The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts in category education


Can we develop communities for the people who already live in them?

Income inequality, gentrification, and neighborhoods changing in a short period of time—put them all together and the question is "who is left behind?" How can change happen in a city without displacing people?

Photo by Tony Hisgett on Flickr.

On October 3rd, HBO aired Class Divide, a documentary that provided a look into gentrification's effects on one neighborhood in New York City. The film examines the massive changes in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, spurred by the development of the High Line public park, looked at through the eyes of teens in West Chelsea. On one side of 10th Avenue, there are disadvantaged teens who live in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project, and on the other side, wealthy teens who attend the Avenues: The World School, a private school that costs more than $40,000 per year.

Last week, we attended a sneak peak that was followed by a panel discussion on how the larger issues in the film are also affecting the DC region. The participants were Class Divide director Marc Levin, 11th Street Bridge Park project director Scott Kratz, and Oramenta F. Newsome, the Vice President of the DC chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Hyisheem Shabazz Calier, who participated in the documentary, also spoke about his experiences living in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project and experiences since leaving to attend college and pursue entrepreneurship. The panel was moderated by Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell.

After the first half hour of the documentary played, the panelists discussed gentrification, income and racial inequality, and the unintended consequences that come when planning large public projects like the Manhattan's High Line.

We (Joanne and Andrew) attended the event and later watched the full documentary. We discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Andrew Ausel (AA): I thought the documentary was a good segue into a discussion on DC. Particularly because what New York is experiencing is kind of like mega-gentrification. And while what DC is experiencing is challenging, it's nothing near the extent to which West Chelsea residents are experiencing it.

Joanne Pierce (JP): You make a good point, that New York City shows us this mega-gentrification but DC could easily be a mega-gentrifier in its own way if we're not watching out for it. Oramenta made a great point about that, which is that developers are "finding" neighborhoods and finding these beautiful pre-World War II buildings they want to turn into luxury condos. These neighborhoods have been here for such a long time, and yet developers come in and seem to just swallow them whole with their shiny new buildings or luxury things.

AA: Absolutely. Neighborhoods with rich cultural and architectural features are attractive to developers and the residents treat them almost like ornaments that add to their property values. Exhibit A… the High Line in Manhattan.

The High Line in Manhattan. Photo by David Berkowitz on Flickr.

AA: An equivalent DC example would be Capitol Hill, Union Station, or any of the numerous historical landmarks that have been flipped. Look at the NoMa area as an example: the neighborhood runs just adjacent to the Uline Arena, which is set to become the fifth flagship REI. But look just north of Florida Ave., opposite of the Red Line to NoMa, and development isn't really happening there, primarily because it is outside of the Business Improvement District. I think more work needs to be done to bridge that gap.

Uline Arena. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: One of the things I liked was how the High Line was used in this documentary. It was one of the three central structures, along with the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects and the Avenues school. Have you been to the High Line before?

AA: I have not, have you?

JP: I have, and I loved it. It's overwhelming in scale and sensory input.

The brick building in the middle of the frame is the Chelsea-Elliot housing projects and the building at the right of the frame is Avenues: The World School. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

JP: Scott brought up unintended consequences. I hadn't considered the High Line to be one of those, because it's so beautiful and it's brought so much joy to what was a desolate, unwanted piece of transit history. But we see in the documentary that it also created this real estate boom and I don't think I considered that the High Line had negative consequences because I had no idea there were housing projects nearby. So that brings up questions of privilege and how we can be really unaware of the circumstances that lead to social and income inequality, and how our desire for nice things and amenities has possibly made people complicit in gentrification, even when we don't live in the areas being gentrified.

AA: It really is a new development, and something that I think we have to start assuming will happen as we try and address urban blight. In generations prior, I don't think the desire for urban living was there, so we never asked "what happens when we fix this place up?" Now, as we fix it up, there is a demand and a market and its being filled by people who aren't from the community.

I think the real gap in understanding then comes from the "invading" ignorance to what was there before. The residents who purchase these $15 million condos don't necessarily appreciate all the different culture that was there before. Oramenta made a good point when she said that we do live in a free market, and those are the rules of the game.

