Transit People’s Free Advice for Mayor, Metro on Free Transit Passes for Field Trips

One child helping another to smile seems like one of the easier challenges teachers could face on a "free transit field trip."  Photo: ##http://www.transitpeople.org/photo.shtml##Tim Adams/Transit People##
One child helping another to smile seems like one of the easier challenges teachers could face on a "free transit field trip." Photo: ##http://www.transitpeople.org/photo.shtml##Tim Adams/Transit People##

Earlier this month, Mayor Villaraigosa, who also serves on the Metro Board of Directors, proposed that the transit agency give free Metro passes to classrooms for field trips during off-peak hours.  The proposal appears to be a win-win, as students in the “cash-strapped” LAUSD get a chance to travel to some of the many fun and educational places in Los Angeles and get a chance to do so via public transit.

However, Los Angeles happens to be home to experts in taking students on these types of field trips.  Transit People is a local non-profit that has raised the funds for dozens of these sort of trips every year.  While nobody in government has reached out to Transit People about this proposal; their Board of Directors, Tim Adams, Denisse Castillo, Nelly Caywood and Perias Pillay, is offering some free advice to Villaraigosa and Metro to make sure that any field trips that utilize Metro are safe and fun for the participants.

They write:

Mayor Villaraigosa’s proposal could provide tremendous benefit to Los Angeles’ kids, if implemented properly. You could be heroes — heroes! — to the children of our county, and could set an important precedent for other transit agencies nationwide. But if this proposal isn’t properly implemented, our ten years of experience strongly suggest that this nobly-intended program will not turn out well. No one at TransitPeople has ever proposed a ‘carte blanche’ program of this type.

With promises of a more detailed list of suggestions later,  Transit People write of some of the hard lessons they learned over the past decade and have the following suggestions:

  • Not all teachers are ready to lead these trips.  Have some sort of evaluation and training program in place before handing out transit passes.
  • Limit the size of the trips, especially for younger classes, to twenty or twenty four students.  Larger groups are harder to handle and will (innocently) harass the other transit users.  If you’re using rail, you can split larger groups up to ride in multiple cars.
  • Teachers should not take these trips without other adults present to help out.
  • Reaching out to the Sheriff’s (LASD) who police Metro stations, buses and trains before hand can be helpful.

Speaking of Transit People, in 2008 I recommended that making a donation to this group in lieu of a Holiday Gift would be a great way to help a local group and show a special someone how much you care about giving great experiences to our local students.  Even though there’s now a mechanism to give to Streetsblog, I see no reason not to make that same recommendation again.  You can donate to the group directly through PayPal, at this link.

  • Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the Mayor’s idea. We expect transit to have convenient service, yet we propose things like this. Transit costs money. As much as Metro giving kids free rides (I don’t have a problem with people donating to give kids free rides) might feel good it’s not unreasonable to say that their parents should pay to use the service, especially considering that it’s so much cheaper than driving, and considering that K-12 students are already eligible for a monthly pass that costs 1/3 what a standard monthly pass costs.

    Despite Measure R, the recession has given Metro’s finances a brutal kick in the groin. If we want the system to be good, we can’t give it up for free. Pay up kids :)

  • LAofAnaheim

    Agreed with @Chewie. I hope the cost of service is being reimbursed by the school (gas and driver) at the least. There is no such thing as a free ride. Additionally, aren’t all these evaluations and trip itineraries to be decided by the school and not Metro?

  • That photo brings back memories! We’d just stepped off the 81, and the kindergartner at left felt that the kindergartner at right should smile while having his picture taken. Kindergartners are like that.

    I talked to Perias (of our board) about this yesterday, and one concern he shared is that the wording of our open letter — online at http://www.transitpeople.org/20101123_letter.htm — might lead some to think that we don’t support the proposal. I want to make it doubly clear that we do, *if* it’s implemented properly. I have talked to so many teachers who tell me that all trips have been cut at their schools, that a big trip is a walking trip to the fire station and so on.

    Of course, I’m partial. I suppose that Chewie and LAofAnaheim could justly point out that I am, given my role with TransitPeople. Still, it seems so obscene to me that kids growing up within an easy transit commute of the Aquarium, the Natural History Museum, the Science Center, the Central Library and so on should not regularly visit these places.

    The concerns about safety and implementation do stand, though, and are critical.

    I do wish there were some way to involve LASD or perhaps LAPD. I have pitched this several times, but to no avail.

  • As large a critic that just about everyone I know of is the LAUSD, we shouldn’t let their budget priorities punish our kids anymore than they already do. While the Mayor’s proposal should be open to all schools, my guess is the one’s that will really benefit from this are the transit rich and cash poor areas. Hopefully the Mayor doesn’t mess this one up.

    Incidentally, I’m shocked to see regular Streetsblog commenters sound opposition to this proposal.

  • LAofAnaheim

    @Ichabod…we’re not against the proposal…but we don’t believe this should be done completely free. The direct costs of this proposal should be covered by the school. A service charge (i.e. profit) can be foregone in this instance (thus, it’s a “free” service).

  • I’ll offer a hypothetical example, to illustrate why I think that execution makes all the difference in a proposal of this type. This example draws from ten years of practical experience.

    Proposal, well-executed
    ———————–

    It’s June. The standardized tests are done for the school year, and Ms. Abel is ready for her 96 ride to zoo. Other teachers wanted to ride the 96 to the zoo that day, but the program coordinator knew that the 96 runs only every half hour, and limited participation to four classes for that date, two arriving from the north and two arriving from the south, with a full hour between their itineraries. Ms. Abel’s class is one of those chosen.

