On an X9 bus headed toward Metro Center last week, riders quickly tapped their SmarTrip cards as they got on board. But at one stop, the line paused as a man slid dollar bills into the cash feeder.
The brief slowdown illustrated why Metro planners are considering barring cash on as many as 13 express bus routes, forcing the 12 percent of bus riders who use bills and change to switch to SmarTrip cards.
Critics worry that the idea, headed for a November vote by Metro’s board, will make it harder for the poor, homeless and disabled to take express buses — relegating them to a sort of second-class status on the slower local buses that would continue to take cash.
Metro, reflecting a national trend, saw weekday bus ridership drop by 8 percent last year. Part of the reason is that buses tend to crawl along, Metro senior transportation economist Catherine Vanderwaart noted at a Sept. 17 public hearing.
Consider, Vanderwaart said, that tapping a card on the reader takes about 2 to 4 seconds, while feeding in money takes 10 to 20 seconds. Metro estimates a quarter of the time that buses are in operation is spent boarding passengers. Saving a few seconds for one out of every eight riders would help keep buses on schedule.
The idea, which is being tried on the 79 route from Archives to Silver Spring, isn’t a big deal if you’re well-off enough to have a bank account and internet service or a smartphone. You can afford the minimum $10 to get a card (which includes $8 in ride credit) and reload it online.
But Denise Rush, vice chair of Metro’s accessibility committee, raised the example of a retired woman who lives on a fixed income and doesn’t have the money to get to church. Maybe a neighbor will give her a couple of dollars to go worship, she said. “But she can’t use it on the bus, and she doesn’t even know where to get a smart card.”
Instead of shuffling from her porch to the bus stop in front of her house, Rush said, she’ll have to trek somewhere to get a card before she can get on the bus.
And then there are the people you see panhandling to scrape up the change to take Metro, Posner said.
Metro staff said they chose the proposed cashless routes — the 16Y, 37, 39, 59, A9, G9, J4, K9, S9, X9, REX and Metroway routes — in part because they have Metro stations or stores along the way that sell cards.
But Posner notes that while there are places to buy cards on the routes under consideration, they also have deserts where it would be difficult to buy a card.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has introduced a bill requiring restaurants to take cash, is also concerned about Metro’s idea.
“For many of our most vulnerable residents this policy will lengthen their commutes because it will be difficult and potentially expensive to find and use a SmarTrip machine unless they happen to live, work or go to school near a Metrorail station (or particular CVS stores),” he wrote to Metro board chairman Jack Evans in June.
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Metro is studying the impact of the Route 79 pilot project on seniors and those with disabilities before the Metro board decides whether to make the route permanently cashless. The board is also scheduled to decide at the same meeting whether to give Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld discretion to make other routes cashless.
Other transit systems are considering going cashless as well, Vanderwaart said at the public hearing. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, for instance, will implement a new fare system next year that lets riders tap a smartcard, mobile phone or debit card on a scanner. As part of that change, it is also considering going cashless.
Adam Rocap, deputy director of Miriam’s Kitchen, which provides services for the homeless, is worried about the proposal too. He said that cashless routes would make it harder for the homeless, who rely on public transportation, to try to find jobs, apply for benefits or get to the doctor.
When you live on the streets, he said, things like important documents and fare cards are often lost or stolen.
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