Cherriots free youth ticket program leads to increase in ridership

Thousands more young people are using Salem buses in the months following the launch of the Youth Zero Pass.

On Sept. 4, all local, regional and LIFT rides Salem Area Mass Transit District became free of charge to people under 18. Since then, youth ridership has spiked, according to data from Cherriots.

Ian Davidson, Cherriots board president, told Salem Reporter in an email that he thinks the real-world impacts are more important than the ridership numbers.

“Each one of these rides represents a student being able to attend an after-school program, a mother being able to take their child on the bus to run errands, or a young person being able to get to their after-school job,” he said.

The program is running as a pilot in its first year, funded by $150,000 from the Salem-Keizer School District, $150,000 from the city of Salem and $30,000 from the city of Keizer.

In August, the month before the program launched, young people took 37,614 trips with Cherriots. That jumped by 43% in September, which saw youth ridership at 53,724 trips.

Chris French, Cherriots senior planner, said he thinks a significant amount of the increase can be attributed to the free passes. 

“We are seeing steady growth in all of our ridership, and we have since really we got back to more of a normal service, it’s slowly been growing back. But that’s in the 10% a month seen increase,” he said.

While fall typically has more youth riders than the summer, September’s numbers were up 66% compared to September 2021, which had a youth ridership of 32,368. 

October, the first full month of the program, saw 67,961 youth riders, an 89% increase compared to the previous October.

Kids and teens were paying 50 cents per trip locally or $1 regionally to ride the bus before the free fare program began.

French said he expected at least a 50% increase after seeing a surge in riders when they reduced youth prices in 2019.

“It’s far exceeding that,” he said.

Additionally, French said studies show that positive experiences and access to public transit at a young age creates future adult transit riders. 

He said that the free passes mean that parents don’t have to decide between bus passes and groceries, or worry about how to afford getting kids to after school programs.

“Providing access and taking that burden off of families that are really having to make hard decisions about where to put their dollar,” he said. “It just really provides one less barrier for our community to be able to access public transportation.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.