JP: She said, "we have to remember that in our society, the [income] bar keeps moving."

AA: But what [Marc Levin] does such a good job of in his documentary is observing the issue from the perspective of the kids. Kids who don't necessarily want to be viewed as the rich white kids but want to be looked at as humans.

JP: What is wealth today may not be wealth ten years from now and what's striking about that idea is that people at the bottom won't necessarily get wealthier just because these areas like NoMa are becoming popular and revitalized. Looking through the eyes of the kids and without explicitly stating it, he showed that children aren't different from each other in their fears and uncertainties just because of their socioeconomic status.

AA: And he reflected on that during the panel when he said that this generation is truly unique in that they recognize the forces of free trade and the globalization of the economy and they are figuring out, where do they fit in? They are much more reflective and aware and you see this in the film.

JP: Even though the documentary doesn't really go into globalization, it's a huge concern.

AA: We have to answer anew, how exactly do we develop communities for the people in the community? Scott Kratz was particularly helpful in coming up with strategies for that.

JP: He was, and I appreciated how focused he was on the collaborative side of the 11th Street Bridge project. He was very clear that he wanted to understand, first of all, did residents even want something like that? It's a question that I don't think gets brought up enough.

The 11th Street Bridge. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

AA: Right. It was a much more communicative version of community organizing that represented bottom-up development instead of a planning commission or a developing company telling the people how the plan would look. It was truly encouraging and part of me honestly felt weird feeling optimistic when thinking about this issue. It was almost like I wanted them to dive more into the problem of gentrification so I could understand the issue, while what Scott really did was reject the challenges of community unity and figured out how to make it work. It really sounded like the community was the approval body for a lot of the design. And it made me realize something very important for any effort like this. It made me realize that communities have to have a unified vision and sort of be very homogenous.

JP: I looked up some information on the 11th Street Bridge project and the website says there are 76,000 residents within a two mile radius of the bridge. The kind of collaboration required to get as many of those voices heard seems stunning. I think the documentary brought up an interesting point about homogeneity by class, and not race: that the residents of the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects aren't excluded because of race, but because of class.

AA: It's definitely a good point and may make for a good lesson learned from the film, that communities are only as equipped to fight the forces of development as they are unified and empowered to fight it.

JP: What do you think about Ornamenta's point about race, that it's always present but in many cases what neighborhoods want to preserve is history and that is sometimes African-American history. Her example was Anacostia, which she says has only been an African-American community for two or three generations.

Anacostia. Photo by Axel Drainville on Flickr.

AA: I think that's true. To observe the inverse, Alexandria, which is a predominately white city, does a lot to preserve its history and highlight the positive aspects of their colonial culture. You don't see a whole lot of African-American festivals in Alexandria and that's for a reason. So much of human history is tied up in race, likely because so much of human identity is tied up in race. Which raises the question, is the only force that prevents equitable development economic?

JP: Alexandria has a lot of African-American history and there should be more opportunities to emphasize it. But we also have to talk about which Alexandria we are referring to. Old Town, the West suburbs (Seminary Hill), or Fairfax County and the immediate Route 1 corridor, which is probably more Hispanic and African-American.

AA: Very true. But that is arguably a more recent development. I think the important point here is that Americans in general feel a sense of community that is strongest with those who look most like them. That is true in DC, Alexandria, and NYC, among others. We need to be actively figuring out ways to compensate for this and foster communities of understanding and, really, pluralism.

JP: I read that immigrant communities aren't actually that mobile. They find an area they like and tend to stick to it. I think it can be trickier than that. Maybe on a more general scale, people do want to be homogeneous but there are some aspects of racial identity that may make that difficult. Anecdotally, I think younger Asian-Americans, for example, yo-yo between wanting to hang out with an Asian community and conversely don't think that's the most important or relevant. It does help if your "community" is all over the Northern Virginia and DC area, though. East Asian-Americans do have that.

