Why free Muni for youth makes sense

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Supervisor Scott Wiener has gone out of his way to dis the plan to let kids ride Muni for free. His oped in the Chron April 9 argued that the city just doesn't have the money ($8 million):

We need to increase access to transportation for low-income youth, but a new and expensive obligation for Muni - at a time when Muni cannot pay for its basic operational needs and is expanding parking meters and increasing parking fines - is a bad idea.

But that misses the point -- and People Organized to Win Employment Rights is mounting a petition campaign to get Wiener back on track.

The Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni, failed to approve the plan the first time around, but the vote was tied with Commission Chair Tom Nolan absent, so it's still possible to move it forward. And on April 17, Sup. David Campos, who proposed the plan, and his allies will try again.

Yes, Muni is (perpetually) broke, and yes, deficits and cuts mean declines in service. But Campos has identified money to pay for the program without damaging operating and maintenance funds. Oh, and the parking meters get dragged in again:

The understandable public perception is that Muni is expanding parking meters to Sundays, adding new meters, and raising ticket prices not to pay for improvements to the system but rather to fund free Muni for all youth, even those who don't need the subsidy.

And the problem with that is ... what? People with cars ought to subsidize transit riders -- young, old and everything in between. It's really not that expensive to park at a meter in San Francisco, and now that most of them take credit cards, you don't have to carry $5 in quarters around with you. I drive a car myself, to ferry my kids around. I have no sympathy for people who pay to have a large motor vehicle in a transit-first city and don't want to pay for the impacts.

(Besides, what are all those religious people complaining about -- nobody pays to park for Sunday church anyway. They just park in the middle of the street.)

But put all of that aside for a minute and think about this: San Francisco spends all kinds of money, directly and indirectly, trying to convince people to ride Muni instead of driving. And one of the best ways to get new riders is to get kids started as transit users as soon as their parents decide they're old enough to get on the bus.

For us, that was sixth grade, when we bought my son a clipper card and told him we weren't leaving work early to pick him up (in the car) after school any more. I showed him how to find the Muni map on the web, showed him how to connect to NextBus on his phone, gave him a pat on the head (not really) and sent him off to explore the wonders of San Francisco public transit. It's worked like a charm: He takes the bus to his martial arts class, takes the bus to Cards and Comics to buy Magic Cards, takes the bus to the mall and to visit friends ... and now he knows more about the system than I do. He can navigate on his own anywhere in town -- and he loves it. It's freedom. Suburban kids have to wait until they're 16 and can get a driver's license to even begin to get that sense that they don't need parents in tow to go where they want to go.

Most of the teenagers I know in this city don't bother to learn to drive any more. They bike and they take the bus. That's a wonderful thing -- and San Francisco should do everything possible to encourage it.

And a great way to start is to invest a modest amount of money -- less than one percent of Muni's budget -- in training kids that the way to travel is by bus and train. Make it easy; make it free. Hell, half the middle-school kids who ride Muni never pay the fare anyway; they go in the back door and pocket the money that their parents gave them for bus fare so they can buy something they aren't supposed to have. It's the way of the world.

This isn't just a subsidy for kids who can't afford Muni, although that's a great thing and I'm all in favor. It's an investment in the future, a cheap step toward a future day when turning 16 isn't all about going to the DMV, and travel doesn't mean car travel -- and the streets of San Francisco are cleaner, safer, less crowded and better for all of us. Isn't that worth the money?

Come on, Tom Nolan; you're the swing vote. Make this happen.