Free Rides for Teens?

Social groups pitch their idea for no-pay afterschool bus service

Edmonton Transit Service already offers a discounted pass for students. But, for kids in need, it isn’t enough.

That’s what the Urban Planning Committee heard this week at City Hall, as it mulled over a plan that would increase bus service in the city.

The City is already considering a recommendation that transit should be free for all riders under the age of 12 — unaccompanied or not. Currently, kids under 12 ride for free with a paying adult. But, Tim Adams, the CEO of Free Play for Kids, and Sarah Smith, the engagement specialist for Action for Healthy Communities, made the pitch that afterschool rides, from dismissal to 7 p.m., should be free for all youth under 18.

It’s a call that was supported by Steve Bradshaw, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union branch that represents the city’s bus drivers.

Why the need for free rides? The programs that Adams and Smith represent are part of the Youth After School initiative, which offers programming for kids at city rec centres from 3-5:30 p.m. on weekdays. There are sports, cultural and social programs. These are especially important for kids in need, whose families can’t afford or make time to put their kids in club soccer or dance classes.

But, to take advantage of the program, the kids have to be able to get to the rec centres. And, for a family in need, even a discounted transit pass is a bridge too far.

“Youth are unable to buy that bus pass, still,” said Adams. “Some people are still trying to find a meal, so a bus pass is beyond their means.”

Smith said plans were in place to put together a youth hockey team, where kids could play for free, but there was no way to get the kids to an arena after school. They looked at chartering a yellow school bus — but in that after-school period, finding a free school bus is like finding a needle in a haystack.

“We have definitely looked to try and provide service ourselves, but there usually aren’t buses available to charter, she said.

Adams said existing bus routes link the majority of schools with rec centres. In the few cases where there aren’t direct links, he suggested charter ETS service be used. The problem? It could divert some buses and drivers away from their regular routes during rush hour.

Adams said Free Play is already handing out thousands of bus tickets to its kids, and has tried using Uber and taxis. When asked by the committee how many of the program’s kids need subsidized transit, he said “100 per cent.”

It also illustrated that, in a city where we’re obsessed with building LRT, how bus routes remain the most vital parts of our transit system. The committee heard that bus service has not kept up with population growth, going from 2.07 service hours per capita in 2015 to 1.71 in 2022, a number which lags behind Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

The committee heard a proposal from ETS leadership that could add the 5,000 service hours per week needed to get the city back to 2015.

That includes:

  • Taking the buses and drivers on the Valley Line replacement route and redeploy them on other city routes when that LRT finally opens;
  • Leasing a “satellite garage” in the northeast, which could hold 40 hydrogen-electric buses;
  • The new southeast garage will be able to hold 75 buses;
  • And, finally, plan to modernize the fleet; a newer fleet means fewer buses have to be held “in reserve” to replace vehicles that break down while in service. That would mean a greater percentage of buses could be on the road.