AA: True. I think the documentary was revealing in the way the high-rise condo community treated the minorities who lived in their building. [One of the documentary participants] reflected that he often gets looks like he doesn't live there. But the interesting thing is that often times the white kids who lived on the top floors of these places didn't want to fall into that stigma. They wanted to understand. The challenge becomes how do we fight stigmas then.

JP: This is a pretty old question. We've had cultural and racial stigmas for a very long time. Gentrification seems to exacerbate that, in that you sometimes see the developers coming in and they're all well-educated, relatively wealthy people. They are proposing a dream that in some cases, means pushing other people out. As Scott said, it's "cultural displacement." The stigma behind that can be race or socioeconomic status, and what Scott and other community-focused organizers seem to focus on is bolstering the voices of people who would be marginalized or ignored by the planning community. Using their well-educated, relatively wealthy status for good and not evil, I suppose.

AA: It is a very old question, but the truth is that communities don't do the hard work to answer it and find ways to live together effectively in the face of the prospect of gentrification. There is a blind allegiance to the ideology that promotes quick development. But you are right in that the 11th Street Bridge Park team took the time to lead that discussion and really bolstered the voices of those that would have been washed out.

JP: I think Oramenta spoke about that as well. She said that there's a difference between diversity you see on The Mall and diversity in her neighborhood, whether it's due to income or race. She said there are people who can go home to a comfortable place, and she wants to create more opportunities to see others and be like, "I could live there." To me, that seems to also focus on preserving a neighborhood but also encouraging growth in a more organic way. Leading new people in by showing them what the neighborhood already has to offer, and how it's going to be progressive about its growth, but not doing it through only having shiny luxury goods and condos.

AA: I also thought that a big issue that was presented by the panel was the idea of renter empowerment. What were your thoughts on the strategies presented like community land trusts and homebuyers clubs?

JP: They mentioned TOPA, which is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. It allows renters to have first opportunity to buy their rental properties before a landlord can sell the building. I think TOPA is great but it also requires extensive education and understanding of DC housing processes and that's one area where the homebuyers clubs can really step in. They can provide that education. A lot of times, what shuts people out of the process, whether it's democracy or planning their neighborhood, is that it's overwhelming.

AA: Sure, and the challenges can seem larger and influenced by so many more things than one community can prevent. I think dispelling that narrative and empowering low-income residents to protect their homes through effective policies is an important lesson I took from the panel. Luckily for D.C. it sounds like they have a lot of good laws in place to protect the tenant

JP: We've seen through examples like the Wah Luck House [in Chinatown] that sometimes these fights take many years. I hope in the future that it won't be so hard.

AA: I'm hopeful. The panel actually really helped with that!

JP: It presents a good blueprint for that kind of collaboration to take place. It'll be interesting to see how the 11th Street Bridge project moves forward.

AA: Indeed. I think it's in a very preliminary stage which may mean I should temper my excitement just a little. Regardless, it sounds like they're doing everything right.


What do parents want? A good school, not too far, and some other kids that look like them

Rich or poor, black or white, a family's decision of where to enroll their child in school is one of the most important, gut-wrenching, and revealing choices they can make. In DC, parents can choose from over 200 charter and district schools. By analyzing that data for a recent study, we were able to shed some light on what drives parents' choices.

Images from the study.

What we analyzed

As in other cities, any DC student in kindergarten through grade 12 has a right to attend a neighborhood public school based on his or her home address. But students can also enter a lottery for an open spot at any neighborhood school or public charter school in the city.

In 2014, DC moved from separate lotteries for each school to a common system, MySchoolDC, where applicants rank up to 12 schools. A random lottery process chooses which students get the spots at any school which has more applicants than spaces.

In a recent study for Mathematica Policy Research we had the opportunity to analyze over 20,000 rank-ordered lists that parents submitted in 2014, the first year of the unified lottery. We combined these lists with data describing characteristics of the students and their families, the schools themselves, and information on household and school neighborhoods, including crime and demographics.

This allowed us to estimate the importance parents place on different school attributes, including commuting distance, transit access, test score proficiency rates, programmatic offerings, the school's racial-ethnic composition, the percentage of disadvantaged students, school neighborhood characteristics, and a variety of other factors.

