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Metrobus regulars have taken to transferring their transfers.

In August 2001, while sitting at a Mount Pleasant bus stop smoking a cigarette, I experienced a new form of urban barter. A man approached the bus shelter and proposed a trade—his bus transfer, still valid for an hour, in exchange for a “jack.” Figuring it was a fair deal, I took him up on it.

Soon after, I began spotting similar transactions around town. At a Georgia Avenue bus stop, a middle-aged woman offered a fellow rider a transfer, provided she be allowed to take a swig from the brown-bagged beer the man was carrying. A teenaged rider passed a transfer out a window to a friend waiting at a bus stop near the Potomac Avenue station, allowing him to ride for free.

Until 1999, Metrobus fares were on a variable scale, like Metrorail fares; transfer passes cost 10 cents extra and could be used only at certain transfer points—and never on the same bus line twice. Because transfers cost extra, riders bought them only when necessary and rarely parted with them.

To promote ridership, Metro eliminated the transfer fees and restrictions and began charging a flat $1.10 fare. Simply ask for a transfer slip and you can take unlimited bus rides within a two-hour period.

Or, if you hand off the transfer slip when you get to your final destination, someone else can take those rides.

On a recent Thursday evening, waiting across from Union Station for the D4 bus to Stadium-Armory, Michael James, 34, paces and glances at his watch. A man wearing a baseball cap and dusty jeans approaches. “Excuse me,” he says. “You need a transfer?” He holds out the newsprint strip for inspection.

“Yeah, thank you,” says James, accepting the transfer and checking to make sure it hasn’t expired. The man asks his follow-up question: “Do you think you could help me out with 50 cents?” James fishes two quarters from his pocket and hands them over. The man darts off, leaving James with a 60-cent profit.

This transfer-barter system has only recently emerged. “It took people a little while to catch on to the hustle of it,” James says. Now, many passengers request a free transfer whether they need one for themselves or not, figuring they can trade it or give it away.

Although most riders view the new custom as harmless—a good deed, even—the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) says that the practice is illegal. “It’s basically fare evasion, and you can be charged with failure to pay fare,” says Randall Laughlin, a plainclothes investigator with the Metro Transit Police’s bus-enforcement division.

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Laughlin says that officers are more concerned with the person who accepts the transfer than the person who offers it, but both parties can be penalized. Offenders can receive either a $50 fine, which must be paid within 15 days, or a written warning, which is noted in a central computer. Once three or four warnings have been issued, transit police can seek a warrant. If the fare evader is caught again, he or she may be taken into custody. “We run your name, and if you have a warrant on file, you can be arrested and charged,” says Laughlin.

Despite Metro’s disapproval, most riders still don’t find fault with transfer trading. “I don’t see anything wrong with it,” says James of his transaction. “I get something out of it, and the other person gets something out of it. If Metro needed the money that badly, the transfers wouldn’t be free in the first place.”

Northwest resident Darniece McCall, 27, says that the ethics of transfer trading depend on the situation. “It might be something that is wrong, but what if someone has an emergency?” she says while riding home on the 96 to Ellington Bridge.

Although McCall has seen other passengers trade transfers for cigarettes, gum, and candy, she does not condone selling transfers or exchanging them for goods: “I would never do that—it doesn’t make any sense.”

“You do it to help someone out who doesn’t have the fare to get on the bus,” says Northeast resident Melvin Douglass, 33, finishing McCall’s thought. “If I’m not using it to get on the bus, then why not let someone else use it?…It’s a nice thing to do for someone—a kind heart is always good.”

Anthony Bull, 38, a Northwest resident waiting for the 80 to Fort Totten, says that if Metro made the transfers more useful, riders would be more apt to keep them: “They should be good for a longer period of time, even if they have to charge extra for it.”

Bull, a Baltimore native, prefers his hometown’s system—for $3, he says, bus travelers can purchase a pass that is good all day: “Personally, I like it better. I don’t have to worry about trying to use my transfer—worrying about whether I can get back in two hours. It takes the headache out of it.”

Still, Bull adds, Baltimore’s system isn’t exempt from fraud: “They have problems with people selling and giving away those, too.”

Although trading transfers is improper, the activity is difficult for Metro to monitor. “We receive so many complaints of assault, indecent exposure, and other disorderly conduct, it would be hard for us to stand on corners and watch for someone to stick a transfer out of a window,” says Laughlin. “It has become harder and harder to enforce, but we try to do the best that we can.”

And what started as an improvised hustle has gained the force of social custom. At a bus stop on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, Henry Willis, 51, strikes up a conversation with an acquaintance who has just gotten off the P6 and is still clutching a transfer. Willis opens a pack of Kools, and his friend asks for one. “Can I get that transfer?” Willis replies. They briefly debate whether the transfer is worth one smoke or more. In the end, Willis gives up two cigarettes, and his friend walks away.

Willis is not even planning on taking a bus, he admits. “I could give it to someone else,” he says, “but I’ll probably just throw it away.” It was, he says, the principle of the thing: “I just felt he should give me something if he wanted one of my cigarettes. Nothing out here is free.” CP