Sacramento Regional Transit’s Pioneering ‘Fare-Free Rides for Youth’ Program Offers Hope and Opportunity

August 10, 2023 SacRT Blog

With the school year starting, we at the Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) are again ramping up our groundbreaking RydeFreeRT program, putting more passes than ever into the hands of our region’s youth to ride fare-free.

Why are we pushing so hard on a ridership program?

Meet Hunter Nousaine and his family.

Nousaine, a Sacramento New Tech High School junior, uses a wheelchair due to a disability, but he isn’t letting that slow his exploration of life. He took advantage of one of our RydeFreeRT passes this summer to attend “Summer @ City Hall” in downtown Sacramento, a city-run program that teaches high schoolers about local government and civic life.

Nousaine says the City Hall program opened his eyes to possibilities for his future – and so did the fact that he was able to get there on his own thanks to SacRT’s RydeFreeRT program.

“I’m really interested in government and politics,” Hunter told us recently as he headed home on the bus. “I want to make an impact on the community. Maybe even represent the community one day.”

His parents are pleased as well. “We’re a three-person, one-vehicle family, and we have three places to be at once,” said his mom, Trish, who rides SacRT to work. “I told Hunter, ‘I’ll show you how to ride the train.’ He took it from there. It’s great for him.”

“Families like the Nousaine’s are the reason SacRT launched RydeFreeRT five years ago,” said SacRT General Manager/CEO Henry Li. “We understand that the investment we are making in our youth today will yield immeasurable results for the future by not only introducing a new generation of riders to transit – we are also connecting them to education, recreational and employment opportunities.’’

RydeFreeRT program allows an estimated 265,000 eligible youth who live or go to school in SacRT’s service area to ride free any day, all year, anywhere on SacRT buses, light rail trains and SmaRT Ride on-demand microtransit services. The program includes students from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as youth who are experiencing homelessness or taking part in foster programs.

National transit officials and others call SacRT’s youth pass program examples of innovative thinking as post-pandemic travel trends continue to evolve.

“SacRT’s RydeFreeRT program is a spark from which good things can happen,” said Art Guzzettii, vice president of mobility initiatives and public policy at the American Public Transportation Association. “It makes total sense for students to avail themselves of these resources.”

Guzzetti said free pass programs reduce economic inequality by giving all students access to museums, libraries, community events, and healthy food, as well as making it easier for families to get their kids to school.

“It is important for youth to be familiar with and to be comfortable using public transportation,” Guzzetti said. “Pass programs are a way to introduce them and their friends to safe mobility options that might not be apparent to them otherwise, skills and awareness that can stay with them their entire lives.”

Entering its fifth year, the SacRT RydeFreeRT program is growing dramatically. RydeFreeRT passes accounted for approximately 3.5 million rides in the past year, up from the previous year’s record of 2.5 million, RydeFreeRT project manager Casey Courtright said.

Nearly one out of four SacRT riders is age 18 or younger.

SacRT is not resting on that success. This summer and fall, SacRT is pushing even harder to get passes into students’ hands. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of passes have been handed out to school officials to distribute.

One of those schools, Cristo Rey High School on Jackson Road, relies on the passes to help families. About 100 of its 300 students use the SacRT system. The Cristo Rey campus is adjacent to the College Greens light rail station.

“SacRT is a staple of our campus, an important service for our students and families,” Dean of Students Ryan Neach said. “Our school caters to low-income families. Our parents work late and can’t necessarily pick up their kids at a certain time. If our parents had to pay for a ticket, that would severely limit their options.”

Former SacRT Board Director and retired Sacramento City Councilmember Jay Schenirer championed the RydeFreeRT initiative in 2019, which became the first program in the nation to provide unrestricted free rides system-wide for youth/students in grades TK through 12th by negotiating $1 million in dedicated transportation funding from the City of Sacramento. The program continues to be backed financially by local cities and school districts, offsetting fare revenue.

Matt Robinson of the California Transit Association said his association encourages agencies like SacRT to be creative in serving their communities if they have the financial resources, such as funding agreements with local governments. “Our association is very supportive of ways to incentivize ridership, and what better way than attracting young riders?” Robinson said.

RydeFreeRT pass user Hunter Nousaine is a model of the program’s success. He said he feels like buses and trains are now part of his life. “My parents pushed me to do it. I had my doubts at first. But it went amazing.”

“Riding SacRT makes me feel more like an adult,” he said. “It definitely feels like I’ve grown and matured.”

Learn more about the program and how to get a RydeFreeRT card at rydefreert.com.