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The Byzantine Process of Getting a Metro Student Pass when Your Kid Turns Five

My four-year-old on the bus to nursery school earlier this year. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Getting a Metro student pass for my daughter has been a lot more difficult than I expected.

This summer, my daughter is turning five and starting kindergarten. Riding Metro is free for four-year-olds, but five-year-olds need to TAP. My daughter is actually excited to get her own TAP card.

We don't ride the bus all the time. When it's just us two, we typically ride bikes - with me pulling her on a Weehoo trailer. We sometimes take the trailer on Metro Rail.

Her nursery school is a couple miles away, and we have taken the Metro 201 bus there together about a half-dozen times in her two years there.

I was hoping to get her her own student TAP card for her fifth birthday. Though she does like to be the one to TAP the card, the gift is more one of those presents that the parents appreciate more than the kids do.

My first stop was the "Metro for Everyone" Students and Kids page where there's an online form. It's sort of an online form... parents can fill it in online, then print it, sign it. While it's possible to submit the form online, this requires that the student have their own email account, something most five-year-olds probably don't have yet. The other alternatives are to mail it in, or submit it at a Metro Customer Service Center. (There are four of these centers in L.A. County.)

But that's not all. Along with the form, one has to provide proof of enrollment. This has to be mailed or submitted in person.

That's the hard part.

We went by my daughter's school - an LAUSD school fairly close by with a language program that we like. We asked for the Metro-required "letter on school letterhead with original signature of school official." The school administrator said that they don't give that out until school has started. They gave us a xeroxed form letter addressed to kindergarten parents.

I took that form letter to the nearest Metro Customer Center thinking that maybe it might suffice.

The Customer Center representative said he would take the form if I wanted, but that he thought it would be rejected because it needs to have the student's name on it. This is, of course, what the school stated that they can't give me until after classes begin in August.

Assuming I get that letter on day one of school, the Metro form says they will mail me the student pass "within 20 business days after verification has been completed." So, it does not appear to be possible to get a student pass to ride the Metro bus to school on the first day, or even the first month, of school. (Compare this to the way Metro bends over backward to give drivers days for retroactive TAP validation for park-and-ride lots - a process that is entirely online.)

There seems to be a gap between when a kid turns five and when they start kindergarten. Metro has a student pass, but when you turn five, you have to pay full price for those rides to pre-school. For my daughter, this is only about a month. For other kids it's up to a year.

Is it a huge burden on me to get my daughter around this summer paying the full $1.75 Metro fare instead of the $1 student fare? No. But the added cost of paying for multiple full cost there-and-back rides adds up, and makes other modes (for our family: bicycling or driving) more attractive. The delays and costs more of a burden for low-income families with fewer options.

I asked a couple of my parent friends if they went through the process of getting their kids student transit passes; none of them had.

My recommendations for what Metro can do to make their process more customer-friendly:

    1. Don't Make Five-Year-Olds Pay Full Fare: Do five-year-olds really need to pay full fare? Are these kids really ever anything other than students? Make a student pass available to any five-year-old just because they're five years old - whether they're in pre-school or kindergarten or whatever. This will allow these kids to use a student pass to ride to school on the first day.
    2. Trust Parents: Below a certain age (maybe up to age eight or ten?) just let parents vouch that their kids are students. Instead of a run-around to get enrollment forms, let parents check a box or, at most, provide proof of their kid's age.
    3. Make the Process Truly Online: It's 2018, so it's time to allow applicants to submit documents online. Instead of requiring parents to get a piece of paper from a school and mail it to Metro, let folks submit a photo of the form - or (see point #2 above) just allow parents to submit proof of the student's age. (In an ideal world, perhaps the LAUSD computers could talk with the Metro computers to verify things, but I suspect that that's asking too much.)Update 26 July: Per comments on Twitter, if you create a TAP account you can apparently sign the form electronically and can upload the proof of enrollment documents. It wouldn't have worked for me (given the gap between turning five and being enrolled in kindergarten) and I would need to create an email address for my kid. Nonetheless, the process is actually online, more than I realized at the time I wrote the article.

At a time when Metro is looking to reverse declines in ridership, the agency says it's focused on improving the customer experience. It should invest in making it easier and more convenient for students to take Metro to school. If kids and families make Metro a habit, then Metro grows the next generation of transit riders.

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