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Students get free bus rides; let's also simplify the paperwork

Starting this fall, students in DC will get to ride Metrobus for free, thanks to a budget surplus. It's good news for kids who take the bus to school. WMATA could take advantage of this opportunity and simplify its system for student fares as well.

Photo by Beechwood Photography on Flickr.

Metro already offers a discounted fare for students, but it's hard to take advantage of it. In order to make our family eligible for student fares, my husband had to obtain the proper forms from our children's schools. One school had no idea what we were talking about.

Then, he had to take them in person to one of 4 Metro sales offices or WMATA headquarters, which are inconvenient to reach and only open on weekdays during business hours. Each form allowed us to purchase a bag of 10 tokens for $7.50. We have to transfer buses to get to school, so we would save 10¢ per trip, not accounting for the initial ride to the sales office.

Students can also get a monthly SmartStudent pass for $30, but only after they obtain a Student Travel Card from the District Department of Transportation. You can get it at the sales office or 8 DCPS schools, if a student goes there. But unless you use it roundtrip nearly every school day, it's more expensive than tokens.

We don't yet know how Metro or the DC Council will implement the fare change. I vote for simply allowing younger students to board the bus for free, while letting those who are older use their student ID. Of course, it probably won't be that easy.

A good option won't involve schlepping down to WMATA headquarters every month with new forms. The current system is not easy or convenient for parents who have 9-to-5 jobs or students who are in school all day. And if your school doesn't have the proper forms, you are out of luck. These hoops likely exist to avoid fraud, but there's got to be a better way.

Neighboring jurisdictions already provide student discounts in different ways. Students in Montgomery County can ride the bus for free on weekday afternoons with a student ID or buy a discounted Youth Cruiser Pass, though like DC, you can only buy them in a few places. In Arlington, students can use a student ID or tokens to ride for 75¢.

Giving students free bus fare is a great idea, but parents and students also need an easy and convenient way to take advantage.

Jessica Christy has two children learning Chinese at Washington Yu Ying, where she is also the president of the Parent Association. For work, she does industrial hygiene consulting and stays at home with her two-year-old. In her free time (ha!), Jessica enjoys needlepoint and DIY home improvement. All opinions stated here are her own. 


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I understand the point, but I'd offer a counter perspective. A bus driver has to do many things. Drive the bus, stop at the right places, help passengers, make sure they pay, etc. Adding a new task like sizing up every teenager to see if they are old enough to ride for free or if they need to see ID is an extra step that takes away their focus from their main job of getting people where they need to go safely and quickly.

I think it's been mentioned before but simply having a smarttrip chip included in school ID would be a good compromise.

by Alan B. on Jul 8, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport

I had no idea students in Arlington had any kind of discount. Metro's website for bus fares says: "Up to two children, four years and younger, ride free with each adult paying full fare. Children five and older pay adult fares. Special discounted student farecards and passes are available for District of Columbia residents."
Where can I find information about the Arlington discount? My child uses a Smartrip card and just pays the regular fare.

by Mary on Jul 8, 2013 2:31 pm • linkreport

Mary, this might help.

I believe the fare is only available via tokens for the green ART buses though they may be rolling out a SmarTrip option in the future.

by Alan B. on Jul 8, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

@Alan B...

A couple of thoughts...
First, I have never seen a bus driver enforce payment of any youth... only at about the highschool level. Most children I see ride under the age of 15 make no effort to pay or show ID. Whatever the new policy I hope this continues. Over all the bus is a public good and I would rather subsidize youth riding the bus then hear even one tragic story resulting in a child being denied a ride.

Second, Smarttrip chips are controversial and maybe not why you think. From a technology standpoint there are many patents that current control how metro system payment are made. There is currently a patent war over who is violating which patents. Additionally, last year there was an issue with the smarttrip card vendor and as a result of technology issues as card inventory ran out metro was unable to use new suppliers. Placing proprietary technology in 25,000 student IDs would be to repeat a mistake that Metro is still learning from.

