WTA offers bus riding lessons to middle schoolers

Illustration by Cody Clark

By Anelyse Morris

Western students may be seeing more people on their morning bus route starting in March, when nearly 1,800 seventh-graders will be given free bus passes.

Whatcom Transportation Authority along with Smart Trips, a program run by the Whatcom Council of Governments, are teaming up to provide the middle schoolers of Whatcom County with lessons and experience on the public transportation system.

Maureen McCarthy, community relations and marketing manager at WTA, said the two-week long program will give kids who aren’t yet at the age to earn their driver’s licenses a feeling of independence.

This program will take place from March 18-21 and March 25-29. It aims to provide seventh-graders with all the tools they’ll need to take public transportation on their own, McCarthy said.

“We have seen a lot of kids light up realizing that they can start to plan and do things entirely on their own,” she said.

The program is largely funded by a grant from the Washington State Department of Transportation, McCarthy said. WTA will provide the free bus passes to all students who filled out permission slips, and will provide a bus and driver for one of the sessions as well, she said.

McCarthy said the program will include all school districts of Whatcom County except Lynden School District, who has not confirmed its involvement yet.

Susan Horst, the director of Mobility Programs at the Whatcom Council of Governments, said that Smart Trips will provide trip information, maps and discounts to local businesses in Whatcom County.

Each day will be broken down into hour-long sessions during which the kids will learn to pull the chord, pay the fare and store their bikes, McCarthy said. This will last for two weeks until all 1,764 students complete the program, she said.

“Our goal is that within that one hour, each kid will get everything they really need to learn how to plan and take a trip,” she said. “[The sessions will last] everyday for those two weeks; it is a very tightly timed scenario that allows that all to happen.”

While there may be initial hesitation from parents, people have become more comfortable with the idea after clear communication between parents and their children, she said.

Part of the reason why bus drivers are included in the sessions is to let parents know there is someone on that bus looking out for the new riders, McCarthy said.

“I think that people forget that things you’ve never done before are intimidating, even if they’re really easy,” McCarthy said. “This program is supposed to help with that. We can make it really easy.”

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