    Ms. Abel is an experienced teacher, with good classroom management skills. The children are excited but well-behaved as they ride the subway to Pershing Square for the transfer to the 96 at 5th and Olive. They make some noise on the 96, but Ms. Abel keeps the sound level in check.

    Positive impact: a zoo trip that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and an introduction to Los Angeles’ transit system.

    Negative impact: very low. All regular riders on the 96 get to board, although a few are a bit irritated by the children, and some regret that the seats they prefer at the back of the bus are taken up by Ms. Abel’s class.

    Proposal, poorly-executed
    ————————-

    It’s June. The standardized tests are done for the school year, and thousands of teachers are thinking of field trips. Several dozen decide on a zoo trip. There’s no one to coordinate requests, so they all decide to go on the same day. They aren’t experienced transit riders. They don’t know that the 96 runs only every half hour, and that it’s the only transit route to the Zoo and the Autry, and that it’s a contracted line that runs less reliably than other buses.

    Among the teachers is Mr. Adams, nearing the end of his first four months in the classroom. Mr. Adams is enthusiastic and idealistic, but still a poor manager of children. He grimly decides that he must do this trip for the sake of his fifth graders, even though an inner voice of caution tells him that he’s not ready.

    On the subway ride to Pershing Square, he goes quickly on tilt as children get in a pushing match near the edge of the platform. The rail trip goes badly. His students scream for most of the ride. He ignores the disapproving stares and head shaking of other passengers.

    At 5th and Olive, he is horrified to find a high school class and two middle class classes all waiting to board the same bus. One of their teachers says that they’ve been waiting a half hour. An earlier northbound 96 already was jammed with students, and couldn’t pick them up.

    Several regular 96 riders are irate. The bus line is their only way to work. They couldn’t board either. One tearfully notes that her boss won’t understand, and that she may lose her job.

    Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Adams looks on with the other teachers as the next 96 arrives. A hundred odd students groan together as they see that it, too, is already jammed to the gills with kids, and won’t stop for them.

    Positive impact: the hapless Mr. Adams learns without loss of life that he’s not ready for trips of this type

    Negative impact: everything else about the experience.

    ————–

    Im-ple-men-tation. Follow through. With care and attentiveness, a major winner, a tremendous positive for Los Angeles’ children.

    Without care … well, the example above speaks for itself. It’s *not* an exaggeration of what could happen, with sloppy handling. This is my stock in trade, folks.

  • Eric B

    Here’s why I support this: each and every time a kid gets on a bus, they learn that transit is safe, easy to use, and most importantly fun. If you want to attract life-long customers, start them young. I made it to college before ever stepping foot on a public bus and I’m only now making up for lost time. Teaching kids to use the transit system for mobility gives them a modicum of independence while delaying the urge for car ownership.

    The goodwill and PR benefits to this far outweigh the small cost of this program.

  • Rob D

    I strongly support Tim Adams’ comments and not from a hypothetical standpoint. I’m not from L.A.; but on vacations in Toronto and San Francisco, I have been on public transit when one or more classes of school children were using public transit.

    In Toronto (to the zoo, really) the one class boarding filled up the bus and the teacher politely offered me a seat but asked if one of the second graders could sit on my lap. Not a bad experience, overall a positive; but I’m not sure most teachers would suggest a student sit on a stranger’s lap and I am not sure most bus riders would want a strange student on her/his lap.

    In San Francisco, the buses were so crowded with students, I couldn’t board for a half hour on a high frequency (if I recall, every six minutes) route. Don’t know where the students were heading; but not a positive experience for me (and, I suspect, other riders or the students).

  • I will permit myself one more comment in this thread, if only to close on a positive note.

    Those four zoo trips in a day on the 96 *could* be booked, with little potential for problems. That’s just under one hundred children per day visiting the zoo who probably wouldn’t go otherwise. Or, close to five hundred in a week, close to two thousand in a month.

    I don’t know my transit vehicle stats as well as some SoCaTa members, but will guess that the 96 seats about half the passengers that can sit on one car of a Blue Line train. The Blue Line runs about every twelve minutes. Consider how many, many, many more classes could safely ride south to visit the Aquarium, the Watts Towers, the Museum of Latin American Art, or north to the Central Library, Angels’ Flight, Los Angeles’ birthplace at Olvera Street. Older students could tour the courts, City Hall.

    All of these invaluable educational experiences can be offered safely to youth here with minimal downside, with minimal inconvenience of other riders, if — if, if! — the program is implemented correctly. Tens of thousands of students could benefit every year.

    And off my soapbox I now politely step …

  • Spokker

    I support it. School trips are taken during off-peak anyway. They’ll leave at 9 and be back by 3 or 4.

  • Tobias

    I believe that the point was made in the motion that the busses and trains will be running at the same headways regardless of whether the kids are on them, just emptier, so it actually doesn’t technically cost Metro any money to do this, assuming that are not currently any field trips on transit. If there are, then those trips would switch from paid to free, for a decrease in revenue.

  • Spokker

    Paying bus riders pay for what, 20 percent of what it costs to actually ride a bus? So the kids get to ride for free. Not a huge loss.

    It’s basically a battle to determine who is more worthy of subsidy, which is always a losing battle.

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