For Beaumont Gassama, an incoming seventh-grader at H.B. Woodlawn, riding the Metrobus by himself can be an intimidating and befuddling experience.
The buses often run behind schedule, and the routes are not clearly marked at every stop, he said. The drivers ignore his requests for assistance, and, at times, fellow passengers make Gassama feel uncomfortable.
"Metrobus is not kid-friendly,” Gassama said last week, sitting in the Arlington Central Library.
MANY OF GASSAMA’S peers share similar sentiments. A study released last week found that less than half of the county’s teenagers have ridden a county bus before, and many found the public transportation system to be not dependable, confusing or “lame.”
To combat teenagers’ negative perceptions of the bus system, County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman has launched a new initiative, in conjunction with Arlington Public Schools, to encourage students to use public transportation more often.
“The majority of them don’t have cars and really need our service,” Zimmerman said. “If we can make it more convenient for them, more kids will use [public transportation].”
Arlington teenagers use buses for a multitude of travel purposes — from getting to jobs and after-school programs, to visiting friends’ homes or meeting up at the Ballston Commons mall. Public transportation provides teenagers who don’t own cars with a high-degree of mobility within Arlington, and frees them from reliance on parents for rides.
But county officials admit that more needs to be done to make teenagers aware of Arlington’s transit options. “People don’t know where the buses go,” Zimmerman said. “Or they know where their bus goes, but not any others.”
Over the past month the county has held three meetings with a group of 18 Arlington teenagers to better understand how to increase ridership among middle- and high-schoolers. The goal is to find new ways to provide students with information about Metro services, but also change the mindset of teenagers about public transportation.
“These kids, hopefully, will be ambassadors in the schools and encourage those who don’t take [public transit] to at least consider it,” said Bobbi Greenberg, a transit marketing manager with the county who has helped run the student forums.
A SURVEY released by the county last week polled 700 Arlington teens on their transit usage, and found that 53 percent of students had never used the Arlington Rapid Transit system or Metrobus service. Only 23 percent of teenagers surveyed said they ride the bus system at least once a week.
Fourteen percent of current riders said the biggest single improvement needed for the bus system was a student discount, a view shared by all the teenagers participating in last week’s transportation forum. If fares were slashed in half, students predicted that classmates who usually drive to the movies or the mall would be more open to leaving their cars at home.
Nearly half of students who have never ridden a bus cited the lack of available information as the primary reason, the survey found.
Students at the meeting gave Zimmerman and other county officials a number of ways to educate teenagers on the simplicity of using the bus system: First, kiosks should be installed in the front of every middle and high school, with maps and schedules readily available, students said.
Flyers should be sent home explaining the intricacies of the system, so parents will feel more comfortable letting their children ride alone, said April Archer, a junior at Wakefield High School.
Jessica Chillin, suggested having a Metro representative present at back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences. Other ideas included the need for more Metro booths in places where students congregate, like the Ballston mall, and better outreach to PTAs.
It will be more difficult to change teenagers' attitudes toward public transportation. Forty-one percent of students who never ride a bus said one of the main reasons was because their friends don’t take public transportation; more than 30 percent said the reason was because “buses are lame.”
Students at the forum suggested that making the bus more aesthetically pleasing, with painted exteriors and better seats, would help attract teens. The county could also start an advertising campaign in student newspapers extolling the virtues of Metrobus and how it could save students money, said Beth McGann, a junior at Washington-Lee High School.
By promoting transit-use among teens, county officials hope they can influence the transportation habits of a new generation that may not be as wedded to the car as their parents.
“The more people who use the bus, the less congestion we have and the better the air quality is in Arlington,” Greenberg said. “If we can get them when they are young, hopefully they will also use public transportation when they are older.