A message from your local Annie:
Other than serving as an alternative to walking home, I see the program as indicative of #1 our attitude about cars and public transit in St. Louis, and #2 the culture of fear, this time specifically regarding (largely but not completely) upper-class undergrads and fear of the communities they live in.
#1–The idea that a 10-passenger van is something you need to come pick you up from campus and carry you home late at night reinforces the idea that the only safe way to get around is a car. That ideally, we would all be able to drive ourselves to class and back home every day. It also feeds the idea that all students wish they had a car to drive; no one would have chosen to take the bus to and from campus. If a student were walking and taking the bus in order to consume fewer resources in a daily commute, riding home in a 10 passenger van negates any fuel conserved initially by walking. I very much doubt these 10 passenger vans will fill up very often, wouldn’t it make more environmental sense to at least use smaller cars?
The shuttle is especially a blow to public transit when you compare the areas the “safe ride home” covers with the existing bus routes. Here’s a rough map with the safe ride home neighborhoods in blue with various bus routes on it:
You can see that all three areas the ride service serves are well served by bus routes. So, Washington University is providing a van shuttle to take students to the very same places that already have excellent bus access. Having traversed almost all of those blue squares on foot before, I’d say that there isn’t a place that’s more than a ten minute walk from the bus lines within the blue areas. The public transit in St. Louis stops running around midnight or one every night, so the shuttle would be the only option after that. That’s very convenient for students, but why wouldn’t the school push to have the buses run later? Instead they’ve just started their own shuttles? I won’t even bring up the students that live out of the “safe ride home” zones, let’s assume this would be a sort of pilot for a more inclusive program.
Setting up a “Safe ride home” shuttle service that overlaps existing bus lines also implies that taking the bus is not safe! Which brings me back to point number 2…
#2–What’s unsafe about the taking the bus or about walking home? By offering this service, Washington University is not only providing it’s students with a lazy alternative to taking public transit, but is also sending the message to its students that it’s dangerous for them to walk around in their own neighborhoods. You could argue that it’s not exactly safe to walk through these areas alone at 2am, yes, but what about 7pm when the service starts? I would hope that a walk home at 7pm would give you a chance to at least smile at a neighbor, not a very worrisome event. Being aware of your surroundings is an extremely important safety strategy, but I’d argue that walking through your neighborhood is a good way to become aware of it, especially in these areas where you’re likely not to be shot.
I understand that someone thinks this is a good idea, and I do think there should be some sort of emergency ride home possibility, but the “safe ride home” just for the sake of going home in a car doesn’t solve anything. Instead of promoting communication with neighbors, working to make the neighborhoods into places students can trust, (because all crime doesn’t happen on the bus itself) the university has found one more method of further isolating students from the St. Louis neighborhoods they live in.