DC is a city of liberal values and unconscious biases, of racial diversity and racial tension, of rich and poor, newly arrived and long-time residents. Parents' individual decisions add up to collective social outcomes, patterns of racial and class composition, that have lasting effects on the social fabric of DC.

Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote a moving piece in the New York Times capturing these themes as they played out in her gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. The same issues come into stark relief in DC.

What parents value when choosing schools

The analysis suggests that parents do prefer schools close to home, but (not surprisingly) they are willing to tolerate a longer commute to a school with higher test scores.

The preference for academic performance was quite strong: if two schools were identical in every way except for their "tier" rating, parents would travel an average of seven miles for a school in the highest category over one with the lowest.

Academic performance was not the only factor. We also found that parents choose schools based on the race and income of students, but did not weight that as strongly.

Parents tend to rank schools higher if there are more students in the same racial or ethnic group as their own children. But the strength of this "own-group" preference differs by grade level, the applicant's race/ethnicity, and the percentage of a school's students in the child's own group.

If the own-group percentage is low, parents show a strong preference against a school. But as the percentage rises, the relationship weakens and even becomes negative, suggesting a taste for diversity.

In short, parents on average seem to want their children to not be in the vast minority at their school, but as long as there are some students of similar racial or ethnic backgrounds, this stops being a priority. (More detailed results are available in the technical paper here).

The analysis found that typical middle school parents would be willing to send their children over two miles farther just to get from a school where 10% of students share the child's race/ethnicity to one with 20%. But if choosing between schools with 40% or 50% of the same race/ethnicity, they would only be wiling to travel a half mile more to school.

Does choice affect segregation?

One fierce debate in education is about whether school choice—the policy allowing families to select a school besides the local one—worsens segregation. Some people may opt out of higher-poverty schools or those with high numbers of racial and ethnic minorities. Does this entrench segregation? Or is the segregation already there in residential living patterns?

We compared the current levels of racial and income segregation in DC to alternative scenarios where everyone got his or her first choice (which would unrealistically require some schools to be far, far larger) and where everyone went to his or her neighborhood school (though in reality, not everyone would attend that school in the absence of choice; some families would move or choose private schools).

It turns out that the existing policy results in less segregation by race for middle schools than if every student simply attended the in-boundary neighborhood school.

What if everyone could attend their most preferred school (ignoring any space limitations)? This would not increase racial segregation. Rather, the analysis showed nearly the same amount of racial segregation as the current policy or perhaps slightly lower.

We repeated this exercise, but removed the lowest-performing schools as school choice options to simulate a policy that directs more students toward high-performing schools. In this case, we found again that racial segregation would not increase under these circumstances, but fall further, to a value of 68 on a scale where 100 is the most segregated and 0 is the least

In addition to racial segregation, we looked at segregation of students by income level (low-income versus non-low-income). using the same type of metric, this time with students who are certified as low-income versus all other students. The overall segregation level by income was only 41 under the current policy, but interestingly, that level is even greater than it would have been if students had simply attended their neighborhood schools.

However, we found that if everyone could attend their most preferred schools, it would result in segregation by income roughly equivalent to a policy of no school choice (32 points, just one point lower than with neighborhood schools).

These findings for race and income segregation looked slightly different for families applying to elementary and high school, where the context is different in terms of both the applicants and the diversity of schools they are applying to. For example, white and Hispanic families' own-race preference was stronger among applicants to elementary schools, as emphasized in a recent Slate article, than applicants to middle and high schools.

Nevertheless, choice policies that expand seats at popular schools were predicted to reduce segregation by both race and income in elementary schools. For high schools, neighborhood school assignment was predicted to lower both types of segregation compared to the current policy (school choice with a lottery for oversubscribed schools).

Again, choice with no cap on the number of accepted applicants and removal of the lowest-performing schools always results in the lowest indices of both race and income segregation (this assumes it would be possible to increase capacity at individual campuses).

