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Santa Rosa made city buses free to students in July. The program appears to be a success

As Santa Rosa CityBus seeks to maintain public transit during the ongoing pandemic, student passengers are giving ridership a boost after the city made travel free for students through their senior year of high school.

The program, a one-year pilot, so far seems to be a success, according to transit officials, marking a rare bright spot in a dark time for public transportation.

Overall, the bus system was at 61% of it ridership before the pandemic by the end of November, Yuri Koslen, Santa Rosa City Transit Planner, said in a Dec. 15 interview. The bright spot is that youth ridership exceeded pre-pandemic levels by roughly 20% in October and 27% in November, Koslen said.

Paid for by grants from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Transportation Fund for Clean Air, Santa Rosa began one year of free bus trips for students up to the 12th grade on July 1.

Since then, the hulking blue and silver city buses carried young residents at least 80,000 times from then until Nov. 30. Youth ridership has leveled out at around 20,000 trips a month.

Many of those rides are students traveling to and from schools, though the free rides aren’t restricted to such transit. The most popular buses for students are Route 6, which has stops at Comstock Middle School and Piner High School.

Another popular line with young people is Route 1, which connects Coddingtown Mall to the transit station in downtown Santa Rosa with stops along Mendocino Avenue.

Students through eighth grade do not need to show a student ID to get a free ride, Koslen said, but high school students do. The transit agency found that bus drivers were comfortable separating middle school and high school students by glance, he said.

Prior to the free rides, it cost $1.50 to take the bus one way, 17-year-old Ronnie, who did not want to give her last name, said. On Dec. 20, with schools closed for the Christmas holiday, Ronnie waited for a bus toward home at the transit center in downtown Santa Rosa, her arms full of new books.

Ronnie rode the bus to Maria Carrillo High School even when she had to pay, and noted that though the fare was low, riding to school five days a week adds up. With 180 school days in California’s public school calendar, it would cost a student $540 a year to ride the bus between campus and home twice a day.

Ronnie said that since the fare for students was suspended she has had a lot more company this year, as she uses CityBus to reach her current school, the private Victory Christian Academy in Rincon Valley.

“There are a lot of students riding the bus now,” she said.

And not just on school days.

The free rides have expanded the range of Santa Rosa’s youth, advocates for the program said, allowing them to roam the city without needing money or rides from parents.

The same day The Press Democrat spoke to Ronnie, a group of four boys took turns jumping skateboards off the curb until a bus driver told them it was time to board. They said they enjoyed riding for free but didn’t have time to speak with a reporter otherwise. They had to catch a Route 1 bus.

But the impact is greatest on school children, particularly those from low-income and economically disadvantaged households, Lacinda Moore, a teacher at Comstock Middle School, said.

“My poorest students are riding the bus and there’s one less thing these families have to worry about,” Moore said. She recalled a student in one of her classes who did not own a cell phone using the school’s landline to call home, see what the family needed from a food bank, and then take the bus there to pick up the supplies before taking another bus home.

For many students, Moore said, the free bus promotes independence. “My mom was a single mom and she always said ‘if you want to go somewhere, get on a bus and go there.’ I find it really empowering these kids have this autonomy.”

The free rides are particularly valuable for students with intellectual disabilities, because it can give them “independent living skills,” she said. “If they can learn to ride the bus then that can be an adaptive learning feature. And it can get them used to (public transit) and demystify it for them.”

Moore hoped the city would consider the program after the one year pilot run ends, she said, even if it has to find funding internally instead of through regional grant programs. The bus rides promote city goals of connectivity and public transit-oriented communities, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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