Thursday, January 5, 2017

Students on the transit bus - who should pay the extra trips?


Student transit pass: Access to education
Sometimes big goals collide: Recently two Baltimore goals have been seemingly on a collision course: The goals of providing an excellent education and the goal of providing excellent transit, two goals that should actually sit both sit under one roof, that of the common good.  The issue: Students in Baltimore City use regular transit buses to get to school and only for elementary school or special ed are there suburban yellow school buses. The fare card for students was introduced in 2012:
“The S-Pass is the product of an MTA commitment to reinvent and improve the way people use Maryland’s transit system,” said MTA Administrator Ralign T. Wells. “The S-Pass is convenient for students and transforms how the agency accounts for student fares.” 
The S-pass allowed students a free ride on MTA buses and trains from Monday to Friday 6am to 8pm until recently when an unfortunate agreement between MTA and the then school Superintendent Thornton modified the evening limit, requiring to begin the home trip at 6pm. The change also limited the number of rides to two per day, i.e. only to and from school, making a potentially separate ride to an after school activity a separate pay item, if not for the student then for the school system.
“As a result, many young people are not able to get home from after school programs. We have heard from children, parents and program directors that this policy change is hurting our kids.” (Councilman Zeke Cohen, chair of the Youth and Education Committee)
In response to the concern, the school system issued separate MTA tickets for students who participate in school-based after-school programs that end after 6:00 p.m at the school systems expense of about $200,000 per school year. It isn't entirely clear what triggered the change since both, the school system and the MTA claim that they by no means intended to curtail after school activities or limit the presence of students on buses after 6pm. Even before the recent change there had been an agreement for students with activities on weekends or after 8pm. A FAQ document posted by the school system explained the practice this way: "For travel to or from official school- or district-sponsored events after 8 p.m. or on weekends, students will be issued “one student fare” tickets. These are valid until 9 p.m. on weekdays and can also be used on Saturday or Sunday".  However, trips to non school based education activities by non-profits or other prroviders remain require a student to pay full fare. The MTA says:
 “Any suggestion that the MTA has changed its S-Pass policy to save money at the expense of Baltimore City’s school children is simply inaccurate. The MTA recognizes the importance of after-school activities and has been providing transportation services for these activities for years and will continue to do so.” MTA Deputy Chief Operating Officer Sean Adgerson

Press conference about the S-Pass restrictions: Zeke Cohen (SUN)
According to the MTA, students have two hours after swiping their new cards to make an unlimited number of transfers which would extend the time by which they have to end their after school trips to 8:00pm.

The matter has a technological component. The cards with magnetic strips were good for a day and like a MTA day pass allowed unlimited trip, even though the school system had paid only two. The new chip cards can count each trip individually so that transfer to siblings and parents etc. isn't possible. Additionally, Council member Brandon Scott has long promoted a chip card for students that acts as a One Pass for food and other services, reducing the number of cards a student has to carry. Schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster said the district is phasing out the S-Pass and adopting the One Card. 

Aside from money, students on buses are a hot topic for many regular bus riders who complain that students crowing the buses are a problem. Complaints center on bus overcrowding (where regular riders can't get on the bus for it being already full) or unruly behavior. About 36,000 students are eligible for the S passes according to the SUN in 2012. That number may be smaller today, still, adding that many students on the bus system isn't an easy task. MTA has added extra service when schools let out and added student oriented bus stops and is also including those considerations in the new Baltimore Link Bus system to be inaugurated Sunday June 18 of this year. 
Students on transit buses: An urban solution

The issue of students on transit buses is not limited to Baltimore. It is common in urban transit systems where schools cannot afford a separate school bus system and where more yellow school buses would just make congestion worse. The benefit of the shared public bus is that the school system saves money by not having to maintain and operate a separate bus fleet (or pay subcontractors for that) and that fewer vehicles crowd the streets. Less tangible benefits include that students experience transit at an early age which reduces the threshold fear many adults have vis-a-vis transit.

The key point, though, is that the pass allows students easy and fairly reliable access to education, for regular classes and even more for extracurricular activities that are increasingly essential as part of education. A detailed study in Minneapolis looked into all aspects of costs and direct and indirect benefits after that city introduced student transit passes there. The study showed  positive results and the benefits outweighing the cost. In Minneapolis students can use their pass for unlimited trips between 5:30am and 10pm.
Upset parents lining up to testify at the hearing Thursday

Zeke Cohen convened his council subcommittee for Youth and Education for a hearing on the matter on Thursday this week and placed it at the auditorium of Frederick Douglas High. His committee had School Superintendent Santelises testify on the added cost for the school system and the required payments for the evening trips. He asked a long list of students, educators and experts to provide testimony, including me. My statement was this:
On this 220th birthday of the City of Baltimore it is my honor to speak as an architect, transportation planner and parent of two kids that visited City schools.
This is about  the intersection of 21st century education and new thinking about urban transportation.  
Cities need both to be successful. As we are all aware, Baltimore is struggling with both while it isn’t in full control of either.  
The new S-pass limitations, are a step backwards, both for education and for transit access if they create unnecessary new barriers. 
During the last two years a lot of attention has focused on inequity in Baltimore and on how good transit can provide access to opportunity. Access to education is, of course, one of the most fundamental ways of unlocking opportunity and each individual’s potential. 
 21st century education recognizes that there are multiple pathways to education and many different ways in which individuals learn. New pedagogy recognizes individual needs and the many different ways of learning . After-school  learning are customized activities that take occasionally late hours: Precisely what is needed for broader access to education and learning.
It is therefore urgent that student transit access not be nickled and dimed. Transit is an important pass to education and worth every penny that it costs. . 
Given that the school system under the new Superintendent Dr. Sonja Santelises and the MTA are intent on solving the problem and that transit buses are running anyway, this may well be a tempest in the teapot. The main question seems to be how many trips students should be able to make with their pass and who should pay for those above two, especially for after school trips.  The school system pays a reduced rate of $1.20 for school trips instead of the regular $1.70 fare and claims that this amounts to a $5 million annual subsidy and that there would be an additional hidden subsidy of $2 million from students doing additional trips that the old cards didn't account for. Mary Pat Clarke, well versed in Council hearings, quickly zeroed in on the question whether these numbers actually present any real cost, given that the buses run anyway. Councilman Ryan Dorsey likened it to taking his neighbor to the grocery store on the otherwise vacant passenger seat of his car.
From a Minneapolis student bus pass survey

Chair Cohen asked if public transportation shouldn't emphasize the public interest just like public education. In response the MTA likes to point to the State "fair-box recovery law" that requires the MTA to recover 35% of their cost from fares. However, the agency is far from achieving that rate anyway and transit experts agree that farebox is a poor metric for measuring transit effectiveness.

Cohen's vigilance and his Council Committee hearing at Frederick Douglass High illustrate that the new City Council is paying attention, especially on those matters of transportation and education that are so important to the well being of Baltimore.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

MTA introduces the S Pass (SUN 2012)

Minneapolis Report about student transport on public transit
ABC TV report
Zeke Cohen's live FB feed