Sept. 13, 9 p.m. – 2:30 a.m – Saturday night is still young and a tightly-knit pack of students stumbles into the street, a few of them waving to the van they’ve cut off. The van driver, Anthony Smith, shakes his head a little and smiles.
“I used to look and wonder. Now I just look,” says Smith, who has spent the last two years watching campus nightlife unfold from behind the wheel of a 4-RIDE van.
Smith, 38, is a watch and jewelry repairman by day who spends a few nights a week driving around campus, picking up tired and stranded students.
It’s not raining and the weather’s still warm, so the traffic is light – only 37 students over the course of five hours – most of them female, most of them leaving from Thurston or the Aston, most of them on their way to or from a party, though none of them is visibly intoxicated.
This doesn’t surprise Smith.
“(4-RIDE is) like the eyes and ears of (University Police). People know that if they call us and they can’t stand, we’ll report them.” Smith adds that students tend to take 4-RIDE on their way to parties but opt to pay for a taxi ride home.
A group of seven students waits for Smith on F Street. Realizing that they won’t all fit in the van, three of the students offer to wait for a second van they see coming down the street. But one of the students, Jamie Martin, isn’t satisfied with that solution.
“Couldn’t someone sit on the floor? What about on someone’s lap? Please? Please? Please?” she asks, half serious. Smith shakes his head and apologizes in a quiet but firm voice, and after a while Martin relents and the group splits in half for the trip to M Street.
Smith says that pleading, berating and rudeness are par for the course, and that being a driver is like any other customer service-centered job.
“We just air out, sit back, let them hit us with it … You just bite your lip and keep smiling,” says Smith on his method for handling upset students.
Yet he says dealing with students is also his favorite part of the job. Two male students hitching a ride with Smith give a brief history of their homeland, the island of St. Martin, much to Smith’s delight.
“That’s what makes this job great,” Smith says. “You always meet people from all over … (In conversations) I can always say, ‘No, I’ve never been there, but I know somebody who lives there and did you know …?’ After a while, I start sounding like a world traveler.”
Most students say they take 4-RIDE to avoid the long walk across campus rather than for safety reasons.
“It’s far and dark, and I don’t want to walk,” said sophomore Jessie Pierre. “It’s just a lazy thing, it’s not a scary campus.”
Smith says that traffic varies depending on the season and the weather, with rain bringing more riders than any other factor. On warm, pleasant nights, drivers often spend large parts of the night circling around campus without assignments, looking for students to pick up. Smith says that many students opt to not call the dispatch center and instead wait in the street for a 4-RIDE van to drive by.
Some students feel that waiting in the street for a van is more convenient than calling for one. While driving down E Street, Smith pulls over to pick up a student who has become fed up with waiting to talk to a dispatcher.
“I was on hold on both my cell and the hall phone for 15 minutes. It’s just easier this way,” said Scott, a junior on his way to the Aston.
The van drivers receive their calls over a walkie-talkie network from a central dispatcher at UPD headquarters. Drivers take turns acting as dispatcher, a role that Smith says some drivers are more comfortable in than others.
As the night wears on it becomes apparent that not every driver is equally skilled at the temporary post. The dispatcher calls for other drivers to make stops around campus, sounding stops around campus, sounding increasingly panicked and irritable. Smith sometimes drives around campus for 20 minutes without a single call, despite frequently radioing the base to remind the dispatcher that he is available to make pickups and has been for some time.
“You gotta have a good coordinator. Sometimes, though, they just forget that we’re out here,” he says.
During a ride to the Mt. Vernon Shuttle stop, freshman Alison DeVenny says she wishes 4-RIDE could take students directly to Mt. Vernon instead of making them wait 40 minutes for the late-night shuttle. Smith says this is a common complaint, but one unlikely to be satisfied because it would detract from service in Foggy Bottom.
“You take drivers up to Mt. Vernon, that’s fewer vans available for pickups on the main campus, especially since (going to Mt. Vernon) is such a long drive,” Smith says, adding that students often ask about expanding 4-RIDE coverage to include parts of Georgetown and Dupont Circle, but doing so would create similar problems.
The vans roughly cover the area bordered by the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and 26th Street to the west, M Street to the north, 18th Street to the east, and E Street to the south. Shuttle service run from 7p.m. to 6 a.m. seven nights a week.
“When I first started, I didn’t think anybody’d still be riding them. But a lot students do, that’s the surprising thing,” Smith says. “You guys impress me.”