By Lauren Vint, CFCC Student Fellow 2013-2014
With a weekly local bus ridership of 241,071, the MTA public bus system plays an oversized role in the daily lives of many Baltimore citizens. It’s no exaggeration to say that our students’ success is dependent on the smooth running of the MTA local bus system. Without a private bus system to provide transportation to school, the students in the CFCC Truancy Court Program are at the mercy of their local bus. Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a destructive issue if these same students didn’t also face other major barriers in their lives, all of which operate to prevent them from achieving consistent school success.
At our first orientation meeting at National Academy Foundation, one student expressed her frustration with the bus system. She identified the bus as being a major hurdle in getting to school on time, rattling off reasons: sometimes the bus is so full that it drives past her, it doesn’t get there on time, she has to walk six blocks each way to catch the only bus that brings her to NAF. These are not novel concerns, and she is hardly the first student to express irritation about the bus system when getting to and from school. In fact, the difficulties with the buses are a recurring theme at the TCP table and have been for many years.
Not heeding the wisdom of this ninth grader, I naively thought that my experience with the local bus would be different. The week following orientation I committed to take public transportation to the Truancy Court Program at NAF on Tuesdays from the Midtown area near University of Baltimore.
I was, of course, nervous about relying on the public bus system, especially given my lack of experience with public transportation. I didn’t have an easy time figuring out the schedule from the MTA website, so I mostly relied on Google directions and the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. There was, however, some optimism in me that I could make it work.
Imagine my excitement when, a few days after I committed to start taking public transportation, I successfully arrived at an internship placement using the #21 bus. Of course, that was a fail-proof attempt, as it didn’t much matter what time I showed up. Nonetheless, It was a huge relief to discover on that trip that the #21 bus passed NAF on its route. I had found a direct trip to NAF without having to change bus lines. How serendipitous, I thought! Plus, the entire experience was fairly pleasant and enjoyable. The day before I was scheduled to return to NAF for the Truancy Court Program, I tried the route again on my way to the internship placement. I picked up the #21 bus at the corner of Biddle and Calvert at 8:36 am, boarding along with another passenger, who was standing with me.
The Tuesday morning when I was scheduled to be at NAF by 8:45am, I was at the same bus stop at the same time (8:25am) as I had been the day before. On this day, however, not only did the #21 bus not show up at the same time, it didn’t even stop. It drove right past me, even as I signaled to the driver. All I could think was that this is how our student felt when she, too, had been left at the bus stop while trying to get to school.
At this point, I knew I would be late getting to NAF, but I counted on the fact that another bus would come in 20-30 minutes. I felt confident that because it was peak hours, I would wait no more than 30 minutes for the next #21 to arrive. At 9:15am, there was no bus in sight. Even another 15 minutes of waiting didn’t help; after a total of forty-five minutes, I gave up. It was 9:30 am and I knew that whenever the bus did come, I would not get to NAF in time to participate in the TCP.
Besides the embarrassment of this experience, I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness: I relied so brazenly on the public transportation system. Just as our students do every single day. I was confident that based on the previous day’s experience, I would be fine to expect a similar result the very next day. Sadly, the public transportation system in Baltimore is not a reliable mode of transportation, especially when there is an expectation of arriving at a specified time. How can our students possibly be expected to arrive to school every day on time when their means of transportation is inconsistent and unreliable? What can we tell them when they have no other means of getting to school?
To make the task of getting to and from school such a difficult challenge is to send the wrong message to our Baltimore City students. If public transportation isn’t a reliable, predictable means for them to get to elementary/middle/high school, then it won’t be a reliable means when they need it for post-secondary school, training courses, or employment opportunities. Our message through the work of the Truancy Court Program is that education is important, that it will lead to greater opportunities in life. We strive to enforce this message through our work, yet the issues with the public transportation system implicitly reinforce those insurmountable challenges that are part of the student’s macrosystem environment. Transportation is an unnecessary barrier to their success; making it better for all of Baltimore city’s citizens will mean a better future for our students, schools, and the city itself.
“MTA Facts and Figures.” Maryland Transit Administration. Retrieved from http://mta.maryland.gov/about-mta. Last visited October 23, 2013.