Finally, to be clear, my solution is free buses for everyone. Once private bus companies became public goods why should we double bill ourselves for mobility. Most importantly with bus drivers no longer having to enforce payment of any rider they can focus on even more safety and their main job of getting people where they need to go safely and quickly.

by parent on Jul 8, 2013 3:16 pm • linkreport

Remember, if there is any chance that the system can be gamed, it will be. Back in the old paper voucher days, you had government workers with six-figure incomes selling their transit benefits on Craigslist.

by dcdriver on Jul 8, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

@ Alan and Parent,

My soon to be 9th grader reports that she often rode the bus for free to school in DC when she forgot her token since the drivers already don't require bus tokens or money. Something changed in DC since I was a kid. I still remember being in maybe 8th grade and reaching to put my token in the change thing and it fell into the bus. I could not find it and the driver threw me off the bus until some kind sole on the bus paid my fair.

I like the idea of free rides for kids to school, but I worry that in 10 years kids like my daughter are going to be in their 20s and riding the bus for free. Seems to me over time it will become harder to collect fares from anyone riding the bus.

by turtleshell on Jul 8, 2013 5:31 pm • linkreport

I too have struggled with the DC Student Pass/token issue with great frustration. The monthly pass it too expensive if your child doesn't take the buss every single day.

In tokyo there is a youth smart trip card that you buy in any of the machines in any of the stations. When you pass through the turnstile the youth card makes a cricket like chirping sound. It is honor system to sign up for it. However, because of the noise, any enforcement official --when they hear the chirp can look up and see if in fact a kid is using the youth card.

It works really well!

by Anya Schoolman on Jul 9, 2013 8:50 am • linkreport

Agree with Alan B.

One or more students in a group will try to take advantage of situations where a driver doesn't have time to make the next light, keep her/his bus on schedule to deal with rule breakers. Maybe students should show a OneCard and SmartTrip to bus drivers and present them on demand to station staff or Metro police. Simplify the process so the OneCard and or MetroCard can be confiscated if abused, tracking the usage/stations/bus signatures. Perhaps drivers should have a simple handheld app to scan a card of anyone they have a question about — and someone else can follow up at a later time.

by @shawingtontimes on Jul 9, 2013 10:26 am • linkreport

Why can't free bus rides for students going to school operate the same way that free metro works for federal employees going to work? For those not familiar with the federal system, the feds load up your smartrip each month with your expected commuting cost (up to a max) but whatever you don't use by the end of the month automatically comes off your smartrip.

As for non-school rides, I don't see the rationale for providing free non-school bus rides to youths. Parents receive a $1000 tax credit from the federal government for each child and if DC doesn't believe that's a sufficient subsidy for children, they can provide an additional credit. That way, parents can use the credit for bus rides, diapers or any other child-related expense.

Instead of free rides, they could provide a child discount. It would be very easy to implement. Just allow students to buy the yellow senior smartrip cards. There's no reason children should be paying more than seniors regardless of whether it's bus or rail.

Once private bus companies became public goods why should we double bill ourselves for mobility.

We don't double bill ourselves for mobility. About 60% of the cost of operating transit come from taxes and 40% comes from fares. It all adds up to 100%, no more.

by Falls Church on Jul 9, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

DDOT plans to implement the free bus transportation via the DC One Card. All DC Public School students are eligible for and most have them now. Some elementary schools may not have the program established for school transportation. DDOT and OCTO will be rolling out the DC One Card to DC Charter Schools and DC private schools this fall. We will be prepared for implementation of the free rides on school days program at the start of the Fiscal Year on October 1st. Stay tuned for more information.

by steve strauss on Jul 9, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

How about if at the end of each school day the teacher gives out 2 tokens: one to use to get home and one to get to school the next day? That would require kids to actually be in school to get them, and would limit the number of tokens a kid had at any one time to prevent theft or misuse. I realize it's not a perfect solution for kids who need to transfer or who ride metro, but it would be an improvement and the other options ($30 metrocard, buying tokens in bulk, etc.) could still exist too.

by sbc on Jul 9, 2013 11:46 pm • linkreport

My kids use the student smartcard and it is great. It can be used for field trips as well which argues for the expanded version. They do bike to school some days, but most days they metro. I do think it is a problem to expect some poor families to provide any amount of money for transportation. I often joke that our school chance system is only for people with internet access and a car.

There also needs to be transportation consideration for parents of younger children. No one is going to put their 3 year old on the bus alone. At what age can young children navigate the system on there own is going to be related to the specific child involved, the complexity of their trip, and their parent's comfort level. I work at home and when I was going to school with the kids that was 4 metro fares a day for me to escort them to and from school, except for days when I had to pick up a sick child in the middle of the day, then it was 6.

by Mary M M Melchior on Jul 10, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

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