The hot new teen accessory: a bus pass

At Washburn, Go-To Cards are a sought-after privilege

TANGLETOWN — Given the option of riding a school bus or taking Metro Transit to and from Washburn High School, students Yasir Hassan, Sandra Portilla and Aminata Toure would choose Metro Transit every time.

If that’s not surprising, their reasons might be. It’s not just that the yellow school bus isn’t cool when you’re a teenager.

Portilla is more likely to get to school on time. Toure can arrive early or stay late when she needs extra help from her teachers. And now that he doesn’t have to pay out-of-pocket for bus fare to Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Hassan is finally taking the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option courses he wanted to start last year.

As district leaders consider shifting more teen transportation to city buses from school buses, the experiences of these teens could shape the debate.

Minneapolis Public Schools purchased 1,280 of the prepaid Metro Transit bus passes known as Go-To Cards late last summer. They went to students who lost school bus service to their high schools this fall, after the district redrew transportation boundaries under a cost-saving plan called Changing School Options.

For the trio from Washburn, the Go-To Cards have been a boon: helping them stay on top of class work; instilling a sense of both freedom and responsibility; and even boosting their social lives, since the cards don’t turn off on evenings and weekends.

‘A privilege’

Washburn Principal Carol Markham-Cousins advocated for giving all district high school students the same access to public transit.

“It expands their opportunities within the city,” Markham-Cousins said. “It’s amazing. Kids who have access to cars get it automatically.”

This fall, she purchased an additional 35 Go-To Cards for students like Toure. She lives a few blocks within Washburn’s new bus transportation zone and so wasn’t offered a card from the district.

Many other Washburn students remain on a long waiting list managed by Michael Hastert and Maria Vallejo of the school’s Check and Connect program. New cards only come free when students with the bus passes transfer out of Washburn, but Markham-Cousins said she hoped to add 100 Go-To Cards to their stockpile.

In their office, Hastert and Vallejo keep signed contracts from all the Washburn students Go-To Cards. Breaking either Metro Transit or district rules — by using the pass to play hooky, for example — would result in inactivation of the card.

But instances when they’ve had to take such action were rare this fall semester, and Hastert said the explanation for that was obvious: There are about 1,000 students at Washburn, but only 275 Go-To Cards.

“They know how badly everybody else wants them,” he said. “They know it’s a privilege.”

Bob Gibbons, director of customer services for Metro Transit, said district students took 156,500 trips with their Go-To Cards from October through December. Metro Transit Police reported “no behavioral issues related to the student pass,” Gibbons said.

Smooth riding

After monitoring bus use around Washburn this fall, Metro Transit officials adjusted two routes, 11 and 46, to better serve students in the mornings and afternoons. Crowding on the Route 18 bus was resolved without any route adjustments when students, over time, realized they didn’t have to hop on the first bus to arrive after school.

“It is going well, no question about that, from our perspective,” Gibbons said.

Courtney Cushing Kiernat, the district’s Changing School Options transition team leader, said students who received district-provided Go-To Cards this year will get them next year, as well, if they remain in their current schools. The program also will expand to other students who enroll in some citywide high school programs, Cushing Kiernat added.

She said district officials continued to monitor how frequently student Go-To Cards were used and when. They also will look for any impact on dropout rates as they consider expanding the program to even more students, something Cushing Kiernat said was “a definite possibility.”

At $172 per semester for each card, the program will cost the district about $440,000 this year. The district spent more than $28 million on transportation in the 2009–2010 school year.

Cushing Kiernat said similarly sized school districts in Oakland, Calif., and Cleveland offer all students public transit passes, but require students to cover all or a portion of their cost.

For high school students, every dollar counts — even the standard $1.75 adult fare.

Hassan, a senior, used the pass over winter break to ride to the library, where he typed out college application essays. He also was taking three courses at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and making round trips to and from Washburn that — without his free Go-To Card from the district — might be unaffordable.

Said Hassan: “If I was paying, I would be broke right now.”