Connecting students to public transit

This screen-capture shows a moment in a video produced by staff of the Free Student Bus Program to help students with intellectual abilities at the Davis Center understand how to ride buses.

Having proved popular in the last several years, despite pandemic-related upheavals, Fairfax County’s Free Student Bus Program will offer even more options this fall.

The initiative “has continued to grow, despite the challenges of the pandemic, with students proving to be some of our most loyal customer base,” Kala Quintana, marketing head for Fairfax Connector, during the June 14 meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ transportation committee.

Begun in fall 2015, the standard Free Student Bus Program allowed all students at Fairfax County Public Schools’ middle and high schools, plus private- and home-schooled students, to ride Fairfax Connector and (since 2016) city of Fairfax CUE buses for free. (The CUE bus system currently allows all passengers to ride gratis.)

Students, using special SmarTrip cards, may ride those buses gratis between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day of the year. Those hours were extended after the initial pilot year to accommodate students’ activities and work schedules, Quintana said.

“Some of them are their families’ primary breadwinners,” she said. “We’ve had students stay in school because they didn’t want to lose their bus pass.”

As of May this year, students had taken more than 2 million trips using the program. While students accounted for roughly 6.5 percent of Fairfax Connector’s ridership before the pandemic struck in March 2020, the youths’ share had risen to 7.6 percent as of this April. The program also has a new coordinator, Saul Cieza.

Metrobus since fall 2018 has been running a pilot program at Justice High School, where half of the students have Metrobus-enabled SmarTrip cards. The school’s students since have taken more than 100,000 free Metrobus trips. Fairfax Connector pays $2 for each of those trips, which must only be in Northern Virginia, Quintana said.

During the 2019-20 school year before the pandemic, Justice students averaged 4,500 trips per month. Post-COVID, nearly 52.2 percent of the youths frequently are using their Student Bus Pass cards and most are riding only on the approved routes, Quintana said.

Violators receive warnings from school administrators, and so far few students have had their cards revoked, she said.

Metrobus is set to expand the initiative this fall to include Annandale High School, Davis Center, Falls Church High School and George C. Marshall High School.

The new initiative, dubbed “Free Student Bus Pass + Metrobus,” will kick off in mid-September with an event at Marshall High, Quintana said. Those cards, which have a different-colored stripe, also will work on the county’s Free Student Bus Program.

The Board of Supervisors and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board are considering a new memorandum of understanding for the Metrobus initiative, which supervisors will take up on June 28.

Program officials have created a video animation and a “social story” to help Davis Center students with intellectual disabilities understand how to ride the bus, Quintana said. Another version of the video is in Spanish.

“It’s inclusive, so that all students can see individuals like themselves riding the bus,” Quintana said. “The pacing is a little slower to allow students to process the information more easily.”

Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) expressed gratitude for the Metrobus part of the initiative, saying Fairfax Connector does not serve most of the schools in her district.

Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill), who chairs the Transportation Committee, encouraged county transportation officials to “keep looking for opportunities to build on the success of this program.”

Quintana said county staff members plan to reach out more to private- and home-schooled students who might benefit from the program.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) said he hoped that, one day, Fairfax County Public Schools students could get bus, library and other programs loaded onto a single user card “instead of having to go through a process of getting all these elements in line.”

“I see [the bus program] only growing,” McKay said. “I think our challenge is going to be, how do we make it convenient for people, how do we knock down any barriers to access that have been there before.”

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