But students, educators and city leaders have complained that those cards are complicated to activate, resulting in people not using them properly.
Because the District doesn’t have a fleet of yellow school buses, students ride public transit free. Still, they have to tap their DC One cards to board Metrorail or buses so the city can monitor how many are using the system, which helps the agency qualify for more federal funding.
“There was a barrier that resulted in kids not properly activating their cards, or not knowing they had to activate them, which inadvertently led to students just flashing them,” said Ahnna Smith, the city’s interim deputy mayor of education. “Our goal is to get kids to school safely and on time every day.”
Private school students who live in D.C. also receive free transit cards to use on buses. The revamped Kids Ride Free program will cost the city $12.2 million next year, which includes the cost of the new fare cards, known as SmarTrip cards.
City leaders say that 32,000 students activated their DC One cards this academic year. The office of the deputy mayor of education said it suspects that not all students who used public transit this academic year properly activated their DC One cards, so it estimates that more than 32,000 students will use the SmarTrip cards.
Students will continue to use their DC One cards as identification and library cards.
City Administrator Rashad M. Young said the city will start distributing the fare cards this summer at yet-to-be-determined pickup points. Students who do not retrieve them will get them at the start of school. DC One cards will continue to work on public transportation until the end of September.
The new cards will look similar to the transit system’s standard SmarTrip cards, but they will have a sticker designating them as student passes.
“It will make things faster, easier and simpler both for us on the management side and students,” Young said.
Many big cities subsidize transit travel for students, but the District’s program is among the most generous. In New York, free transit passes are available only to some students — depending on grade level and whether they use school buses for transportation — and can be used only on weekdays during the school year. In Boston, students can pay half price for their daily rides or receive a partially subsidized pass.
The District’s Department of Transportation is supposed to audit travel patterns to ensure that the cards are not being abused, and it reserves the right to revoke a student’s pass if it is used by someone other than the designated cardholder.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) launched “Kids Ride Free” in 2013 when she was a council member. It was aimed at addressing chronic truancy and initially allowed children to ride only the bus free. But once Bowser became mayor in 2015, the program expanded to include rail rides.
The mayor mentioned the changes to her “Kids Ride Free” program at a news conference Friday celebrating the expansion of Democracy Prep Congress Heights Public Charter School. She said the city was sending letters to notify families.
“So I want everybody to pay close attention to the mail, make sure you are following the directions closely to get your new card,” Bowser said.
Martine Powers contributed to this report.