On my second day as a council member, high school students shared with me their struggles to commute to school, work and after-school activities and run errands. Access to public transportation can be cost-prohibitive as a young person. For many individuals, and especially for youth working minimum-wage jobs, these costs cut heavily into their paychecks and make public transportation an unaffordable option.
Our region’s transportation network isn’t only about moving people from one place to another; it is also a glaring example of the economic injustices that exist within our communities. Access to transportation is a critical element to increasing an individual’s socioeconomic mobility. If Montgomery County is serious about tackling inequality, a first step would be ensuring that every student has access to affordable transportation.
Montgomery County’s “Kids Ride Free” program provides free service for every Ride On bus and 24 Metrobus routes to middle and high school students, but it is only available 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays. For many of our students, these hours are too restrictive.
The Montgomery County Council has the opportunity to increase transportation options for young people by approving the expansion of this program in the fiscal 2020 budget. By opening our bus doors for students, we are maximizing the use of our existing fleet while minimizing the costs.
A recent survey of 300 Montgomery County Public School students conducted by peer leaders found that 65 percent of those who qualify free or reduced meals, an indicator of poverty, are likely to use public transportation throughout the week, versus 44 percent of the general student population.
Our communities with the lowest household incomes have nearly double the number of carless households than do our higher-income areas. Along the Route 29 corridor in the eastern part of the county, where 65 percent of residents are minorities and 30 percent are classified as low-income, half of the households have either one car or no car. And with an average cost of $10,000 a year to own and operate a car, many are left with no other option than taking the bus.
Expanding the “Kids Ride Free” program would not only allow students to move throughout the region in pursuit of enriching activities, but it also would foster a culture of transit ridership and environmental stewardship that would continue through adulthood. If we as a society are going to bend the curve and stop the effects of climate change, we must provide opportunities for the next generation to lead by example.
Every student should have the opportunity to succeed, regardless of which school they attend or their household wealth. There’s no reason a student should be walking in the cold or rain because he or she couldn’t afford bus fare. No student should ever miss out on a job or internship because he or she didn’t have a reliable way of getting home.
I know firsthand the power of safe and reliable transportation to connect individuals with opportunities. Making buses free for youth is a small way that local government can invest in our future.