Back in December, WMATA and American University proposed a program that would allow students to pay a discounted rate for unlimited rides on both bus and rail. A student referendum and months of planning later, the pilot program is a reality. It launches this coming school year. 

Image from WMATA.

Called the “U•Pass,” the new pilot program reaches far more students than a previous effort between WMATA and American. Over 10,000 full-time undergrad, grad and law students at American will receive a SmarTrip card complete with a unique serial number and AU Logo. U•Pass will give holders unlimited rides on all bus and rail lines in the WMATA system.

Because American is on the hook for footing the bill, all full-time students will be enrolled, and an extra $130 per semester will be added to tuition to pay for the pass.

That increase in tuition will be worthwhile for most students given the benefits of the pass: WMATA has estimated that the average full-time student will save $1000 on transportation per school year.  Additionally, since the cost of U•Pass is included in tuition, financial aid can cover the cost of the pass. Being able to pay for U•Pass through financial aid lifts a heavy burden for those who struggle to pay for Metro on top of college expenses to get to work or internships.

U•Pass will make it easier than ever for students to use Metro. The U•Pass is already paid for, creating the incentive to take the bus or train to campus instead of another service like Uber or Car2go. The savings combined with convenience will make it hard not to use Metro.

This partnership between WMATA and American solves the biggest dilemma previous pilots have failed to work out, and something WMATA struggles with in general: dedicated funding. WMATA has estimated that it will receive $2.7 million just this fiscal year from U•Pass sales.

Beyond the direct funding, WMATA is getting access to 10,000 students that may not have used the Metro system for their everyday needs before. A successful U•Pass program could lead to other universities doing something similar, and there’s a lot of potential in the hundreds of thousands of college students in DC.

All these potential riders are even more crucial because they are often off-peak riders. WMATA is looking for ways to not only increase ridership but to also even out ridership across the system from the current commuter pattern.

The students want this program

This past semester, American held a student referendum on the proposed U•Pass pilot and tuition increase. After two weeks of voting, an overwhelming 85% of the student body voted to approve the program.

Students are excited after hearing the news. A quick search of Twitter shows students asking the AU Office of Campus Life when and where they can pick up their new U•Pass. Students will pick up the pass during Welcome Week at many locations across campus, or can go to the Office of Parking and Traffic Services for late pickup.

It’s still just a pilot

The U•Pass Program is still a pilot, but it seems to be poised for success. As the program matures, and hopefully grows to more universities, WMATA and participating universities should look into expanding the program to other local jurisdictions. Currently, the U•Pass only works on WMATA, meaning students who use other systems such as Ride On or ART will need to have an additional SmarTrip to get around.

U•Pass will provide us with an opportunity to study the commuting patterns of students. Many bus lines run either through AU’s campus via Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues or by AU’s Washington College of Law and satellite buildings on Wisconsin Ave. It will be interesting to see if the unlimited bus pass will translate into increased bus ridership in these areas.

The U•Pass pilot program is an exciting new option for AU students. Partnerships between WMATA and the area’s universities need to grow, and this pilot is a step in the right direction.

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William Reckley is an American University alumnus with a degree in International Development. Originally from Frederick, MD, he has been interested in public transportation in DC since he first stepped foot on a Metro train with his dad when he was little.