Fairfax County Public Schools students likely had a lot on their minds when they woke up on Monday for the first day of a new school year, from anxieties about new classes and teachers to the anticipation of reuniting with friends after the long summer.
Before experiencing any of that, however, they had to get to school.
Fairfax County has implemented a variety of tools and programs in the past few years to make the trip from home to school and back less nerve-wracking for students and their parents.
Most recently, the FCPS Office of Transportation Services announced on Aug. 19 that the school system has adopted a bus-tracking app called Here Comes the Bus for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Piloted over the summer at extended school year programs throughout the county, the app uses GPS and bus routing data to give parents and guardians real-time school bus location updates via text or email alerts that indicate the vehicle’s distance from their child’s bus stop.
The app functions on smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers, and all communications are encrypted and secure, according to FCPS.
Parents can download the app for free from the Apple app store and Google Play but must have an account in FCPS’s student information system, which also gives parents access to attendance, class performance, course materials, and other information.
The FCPS school district code, which is needed to sign into the app, is 28982.
Because it tracks the bus rather than a student, bus substitutions or other changes can affect the app’s accuracy, so FCPS notes that it cannot “replace established best practices and judgment.”
Here Comes the Bus complements the FCPS online bus delay notification system, which indicates when a particular bus is running at least 15 minutes late.
“The mission of Fairfax County Public Schools’ Office of Transportation Services is to provide safe, efficient, and timely transportation for all eligible students,” FCPS public information officer John Torre said. “Here Comes the Bus is in direct alignment with that mission. The app helps parents and students establish more predictable morning and afternoon routines based on their bus’s real-time location.”
The app could be especially helpful when there is inclement weather, Torre added.
While the Here Comes the Bus app provides information to help students plan their journey to school, a pair of free bus pass programs run by the Fairfax County Department of Transportation directly enables many students to travel not only to school, but all around the county.
Since the county launched the student bus pass program in September 2015, Fairfax Connector and the City of Fairfax City-University Energysaver (CUE) bus systems have tallied more than 1.5 million trips by local students, according to Fairfax Connector head of marketing Kala Quintana.
Approved for launch by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 2014, the student bus pass program provides special bus passes to interested middle and high school students who can use their pass to ride Fairfax Connector and City of Fairfax CUE buses for free between 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., seven days a week throughout the whole year.
Students sign up to receive a pass through their school’s administrative office, though FCPS requires that they obtain a parent or guardian’s consent to join the program.
“It's a very generous program, because we want students to have access to living, working, learning, and playing,” Quintana said. “So, in order for them to do that, we felt like transportation is a key component for their success.”
Students took about 100,000 bus trips in the program’s first year. Now, four years later, students account for roughly 6.5 percent of Fairfax Connector’s total ridership.
The Department of Transportation distributed 14,200 passes, 8,500 of which were picked up by students, across 28 high schools, two alternative high schools, 23 middle schools, six secondary schools, and nine centers for students with special needs during the 2018-2019 school year.
According to Quintana, 40 to 50 percent of the student population has a bus pass at the schools that see the most participation in the program, a group that includes Edison High School, South Lakes High School, and Mount Vernon High School.
Lee and West Potomac High Schools also see a lot of students obtaining bus passes, and nearly 100 percent of the students at Bryant Alternative High School, which had an enrollment of 265 students last year, participate in the program.
Fairfax County will likely distribute fewer cards this year after the transportation department switched from the original flash pass to a new specially programmed SmarTrip card at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.
To ensure that students were not using the passes after they graduated from FCPS, the county initially changed the pass color annually, so schools had to redistribute the cards every year.
“While it started out in a reasonable way, the program was growing to such a degree that we felt like it was not the most efficient way to do things,” Quintana said.
The Board of Supervisors approved the program’s conversion to SmarTrip cards on June 19, 2018.
In addition to being usable over multiple years, the SmarTrip bus passes are registered by school administrators, who can monitor card activity and disable a card at the student’s request if it is lost or stolen. Students can also get a replacement card more easily.
Fairfax County also transitioned to SmarTrip passes to accommodate a new Metrobus pilot introduced to Justice High School in Falls Church on Sept. 17, 2018.
During the initial years of the student bus pass program, county staff identified six middle schools and four high schools that are not accessible by Fairfax Connector but are served by Metrobus, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s bus service.
Justice High School is one of those schools. Metrobus has multiple stops within a mile of the school, but the closest Connector stop is four miles away.
Partnering with the WMATA Board, the Board of Supervisors voted last summer to authorize a pilot that permits Justice High School students to ride designated Metrobus routes in Northern Virginia with their SmarTrip card as well as Fairfax Connector and CUE buses.
Fairfax County staff estimated that the Metrobus pilot and SmarTrip conversion would cost at most $300,000, though Quintana says final numbers for the year-long pilot have not yet been calculated.
In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors transportation committee on May 14, Quintana reported that 35 percent of Justice High School students have a Metrobus student pass, and they took 32,000 trips on Metrobus within the first eight months of the pilot, averaging 3,500 to 4,000 trips per month.
49 percent of students’ Metrobus ridership was on the system’s route from the Seven Corners Transit Station on Route 7, which is within a quarter-mile of Justice, to Tysons Corner.
While many students use the free bus passes to get to and from school, the program has also been useful for getting students to after-school activities, jobs, and social gatherings, Quintana says.
“Especially the weekends, they’re using it to go out and have fun, to go places and do things for entertainment, which has value to the local economy too, because they’re out there, and they’re spending money,” Quintana said. “They’re doing things that help local businesses, and it keeps them engaged.”
Because the transportation department wanted to have a full year of data to determine the pilot’s budget impact, the Board of Supervisors will not determine whether to expand the Metrobus pilot to other schools until next year.
Annandale, Marshall, and Falls Church High Schools are candidates for a 2020 expansion.
The county is also contemplating ways to improve the free student bus pass program.
Over 60 percent of the 365 students who responded to an online survey on the Metrobus pilot in March reported wanting access to more routes, extended hours, and the addition of Metrorail, since they work later than 10:00 p.m. or are employed in Washington, D.C.
Quintana says that, along with helping students and their parents, the student bus pass program benefits Fairfax County by getting a new generation accustomed to using transit.
70 percent of the Metrobus survey respondents said they had never ridden Metrobus to or from school before the student pass program, and 52 percent said they would likely not ride Metrobus if it was not free.
“We’re trying to create transit riders of the future,” Quintana said. “One of the biggest barriers, we find, for people choosing transit over their car is they’re not sure how to ride…We’re just trying to help educate these students so that they feel more comfortable, as they become adults, accessing and using the transit services available.”