By Zoe Sullivan.
More than two years after Nancy Erbstein, a professor at the University of California, Davis, published findings that chronic absenteeism in the Sacramento City Unified School District could often be traced to a lack of transportation, the region’s school-age children will get a free transit pass to use Sacramento Regional Transit (SacRT) public buses and light rail at all times — day, night and weekends.
Sacramento and three neighboring cities, Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Citrus Heights, are contributing funds for the program. According to Jessica Gonzalez, a spokesperson for SacRT, students from all public, charter and private schools will be able to obtain the free passes because a “systemwide” approach is easier to implement. When it launches October 1, Gonzalez says the agency is expecting to accommodate between 150,000 and 200,000 minors over a 400-square-mile area that includes more than 200 public schools.
“California school districts are cutting their yellow bus service,” Alex Karner, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin focused on transit equity, tells Next City. As schools have faced budget cuts, he says, they have scaled back on transportation. The Sacramento City Unified School District voted to eliminate all home-to-school busing in the 2012/2013 school year for prekindergarten through sixth grade, except for special needs students. At the same time, students are less likely to walk or cycle than they were decades ago. “So, districts are kind of implicitly relying on public transit and parents to fill that gap. There’s reason to believe that it doesn’t work super well,” Karner says. Erbstein surveyed children at three schools for a report on youth transit, which Karner co-authored. “About 25% of kids reported missing at least one day of school in the last month due to transportation issues,” Karner says.
To ensure that young people can access the passes easily, SacRT is working with the Sacramento Public Library, which will distribute them. Gonzalez says that children who are home-schooled can obtain passes this way, or by coming into the SacRT customer service center.
The program won’t address all public transit access inequities. Half of high school-age students surveyed by Erbstein would face a 45-minute, one-way trip if they used public transit to get to school. Additionally, Karner says, the results showed that black children were particularly disadvantaged by transportation disparities.