“Child, why are you running out of the house without bus money?” yells a concerned mother to her son.
“I don’t need any money, Muni is free if you’re under 18,” replies the son before he leaves the house.
Actually, it’s not. But it should be.
There is a common misconception that if you’re under 18, you don’t have to pay to ride Muni. As a result, young people are jumping on the bus, risking a fare-evasion fee. Several years ago, The City did create a Free Muni for Youth program, but there is a process that involves downloading an application from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s website and mailing it into the office. To qualify, families must be under a certain income level and provide proof of age to the SFMTA office. Once the application is received, it takes four to six weeks for approval.
We are proud of the investment The City has made in the program to date, but we believe the current system creates too many barriers for schools and families. As a city, we should make the investment in our kids and allow every child to ride the bus for free. When we do that, we will make good on the true name of the program.
Currently, the Free Muni program has 19,500 active users. The SFMTA defines active users as participants who are using their Clipper card at least twice a month. Overall, there are 35,000 youth registered, which means there are 15,500 youth either using the pass once a month, riding the bus without using their pass or for some reason they enrolled and are not riding Muni at all.
Let’s just fulfill the promise of the name and make it free.
As commissioners on the Board of Education who are deeply committed to create conditions for students to succeed, this is an opportunity issue for us. Today, we have guidance counselors, classroom teachers and school site principals committing time to help students and families complete the forms to register for the program.
When reaching out to our educators, one principal told us: “Our school works hard to ensure every kid gets a Clipper card. It’s tedious but necessary. We rely on these Clipper cards to more easily access the wonderful learning destinations in our city via field trips. It saves a bundle on transportation costs. Our ExCEL summer program pushed this effort.”
We commend the hard work of committed educators who continue to go above and beyond for our students, but we want our staff to use those talents to focus on reading scores and college graduation, not Muni forms. If we open up buses to all students, we also reduce the stigma that poor families have to face by constantly telling people how little they make and giving their information to The City in order to access services.
HOW MUCH WOULD IT COST?
The current program costs about $3 million annually. That is compared to a total SFMTA revenue of $1.5 billion. Given the incredible revenue The City makes on residential parking, parking tickets, parking meters and street sweeping tickets, I think we can withstand the cost of making public transit a right for the young people of San Francisco.
Making Muni free for youth under 18 and getting rid of the paperwork accomplishes several important goals that we should have as a city. As a baseline, we should believe in making our city accessible to our children, and Muni gives us the best opportunity to achieve that. We live in a city that people from all over the world want to visit. We send a statement to our families that we believe they should enjoy in it as well.
With ride-hail services dominating the transportation market, allowing youth to ride Muni for free gives us a better opportunity to create lifelong riders. Also, if their parents are taking advantage of the free service, they’re more likely to use it as a preferred mode of transportation. Most importantly, as a school district, getting rid of the paperwork frees up our educators and school leaders from tracking forms and allows them to get back to the important work of teaching our students. Since making this a public issue, we’ve heard countless stories about the incredible barriers school personnel are dealing with when it comes to supporting families to complete Free Muni.
We are urging our partners at City Hall and the SFMTA to consider the existing policy of making Muni free for youth that qualify. Let’s make it free for young people. Period.
Stevon Cook and Shamann Walton are commissioners on the San Francisco Board of Education. Walton currently serves as president of the board, and Cook was elected to the board in November 2016.