D.C. Circulator buses will now charge a $1 fare for travellers as of Oct. 1 following 10 months of allowing riders to travel for free.
Mayor Muriel Bowser had previously enacted the free ride policy as a part of her #FairShotFebruary initiative in 2019, and continued the program indefinitely until this month. Although the mayor’s budget proposal allocated $3.1 million to free circulator busing, the City Council rejected this proposal.
The Circulator is a system of six bus routes throughout Washington, D.C., and into Rosslyn, Va., with buses scheduled to arrive at each stop every 10 minutes. After boarding, riders can pay the $1 fare in cash or with a SmarTrip Card, the same card used to ride the D.C. Metro service.
Linda Stuetz, a D.C. resident who is currently experiencing homelessness, said that the bus fares will have a negative impact on D.C.’s poorest residents.
“This really hurts the poor people,” she said in an interview with The Hoya. “For example, last week I got so sick. If it wouldn’t have been free, I wouldn’t have been able to take the bus to see my doctor. When you live on the street or in a shelter, sometimes you don’t have a dollar.”
Many individuals in the D.C. homeless community benefited from Mayor Bowser’s free circulator ride initiative, according to Stuetz.
“It really helped,” she said. “If I had one dollar to my name, and this happens a lot, do I take the bus one way or do I go to McDonald’s and get something to eat from the dollar menu?”
The Circulator was created by the District government in 2005, originally with the intention of allowing transportation for tourists around downtown D.C. When the fares were made free in January, Circulator ridership increased by 29%, or 850,000 trips, according to the District Department of Transportation.
While the Circulator had always cost $1 for all trips before it was temporarily made free, bus transportation alternatives D.C. Metrobuses are $2.00 and $4.25 on express lines. The Circulator has six lines that cover Wards 1, 2, 3 and 6, while Metrobus is more extensive in its routes, covering all 8 Wards.
Festus Kembubala, a five-year Circulator bus operator whose route runs through southeast D.C., felt a changing atmosphere both when the fare was lifted and when it returned.
“When the fare was free, I realized a lot of people were happy,” he said. “People were able to save 40 dollars, 60 dollars, even 80 dollars a month because of the free fare.”
D.C. is not the only city to have implemented a free bus system. Baltimore has a free, privately owned circulator bus called the Charm City Circulator, which has similar qualities to D.C.’s current Circulator bus. The program benefits the low-income families who live near bus routes, but covers a total of three zip codes in Baltimore City out of a total of 20.
Despite the fact that the bus rides are no longer free, some riders still see the Circulator as an affordable option, according to recent Georgetown graduate Dina El-Saharty (GRD ’19).
“It’s still cheaper than everything else,” she said. “I used to go to Georgetown, so this was easier than taking the shuttle bus from Rosslyn, so I took it everyday until I graduated. Now I take it every other day to get to Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.”
Many of his riders have directed frustration with the change in fare price directly at bus operators, according to Kembubala.
“The people in Southeast, they don’t find it easy. They were so happy for the free rides, but when it comes to the point they have to pay, they don’t like to pay,” he said. “Sometimes it makes them become so aggressive to the operators and we just have to deal with it.”