Out of Mom's Car, Into the Metrobus

By Jenifer Joy Madden
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Parents are supposed to teach their kids to rely on themselves and to use resources wisely. Doing that could also spare them hours in traffic, especially in places such as Tysons Corner, near where I live. Yet, hauling kids around in lots of vehicles, all going the same place at the same time, has somehow become our default. I wanted to change my ways.

So now that my son is older and has a phone, my goal for the new school year was for my son and his best friend, Jason, to learn to ride the public bus from their high school in Fairfax home to Vienna.

The first step was to get buy-in from Jason's mom. While discussing the details of a carpooling arrangement, I offhandedly dropped the notion. Jason's mom -- who's also my pal -- blinked once and said, "Sure, why not?"

Next, it was time to tell the kids. We couched it as another test of their mettle. After all, if these 15-year-olds could swing at objects flying 90 miles an hour and get whacked by titanium lacrosse sticks, they could walk to a bus stop and ride a few miles across town.

Then came the planning. We sat down and googled Washington Metrobus. At http://wmata.com, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Web site, we clicked the "Bus" tab. Then we zoomed in on the "Maps" page, which shows the Virginia routes in vivid colors. There is a bus stop in front of the school, but we saw that it would save time if the boys walked a quarter-mile to the line that runs through Vienna. A few more clicks found the fare: $1.35 in cash, or $1.25 with a SmarTrip card.

Finally, it was Bus Day. The boys decided not to push it by taking the first bus after dismissal. But they apparently missed the next one by trying to talk an upperclassman into driving them to the stop. All I know is that at 4:25 p.m., they called to say the 4:13 p.m. mysteriously "wasn't there."

To avoid resorting to the car, I sprang into action. I asked my son to give me the bus stop number, which is listed on the Metro signpost. I plugged the number into NextBus, a wmata.com service that uses a global-positioning system to predict the next bus's arrival time. Alarmingly, it showed an 84-minute wait. Assuming I had mistyped, I looked up the next bus on the schedule and told them to catch the 4:57. Then I hung up and hoped.

At 5:07 came the text: "We're on the bus." The phone rang 25 minutes later. In that short span, they had made it all the way down Maple Avenue and walked six-tenths of a mile to Jason's house. My son's voice was happy and relaxed. "For half the trip, we were the only ones on the bus."

What can we learn from this small miracle? First and foremost, that public transit works. Second, that it's easy to figure it out. Third, that taking the bus pays off.

By driving 3.68 miles to and from Jason's instead of 15 miles round-trip to school, I used about one-quarter the gasoline and sent three-quarters less pollution into the air. Based on gas prices at $2.59 a gallon, my 25-mpg car used 38 cents worth of gas. Adding that to the bus fare, my son's new commute totaled $1.73. That's only 18 cents more than the $1.55 in gas I spend on the usual routine. Not a bad deal to reclaim a productive hour of my life.

There were gains for the boys, too. For one thing, they got exercise. Walking that mile to and from the bus happens to be the daily dose of activity recommended for teens by the American Heart Association. Plus, getting outside in the fresh air is an antidote for what author Richard Louv terms "nature deficit disorder." Louv, in his book "Last Child in the Woods," also argues that the leash we have on our kids is way too tight. When we allow them to be more self-reliant and self-propelled, they gain pride and satisfaction.

The bus can be a boon to anyone. It behooves us all to go online and find our local line so we have it as a transportation option when we need it. If there is no bus, then speak up. In Fairfax County, staffers want to hear from you because they're finalizing a 10-year plan for bus service. Public meetings will be held all over the county during the next several weeks. Information and a comment form are at http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/fcdot/tdp.htm.

As for the boys, by their second bus trip, they had it down cold. They called to say they were at Jason's even before I thought they had left school.

The writer represents the Hunter Mill district on the Fairfax County Transportation Advisory Commission.

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