Youth should be able to ride the bus for free, Nanaimo councillors say

Two Nanaimo council members say it’s time to give young people a free ride on local buses.

Kingston, Ont., gives out free bus passes to high school students, and as of Dec. 1, Victoria residents under 19 will be able to ride buses for free once they collect a pass from the city.

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Nanaimo Coun. Tyler Brown, who sits on the board of the Regional District of Nanaimo, is asking the regional body to review Kingston’s model to see if it could work in Nanaimo. The Ontario city provides passes to students from Grade 9 to Grade 12 attending public or private schools or doing home-schooling.

Kingston has seen “very significant gains in ridership” over a decade, Brown said Friday, adding “a key portion” of that program was fully subsidized transit passes for high-school students.

Not only did students receive a pass, but the program was coupled with an education initiative that included visits by buses to schools. Students learned how to plan routes and get from one point to another, said Brown, whose motion is backed by Coun. Don Bonner, a fellow board member.

Giving high-school students the freedom to get where they want to go via bus at no cost will reduce the load on parents now driving their children everywhere, Brown said, resulting in fewer vehicles on the road.

Nanaimo has a high poverty rate among children and youth, and transportation costs can be a significant expense in low-income homes, he said.

The Nanaimo Ladysmith School District has about 5,167 students enrolled in Grades 8 to 12. Student fares in Nanaimo are $2.50 for a single ride and $40 per month for a bus pass.

The aim in Kingston is to create transit users for life, said Brown, who calls the passes subsidized rather than free to acknowledge the fact that there is a cost.

Brown’s motion asks regional district staff to review Kingston’s program and bring back a report on ways some of those initiatives could be implemented in Nanaimo. The report would include potential funding models.

Currently, the regional district pays slightly more than half the cost of transit delivery, with the province contributing slightly less, he said. The district receives all fare revenue from riders.

The district would need to know how much fare revenue would be affected if it supported a fully subsidized model for high school students, said Brown, who is hoping the motion will be on the board’s Dec. 10 agenda.

Brown’s move follows a comment by Bonner on social media this week as he rode the bus to a Nanaimo council finance and audit meeting.

“Bus is full of [Nanaimo District Secondary School] students who have to pay to go to school. Time to make riding the bus free for youth under 19.”

Bonner said he will “most definitely” support Brown’s motion.

“I think it is high time that we started looking at ways of getting more people onto our transit system,” he said.

“I think the Kingston model is a really good way of doing that and starting with ridership at an early age and getting them used to the idea of using the buses and then they carry that on into adult age.”

The Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ Transportation Department delivers daily bus service for about 1,390 students who live beyond certain distances from their schools. That distance varies by grade.

Victoria is absorbing the $11.25-per-month cost to provide passes free of charge for 7,200 youth. New Sunday parking fees will help offset the $972,000 annual cost for the program.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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