On Tuesday, Executive Director of Ward 6 non-profit Serve Your City (SYC) Maurice Cook visited several District public schools to hand out Metro SmarTrip Cards.The cards, loaded with a combined $480 total value, were given to the organization by an anonymous donor.
The DC non-profit, which provides opportunities and experiences for at-risk students, distributed the cards in the wake of a Washington Post report outlining problems with recent changes to the One Card system. The card is used to access free public transit by District students.
“We happened to be talking about the issue with the DC One Card,” said Cook, “and they contributed these.” SYC distributed cards to Eliot-Hine Middle and Maury Elementary School, and will distribute them to Jefferson Middle School, Eastern Secondary High School and Brent Elementary Schools next week. The non-profit is planning to run more campaigns in the future related to the issue of transit.
One Card: A ‘Bureaucratic System’
Prior to this year, students could show their One Card to the driver or station attendant to gain access to WMATA vehicles. Starting this year and in an effort to collect data on the use of the cards, students are required to tap the One Card in much the same manner as a SmarTrip Card.
But the transition has not proceeded smoothly, noted Cook. He said that students have trouble loading value onto their cards. “Sometimes people are telling us that they have to come twice to put funds onto the card, which is costly in and of itself,” Cook said.
“It’s a very bureaucratic system.”
Students find the process of registering and loading the ONE card for use unnecessarily cumbersome, said Cook. Many middle-school students, expected by the system and families to find their way to school on their own, do not bother to try.
“it’s just one of those systemic issues, since we are asking our youth to travel throughout the city to come to school,” Cook said. “Of course, it has a disproportionate effect on the most marginalized, but any family of any demographic who utilizes the DC One Card –they will have their complaints about the system itself.”
A spokesperson for Metro said that student use and compliance in the One Card program has increased by about 28% during the 2017-18 school year, and 60% of those students tap their cards.
But she acknowledged that the system is problematic. “Despite these improvements, the program’s complex administration, technology issues, and distribution issues have led to confusion,” she said. “Switching to a pre-loaded SmarTrip Card, similar to Metro’s U-Pass program, will make it easier to use and could reduce the annual cost of the program and ensure ridership is properly recorded, which affects Metro’s federal funding allocation.”
A Daily Issue
Cook said that the systemic problems have a detrimental effect on student access to school every day. “Many of the students here [in Ward 6 schools] do not live within this ward, do not live in this neighborhood. Many of them live across the bridge in Ward 7 and Ward 8, so they’re using Metro on a daily basis,” Cook said.
“So, this is a daily issue for students who don’t live within the neighborhood [of their school]. And this is system-wide,” Cook added, noting that since the implementation of the MySchool lottery system, students could be traveling across several wards of the District to get to classes.
Metro has indicated that it wants to transition DCPS students to the SmarTrip system, with cards subsidized by the District. But the change is slow to take place.
“We are currently reviewing WMATA’s proposal to provide SmarTrip cards for fare payment in addition to DC One Cards,” said the representative. “We look forward to continuing to work with WMATA to reduce transportation barriers that prevent students from attending school every day.”
Restoring the Balance
The Student Transit Subsidy Program allows free travel on WMATA system in the District. The dollar value on the cards is $0, allowing them to be used as a free pass within the District. But fare is deducted if a student uses the pass in Maryland or Virginia, creating a negative balance. Students are then unable to use the card for travel again until they restore the balance.
“They’re getting to school, but we do have some problems,” noted Eliot-Hine Middle School’s social worker and homeless liaison Harris at her meeting with Cook. She said some of her students are District residents that have been placed in hotels or shelters outside District boundaries, making it problematic for them to use their One Card for transit.
Harris said she only knows of one student in this school year experiencing homelessness and coming from outside the District; last year there were as many as three. Most of the students attending Eliot-Hine use Metro to get to school, she added.
A representative of the Office of the City Administrator, which handles student transportation in the District, said that no families currently experiencing homelessness have a shelter placement outside the District and that the office has no plans to change that.
“DC has utilized Maryland hotels in the past to accommodate high demand, and when that was the case children were provided DC One Cards in conjunction with OSSE and their homeless liaison,” she added.
Harris said the donation of SmarTrip cards will be put to good use, ensuring students will know that they can get to and from school without any trouble.
“It would just give another sense of security, and just not worrying about if they are going to get in trouble,” Harris said of the cards. She acknowledged that some students find difficulty working their way through the process, and sometimes evade fare payment in order to get to class, sparking a reaction from Metro personnel. “It’s a worry for them as young African-American students.”
A representative for Metro said that juveniles receive warning notices for fare evasion. “Officers cannot issue citations for individuals under the age of 18,” she said.
Harris said younger students sometimes feel intimidated when caught by Metro employees, and unsure how to find an alternative to evading fares to get to class when they cannot pay.
Cook noted that people are arrested, often violently for fare evasion, a criminalization of the system that students are expected to use.
“Tell me in what suburb do they allow this,” he asked, “where the system doesn’t provide supervised transportation, or a supervised trained adult to escort students to school and to a bus stop? Our expectations, our standards are subpar, and we need to have this conversation. These students should not be expected to bear the responsibility of getting to and from school on time.”
Truancy is also an issue within DCPS, Cook pointed out, linking school absence and transportation. “These policies are band-aids that don’t address the fundamental issue: that we’ve created a system where people feel they need to travel across town to get an adequate education, and students are responsible for their own transport.”
Harris said there has been a great deal of improvement to attendance since she started working at DCPS in 2008, when District students did not have free transportation. The program was initiated by the Bowser administration for the 2015 school year, and Harris said it has made a significant difference to truancy rates. “That was always the explanation: that the family did not have a way to get the student to school,” she said. “So it has improved a great deal, although we still have a way to go.”
Harris said she works closely with the student counsellor and will select students to receive the cards gifted by Serve Your City, with a particular focus on homeless students and those with challenging home situations.