Anyone 18 years old or under can ride Muni for free starting Aug. 15, just in time for the start of the school year.
There will be no application process, and those who meet the age requirement are eligible regardless of financial status.
Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Myrna Melgar proposed the temporary program, which will last one year at a cost of $2 million, as part of the budget proposal for the current fiscal year. It’s seen by some transit advocates as a watered-down alternative to the larger pilot passed and funded by the Board of Supervisors in June that would have allowed all riders to travel fare-free this summer. Breed vetoed the program shortly after its approval at the board, citing potential impacts to service, reliability and overcrowding should the system be suddenly overwhelmed by riders traveling for free.
Supporters of Free Muni for Youth say it guarantees mobility to The City’s youngest residents, and they estimate it will allow more than 100,000 people to ride for free. According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, studies show that exposure to transit while young leads to continued usage as an adult, as well as a lower likelihood of purchasing a car.
“It goes a little to show the system is listening to youth,” said Alexander Hirji, a 17-year-old member of SFMTA’s Youth Transportation Advisory Board. “It’s a more equitable way of aiding those who cannot pay for the fare and increasing familiarity with youth with the system.”
The program comes at a time when The City is wrestling with issues around frequency of transit service and whether existing fare discount programs make Muni accessible to those who rely on public transportation the most.
Enrollment barriers removed
The Youth Commission, a body of young San Franciscans that advises the Board of Supervisors and mayor, and groups like South of Market Community Action Network, a neighborhood non-profit that organizes on behalf of San Francisco’s working class and immigrant communities, have long advocated Free Muni for Youth. A more limited version of the program was tested in 2013 for low- and moderate-income youth in San Francisco between ages 5 and 17 before being made permanent two years later.
An expanded version that would have raised the eligibility age to 18 and given access to students in special education and English learner programs up to 22 years old, was struck from the budget in April 2020 in order to cut costs to survive the pandemic.
About 39,350 people use the existing Free Muni for Youth program, according to SFMTA, representing about 72 percent of those eligible. SFMTA said every San Francisco Unified School District student had been alerted at the start of each school year to enroll, with no proof of income required. Students enrolled were sent Clipper cards that automatically renewed with free service through a person’s 19th birthday.
Still, many students said they have struggled to know how to enroll in the program. Arsema Asfaw, 16, found the application for the existing program inaccessible and the website hard to navigate. But once she was enrolled, she said it helped her family a lot to not worry about paying for the bus.
“The City has a recurring issue where they have really great existing programs but they don’t invest in making sure they’re known,” said Asfaw, who serves on the Youth Commission. “Having it be a universal thing is a push in the right direction in making public transportation for all people.”
Participants in the new program won’t need to carry a Clipper Card, and fare inspectors will be directed not to request proof of payment from anyone who looks to be eligible. That said, SFMTA does recommend older teenagers carry identification just in case.
If they want to ride the cable cars, though, they’ll need to obtain a pass from the SFMTA.
Additionally, public transit officials plan to launch a massive informational campaign that will reach SFUSD schools and private schools through classrooms, social media outreach, direct mail and more.
The prospect of running into fare inspectors became much less daunting for Asfaw once Muni was covered.
“They don’t usually arrest kids, but you never know what might happen,” Asfaw said. Under a broad youth program with no registration, she added, “It’s less of a chance that SFMTA police talk to me.”
Amara Santos, 20, benefited from the free program but encountered dozens of fare inspectors, often in less wealthy areas. “It was pretty nerve-racking to take the bus even when I knew I had the right documents,” she said, noting she is visibly Latinx.
Service frequency top concern
Students also told The Examiner that even if Muni was free, it might not take them where they need to go in a timely manner. Hirji says youth like himself often experience buses being too full to stop and pick them up, or have crammed onto Muni when it is available.
“There really needs to be a follow-through in increasing service to meet that need,” Hirji said. “I see it as almost useless if there’s no actual service. How am I going to benefit from free fares if I can’t get to school by Muni?”
Asfaw’s typical journey to school on Muni was affected by service cuts. Before the pandemic, she would take the 21-Hayes to the 43-Masonic from her Hayes Valley home to the Bay School of San Francisco in the Presidio.
When her school returned to in-person learning, the 21-Hayes was suspended indefinitely and the 43-Hayes route had been shortened. Her dad, who drives for Uber, would drop her off and pick her up, foregoing some income. The case remains the same for both routes.
Historically, students have packed onto popular lines like the 29-Sunset, M-Ocean View and 38-Geary, which may see even more ridership with the free program. Joanna Lam, an incoming senior at Lowell High School, called for SFMTA to create a rapid line for the 29-Sunset to reduce crowds.
Cal Kinoshita, an incoming Lowell High School junior, is also concerned that the San Francicsco Unified School District’s recent change in class start times could mean nearby schools start around the same time and make buses more crowded.
“It’s not pleasant for the non-students on the bus either to see a mob of middle and high schoolers get on the bus,” Lam said. “I think a lot of youth are looking to see full service come back hopefully in time for the school year. That’s a main concern, how am I going to get to school?”
SFMTA doesn’t plan to bring back full service by the time the school year starts, though the agency has said it’s working hard to coordinate restoration of lines with the return to in-person learning in the SFUSD, even as that date continues to be a moving target.
The transit agency beefed up frequency on the 29-Sunset and 44-O’Shaugnessy earlier this year. Additionally, SFMTA says it will reintroduce school-tripper buses, additional vehicles to carry more middle- and high-schoolers after school.
Many students said the M-Ocean View running as a bus rather than train has compromised their mobility.
SFMTA announced on July 15 that it would restore the M-Ocean View route to full train service on August 14, just in time for San Francisco State University to return to a hybrid version of in-person learning this fall.
Transitional age youth left out
Santos found some relief as a high schooler under the limited program. But she’s 20 now, which makes her ineligible as she takes Muni to work and City College of San Francisco. She’ll soon transfer to San Francisco State University, which in 2017 started offering students a free Muni pass that’s valid only during the semester.
Santos has struggled to adapt to the lack of free rides under the program while starting from scratch as an adult building financial stability. Her situation illustrates one reason why the Youth Commission wants to see the program expanded to transitional age youth (TAY), defined as ages 16 to 24.
“I think I struggle like many TAY with economic resources, health insurance, basic necessities that people definitely underscore in adulthood,” Santos said. “They don’t talk about the difficulties and accessibility in getting it at such a young age. I’m really just kind of stuck right now. In an ideal world, Muni would be free for everyone.”
Lam believes that in that absence, SFMTA should next expand free fares to TAY. By the end of next year, Muni will be another expense for Lam, as it is for Santos.
But she added, “I’m definitely an advocate for Free Muni for All. I would like to see that as a long-term goal.”
Kinoshita thinks Muni should, at the very least, be free for all students in The City, especially City College of San Francisco students. The right to education should include getting to school, he said.
“I believe that it’s a city’s job not only to give children public education but to get there,” Kinoshita said. “It should always be a goal to make sure everyone has free public transportation.”