Patti Bacchus: Time to get onboard the “free transit for youth” campaign

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      Some ideas make so much sense it’s hard to believe they aren’t immediately implemented.

      TripEd was one of those: a $10-a-year transit pass teachers could use to take kids on school field trips during school hours. It was the brainchild and passion of a small group of people who tried to convince TransLink to provide it back in 2009.

      They didn’t succeed, but now they’re back and they want more.

      I chaired the Vancouver School Board (VSB) during the 2009 TripEd campaign, and we enthusiastically endorsed it. Unfortunately, TransLink had other priorities and didn’t show much interest in the idea. Well, that was then and this is now and there are different parties in power, federally and provincially, which means brighter days for TransLink.

      What’s TripEd?

      The TripEd proposal, as pitched in 2009, called for an annual $10 transit pass for schools that teachers could use to take classes on field trips. Led by determined and tireless Burnaby librarian Schula Leonard, the TripEd campaign was intended to make school field trips affordable so that all kids could have access to the rich range of learning opportunities that are available outside the classroom.

      As Leonard pointed out, there are all kinds of free educational activities available in Metro Vancouver, but transportation costs can be a big barrier to accessing them.

      She’s absolutely right about that. I remember a teacher from an inner-city Vancouver school telling me that when she told her class they were going on a field trip, most would cheer but a few would slump in their seats and look crestfallen and anxious. Those were the kids who knew they couldn’t go home and ask for money, not even a small amount for bus fare. But when she told the class a trip was going to be free, those kids were happy and excited too.

      Taking a group of 30 kids on a transit trip isn’t cheap. Depending on the number of fare zones involved and how many adults are along to help supervise, the return fare is somewhere north of $130, along with the hassle of getting the right number of tickets. Schools used to have some flexible budgets for things like that, but for the most part those are long gone after so many years of budget-cutting.

      And although the Vancouver region is blessed with beaches, Stanley Park, Pacific Spirit Park (including the fascinating Camosun Bog), all kinds of museums, libraries, galleries, studios, government buildings, and endless other community resources, it turns out that a lot more kids than you might think have never been to a beach, much less a museum.

      Why TripEd makes financial sense

      Most school field trips start after 9 a.m., when rush hour is winding down, and end before 3 p.m., before the afternoon rush hour starts. A TripEd pass could be valid between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. only, ensuring the trips would be taken during off-peak hours. There would likely be a lot of trips that wouldn’t otherwise be taken, which means TransLink wouldn’t be losing revenue. It wouldn’t cost Translink much, if anything, to give the passes to school groups to use the transit system when it’s not all that busy.

      But why stop there?

      Leonard is retired but she’s not slowing down. In fact, she’s back with an updated and more ambitious proposal, and it’s a good one.

      She’s leading a new campaign called FTY (Free Transit for Youth to Age 18) with a simple, bold ask: make all public transit free for youth up to age 18.

      It’s already free for the under-five set, but Leonard says extending that another 12 years is an idea whose time has come.

      She says the political climate has changed since 2009 and that the FTY campaign is getting strong support from environmental groups that see the importance of getting kids transit-literate so they’ll not only use it themselves but support it once they are voters and taxpayers.

      The premier’s chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, supported TripEd in 2009 and I suspect the rest of the Horgan government members would see the sense in it as well. Whether they’ll support free transit for all youth remains to be seen, but it would check off a lot of boxes for the NDP government in terms of affordability, accessibility, education, families, environment, and reducing inequality.

      It would help address the persistent inequalities in public schools that remain despite the fact public schools are intended to provide universal, equal access. Students in the VSB’s choice programs, whether they be French Immersion, mini schools, or other specialty programs, have to find their own way to school, even if it’s a long distance from home. I suspect many lower-income families don’t even apply for choice options because of transportation costs, but free fares could open up options to all.

      Next steps

      Leonard is working the phones and going to meetings to build support for the FTY campaign and she’s hoping people will send letters of support to the Translink board ( and the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation ( She also recommends writing to the ministers of Education (Rob Fleming), Children and Family Development (Katrine Conroy), Social Development and Poverty Reduction (Shane Simpson), Transportation and Infrastructure (Claire Trevena), Municipal Affairs and Housing (Selina Robinson), and Environment and Climate Change (George Heyman).

      Candidates for Metro-region city councils and school boards should expect to be hearing from Leonard and her growing team as well.

      Time for TranslInk to get on board

      At the very least, TransLink should start providing TripEd passes to school boards for class field trips. It would be a small gesture on their part that could make a huge difference for a lot of kids. We all need to support teachers who are working to bring the new curriculum to life for students, and the more opportunities they can access, the better.

      They could start with a limited number of passes to each Metro school district for a one-year pilot and assess the program to see if it creates any problems. If all goes well, it could be expanded.

      Meanwhile, TransLink should consider making all transit services free for youth to age 18. As a school trustee, I learned that not having bus fare can mean missing school for some kids, and eventually dropping out for others. It can mean going without lunch to pay to get to school. It can mean families don’t get out to beaches, parks, libraries, and free public events because it costs too much to go.

      For parents who already have monthly bus passes to get to work, free fare for youth would mean they could take their kids out on weekends and holidays for no added cost. It would mean making services more affordable for all families, and isn’t that what this government is all about?

      Leonard says the fare box is a big barrier for many youth and it’s time to remove it. Let’s hope TransLink, they mayors, and the ministers agree and get onboard as well.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.