FREE RIDE: Pilot program offers students zero-fare CAT rides for next four months, but how does it work?

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In just a few days, Chatham Area Transit (CAT) will begin to learn a lot more about the transportation habits of school-aged kids when they launch the Student Zero-Fare Pilot Program on Jan 29. The registration window is currently open and will provide free transportation services to all students across Chatham County until May 31, 2024.

During this time, it's possible that students of all grade levels and non-student citizen riders find themselves on the same bus, at the same time. The Zero-Fare program will not be replacing the standard school bus systems and routes.

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A'riel Johnson, the communications manager for CAT, said the school bus system is not being replaced by the pilot program. None of the CAT routes are being changed, only the price for students to ride. Currently, student fares cost half the normal fare.

"We've had students riding before this because we've always had a half-fare program for students, which is 75 cents. So, we have students that use our buses already, the only difference now is just, it's becoming free."

A mother of two Savannah Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS) middle schoolers said she will not plan on using the zero-fare program when it becomes available. Her primary concern, she said, is centered around the idea of adults, older kids and other public transit riders being on the bus with their child. 

"I don’t want [my kids] being part of a test program," she said. "I think if they can make this work and keep the [regular] school bus routes that’ll be a good thing. Parents with no other choice might [sign up] but I’m not sure that this will work. It's risky because they are telling us safety is a top concern, but it isn't safe to have kids with strangers."

CAT officials argue students will benefit by learning valuable life skills. One of the stated goals for the program is "to promote confident lifelong public transit riders" by introducing students to the public bus system, including how to "be respectful to themselves and others."
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A rotating security officer for CAT.

“We do have security on our buses riding along right now, but they are on a rotational basis. So, a child might see a security officer on [route] 14 today and another child might see a security guard officer on the 31 tomorrow. They have rotational schedules as of right now, so they are going where they are needed.”

For those wondering how a student will get to the bus stop, or home from the drop-off spot, Johnson says most students won’t have to walk too far.

“We have more than one-thousand bus stops across Chatham County. Students can catch a bus most anywhere throughout the county,” she said. “However, if they have to transfer to another bus, then they will most likely stop at the ITC [Intermodal Transit Center] to get onto another bus to get to where they actually need to go.”

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CAT routes and bus stops are close enough to schools to be "walkable."

The pilot program was presented by representatives of CAT during a Jan. 10 informal meeting of the Board of Education (BOE) for the Savannah Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS).

"We’re not changing our route to go to a specific school or anything like that. This is just for students to come use our fixed routes to get to school," said Johnson.

The registration window for K-12 students launched on Jan. 17, and concerned parents can ride with students (parents must pay standard fare of $1.50) between now and Jan. 29 if the parent or student desires to give it a “trial run.” After the program begins, parents could still ride with their student on the bus, if they choose to do so. Once completing the registration form, a student can use the CAT Student bus pass by printing it or having it saved on a mobile device.

"Our operators are super professional; they are super watchful of their surroundings," she said. "Once they know where the bus stop is, they'll ring the bell, and they'll go to their bus stop and then go to their school of choice."

Johnson says students who register online will be helping the school district and CAT officials decide if the program should continue beyond the pilot phase. It will help determine if the program is a success or not.

"The only reason why students are asked to register for a pass is for security purposes, because when you register for a pass, we ask you for the school that you're attending, we ask you for an emergency contact to have that information," she said. "It’s also to use that as a way to grab data. By data I mean how many students are using it, where we can see how many downloads we get. We can use those numbers in our research internally to see how we can better do this moving forward in the future."

And how will CAT protect from non-students using the online form to sign up for the free program in order to save money? Johnson says that the organizers of the program thought of that. Not only do they think it could happen, they think it's likely to happen.

"It is something that we will have to monitor closely. We're going to hope people use the system fairly and correctly, but if we start to see somebody with the same name, applying for four or five passes, then we know what to watch out for," Johnson said.

For registration, visit www.catchacat.org/studentfare. For specifics on routes and bus stops, click here.

For more information on the student zero-fare program or Chatham Area Transit, email [email protected] or call 912-233-5767. Follow CAT on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Travis Jaudon

Travis Jaudon is a general assignment reporter for Connect Savannah. He is a Savannah native and host of Hot Grits Podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram, @JaudonSports. [email protected]


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