Public Transportation at Georgetown Should Be Free.

Credit: WMTA

Sustainability efforts have become commonplace on college campuses nationwide. From LEED-certified buildings to compostable plasticware, there has been an upheaval in the general consciousness about environmentalism, especially within student bodies.

The intractable problem of our failing environment, however, is that the actions of individual consumers are insignificant compared to the overarching societal trends that perpetuate the problem. 71% of emissions are produced by only 100 corporations, and the fact that I use a metal straw when I get an iced coffee from Whisk is meaningless in the face of that. 

So, in order to truly combat the climate crisis, we need to enact structural changes that shift our way of life as a society. While campaigning for a nationwide green revolution towards renewable energy sources should be at the forefront of any policy platform in the current age, our role as members of local communities is to push for changes that strike the balance between large enough to make a difference and small enough to be in reach. 

With that in mind, I see a glaring hole in Georgetown’s environmental policy: a lack of encouragement for students to use sustainable transportation options. The WMATA offers a compelling option for universities in the area: the DC U-Pass program. While every other major university in the metropolitan area participates in this program, Georgetown does not. 

The U-Pass is a program provided by the WMATA where students of universities can have unlimited rides on Metro buses and rail. It costs about $1 per day per student, so, for example, American University students pay $136 for both semesters, billed along with tuition and other fees. 

It boggles my mind that Georgetown would neglect to participate in this program. The administration has created a thorough system of GUTS buses that conveniently transport students to two nearby Metro stations, but implicitly discourages students from utilizing these resources by allowing the burden of funding Metro rides to fall on students. It becomes our prerogative to pay fares. 

A cohesive, effective public transportation system is the key to shifting social consciousness away from consumer mindset towards a sustainable society. Cars are the bane of urban existence. The fundamental purpose of a city is that everything is close together: where I live is close to where I work, shop, and spend my leisure time. And yet, we choose to trap ourselves in small metal boxes and drive them in places full of other small metal boxes, creating traffic jams, accidents, and inconveniences, not to mention ¼ of our greenhouse gas emissions

Mass transit, however, is the ideal counter: it’s fast, safe, and timely, with a much lower environmental toll. I love public transportation, especially as a college student. The metro allows me to travel around DC easily, without being weighed down by the costs and inconveniences of a car. 

Credit: Travelplanner

Biking is another viable alternative and another opportunity for Georgetown to encourage its students to pursue environmentally conscious modes of transportation. In Pittsburgh, for example, they have a similar system to Capital Bikeshare, where you can rent bikes for a small fee and lock them at stations around the city. University of Pittsburgh first-year students get 30 minutes free every time they use one of the bikes, every time. Some type of partnership with Capital Bikeshare is certainly feasible, giving Georgetown students the freedom to bike around DC. 

Uber Hotspots in Washington, DC // Credit: Alvia

Because we are not encouraged to use these options, Georgetown students choose to use ridesharing apps, like Uber and Lyft, to get around the city. At any given time, you can see at least 5 people standing outside the main gates waiting for an Uber. With that in mind, let’s do some quick calculations. We can safely assume at least 30 ridesharing trips per day from Georgetown students, and, while data is hard to find on average trip distance, 3 miles is a conservative estimate. The EPA says that the average car emits .9 lbs of CO2 per mile. Feel free to check my math on this, but that comes out to 567 lbs of CO2 emissions per week, from Georgetown alone. Assuming we’re in school for 36 weeks, a year of Georgetown ridesharing emits 20,412 lbs of CO2 (probably higher, considering how popular Uber and Lyft are on the weekends, and extra CO2 emitted from sitting in traffic). 

Moving past the emissions, ridesharing apps are worker exploitive. A study done by the Kalmanovitz Initiative here at Georgetown in April of 2019 found that Uber drivers face a series of challenges, such as continuously fluctuating wages, long and late hours detrimental to the driver’s health, and financial debt. One driver was quoted in the report saying, “Sometimes Friday nights I will work all through. Like I’ll probably come home…hang out for a bit, hit the road, and then stay out [until] maybe 7am, 8am… Sometimes I find that I’ll maybe do ten rides by 5am. And then go home, take a nap for 2-3 hours, shower, hit the road again in the afternoon, and then work again damn near all night.” Clearly, companies like Uber and Lyft are taking advantage of their workers, and yet Georgetown students are still frequent customers. I encourage you to read a summary here or the full report here.

Some may say that the funding burden for this should not fall on students and would object to a tuition increase like at American University. I agree wholeheartedly. While I’m not going to bore you with vague hypothetical funding sources, I think it’s certainly feasible for the university to fund this initiative. Somewhere in our 1.662 billion dollar endowment or the 146 million dollar net income for FY 2017 there must be room for this project, or at least to subsidize the tuition increase for students. 

Georgetown advertises itself as “the best of both worlds – a warm and nurturing campus community in a vibrant world-class capital city,” and encourages students to ”take advantage of all campus has to offer, then venture outside our gates and find yourself in a global city.” Furthermore, the sustainability page says, “we are committed to engaging in research as well as teaching and operational practices that address this challenge and help us minimize our impact on the environment.“ However, I see a glaring renege on these promises. Until Georgetown makes public transportation free for students, it does not deserve to call itself a part of a world-class city nor a champion of environmental consciousness.