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City students face long public transit commutes to school

Two people wait at an unsheltered bus stop on North Avenue. City education advocates say that long MTA commutes are a barrier for Baltimore students.
Elvert Barnes/Flickr
Two people wait at an unsheltered bus stop on North Avenue. City education advocates say that long MTA commutes are a barrier for Baltimore students.

When Roslyn Johnson says goodbye to her fifteen-year-old granddaughter as she leaves for school at 6:30 every morning, she worries about the hour-plus commute that awaits her.

“It's pitch dark. So it's scary and you're on pins and needles because so much goes on today and you can't take anything for granted,” Johnson said. “So I'm just afraid until she gets home. We all are.”

Her granddaughter Lemia is just one of the 32,000 city students that rely on MTA transportation services to get to school, according to data from the transit agency. Education advocates say that poor bus service translates to long commutes that have a negative impact on students and their families, often along lines of race and class.

Only some city schools students are eligible for yellow bus service, such as students with disabilities and elementary students who live more than a mile away from their zoned schools. Middle and high schoolers have school choice – there’s no connection between where they live and where they learn. About three-quarters of them receive reusable, laminated MTA passes from their school to use between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. on weekdays.

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

Last week, Lemia checked the Transit app for live bus arrival times before she began her ten minute walk to the first bus stop of her commute.

“It is dark, and it is cold,” she said, bundled up on a below-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 times for late or cancelled buses, so her wait lengthens. Or, the bus won’t have open seats and the operator won't let her on.

“Most of the time they just let you on, but some buses will be extra,” the freshman said. “Even though you’re a student and you have to get to school, they’ll be like ‘wait for the next bus.’ ”

That’s a problem when a bus is scheduled to arrive every ten minutes, but is often delayed. That cold morning, it arrived roughly on time, with room for Lemia. After swiping her school pass, greeting the bus driver and taking a seat, she sent a message to her grandmother, letting her know she’s safe.

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

About 20 minutes later, Lemia exited 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 will arrive. “Thirteen minutes,” she reads. “Not bad.”

This sort of bus transfer is a major choke point for many city schools students, said Kwane Wyatt, the Program Director at The Fund for Educational Excellence.

“If that second route, or even the first one, or both of them aren't in sync, there’s a likelihood of that student missing a significant portion of that first period class on a consistent basis, putting them at a huge disadvantage in terms of lost learning time,” he said.

Wyatt co-authored a 2021 report that analyzed the MTA commutes of 274 demographically and geographically representative city schools students. Their long commutes are what happens when two chronically underfunded institutions – city schools and MTA – intersect, he said.

Baltimore is the only school district in the state whose students commute on public transit. The system contracts the MTA for these services, which amount to around $5.5 million to $7 million dollars each year. The city’s neighboring districts provide bus service to distance-eligible students for higher sums.

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

MTA’s 2020-2023 Title VI Program report shows that 86% of core bus riders are Black or Hispanic and that most riders are low-income and don’t have access to a car. Three-quarters of city schools students are Black, and about 14 percent are Hispanic.

City students who can’t get driven 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 first-period classes dropped by a full letter automatically, after delayed buses made them late several times. Others said they were dissuaded from applying to schools that were far from their neighborhood.

Students don’t have true school choice when a lack of reliable public transit prevents them from accessing an education, Wyatt said.

“If my student can't get there reasonably on a consistent basis, can he actually participate in this system?” he said. “It isn’t just about admission.”

Corrie Schoenberg of the Fund For Educational Excellence, who co-authored the report, said that female students report harassment. Others have been robbed while waiting for a transfer.

“That is a feeling that they're carrying into the school day with them,” she said.

Long school commutes like Lemia’s were the subject of a hearing before the City Council earlier this month, where Schools COO Lynette Washington said that school choice would complicate yellow bus service, noting that middle schoolers travel an average of two miles and high schoolers an average of four miles during their commutes.

“They're all across the city, so it's highly ineffective and not efficient for us to use yellow buses in order to get students to school,” she said. “The optimal choice is using MTA.”

Administrators at individual schools try to resolve transit issues themselves, she said. If that’s not possible, BCPS tries to get help from a liaison at the Department of Transportation.

At the hearing, MTA administrator Holly Arnold said that students make up about 13% of total MTA ridership pre-pandemic. She noted that a shortage of bus operators has presented a challenge in delivering service this year and that MTA’s federal funding dictates that core service is for the public, not specific groups.

“We’re public transit. We cannot provide charter service, including school bus service, with our system. We have to have open service, she said. “The geography of school choice also is a little bit of a challenge in providing student service.”

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

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

Wyatt and Schoenberg of the Fund For Educational Excellence agree that yellow bus service is unrealistic – but said there are ways to improve students’ MTA commutes.

For one, the agency can do more student outreach. Wyatt points to a major systemwide origin-destination survey of riders MTA ran from 2015 to 2018 that didn’t include minors.

“The students definitely get the short end of the stick because of that lack of data,” he said.

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

“They wanted to be able to use transit to get not only to and from school safely, but also to internships and jobs and extracurricular activities and debate tournaments on the weekends,” she said.

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

“That is, particularly under the current administration, hard to get,” she said. “But I mean, we have a General Assembly session starting shortly.”

Back at a poorly lit corner in East Baltimore, Lemia’s second bus arrived after the 13 minute wait. From here, it’s about a 10 minute ride to the nearest stop to the Baltimore Design School. She loves drawing and wants to pursue graphic design. She wakes up at 5:00 a.m. each school day to ensure that she’s not late to any of her classes. “It’s hard for my grandma to drive me if I don’t take the bus,” she said.

She departs the second bus at the stop closest to her school, which sits on a busy road without a nearby crosswalk or light to halt traffic. She and a few other Design School students jog across the street, avoiding cars.

About 80 minutes after leaving her house, Lemia arrives at school. By car, it’d take her 13 minutes. If it was up to the freshman, she’d take just one bus that would drop her off closer to school.

“I see how other schools have bus service, like the bus just waits outside the school,” she said. “I’d like that better.”

City activists are hopeful that this year, the intersection of transportation and education in Baltimore will become an issue in Annapolis and catch fire on the gubernatorial campaign trail.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.