What is consistent between all levels of school is that policies which let all students into their first choice (the two blue bars in the graphs above) led to the lowest segregation. For high schools, putting everyone into the neighborhood school (purple bar) also lowered segregation compared to the current policy.

Parents in DC are not race-blind, nor do they ignore the socio-economic status of their children's potential peers. But they also are sensitive to distance and indicators of academic quality. There are also numerous unmeasured determinants of choice.

Based on the data we have available, though, we don't see evidence that the worst fears of choice opponents are true. That is, we don't see evidence that school choice by itself worsens the level of school segregation produced by residential patterns.

However, we also don't see choice as a very powerful mechanism for voluntary desegregation. There remains much work to be done to understand the impacts of choice on equity and access to quality schooling for the most disadvantaged. We also need to better understand how disadvantaged families access information about school options.

The model in this study, however, provides a promising tool for leveraging data to predict the effects of policy changes on sorting of students across schools throughout the city.


What do 80,000 people in a square mile look like? Depends on where you put them.

When we talk about dense housing, many think of New York City skyscrapers, or Soviet blocks. But as images maps of different neighborhoods in DC show, not all density looks the same.

A high-density block in Columbia Heights. All images from Google Maps.

Google Maps recently unveiled its auto-generated 3D imagery for DC. Using this feature, I compiled snapshots of what different levels of density—measured by people per square mile (ppsm)—look like throughout DC and Arlington. The population density numbers come from the 2014 American Community Survey, and I calculated at the census block group level.

5,000 people per square mile

In the Palisades, winding streets are lined with large houses (~5,000 ppsm):

And in Brookland, detached single family homes sit on lots with front setbacks and spacious backyards (~6,000 ppsm):

15,000 people per square mile

Though walkable, most of Georgetown isn't particularly dense, with blocks of tiny rowhouses clocking in at about 15,000 ppsm:

Lamond-Riggs achieves a similar population density with suburban-style duplexes (~13,000 ppsm):

20,000 - 30,000 people per square mile

With a mix of both historic and new-construction rowhouses, this block group in Hill East sits at around 22,000 ppsm:

This section of Fort Dupont is similarly dense, but looks much different. Garden apartments centered around green space and surface parking give this area a density of roughly 27,000 ppsm:

30,000 - 40,000 people per square mile

In Glover Park, rows of attached houses line a network of relatively narrow streets (~31,000 ppsm):

A mix of duplexes and garden apartments puts this part of Shipley Terrace at about 35,000 ppsm:

40,000 - 50,000 people per square mile

These blocks bordering the south end of Adams Morgan are almost entirely filled with large rowhouses, with a few bigger apartment buildings situated on the main thoroughfares (~45,000 ppsm):

In Rosslyn, parking lots and highways surround these 7- to 10-story apartment buildings (~47,000 ppsm):

50,000 - 60,000 people per square mile

These apartment complexes on Massachusetts Avenue near American University don't cover a lot of land area, but their height makes them relatively dense (~53,000 ppsm):

Dupont Circle's streets blend rowhouses with 4- to 8-story prewar apartment buildings (~55,000 ppsm):

80,000+ people per square mile

This section of Columbia Heights is mostly close-together 4-story apartment buildings, giving it both a high density and a human scale (~80,000 ppsm):

At the north end of Mount Pleasant, a large apartment complex pushes this block over 85,000 ppsm:

Just south of Logan Circle, bulky apartment buildings both old and new give rise to densities over 100,000 ppsm:


This may be DC's most ridiculous missing crosswalk

Walk through the heart of the GW campus, just a block from the Foggy Bottom Metro, and you might suddenly, bizarrely, run into an intersection where you aren't supposed to cross the street:

Photo by the author.

By DC law, any place where a street interrupts a sidewalk, there is a legal crosswalk. Even if there aren't any stripes marking it, there's still a crosswalk there. And the District Department of Transportation's official design manual requires marked crosswalks at all intersections. But that doesn't stop DDOT from sometimes designing intersections without crosswalks.

