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Seattle expands free transit program for students as part of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s climate crisis executive order
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Seattle expands free transit program for students as part of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s climate crisis executive order

Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks at a news conference in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Sept. 20. Mayor Durkan announced Monday a new executive order at the COP26 Climate Summit that addresses public transit access, pedestrian traffic and new carbon-based building standards. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)


Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Monday that Seattle will provide free transportation for middle school students. 

In a virtual news conference, Durkan, who is in Glasgow, Scotland, attending the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference — announced an executive order that will expand the existing ORCA Opportunity Program to provide free, unlimited-use ORCA cards to 8,000 additional Seattle Public School students. 

Durkan stated that the city is investing in public transportation and reducing personal vehicle use by expanding the program to include middle and high school students.  

“This will do multiple things. One, it will make sure that we are creating a culture of transit-use and getting kids when they’re young and getting them to use it, so it’s a lifelong habit,” Durkan said. “Second, every time someone takes transit, they will be reducing the greenhouse emissions in our city.”

SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson said that the current program is being used by more than 13,500 high school students. Robinson stated that the program will also benefit middle school students by including them. transportation issues within the district

“Obviously, you know, it has an impact on transportation, which has an impact on the environment. But another thing for us that’s very helpful is that we have a school transportation problem with not enough drivers for our buses,” Robinson said, explaining that some routes have been suspended recently due to a shortage of drivers. 

“With the addition of the ORCA cards, it helps give families other options for transportation that may have been interrupted by the suspended route, if it impacted them.”

Under Durkan’s order, the Opportunity Program, founded in 2018, will be available to up to 8,000 middle school students, 15,000 high school students, and more than 1,000 Seattle Promise students, according to the mayor’s office. 

The order also instructs the Seattle Department of Transportation to study expanding free transportation, with an emphasis on “equity and climate implications” for minors, including Black, Indigenous and other students of color, those from low-income and unhoused families and youths with disabilities.

In addition to encouraging public transportation to reduce vehicle-related emissions, Durkan’s order calls for the city to come up with ways to incentivize the electrification of vehicles and to promote pedestrian travel.

In the short term, the mayor has called for the city to create its first urban pedestrian zone — an area that restricts or completely bans vehicle traffic. The order specifies that sites for the urban footpath zone will be identified before December 31, and will be implemented in the summer of 2022.

Durkan said the conference has inspired her to “change how mobility works and get people out of their cars.”

“I’m really excited about the work that SDOT will do to identify pedestrian-only zones, very inspired by some of the things that I’ve seen in London and other places here to really think about how do we rework our city,” said Durkan, whose term as mayor ends in December. She decided not to run for reelection. 

“We’ve seen over the last 20 months that we are so connected to every other community through that global pandemic. And climate change is a greater threat to us as a planet.”

The order also includes establishing a $1 million program to convert heavy-duty diesel trucks — including school buses, garbage trucks and drayage port trucks — operating in the Duwamish Valley to electric to reduce carbon pollution and diesel emissions. 

“We know that the drayage and those trucks moving in and out of the port, sometimes idling, has a huge impact on those neighborhoods,” Durkan said. “And the Duwamish Valley really has shouldered so much of the environmental burden in the city of Seattle. They have been a leader in the fight for environmental justice. So this work will help them do that.”

In addition to addressing vehicle emissions, Durkan’s latest order:

  • Directs the Office of Sustainability & Environment to create legislation for carbon-based building performance standards for existing commercial and multifamily buildings 20,000 square feet or larger in 2022. According to the mayor’s office, this standard is estimated to reduce building greenhouse gas emissions 27% by 2050.
  • By 2035, cities must ban the use of fossil fuels in their buildings.
  • To further the goals set forth in the order, a committee of clean energy workers is established.
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