Thanks to Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA) and Whatcom Smart Trips, your seventh-grade son or daughter will soon receive a free quarterly bus pass (for April, May and June) along with instruction on how to use it. Get ready for an independent kid who knows how to plan, read maps, get to and from the library, and who is confident and capable in their abilities.

Friends take a trip on the weekend with WTA. Photo courtesy: WTA.

WTA and Smart Trips have teamed up to reach over 1,764 seventh graders per year with this program, which is funded in large part by a grant from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Smart Trips is a program administered by the Whatcom Council of Governments,” says Susan Horst, Director of Mobility Programs at the Whatcom Council of Governments. “We promote walking, biking, sharing rides and riding the bus instead of driving alone.”

One day this spring, WTA and Smart Trips staff will descend upon every local middle school in Whatcom County (except for the Lynden School District) equipped with slides, maps, schedules and more. They take over one classroom a day, effectively educating a small army of seventh graders.

“The idea is, these kids are too young to drive, but they’re just old enough to explore a little bit of independence,” says Horst. “Right away [they realize] this is their ticket to freedom.”

A young girl rides the bus through town. Photo courtesy: WTA.

Staff walk kids through an entire bus journey step by step. “We present images and information regarding an actual trip the student could take, for example, from their school to a popular destination on an early release day,” Horst says. They also receive printed information, including discounts to several local businesses throughout the county, exclusively for kids using their seventh-grade bus passes.

Parents are often surprised by their child’s adaptability. “A parent that we interviewed was prepared [for her child] to get lost,” Horst says. “She kept her phone on her at all times [while] her seventh grader was making his trip. As is turned out, her child didn’t need to call. He figured it out.”

After the classroom instruction, students get an opportunity to board a bus and hear from a WTA bus driver. This is a chance for kids to learn the “hands-on” basics, including how to swipe their pass, how to pull the cord to indicate when they want to get off, as well as bus etiquette and safety tips. They also get to practice loading and unloading a bike on the bike rack in front of the bus.

Kids often travel with friends on public transit. Photo courtesy: WTA.

For students, it’s a welcome break from everyday classes and a ticket to independence.

One father was particularly impressed by the program’s effect. “My daughter was in your class and she got so excited by the bus,” he says, “that for her birthday party what she wanted was to travel by bus with her friends.”

The program teaches students to be responsible. “They need to call their parents and tell them where they are and if they miss the bus, they’ll be on the next one,” Horst says. “It’s part of our teaching. Don’t let your parents down or they’ll take your bus pass away.”

“WTA has super friendly bus drivers and if a kid expresses any sort of request for help, the bus driver will be all over it,” says Horst, who feels that riding the bus teaches kids to be safer, by learning important survival skills. They also encourage kids to travel with their friends, which is a great way to feel comfortable while learning something new.

A girl contacts her parents while riding the bus. Photo courtesy: WTA.

Kids get particularly engaged when they see how the bus can empower them to do what they love. “I had a boy come up and ask if he could put his mountain bike on the bus rack,” says Horst. He was very excited when he found out that he could take a bus to Galbraith Mountain.

The program has received rave reviews from worn-out taxi parents, thrilled with their own newfound freedom. “A trip to the movies can often be four trips – to the theater and back for both a drop-off and a pick-up,” says Maureen McCarthy, WTA’s Community Relations and Marketing Manager. “If the bus can replace even half of those trips, it’s really helping parents to find more time for themselves.”

A young boy finds independence with the 7th Grade bus program. Photo courtesy: WTA.

And keep an eye out for Summer Adventure Camps. These are offered by Smart Trips and are available for registration through Bellingham Parks and Recreation. Summer Adventure Camps provide a week of even more in-depth independent travel experiences. Kids will learn about bicycle safety and how to navigate the city of Bellingham, culminating in a scavenger hunt by bus.

Here’s to freedom, independence and practically empowered youth!

Click the following link for more information on the WTA 7th Grade Bus Pass.


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