Viewpoint: Free summer travel program a great opportunity for Michiana Youth

I first started riding our area’s bus system last year after years of thinking about how driving a car is hauling 2,000 pounds of steel, plastic, and rubber just to get me to school.

When the weather’s nice, I often ride my bike the eight miles.  But when the weather turns inclement, instead of driving all the time, I try to take the bus.  Everyday I see high school students riding the bus, and I often wonder why there aren’t more.  In this Viewpoint article for the South Bend Tribune, I talk about the measures the mass transit company might take to increase youth ridership.

Update: Transpo and South Bend School Corporation have reached an agreeement that allows South Bend students to ride for free just by showing their ID.  That is great news!

Here is the body of the article:

As the academic year comes to an end, young people around Michiana are bursting through school doors to joyfully begin their summer. To help students go farther than their couches, Transpo is offering its Free K-12 Summer Travel Program. All students have to do is show their school ID, and they ride for free. Now in its second summer, this incentive is an exciting opportunity for young people to get out and experience Michiana.

During the school year I ride Transpo and the Interurban Trolley alongside local high school students, and I have seen more youth riders this year. Transpo documented 27,000 youth rides in the summer of 2018. If Transpo can keep this trend going, these kiddos (also known as post-millennials, generation Z, iGen, and even generation snowflake) may prove to be “early adopters” of public transportation and launch the next trend in ’round-the-town travel.

A little over a year ago, Transpo made the paper for its declining ridership. According to Jeff Parrott’s reporting, ridership was down 24%. That article introduced me to the term: “transit-dependent.”

The Federal Transit Administration defines transit dependent persons as those 1) without private transportation, 2) elderly (over age 65), 3) youths (under age 18), and 4) persons below poverty or median income levels defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. Members of these demographics need to ride the bus. I am fortunate in that I get to choose to ride the bus.

A student who attends the school where I teach gets on his first bus at 5:39 a.m. in order to make two transfers and get to school for his first class at 8:23 a.m. He is “transit-dependent.” So are other members of Generation Z riding the bus down Lincoln Way to Mishawaka High School. The Federal Transit Administration calls them “youths,” and unlike their elder sisters and brothers, the millennials, they are not yet driving or hailing ride-shares. They ride the bus out of need.

Before they become transit-independent or get ahold of the Uber app, Transpo is offering iGen-ers free rides that will not only get them from point A to B, but will teach them personal independence, local history and geography, and how to read a bus schedule. Students can learn how to navigate a system that will expand their horizons.

I sometimes snap selfies on the bus.

They’ll see firsthand why buses are ADA compliant and question why that is not the case in rideshare services. They will learn that there is more than one way to get around town, and someday, when they travel to a foreign country and learn a foreign language, they’ll navigate those cities using skills they learned on their hometown buses.

So, how do we help snowflakes with their riding revolution? Here are three steps Transpo might take to perpetuate increases in youth ridership.

1) Add to the Free K-12 Summer Travel Program by working with local teachers to develop a curriculum that will educate riders about the bus. Teachers can use it in the last weeks of the spring semester to help kids get to know the bus system in a safe and fun way.

2) Make the Transpo website responsive. Right now it is difficult and time-consuming to look up routes and schedules on a cellphone because it is not mobile-friendly. With a new mobile format (or an app), young people could use their phones to get information more quickly and efficiently.

3) Outfit buses with GPS transponders so people know where their buses are. Students already use this technology with their school buses, so they will expect it with Transpo. Adding this utility will make bus-riding more predictable and efficient.

Both Mishawaka and South Bend are expanding their parks and recreation spaces, and now kids will not have to wait for rides from their parents to go experience them. Add destinations such as libraries, businesses, museums, a zoo and summertime events, and you might not see a post-millenial on that couch all summer.

Kevin McNulty is an English teacher at Penn High School.