by Anna A, Geyciel Ceja, Sarah Perez, Olivia Hicks, Evalynn Romano, Katherine Hoerster
There’s a charge in the air these days as people return to old rituals and routines. For us, we’re celebrating something simple but essential as Seattle reopens: free ORCA cards. They are our bridge to school, work, health, and freedom. But Seattle’s public transit isn’t accessible for everyone. And it should be.
We’re youth and adult members of the Participatory Active Transportation for Health in South Seattle (PATHSS) study. Centering often marginalized voices, dozens of youth and adult Beacon Hill community members told us what they need to get around Beacon Hill and beyond. Community wisdom yielded solutions ranging from calming traffic to increasing affordable housing. But one message came through loud and clear: Seattle needs fair, just transit access now. And that means making it free.
Improving transit access would benefit our whole community’s health. Motor vehicle accidents kill about 30,000 people in the U.S. annually and are the leading cause of death among young people. Immigrants, low-income people, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities are especially affected, shouldering a disproportionate share of pedestrian deaths.
Last month hundreds of medical journals named climate change “the greatest threat to public health,” highlighting redesigned transportation systems as an essential solution. These issues harm our South Seattle community, with our higher rates of pedestrian injuries, pollution exposure, and preventable health conditions associated with driving. Meanwhile, active transportation (e.g., taking public transit) is associated with health benefits. We know firsthand that we get more exercise and feel more connected to our community when we take the bus.
But despite King County Metro’s subsidies for low-income riders, even Metro acknowledges cost remains a major barrier. Low-income families must decide whether to buy food and pay rent or ride the bus to work. Our community is calling for free transit, which can increase ridership by 20–60%.
Kansas City recently became the first major U.S. city with free transit, funded through city and federal budgets and public-private partnerships. Los Angeles recently voted to have free transit for students and low-income people (70% of riders). Seattle fare-free advocates are asking larger employers to subsidize workers’ transit passes and for regional subsidies to smaller employers. Not administering and enforcing fares might further offset revenue loss, while reducing harms to BIPOC communities, who are disproportionately impacted by fare enforcement.
We love our free and subsidized transit cards, which we get through work and school. King County Metro also has several options for those with low incomes. But eligibility requirements, policies, and paperwork are restrictive, time-consuming, and confusing for many of these programs. Imagine teenagers — or working parents who don’t speak English fluently, like some of our families — navigating these systems. Given COVID-19, Seattle Public Schools extended its free fare subsidy through summer and loosened income requirements. This should be the norm and expanded to the broader community.
Many other things make it hard for us and our community to get around South Seattle, impacting transit access: speeding and careless drivers, a lack of crosswalks and curb cuts, and poor street lighting. Too many South Seattle streets don’t even have sidewalks. We often have long waits for buses, exposed to weather and without protection from cars. We experience harassment and discrimination. Fears of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the train and officers asking for ID affects how our undocumented community members travel.
We’ve seen people using substances and discarded needles and pills at bus stops. We also often see folks struggling with active mental health crises. These people are often arrested but we believe people struggling with mental health conditions, substance use, and unstable housing need supportive services. As Seattle works to reform the justice system — and Metro reforms its policies — transit safety should move beyond policing, as called for by our partners at Whose Streets? Our Streets! (WSOS), a majority-BIPOC group focused on improving mobility policies to meet needs of BIPOC communities.
It’s time to make Seattle’s transit truly accessible, and prioritize policies and infrastructure that support safe, fair, and just movement. Let’s make transit free, including the valuable Via to Transit program, an on-demand service (think Uber or Lyft) that Metro provides to South Seattle and King County locations. While the City works to improve transit access, plans must include affordable, dense housing to support economic stability, fight displacement, and limit commutes. Leaders must reach and listen to impacted communities like ours, especially youth, BIPOC communities, low-income individuals, and people with disabilities.
Implementing our recommendations will require significant regional investment. But car-oriented infrastructure costs are huge, and new cars cost drivers nearly $10,000/year. To fund improvements, we need to tax high earners and support other progressive revenue generation. The investment will surely pay off, when you consider the major educational, economic, and public health benefits that come with having freedom to move safely through one’s community.
We love how our Beacon Hill and South Seattle community takes care of each other. It’s time for Seattle to do the same by building a bridge to equitable, accessible transit that helps young people and our communities get where we need to go.
This piece represents the personal views of the authors, and does not reflect the position of the University of Washington. Caregivers of youth provided permission for co-authoring this piece. Written with deep appreciation for our whole PATHSS team, study participants, and South Seattle community.
All authors are part of the University of Washington Population Health Initiative-funded Participatory Active Transportation for Health in South Seattle (PATHSS) study, focused on mobility justice in Beacon Hill. Romano, Hicks, and Hoerster are with University of Washington School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and School of Public Health, Department of Health Systems and Population Health.
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