City students face long public transit trips to school

When Roslyn Johnson says goodbye to her fifteen-year-old granddaughter as she leaves for school at 6.30am every morning, she worries about the more than an hour’s journey ahead.

“It’s pitch black. So it’s scary and you’re on pins and needles because there’s so much going on today and you can’t take anything for granted, ”Johnson said. “So I’m just scared until she comes home.” We are all.”

Her granddaughter Lemia is just one of 32,000 students in the city who depend on MTA transport services to get to school, according to data from the transit agency. Education advocates say poor bus service results in long trips that negatively impact students and their families, often depending on race and class.

Only certain students in the city’s schools are eligible for the yellow bus service, such as students with disabilities and elementary students who live more than a mile from their zoned schools. College and high school students have a choice of school – there is no connection between where they live and where they learn. About three-quarters of them receive plastic-coated and reusable MTA passes from their school to use between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays.

Johnson’s four grandchildren all attend different schools, so driving them around town every morning isn’t an option. Lemia takes two MTA buses from their home in East Baltimore to the Baltimore Design School in Greenmount West. The trip takes around eighty minutes each morning and up to two in the afternoon, when she travels outside of rush hour.

Last week, Lemia checked the Transit app for live bus arrival times before starting her ten-minute walk to the first bus stop on her trip.

“It’s dark and cold,” she said, bundled up one freezing morning.

She tries to time her walk so that she waits at the dark stop for about five minutes. But often the app fails to update the schedules of late or canceled buses, so its wait gets longer. Or, the bus will not have open seats and the operator will not let her board.

“Most of the time they just let you get on, but some buses will be extra,” said the first student. “Even if you are a student and you have to get to school, they will tell you ‘wait for the next bus’. “

This is a problem when a bus has to arrive every ten minutes, but is often delayed. This cold morning, he arrived about on time, with room for Lemia. After slipping her school pass, greeting the bus driver and taking a seat, she texted her grandmother to let her know she was safe.

“She has a phone so it’s ‘Call me when you get on the bus’ and then it’s ‘Call me when you get back to school’ and then I’m at peace,” Johnson said. .

About 20 minutes later, Lemia got off the bus at a stop in East Baltimore, a few miles from where she got on – it’s time for a transfer. Once again, she opens the Transit app to see when her second and final MTA bus to school arrives. “Thirteen minutes,” she reads. “Not bad.”

This type of bus transfer is a major bottleneck for many students in schools across the city, said Kwane Wyatt, program director at the Educational Excellence Fund.

“If that second route, or even the first, or both are not synchronized, it is likely that this student regularly misses a significant part of this first period course, which puts him at a huge disadvantage in terms of wasted learning time. “, did he declare.

Wyatt co-wrote a report 2021 which analyzed the MTA journeys of 274 students from schools in the city demographically and geographically representative. Their long journeys are what happens when two chronically underfunded institutions – the city’s schools and the MTA – cross paths, he said.

Baltimore is the only school district in the state where students use public transportation. The system contracts with the MTA for these services, which cost approximately $ 5.5-7 million annually. The neighboring areas of the city offer a bus service to eligible students at the distance for higher sums.

A 2019 state report found that the city’s schools had been underfunded by at least $ 300 million each year for more than a decade. The Blueprint for the Future of Maryland, passed despite Governor Larry Hogan’s veto in the last General Assembly session, will change the funding formula for public schools over the next 10 years.

MTA Title VI 2020-2023 program report shows that 86% of the main bus riders are black or Hispanic and that most riders are low income and do not have access to a car. Three-quarters of students in the city’s schools are black and about 14 percent are Hispanic.

Students in the city who can’t get a ride to school and rely on MTA struggle with the distance and complexity of their transit routes, Wyatt said. Some told him that their grades in the first period classes automatically dropped by a full letter, after delayed buses made them late several times. Others said they were dissuaded from applying to schools far from their neighborhood.

Students have no real choice of school when a lack of reliable public transportation prevents them from accessing an education, Wyatt said.

“If my student can’t get there on a reasonably regular basis, can he really participate in this system? ” he said. “It’s not just about admission.”

Corrie Schoenberg of the Fund for Educational Excellence, who co-authored the report, said the students were reporting harassment. Others have been broken into while awaiting transfer.

“It’s a feeling that they carry with them throughout the school day,” she said.

Long school trips like Lemia’s were the subject of a city council hearing earlier this month, where schools operations manager Lynette Washington said the choice of school would complicate the process. yellow bus service, noting that middle school students travel an average of three kilometers and high school students an average of four miles during their trips.

“They are all over the city, so it’s very inefficient and inefficient for us to use yellow buses to get students to school,” she said. “The optimal choice is to use the MTA. “

Administrators of individual schools are trying to solve public transit problems on their own, she said. If this is not possible, BCPS tries to enlist the help of a liaison officer from the Ministry of Transport.

At the hearing, MTA administrator Holly Arnold said students made up about 13% of total MTA ridership before the pandemic. She noted that a shortage of bus operators has presented a challenge in service delivery this year and that federal funding for the MTA dictates that basic service is intended for the public, not specific groups.

“We are public transport. We cannot provide charter service, including school bus service, with our system. We need to have an open service, she said. “The geography of school choice is also a small challenge in providing services to students. “

She added that the agency is changing bus routes based on enrollment data at schools in the city. The system provides them with an anonymized list of home addresses and school destinations each May.

“We make these adjustments in June and build that data into our calendars throughout the year,” said Arnold.

Wyatt and Schoenberg of the Fund for Educational Excellence agree the yellow bus service is unrealistic – but said there are ways to improve the daily trips of MTA students.

On the one hand, the agency can raise awareness among students. Wyatt points out that a major system-wide origin-destination survey of MTA passengers was conducted from 2015 to 2018 and did not include minors.

“Students are definitely on the short end of the stick because of this lack of data,” he said.

Schoenberg says MTA could expand the higher-frequency rush hour service to include peak school trips, so students are less likely to miss transfers. The vast majority of students she polled don’t want yellow bus service – they want public transportation designed with them in mind, she said.

“They wanted to be able to use public transport to not only get to and from school safely, but also for internships and jobs and extracurricular activities and debate tournaments on weekends,” a- she declared.

She added that the MTA should add more shelters and better lighting at bus stops. All of these proposals would require more funding at the state level.

“It is, especially under the current administration, difficult to achieve,” she said. “But I mean, we have a General Assembly session starting shortly.”

Back in a dimly lit corner of East Baltimore, Lemia’s second bus arrived after the 13-minute wait. From there, it’s about a 10-minute ride to the nearest Baltimore Design School stop. She loves to draw and wants to get into graphic design. She wakes up at 5 a.m. every school day to make sure she isn’t late for any of her classes. “It’s hard for my grandmother to drive me if I don’t take the bus,” she said.

She leaves the second bus at the stop closest to her school, which is on a busy road with no nearby pedestrian crossings or lights to stop traffic. She and a few other students from the design school run across the street, avoiding the cars.

About 80 minutes after leaving her house, Lemia arrives at school. By car, it would take him 13 minutes. If it depended on the first year, she would only take one bus that would drop her closer to the school.

“I see how other schools have a bus service, like the bus is waiting right outside the school,” she said. ” I would rather. “

City activists are hoping this year, the intersection of transportation and education in Baltimore becomes an issue in Annapolis and catches fire during the governors’ election campaign.

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