Often, the road's designers are putting the fast speed of traffic as their top priority and trading away the needs of people on foot. At Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue NE, for instance, engineers wanted a double left turn lane, and that's incompatible with a crosswalk. Then-director Gabe Klein intervened to insist on a crosswalk. That example turned out well, but many intersections get built without all of their crosswalks.

It's not right to force people to cross three times just to keep going straight. It adds a lot of time to each walker's trip and sends a clear message that people on foot are second-class citizens. Most often, this happens in complex intersections or in areas with low numbers of people walking, though even there that's not right (it just perpetuates the situation).

Most often, this situation crops up where diagonal streets meet the grid, like at 15th Street and Florida Avenue NW or 4th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Here, though, this is a regular corner of two typical DC grid streets (22nd and I NW), and it's in a heavily-walked area on a college campus near Metro. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A chair Patrick Kennedy explained in a series of tweets:

This intersection was controlled by a 4-way stop until about ¾ years ago, when a light was installed to handle increased traffic relating to the new development at Square 54. All crossings were possible with the 4-way stop.

When the light was installed, DDOT updated the ADA ramps but determined that they couldn't them at this crossing because of the WMATA emergency access grates positioned at the curb on either side of the street. My suggestion was that they install a bulb-out here to extend the sidewalk into the curb lane and give them the additional space needed to add a ramp since there's no rush-hour lane here and no parking near the intersection.

As of yet, that suggestion has not been taken. Meanwhile, as you can probably imagine, people cross here all the time anyways.

Pedestrian Advisory Council member Eileen McCarthy said, "It's not the intent of the ADA to make crossings more difficult." She further argues that DDOT doesn't even have the legal authority to close this crosswalk.

DDOT Pedestrian Program Coordinator George Branyan said that DDOT is working internally and with WMATA to devise a solution. While that's great, DDOT should have either waited on the signal until the solution was ready or put in crosswalks anyway (as McCarthy suggests is legal) in the interim instead of putting up this sign banning walkers.

After all, DDOT's own manual says:

29.7 Pedestrian Crossings

Marked Crosswalks will be required at all signalized intersections, school areas, and high pedestrian areas.

That doesn't say "except if it will inconvenience drivers too much," though in practice, DDOT often abrogates this in the name of traffic flow, and then often without public notice or discussion.

In the ensuing Twitter discussion, people pointed out similar missing crosswalks at 9th and D NW and at the "Starburst" intersection where H Street NE meets Benning Road, Bladensburg Road, 15th Street, Florida Avenue, and Maryland Avenue.

What other missing crosswalks are near you?


A new bikeshare station could be a side benefit to this housing redevelopment

Plans to redevelop Park Morton, a public housing development in Park View just south of Petworth, are taking shape. Aside from adding housing options to the area for both low and middle-income residents, the project could be a chance to expand Capital Bikeshare in a place where demand for the service often outpaces supply.

An empty Capital Bikeshare station at Georgia and Columbia NW. Image from Google Maps.

The existing Park Morton housing site is centrally located in Park View, to the east of Georgia Avenue on Morton Street. The site has a total of 12 three-story walkup apartment buildings for a total of 174 public housing units. The redevelopment plan is to replaces the current structures with approximately 456 units of mixed income housing spread across both the Park Morton site and the former Bruce Monroe School site at Georgia Avenue and Columbia Road.

To accomplish this, both sites will be developed through the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process, which permits zoning flexibility—usually including taller buildings—if the project includes benefits for the surrounding community. One benefit this project will include are two new parks—one on Columbia Road and one on Morton Street (see the map below for locations).

More CaBi stations could be another benefit included in the PUD. At the existing stations, at Georgia Avenue and Columbia Road and Georgia and New Hampshire Avenue, there's often a shortage of bikes after the morning rush, and stations don't always get replenished in the evenings.

A review of this CaBi crowdsourcing map below shows that residents feel that both of these stations need to be larger because they're often out of bikes:

Capital Bikeshare's map of stations in the area, with comments from users.

