New study finds SacRT’s fare-free for youth program successful for student ridership

February 25, 2021 RT News

A new study released by the University of Texas, which evaluated the Sacramento Regional Transit District’s (SacRT) “RydeFreeRT” fare-free transit for youth program, found the innovative program achieved multiple key goals to increase transit ridership and school attendance.

In Sep. 2019, SacRT launched the RydeFreeRT program, which provides fare-free transit for youth in grades TK through 12. With RydeFreeRT, students and youth can ride the entire SacRT transit network for free.

The program is a result of SacRT Board Director and Sacramento City Councilmember Jay Schenirer’s effort to combat chronic absenteeism in schools and support young people’s overall success. The City of Sacramento made a $1 million investment in the initiative, signaling its continued efforts to increase positive outcomes for Sacramento youth. The program was extended for a second year through Sep. 30, 2021, and the City has committed to continue its investment annually.

The study, “RydeFreeRT Evaluation Study: User Demographics, Attitudes, and Impacts on Travel Behavior,” was funded by Sutter Health. Every three years, Sutter Health conducts Community Health Needs Assessments to determine the unique needs and challenges for each community Sutter serves. Sutter’s investments with the study directly connect to the priority area of basic needs, which includes supporting access to education, food security, housing and economic security.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin administered and analyzed 5,600 student surveys before and after several months of the program’s implementation.

Key findings from the study include:

• Increased ridership:

The study found a statistically significant increase in the share of students who reported using SacRT to get to and from school, as well as a corresponding statistically significant decrease in the share of students reporting traveling to and from school in an automobile.*

* This finding is in contrast to prior transportation research showing that, when fares are decreased or eliminated, new transit riders tend to be pulled from slower modes such as walking and cycling, demonstrating that the program has potential to create a new generation of public transit riders.

• More access:

Students who reported using SacRT also reported that they can more easily access important non-school destinations because of the RydeFreeRT program.

• Afterschool transportation:

Many students who did not ride SacRT regularly to get to school reported they are using public transit more to get to afterschool and non-school activities because of the RydeFreeRT program.

The RydeFreeRT program was well received, pre-COVID-19, by February 2020, student ridership increased by 127%. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, students took advantage of the fare-free program as SacRT provided more than 1 million rides in 2020.

“We saw a huge jump in student ridership when we launched the fare-free transit program, proving there is a real need to get students to school and other activities throughout the region,” said SacRT General Manager/CEO Henry Li. “We are excited to see so many students take advantage of the program and hope to keep them as life-long transit riders.”

“RydeFreeRT has clearly had a positive impact on Sacramento youth,” said Sacramento Councilmember Jay Schenirer. “This program has multiple ‘bottom lines,’ including helping to combat climate change. It’s rare to find a public program that has a ripple effect like this one.”

“A lack of access to basic services is among the top health indicators affecting disadvantaged communities. Unfortunately for many that includes barriers getting to school and other life-enriching activities for young people,” said Keri Thomas, vice president of external affairs for Sutter Health Valley Area. “The data shows that when we lower barriers, we can help make a difference in changing that trajectory.”

With distance learning and many community-based institutions temporarily closed to the public due to the pandemic, SacRT continues to find creative ways to communicate about the RydeFreeRT program by partnering with school districts and local organizations. In 2021, SacRT will expand outreach efforts to reach limited English speaking populations as well as disadvantaged communities.

To view the full study and learn more about SacRT’s fare-free program for youth and students, visit rydefreert.com