The Bus Stops Here: For our future

The Bus Stops Here is produced monthly by members of Madison Area Bus Advocates. This month's column is by Susan DeVos.

Metro Transit helps Madison’s future get to school. How? Elementary school students who do not need specialized transportation services, but do need a bus ride, use yellow school buses supplied by a private bus company. Older kids use city buses. Starting in middle school, they use either the regularly scheduled ones or specially contracted school ‘dodgers’ that only operate when school is in session.

School ‘dodgers’ are supplemental runs designed to ease overcrowding on regular buses. As such, they serve most, but not all, of Madison’s high schools and middle schools. Where there are no supplemental runs, there are always regular runs.

When picking up students, supplemental school runs not only use regular bus stops but also "flag stops" where students can wave or “flag down” and board the bus. At the end or beginning of their runs, the buses stop directly in front of the schools. High school runs include a "late" service so students can participate in after-school activities. Some middle schools also have scheduled late service.

In addition to charging a cash fare of $1.25 for youths (ages 5-17 or still in high school), Metro sells a 10-ride card for $11.25 and semester- or year-long unlimited ride passes called “EZ Rider” for $165 or $315. EZ Rider passes are also provided free to students who “reside more than one and one-half (1.5) miles from their attendance area school and have demonstrable financial need, including qualifying for free or reduced lunch.” Almost half of the students attending Madison schools fall within that category. Semester- and year-long passes are good all the time, including at night and on the weekends when school is in session, not just during the school day (broadly defined).

According to posted statistics, the school district had about 25,000 students last year (2015-2016), about 5,300 or a fifth of them in Middle School (grades 6-8) and about 7,500 (30 percent) in High School (grades 9-12).  Metro tallies its data by calendar year, not academic year, and in 2015 sold 2,294 semester-long passes, and 4,897 year-long passes. Assuming the school year and calendar year are similar enough to allow for reasonable estimation, then it would appear that almost half of the children in grades 6-12 had passes to ride a Metro bus to and from school.

That also means that at least roughly half of Madison’s 6-12 students did NOT use bus passes to go to school. While some youths used 10-ride cards (21,000 sold in 2015) or paid cash for a single ride (almost 84,000 times for unknown destination) most of the non-pass users probably traveled to school another way, such as by walking, biking or riding a personal occupancy vehicle. The latter is obviously common as all the dropping off/picking up causes enough congestion to warrant safety reminders in various school supplements to the district policy guide. Congestion and safety are also major reasons cited by the “Safe Routes to Schools” program.

More people would ride the bus if they felt it were safer, as many parents would prefer not to have to drive their children to/from school every day. But behavior problems by school-age kids are notorious. Police are now present in high schools during school hours and at bus transfer points after school. From none ten years ago, to all of them today, Metro buses have video cameras that help identify troublemakers, school guides almost universally admonish that “Riding the bus is a privilege that requires respectful behavior at all times,“ and Metro is known to confiscate the passes of unruly individuals. Many feel that it has not gone nearly far enough however, and try to avoid riding buses when students go home after school.

Neither the school district nor Metro should be in the business of babysitting, but that appears to be exactly what many employers, parents and others in Madison are asking of them. It is wasteful among other things, as resources spent on babysitting (or being babysat) cannot be spent on something else. There apparently has yet to be a community forum on the issue, but suggested partial solutions include 1) having teacher monitors ride the bus along with students on the most heavily-used runs to potentially extend the learning environment (maybe awarding special credit for it) while also being able to identify misbehaving individuals; and 2) limiting the passes to school days only (excluding weekends and evenings).

With the School District’s focus on its students, it would be easy to neglect transportation issues surrounding other important participants in the school process including parents/guardians and staff. The school district often schedules parent-teacher conferences, athletic events and other activities in the evenings and on the weekends with the expectation that parents or guardians furnish their own transportation. Metro could improve on its current level of evening and weekend service to facilitate more parent/guardian participation in extra school activities.

Also unfortunately, and perpetuating an undeserved stigma to riding the bus, the teacher’s union has never seen fit to consider having an employee pass for faculty and staff similar to what they have at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Yet the School District employs over 4,000 people. A major reason so many UW faculty and staff ride the bus or use some other form of non-automobile transportation is because parking is so expensive. And revenue from parking helps finance bicycle clinics and the bus pass program. The Madison Metropolitan School District does not charge anything for parking on school property although some schools have substantial parking lots and some staff park in the same place almost every day. Why should that parking have no cost to the user?

As part of what needs to be a full community-wide effort, Metro helps Madison’s future get to and from school. We need our future to travel safely and sustainably. That includes parents/guardians and school staff as well as students.