Young St. Albertans will be getting free transit passes next year as part of an attempt to collect some data on youth bus use.
Last Tuesday, city councillors voted to fund a transit study that would evaluate the feasibility of having the local schools swap out the traditional yellow school bus for public transit.
As part of that study, Coun. Sheena Hughes proposed allowing the city's youth to use public transit for free next year, hoping to collect data on how many students will naturally switch over to the public system without the city having to jump in with both feet to ending the yellow bus system.
“What I’m looking for right now is (youth) have a voluntary decision on whether or not they are going to use school buses or public transit to get to and from school,” Hughes said.
“There is so much information we can gather from just letting the students actually use it and find out if they are using it, how they are using it – and if they are not using it, why not?”
She said parents have to pay a fee for their kids to take the bus and they will be unlikely to shell out for their kids to use public transit on top of their yellow bus fee. If public transit comes free of charge, the city can track how many kids opt to try out the public bus system without parents having to make a financial decision.
Hughes said the impact of giving free transit to youth would be a drop in the bucket compared to the overall cost of running the transit system. Right now, St. Albert Transit generates around $15,000 from its youth riders and Hughes said the system costs millions to run per year.
“Meanwhile, we have buses driving around (at) not peak (hours), virtually empty if not completely empty, and we have youth that could potentially use it. I would rather see a youth use it for free than actually go around on principle and say ‘you must pay’ and have empty buses driving around,” Hughes said.
Coun. Natalie Joly supported Hughes' proposal because she is interested to see what the numbers are and wants to see how youth react to the program.
Coun. Ken MacKay also supported the idea but said he was aware of the risk, which could be the city becoming a victim of its own success with buses being overloaded and other groups wanting free transit after seeing the youth pilot project kick off.
Another benefit to the free transit initiative, Hughes told council members, is it may encourage parents with kids to take advantage of transit. The councillor compared it to restaurants that have nights when kids eat free, which helps bring parents into the building.
Coun. Wes Brodhead, who spent his career in public transit prior to becoming a councillor, noted studies have shown it is not the cost that is the barrier to transit use but rather the reliability, routes and overall effectiveness.
“If this does what it is intended to do, I hope that good things will occur,” Brodhead said.
Mayor Cathy Heron noted a study was done in 1995 on student transportation in St. Albert, which suggested having kids use public transit would require a minor tweak to the start and finish times of schools so they don’t coincide with peak transit times.
The 1995 study reported that having kids use public transit would result in significantly lower costs and costs savings for taxpayers, provide better mobility for senior high students for classes and improve overall customer service for bus users by creating a single point of contact.
If the study and data from the youth pilot projects find that St. Albert should move students to public transit, Heron noted the school boards would pay the city for the bus use rather than the yellow school buses.
A benefit of getting the students on the public bus, Heron added, is to get youth comfortable with public transit so they will hopefully use it when they become adults.
The mayor supported Hughes' proposal but said she doesn’t think it will provide much data to the feasibility study.
Hughes' plan for free transit passed 6-1 with Coun. Jacquie Hansen voting against the move.
The study itself on how students use transit passed unanimously and will cost the city $60,000, which was reduced from $75,000 after a motion from Hansen.
It is currently unknown when youth will begin to get free use of public transit, but Hughes hopes it will start before the end of this school year.