"Park View needs more stations!," says voicevote, a commenter on the map. "The one at Georgia and NH is always empty

Furthermore, there has been a significant push for a new station in the area, near Georgia Avenue and Park Road. However, today there is no space that can accommodate a new station at that location

"This area needs a station!," says heckalopter, another commenter. "It's a long walk to the other stations, which are usually empty by very early in the morning. Many residents in this area are using the too-few stations further away."

A review of available bike availability at Bikeshare stations supports comments on the crowdsourcing map. In reviewing the Bikeshare station map shortly after noon on Monday, June 20, many of the stations in the area had fewer that two bikes, and many had no available bikes.

The significant exception here is the station at the hospital center, which is a commuter destination rather than a point of departure.

Image from Capital Bikeshare.

Because the Park Morton development effort includes new dedicated open spaces, new sidewalks, new streets, and other improvements as part of its master plan, it creates an opportunity to enlarge the Bikeshare station on Columbia Road and establish a new station on Morton Street as part of that plan. These stations ideally would be located near the new parks and could be established with minimal impact to either the design or overall budget.


American U tuition will cover unlimited Metro rides

Back in December, WMATA and American University proposed a program that would allow students to pay a discounted rate for unlimited rides on both bus and rail. A student referendum and months of planning later, the pilot program is a reality. It launches this coming school year.

Image from WMATA.

Called the "U•Pass," the new pilot program reaches far more students than a previous effort between WMATA and American. Over 10,000 full-time undergrad, grad and law students at American will receive a SmarTrip card complete with a unique serial number and AU Logo. U•Pass will give holders unlimited rides on all bus and rail lines in the WMATA system.

Because American is on the hook for footing the bill, all full-time students will be enrolled, and an extra $130 per semester will be added to tuition to pay for the pass.

That increase in tuition will be worthwhile for most students given the benefits of the pass: WMATA has estimated that the average full-time student will save $1000 on transportation per school year. Additionally, since the cost of U•Pass is included in tuition, financial aid can cover the cost of the pass. Being able to pay for U•Pass through financial aid lifts a heavy burden for those who struggle to pay for Metro on top of college expenses to get to work or internships.

U•Pass will make it easier than ever for students to use Metro. The U•Pass is already paid for, creating the incentive to take the bus or train to campus instead of another service like Uber or Car2go. The savings combined with convenience will make it hard not to use Metro.

This partnership between WMATA and American solves the biggest dilemma previous pilots have failed to work out, and something WMATA struggles with in general: dedicated funding. WMATA has estimated that it will receive $2.7 million just this fiscal year from U•Pass sales.

Beyond the direct funding, WMATA is getting access to 10,000 students that may not have used the Metro system for their everyday needs before. A successful U•Pass program could lead to other universities doing something similar, and there's a lot of potential in the hundreds of thousands of college students in DC.

All these potential riders are even more crucial because they are often off-peak riders. WMATA is looking for ways to not only increase ridership but to also even out ridership across the system from the current commuter pattern.

The students want this program

This past semester, American held a student referendum on the proposed U•Pass pilot and tuition increase. After two weeks of voting, an overwhelming 85% of the student body voted to approve the program.

Students are excited after hearing the news. A quick search of Twitter shows students asking the AU Office of Campus Life when and where they can pick up their new U•Pass. Students will pick up the pass during Welcome Week at many locations across campus, or can go to the Office of Parking and Traffic Services for late pickup.

It's still just a pilot

The U•Pass Program is still a pilot, but it seems to be poised for success. As the program matures, and hopefully grows to more universities, WMATA and participating universities should look into expanding the program to other local jurisdictions. Currently, the U•Pass only works on WMATA, meaning students who use other systems such as Ride On or ART will need to have an additional SmarTrip to get around.

U•Pass will provide us with an opportunity to study the commuting patterns of students. Many bus lines run either through AU's campus via Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues or by AU's Washington College of Law and satellite buildings on Wisconsin Ave. It will be interesting to see if the unlimited bus pass will translate into increased bus ridership in these areas.

The U•Pass pilot program is an exciting new option for AU students. Partnerships between WMATA and the area's universities need to grow, and this pilot is a step in the right direction.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City