Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In January, Metro will eliminate the bus transfers that have become a fixture of local commutes. One of the reasons for the move, says Metro, is to end the assaults that drivers have sustained after fighting with passengers about paper slips.

One driver, who asks not to be identified, is thankful for the change. During his time behind the wheel, he has had passengers cuss him out and spit on him. In September 2007, the operator was driving downtown, near Metro Center. He picked up a guy at 15th and G who presented him with a transfer, a piece of low-grade paper that gives users a free ride if they switch to another bus within a two-hour window. This particular rider attempted to stretch that time frame considerably—his transfer had a time/date stamp from the previous May.

“I told him he couldn’t use it, and he wanted to get belligerent,” remembers the driver.

The driver says the man got up in his face, so he threatened to call Metro Transit Police, then removed his seat belt and started to stand up. Next thing the driver knew, the would-be passenger swung at him.

“He punched me in the chest and ran off the bus,” the driver says. “I felt it,” he says of the blow, but he kept driving his route.

In another month, the driver will no longer have to worry about that scenario playing out again. Check out any bus shelter in the city and you’re likely to see a red sign announcing the switch: “Beginning January 4, 2009, Metro will not issue or accept paper transfers. To get the rail-to-bus discount or to transfer free from bus to bus you must use a SmarTrip card.”

Cathy Asato, spokesperson for Metro, says there are several reasons behind killing the paper transfer, including making better use of technology and collecting more fares. But an important basis for the policy is reducing the hassle factor for drivers. “We hope to see disputes between riders and operators about transfers go away,” Asato says.

The new policy’s break-in period could indeed be rough: Though Metro is going all-out to advertise the change, there’ll certainly be some heated exchanges come early January. Riders, after all, have always been resourceful in working their way onto the bus without paying, and the transfer has often been their vehicle. “They fold them in half, crumple them up, stick two together,” says the driver who was assaulted last year.

Another driver, who operates in Southwest, says that at one point, many drivers just stopped worrying about the time constraints altogether and opted to hand out transfers good for way beyond the two-hour limit. If you tried to follow the rules and hand out transfers that expired in two hours, riders would just vex the next driver, claiming the last guy shortchanged them and their transfer was actually still good. So why bother?

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“They will argue—sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not,” says the driver, who also requested his name not be printed, citing Metro policy. He estimates that about 15 percent of his riders get on the bus with invalid transfers. And he can’t check them all. “If you have a line of people [waiting to get on], you can’t always look,” he says.

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And within that band of Metrobus inefficiency—of leniency, almost—rested an unspoken aspect of commuter justice. For all of those who’ve endured the No Exit–style hell of a Metrorail delay due to track maintenance, or sought an answer to the question of just why no trains were arriving, or sat shivering on a bus with a dead engine waiting for a replacement from the bus barn to take them to work, maybe Metro owed them the occasional free ride. Or even the frequent free ride.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the agency that oversees Metro bus and rail, has a long history of money problems. User fees don’t come close to meeting the agency’s budget, and local jurisdictions don’t cover the gap. Metro needs $11 billion in the next 10 years to handle infrastructural repairs and other upgrades necessary for increased ridership.

And so the agency is trying to get out of the business of providing free bus trips.

Under current Metro policy, the transfers aren’t tracked. If you’re getting off the bus and no longer need your transfer, you can pass it to someone else so that person can avoid the base fare and ride for free. Metrobus hustlers will give up a good transfer only if they get a cigarette/quarter/stick of gum/sports section in return. The courteous will pass one along once they’re through with it.

Army veteran and Capitol Heights resident Clarence Miller rides the U2 Metrobus (Minnesota Avenue–Anacostia Line). He pays $1.35, the normal cash bus fare, and gets a free paper transfer. Many times, Miller will ask the driver for two transfers: One he keeps for himself, the other he gets just so he can give it away, in case he comes across a friendly stranger or a buddy who is short on cash and trying to get to the VA hospital. And when he’s done riding the bus for the day and no longer needs his own transfer, he gives that one away, too.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Miller says that right or wrong, many people couldn’t ride the bus if it weren’t for discarded or donated paper transfers.

SmarTrip stands to ruin this street economy fueled by hustlers and by good Samaritans like Miller. As of Jan. 4, those who plunk down the minimum SmarTrip card buy-in fee of $5 will be able to transfer between buses for free once they pay a $1.25 base fee. Paying cash? Boarding a bus will run you $1.35 each time, whether you’re transferring or not.

Riders like Francis Chapman of Laurel, Md., who often rides the D8 and C18 buses, must reconcile empathy for riders who depend on free transfers with anger over the fact that those who abuse paper transfers, whether because they have to or merely want to, have been immune to fare hikes that rule-abiding riders have endured.

“It’s because of that,” Chapman says, equating paper-transfer fraud with lost profits and lost profits with the reason Metro is doing away with paper transfers altogether.

“But some people won’t have money to catch the bus,” he adds. “It’s gonna be rough.”

Marshall Proctor, an A12 rider from Seat Pleasant, Md., says he will miss the days when stumbling across a discarded transfer was as good as finding $1.35 in cash lying on the ground. “Now if I don’t have [bus fare], I might find a transfer on the ground,” Proctor says. “You’re not gonna find one of those cards on the ground.”

