations more confident in their local public transit system – and combat what has been a years-long ridership decline at the agency.

Click here for information on how kids can get a pass or how parents can request one for them.

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Officials at Los Angeles County’s transit agency, Metro, allowed free rides for nearly two years when it stopped collecting bus fares in 2020 as a pandemic health safety measure.

A map of Orange County’s bus routes.

The agency logged about 281 million free bus trips over the time that followed, and Metro’s move was noted as one of the largest, if inadvertent, free transit experiments in the U.S

Officials in Los Angeles County have since restarted fare collection this year, but have also started a free bus ride program for students at participating schools. Orange County transit officials, meanwhile, have moved to make permanent their Youth Ride Free program which was set to expire toward the end of this month, on Feb. 28.

“Our proposal overall, at this point, is to add it to the fare policy program on a permanent basis,” Johnson told directors at the Feb. 14 meeting.

“We believe we are the first large transit agency in the region to offer and fund an ongoing program for youth 18 and under to ride the bus for free,” said agency spokesperson Eric Carpenter in a Wednesday email.

The Orange County bus system is widely seen as a social service to the poor – serving those who can’t afford cars or live in working-class central and north county communities with more grid-like street infrastructure where bus service is more frequent and reliable. 

Ridership of the Orange County bus system has been highest in central county.

Usage of the Youth Ride Free program since September has been highest in the north and central county cities of Santa Ana, Anaheim and Garden Grove, according to OCTA staff speaking at the Feb. 14 meeting.

Carpenter said OCTA typically sees ridership increases after free or reduced fare programs. 

An Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) bus seconds away from taking off after picking up students and others at a stop in Santa Ana near West First Street and South Flower Street. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

“Specific to this program, in the first four and half months of the Youth Ride Free program, approximately 672,000 youth riders used the pass. Projected out for a full year, we see a net gain of ridership among youth of about 200,000 trips. That’s even as overall ridership has sharply fallen,” Carpenter said.

Children ages 5 and under already get to ride the bus for free under current OCTA fare policies. 

Continuing the program will come at a net bus fare revenue loss for the agency, but that’s not a concern for OCTA staff. 

Based on rider data gathered during the nearly five-month period of the program, staff estimate an annual revenue decrease of about $2.2 million based on an estimated 1.7 million boardings per year. 

The agency, in subsidizing the bus trips for children, will backfill that lost revenue with state funding from CalTrans’ Low Carbon Transit Operations Program – the same funding source that kicked off the program in September.

The free youth fare program will also extend over to riders of the county’s specialized transit system for people with disabilities, and would result in a revenue loss of $23,000 a year. 

Staff, during the meeting, called it a “small” financial impact. 

OCTA Board Directors’ decision had strong support from young people who called into the Feb. 14 meeting to speak.

“We know youth are using this program not only to get to school, but they’re using this to get to work, to get to their paid internships, because many young people and their families have lost their jobs due to the pandemic,” said Hector Bustos, a Santa Ana activist speaking as part of the Santa Ana Youth Ballot community organization.

The group started in 2020 to get young people civically engaged. The group’s advocacy around free public transit began last year, Bustos said in a separate interview with Voice of OC. 

Many young people during the pandemic have “had to take the responsibility of picking up a job, maybe two jobs, to financially support their families,” Bustos said at the Feb. 14 meeting.

Other things Bustos said his group heard is that young people “are using these passes to get to doctors’ appointments, to get mental health services.” He also said these people may go on to become “life-long riders.” 

“We know this program will continue to encourage people above the age of 18 to use public transportation,” Bustos said. 

In a phone interview, Eli Flores, a 19-year-old Santa Ana Community College freshman, has used the bus for five years by her count.

Flores’ parents, a grocery store manager and factory worker, work 10-12 hours a day, and clock in as early as 5 a.m. on some days. 

Under this type of schedule, getting to school by car was not an option because the family only has one car, Flores said.

“Sometimes my mom would risk it and drop us off,” said Flores, who would take the bus for a cost he considered expensive but necessary, before the Youth Ride Free program. 

Students and other people wait at a bus stop near Santa Ana High School on Feb. 16, 2022. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

Santa Ana High School student Katherine Leon, 17, moved farther away from school due to rising housing costs, which lengthened her commute.

With parents working early hours, Leon at times had to walk up to 40 minutes each way. 

Free bus fare, Leon said, “helps my family and I save money so we can use the money on more important things, instead of using $2 every day” 

“In the morning there are more students than adults on the bus. It helps a lot of us,” Leon said. 

Though transportation equity advocates like Peter Garcia, a member of the Santa Ana Active Streets Coalition, say the program still has barriers to shed, such as the paperwork required for students to get a program pass.

OCTA officials are recommending that youth apply for the pass through their individual school. But parents can also fill out a request form on the agency’s website or can visit the OCTA Store at 600 S. Main St. in Orange.

“It often takes time to fill out forms, take that form to the school, pick up the pass at school, all those things take time,” Garcia said. “Time costs more for the poor than the affluent, so it could be that this is a valuable resource but poor parents may simply not have the time to deal with the bureaucratic steps of getting free fares for their students.”

Some board directors expressed their doubts about the free bus rides prior to the vote. 

Director Joe Muller, also the mayor of Dana Point, questioned why the agency was paying for kids’ bus trips to school which school districts should be paying for with yellow school bus service. 

“Is that not the job of the school district to provide bus service for students?” Muller said. 

Young people in public comments and board directors like Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento noted that kids don’t just need the bus to go to school anymore – they need it to go to work, to sports practice and events, internships and extracurricular activities. 

The free bus passes are “also providing support to those (children’s) families,” Sarmiento said.

“What we’re trying to say is that all of the youth in the county – regardless of what their use is – should have the ability to access this transportation,” said Johnson, the agency’s CEO.

Ridership along the county bus system has declined over the years – and at a time saw one of the worst rates of decline in Southern California. 

The ridership drop prompted a 2016 overhaul by OCTA of the entire system, cutting service in south county areas where ridership was low and reallocating service to central county areas where ridership was higher. 

Bus service cuts are seen by public transportations advocates as something of a paradox – often they result from low ridership, yet ridership is also known to drop after a line sees service reductions, making it less frequent and therefore less reliable. 

In the past six months, more than 1 million trips have been taken on the county buses with OCTA’s Youth Ride Free and college pass programs, the agency has stated throughout multiple news releases over the last month. 

OCTA board directors like Katrina Foley, also an elected Orange County Supervisor, at the Feb. 14 meeting said the “ultimate goal” is “creating a public transit-going culture” where “people can be confident in the public transit system taking them to school, work, etc.”

Kris Fortin, a writer and active transportation advocate for the Santa Ana Active Streets community group, said it will take more than free bus fare to prompt a true shift toward public transit use in the county. 

It will take long-term investments like changes to infrastructure – isolating more bus lanes so that coach operators with dozens of passengers don’t get stuck in the same traffic as cars carrying one or two people. 

Prior strategies to bring in new bus riders “have failed because they haven’t centered the current riders,” Fortin said. 

“There are already riders you’re losing,” Fortin said. “How about you try to keep them first, and then you will get new riders if you actually invest in broader systems.”

Director of Photography Julie Leopo contributed reporting.

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