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SmarTrip Express Lane faregates at Vienna station.

SmarTrip Express Lane faregates at Vienna station.

Ben Schumin/Wikipedia Commons
MetroTrainBusWMATA BusDC Circulator Bus

DC’s Student Transit Program in Tough Transition and May Not Help At All

Starting this month, students in DC Public Schools need a SmarTrip card to use WMATA bus, Metrorail, or DC Circulator for free commuting. However, school officials have struggled to acquire enough cards to distribute to students.

Now that they can’t use DC One Cards to tap into Metro stations or board buses, parents and administrators are warning absences may go up until enough SmarTrip cards get out to the schools. Once DC officials work through the transition, the data from the last few years raise doubts whether the program will decrease truancy.

DC Offers Better Student Transit Benefits Than Similar Cities

In 2013, then-Councilwoman Muriel Bowser introduced the Kids Ride Free (KRF) program, delivering free Metro bus rides to elementary or secondary students at public, private, charter or parochial school located within the District. In 2015 after being elected Mayor, Bowser expanded the program to include Metrorail and DC Circulator.

KRF is not limited to families of low-incomes, in contrast to many transit subsidy programs in similar cities. New York City limits eligibility by grade level, geographic location, and method of travel. In NYC, many students are subsidized 50% and some not at all. Also, the usage restrictions on the student farecards are strict. The LA’s Unified School District offers limited school bus routes like DC and works with LA Metro to provide reduced farecards for bus and rail. LA students can ride unlimited but pay a monthly fee to re-fill their card.

DC One Cards Were a Huge Hassle for Metro

DC students have used their DC One Card—a student ID and library card—to use Metro since the introduction of Kids Ride Free. That card wasn’t designed to be a farecard, and its use for that purpose has caused problems for Metro officials.

Since the program began in 2013, KRF has operated on an ad hoc basis. The DC One Card “allowed them to board a bus or enter a Metro station and flash the pass at a Metro employee who would wave them onto the bus or through the swinging fare gate without needing to tap the card, as other riders do with a SmarTrip card.” That informality has been a hassle for both students and WMATA employees.

Metro staffers have had to monitor station gates closely to limit fare evasion and enforce rules about when and where the students could ride free. Commuters in the early afternoon such as yours truly will report that this entrance and exit process wasn’t thorough. Groups of students would walk through the swing gate at once.

It’s also questionable what kind of training Metro station managers had in fare enforcement screening. What made some young riders more suspicious looking and worthy of stopping for a close look at their student ID? Data show that this kind of arbitrary fare enforcement is biased against African Americans. Punitive fare enforcement is falling out of favor in general as the DC Council moves to reduce penalties for fare evasion, previously a jailable offense.

How WMATA’s Attempt to Clamp Down on Student Commuters Failed

Starting November 2017, Metro required student commuters to tap their DC One Card when entering and exiting Metro Stations or WMATA buses. This change benefited Metro in a few ways. First, transit employees wouldn’t have to decide who to let into the bus or station—faregates do that fine for all the other riders. Second, WMATA collects essential data every time cards tap into and out of the system. These data feed into decision making in many areas of Metro, like how to prioritize maintenance. WMATA would finally be able to count students in the system ridership. As that rider number goes up, so does federal funding.

The tap-in transition was supposed to help Metro in those ways and streamline the experience for students, but it ended up being a hassle for all involved.

Students and parents struggled to successfully activate their DC One Cards to tap on the fare gates. Activating the cards to commute “involved tapping the card on a fare vending machine at the same Metro station twice on two consecutive days or tapping the card on a bus, waiting three days, and tapping the card on a bus again to digitally jump-start it.” That’s much more complicated than a normal SmarTrip card, which you can buy and activate online.

Even when families would follow those steps, the cards may not have activated. Metro employees were again the first line troubleshooting and receiver of angry complaints.

If the students used their DC One card outside of allowed school commute hours, their cards would take on a negative balance after exiting the system. When the students next tried tapping in, their cards wouldn’t work. They would have to pay off that balance for un-subsidized riding before using the card again.

WMATA employees have also reported abuse from student riders. Metrobus operator John Gaines said this to the Washington Post:

“On the best days, Gaines notices that the portion of students tapping their passes as they board his bus is about 50 percent. On the bad days, hardly anyone stops to remove their card from their pocket as they board, Gaines says — teenager after teenager brushing past the onboard farebox. … “If I say, ‘You need to tap your card,’ occasionally I’ll have a rowdy kid, and they’ll say bad things or curse me out,” he said. “That starts a chain effect. I have to pull over the bus, deal with this kid, and if I have to stop then the other customers get rowdy,” Gaines said.”

WMATA and DC Public Schools Agree to Switch to SmarTrip Cards for 2018-19

By February 2018, four months after switching to the DC One Card tapping process, DCPS and Metro officials were considering a plan to move the student commuters to SmarTrip cards identical to the ones other riders use, save a sticker to indicate student status. By April, DCPS agreed to move their students to SmarTrip for the 2018-19 school year. Families could pick up SmarTrip cards during the summer at select locations or their school once the semester began. The new cards come already activated and “provide students with free and immediate access to travel … school and school-related activities.”

However, this transition has also been difficult for DCPS and Metro. According to AFRO, the City ordered 32,000 SmarTrip cards for students after 25,797 students activated their DC One Cards last year for transportation purposes. That’s about 25 percent higher, which seems reasonable given probably under-reported usage after activation proved such a hassle. However, with reports from throughout the District that schools were running out, DC ordered 10,000 more cards to meet demand.

Those figures stand next to DC’s total enrollment of 92,000. Raising the question, why weren’t cards ordered to cover every student in the system? What if only half or fewer of the students activated those DC One Cards and 50,000 or more students will need SmarTrip cards?

Affordable, Reliable Transporation is Critical to School Attendance

The saga of subsidized student transportation in DC is worthy of documenting and following because the District is in the middle of a truancy crisis. Chronic absence is due in large part to unreliable, unaffordable transportation. “The number one reason that kids weren’t going to school has to do with getting there in the first place.” For many students, missing their first period or free breakfast is a matter of missing a bus transfer or no safe way to get from their house to the Metro station.

DC officials have done themselves no favors in public opinion. “Attendance is a major focus for Mayor Muriel Bowser. D.C. invests upwards of $30 million annually in attendance-related efforts,” but high-ranking administrators have been falsifying attendance records for years to make truancy numbers look better.

DC’s Student Transit Programs Might Not Help Very Much

Kids Ride Free may succeed more thoroughly once SmarTrip cards get to all the students that want them, but there are challenges ahead that question the effectiveness of this approach to truancy reduction.

Many of those students travel to and from school with their parents. Does DC need a program that subsidizes the transportation of school parents so they can commute with their young kids?

Those who interview and talk with school administrators, as WAMU-FM did here, report that across the board solutions like KRF don’t build trust or meet the specialized needs of each family. Truancy was up 2.8 percent in charter school and 2.6 percent in public schools in 2017 from 2016. The data aren’t clear KRF is making a dent in attendance.

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