And Proctor is one of those riders who, if presented with a couple of transfers, expired or not, will figure out a way to use them to get on the bus. “I can tape two together,” he admits.

Sheliah Hester, a B2 and D6 rider who lives on Capitol Hill, say she’ll miss how excited fellow riders get when she gives away a transfer, no strings attached. Hester says she’s been offered change or a smoke in exchange for her transfer, but she tends to turn such offers down. “I usually just tell them they can have the transfer,” she says.

“There’s always somebody decent standing out here you can help,” Hester says. “And that dollar they save, they can eat their lunch with that.”

Hester says that she just doesn’t get why a big entity like Metro would begrudge someone down on his luck the relief of an occasional free ride. “Why are they worrying about someone helping someone else? It’s charity—why is a billion-dollar corporation worried about it? Metro is not giving nobody no breaks.”

Sure, all that community building among strangers—or covert, sneaky behavior, depending on your perspective—has led to a constant stream of fare hikes that seem to come closer and closer together, but wouldn’t Metro have found a way to make us pay more anyway?

Out in the bus-riding world, people have theories as to why Metro is bagging the transfers. Some think it must be because city trash workers have complained that they’re tired of picking up the little newsprint strips with red lettering that are strewn all over the city. Other riders think Metro has decided that dispensing and checking paper transfers slows down drivers and, by extension, buses. A few posit that Metro is just ready to move into the future with its SmarTrip cards and leave paper behind, but the majority think Metro is tired of getting bested by folks who use paper transfers to get something for nothing.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Metro says it’s all of the above.

“There are several reasons,” says Asato. “One, it will save Metro money. Not including fraud, just in printing and maintenance of transfer machines, we will save $350,000 next year,” she says.

“Also, we want to encourage people to use SmarTrip,” Asato continues. With a

SmarTrip, riders can transfer buses for up to three hours for free, compared to just two hours with a paper transfer.

On the fraud front, Metro Transit Police recently apprehended someone for selling books of stolen transfers, says Asato. Still, no one has ever been pinched for the act of passing a single transfer off to a fellow rider, to her knowledge.

Asato recognizes that it’s an act of kindness that one rider has been able to extend to another for as long as the paper transfer has existed, but she’s not sorry to see it go.

“It is a courtesy, but it’s still a form of fraud that we’re trying to curb,” Asato says.

It’s also a form of fraud that riders will endeavor to extend. “We’re gonna figure that out soon,” says Proctor of cracking the SmarTrip system. “Trust me. The younger generation will figure it out.”

To hear bus drivers tell it, they already have.

Despite being overwhelmingly in favor of getting rid of paper transfers, the Southwest area bus driver says the new hustle is that people scan a depleted SmarTrip against the card reader on his bus and then feign ignorance when it doesn’t work.

“They say, ‘I just added money! Something is wrong with your machine!’” The driver says that, in these cases, he usually gives the benefit of the doubt, or at least decides not to call them on their ploy.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Therein lies the false hope of the switch to SmarTrip—a switch that could mean even more mayhem for drivers. Think about it: The bus is the first transportation option for the city’s neediest citizens, in part because of the ease of gaming paper transfers. Now these folks, many of them penniless, will be required to come up with $5 before boarding a bus, and another $5 after their card is charged four times. That simply won’t happen, and the result will be more desperate passengers simply breezing past the driver, perhaps not even bothering to pass a zeroed-out card over the scanner. Any driver that seeks to enforce the rules faces a clash.

One driver doesn’t understand why people go to such lengths to get a free bus ride, when there is a really simple way to get from points A to B when you’re short on cash.

“I understand that some of my co-workers have attitudes, but most of us don’t,” he says. “If someone says, ‘Mr. Bus Driver, I don’t have any money, but I need to get somewhere, can you let me ride?’ most of us would probably do it,” he says.

That’s a fine sentiment from an empathetic driver. But it misses the point of the whole transfer transaction, and that’s saving face. No one—not the lowliest of bus riders—wants to tell an entire busload of people that he doesn’t have five quarters and a dime to rub together.

It’s why the bus transfer in D.C. has become the mass-transit equivalent of sticking a beer in a brown paper bag: If you went to the trouble of waving a strip of paper—even an ice-cream sandwich wrapper or a corner of the Giant food circular could work—a bus driver would likely allow you to board, no questions asked. With a transfer, you don’t have to shred your dignity by pleading poverty or trying to sneak in through the back door as other passengers disembark. In return, the driver gets to keep his eyes and mind on the road instead of playing transit cop and social worker.

Although bus transfers and the shenanigans surrounding them are a bit of old-D.C. grit in an increasingly sanitized city, transfer conning isn’t a good thing. But it’s our thing. It’s not unlike when we had a basketball team named for gun ammo or a mayor who smoked crack—it fosters community in some unplanned way. Like the people who’ve taken advantage of it, the paper transfer has character and a purpose far beyond getting from downtown to Capitol Hill. Nothing of the sort can be said of swiping a generic plastic card.