Mayor Muriel Bowser announcing the imporvements at a major intersection in Ward 8
credit: MATALIONG DU

On Monday March 9, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a $5 million investment in safety and aesthetics at a Southeast D.C. intersection.

“The improvements we’re making near the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X Avenues are an important step to realizing the goals of Vision Zero,” Bowser said.

Vision Zero is a transportation safety strategy inspired by and named after a Swedish policy that aims to reduce the number of serious traffic accidents and deaths to zero. Vision Zero has already been adopted by other major U.S. cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The initiative was part of the mayor’s platform in 2014, along with several other transportation goals.

As the mayor puts her transportation platform into action, Metro riders are eager to see more of her talking points realized. During her campaign, Bowser also called for equity and inclusion in transportation planning policy; to address the needs of the District’s most underserved communities; and to improve transportation services provided to individuals with disabilities.

In Washington, debate over the cost of housing tends to overshadow the affordability of and access to transportation. Fare prices rose three percent–10 cents per ride– on average for Metrorail last year. Bus fare rose to $1.75 per ride, according to Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA)’s website.

After a month of requesting data in regard to the Metro budget and programs, Metro was unable to provide anything substantial.

“The budget advances Metro’s strategic plan and includes funding to provide safer, better, and more service, all while continuing safety improvements, the rebuilding of the Metro system, increasing capacity, and improving the effectiveness of the current rail and bus networks,” Metro posted on www.wmata.com last year.

But for many homeless people in the District, the rising cost of transportation hurts more than it helps.

“Sometimes I had to miss appointments because if I’m hungry, I’m not going to catch the bus, I’m going to eat,” Ken Martin, a Street Sense vendor, said.

Before obtaining a MetroAccess card, Martin had to choose between going to doctor’s appointments and eating. MetroAccess allows cardholders to travel for free on Metro bus and rail, as well as request a van to come pick the cardholder up at any given location for a maximum of $6.50 per ride. Martin received his card last year. But obtaining the card was difficult, he said.

“You have to demonstrate your illness. They put you on an incline and watch you walk,” Martin said. “They don’t make it easy for someone who is suffering to pass the test.”

A 2010 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research labeled transportation as a structural barrier to mainstream services for homeless individuals.

For low-income residents in the District, service providers try and bridge the gap in funds people need for transportation.

Providers can purchase Metro tokens–small coins with an M in the center–that can be used instead of cash for Metro fare. Each token is worth about $1.75, and provides a one-way ride, according to Executive Director of Thrive DC Alicia Horton. These tokens have been phased out of general sales by Metro, but service providers like Thrive DC can still purchase them from Metro’s headquarters.

“Now that it’s only social services [who can purchase tokens] indicates to me that they are in the process of weaning [tokens] out of the system,” Horton said.

For those who meet the criteria for a disability discount, Metro offers reduced fares. Someone can receive a Metro Disability ID card if they are 65 or older, under 65 but on Medicare, a veteran, or after filling out an application to prove their disability.

Miriam’s Kitchen helps clients apply for those fares, and also provides Metro bus or rail tokens. However, the Metro tokens Miriam’s Kitchen distributes are only available for those traveling to medical appointments. They run out quickly and can’t be given to everyone, according to Advocacy Director Kurt Runge.

“A lot of people walk or use their own limited funds to ride public transportation,” Runge explained.

Thrive DC sets aside $700 a month for tokens and transportation assistance, which is far too little according to Horton. Since the fare increased last year, that $700 has been spread even thinner.

“We turn more people away than we are able to help,” Horton lamented. “[Tokens are] included in our budget, but we have to raise our budget every year.”

Thrive DC provides tokens for transportation to doctor’s appointments, job interviews and to people who are waiting for their first paycheck from a new job.

Organizations find that raising funds for transportation is difficult because people don’t like to pay for it.

“It’s not an area that a lot of foundations find very sexy,” Horton said. “They would rather pay for food or things that people can wrap their heads around in terms of emergency needs.”

Federal grants won’t pay for transportation because it’s difficult for the government to track how the money is spent, according to Horton.

“It’s more of an accounting headache [for them],” she said.

If tokens are phased out completely by Metro, transportation costs could grow even higher for service providers who pass out tokens.

“Tokens offer a cheaper and easier method of assistance…SmartTrip cards get lost or damaged and if people haven’t registered for them, then they cost money,” Horton said.

Thrive DC client, Evelyn Hodgson, 57, travels five days a week, but without Metro tokens she can’t make it to doctor’s appointments, or to visit her mother in the hospital, she said.

An issue for all public transit users, not just homeless riders, is the safety of the Metro rail stations. Some stations are safer and have better upkeep than others, according to Hodgson. She feels much safer at the Columbia Heights Metro Station than at the Rhode Island Metro Station.

“Sometimes people will be hanging around [at the Rhode Island station] and it is not safe,” Hodgson said. “Someone will come up to you and take your money.”

According to the MetroTransit Police 5-Year Crime Report, there were 358 “snatch and pickpocket” crimes in 2014, down by more than 300 from the previous year. Nevertheless, Ken Martin also notices a big difference in the quality of stations throughout the city.

“If you go to Addison Road Station and you visit Rockville or Shady Grove, you see significant differences,” Martin said. “You don’t see people hanging around smoking and acting any kind of way they want to act on the red line like on some parts of the blue or orange line.”

The average median household income is $15,648 higher near the Columbia Heights Metro Station than the Rhode Island Metro Station, according to a neighborhood income map created by the MIT “You Are Here” project.

The median household income near Shady Grove is $46,921 more than the area surrounding Addison Road Station.

“[We need to] get Metro to admit that they are discriminating on routes and in certain areas,” Metro rider Cynthia Irston, 52, said.

As 2014 came to a close, mayor-elect Bowser resigned from WMATA’s board of directors in anticipation of her transition and inauguration. During her tenure on the board, Bowser led the development of Metro’s first affordable housing policy. The policy stipulates that developers proposing residential projects on WMATA-owned property must comply with local affordable housing requirements and are encouraged to seek creative sources of financing such as low-income housing tax credits.

Metro riders such as Irston await the mayor’s vision of transportation equity for all eight wards.