The case for free transit for college students

A recent study out of Rutgers University dealt with the effect that past behavior has on current transit habits. It found that the effect was significant — even if people later moved to neighborhoods with less access to transit, they were still more likely to take it if they had done so in the past.

The study found this correlation is the strongest in young people, from early 20s to late 30s. One of the suggestions at the end of the study is that in order to capitalize on this phenomenon, colleges should offer free or reduced-cost transit passes to their students.

There are, of course, some colleges that already do this. The University of Pittsburgh offers free ridership on all Port Authority Transit buses and trolleys to students, noting that it will allow you to avoid the aggravation and expense of owning a car. The same goes for the University of Texas at Austin, Ohio State University, and others across the country.

 

Pittsburgh Port Authority bus
One of the many Port Authority Transit buses that University of Pittsburgh students have available to them for free thanks to the university’s program. (Photo from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The benefits of successful programs are massive for not only the students, but the university and the transit agency as well. They have been detailed at length in other studies — Donald Shoup’s “Unlimited Access” comes to mind — but a major one is the increased ridership that results.

With ridership down almost universally across the country and the future of funding increasingly up in the air, the extra boost from college students is more relevant than ever. For transit agencies, the increase in ridership and resulting fewer empty seats reduces the operating cost per ride and the total operating subsidies.

Of course, it isn’t actually free. In a mandatory program, like Pittsburgh’s, it is typically included in tuition and fees. This allows for the fares to be much lower for the students than in other programs, such as SEPTA’s University Pass. This pass is only discounted 10 percent, and requires students to go out of their way to obtain it, making it far less likely to be used.

 

SEPTA bus in Philadelphia
Students at Philadelphia universities can access these SEPTA buses at a 10% discount. (Photo from Philly Mag)

Given the Rutgers study on past behavior, successful adoption of these passes across all universities could mean big things for transit, and for society at large. The easier it is for college students to use the transit around them, the more they will do so — and the more they will continue to do so in the future, regardless of where they live.

Of course, there are many factors that go into transit ridership, and improvements in infrastructure (both frequency and coverage) are going to be essential. Luckily, an increased ridership can often lead to better service overall.

Measures like this that make transit more enticing to use, especially to a group already predisposed to do so, are a no-brainer. We’ve got a few other suggestions for ways to do that, but you can read about that over here.