After years of lobbying from students at Rainier Beach High School, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has signed the “ORCA Opportunity” plan, which will provide free bus passes to students. Under the legislation, ORCA passes will be available for free to Seattle Public Schools high school students and Seattle Promise scholars at Seattle colleges.

Funding the Plan

Existing Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) funds from a voter-approved sales tax and car tab fee will pay for the year-round ORCA passes, which are valid for most public transportation in the area. The new plan will also allow STBD funds to pay for more routes, meaning more service hours on current and future RapidRide lines.

Transit Accessibility

After lobbying from the students at Rainier Beach High School, the city launched a pilot program – the Youth ORCA Program – which offered free bus passes to low-income students if their households fell within the income threshold. This past summer, Seattle decreased youth bus fare to 50 cents for King County Metro buses and $1 for Sound Transit.

According to the program’s official website, it is currently serving 3,000 students – a number that is expected to increase during the 2018-2019 school year. This slow build up by the city to increase accessibility for young people is the first step in the local government’s plans to provide discounts for all youths – not just students.

City Councilor Rob Johnson is reportedly working toward free transit access for everyone under the age of 19. The current plan isn’t as sweeping as Johnson’s idea, but it is still (according to the Seattle Times) among the most generous in the country.

Increased Ridership

According to data from the city, easier access to transit increased student ridership by 35 percent during the summertime pilot program, with 376,000 riders and a 42 percent increase on the Link light rail. The habit of jumping on public transit early in life has proved to last well into adulthood according to a study from Rutgers and Cornell, meaning the program could boost ridership in the long term as well.

Student Response to Free and Reduced Transit Fare

The efforts by the City Council to make public transit more accessible to students has not gone unnoticed. Following the debut of the pilot program last summer, the Seattle Department of Transportation surveyed some of the students who had received free ORCA cards.

Their survey found that more than 90 percent of students used their card at least three days per week and 69 percent said they used it more than five days per week. A large proportion of students also said the ORCA card not only improved their attendance at school, but that it made it easier to participate in social activities and get jobs.


According to a recent analysis of public transportation affordability by Value Penguin, among cities with the most commuters, Seattle ranks as the fifth most affordable city. To determine affordability, the analysis calculated the proportion of income it cost the average commuter to purchase a monthly transit pass.

In Seattle, a monthly transit pass currently costs $99, or 2.84 percent of the average commuter’s income. It trails just fractions of a percent behind Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Boston and Baltimore.

The most affordable city on this list, Washington, D.C., already offers free bus and subway service to students, but only during the school year, according to the Seattle Times.

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