Bringing big-city transit to college-town America

Friday, June 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Having lived in Los Angeles, a city known as much for its traffic congestion as for its movie stars, what I love about Columbia is driving with such ease — at least until my car broke down and I had to rely on public transit.

Stranded two weekends ago, I opted for the bus, only to learn buses don’t run on Sundays and don't go anywhere near the airport or KOMU-TV, where I volunteer as a production assistant.     

Undeterred, I picked up a bus schedule the following week and called ahead to make sure I had the right times. The nearest stop is a quarter-mile from my doorstep. I was told it would arrive by 1:10 p.m. By 1:30 p.m., it still hadn’t come.

Thanks to a word-of-mouth tip, I caught a different bus line two blocks down the street that took me to Wabash Station. I was then advised to hop aboard the university shuttle that runs through MU, where I was headed, which was nice except that the bus first looped around by heading a mile back in the same direction I had come.     

When I finally exited, my travel time had been almost an hour. Time it takes to drive the same distance: fewer than 10 minutes.

Waiting for a bus in mid-Missouri heat with no bench or overhead shade wouldn’t be so bad, mind you, if the buses ran every 10 to 20 minutes. Instead it’s more like every 40to 60. By the time I climbed aboard and deposited four quarters for bus fare, my T-shirt was drenched.

I engaged several City Council members on the issue, and their hearts seemed to be in the right place. Karl Skala spoke of “transit-oriented” development that builds on existing infrastructure rather than expanding to outlying areas. Jerry Wade lamented the dilemma of investing money in transit at the expense of road improvements or park and recreational services.

But give city officials their due for opening Wabash Station last fall and for offering Transit Thursday, during which free bus rides were provided, earlier this spring. Federal stimulus dollars are poised to replace five buses in need of repair, and plans are in the works for a transit advisory board that would act as a liaison between council and community. The 10-year Transit Master Plan, posted on the city’s Web site, bodes well if it can be achieved. Columbia is a cozy college town, not an urban metropolis, and I don’t expect miracles overnight.

At least two council members, Barbara Hoppe and Paul Sturtz, have voiced the idea of asking riders, especially MU students, to chip in a modest annual fee in exchange for eliminating bus fares. Campus officials I spoke with say it’s doubtful that university policy would ever require students to pay for bus routes that don’t go through MU, but the fees could be arranged through other means.  

Personally, I’m all for it. Most MU students are barely aware that public transit exists. When I told a friend I had ridden the bus to campus, his response spoke volumes: “Why?” But if students didn’t have to reach in their pockets for change and small bills every ride, perhaps more of them would give it a shot. 

GetAbout Columbia is promoting non-motorized transportation — as in bicycles — but where I live, off Clark Lane between Paris Road and U.S. 63, too many sidewalks are cracked or nonexistent, forcing me to contend with ornery truck drivers and cell phone-yapping commuters. The fact that half of the city’s roads seem to be under construction lately doesn’t help.

With all the brainpower in this community, there’s no reason not to have an efficient public transit system with compact-size buses that keep Columbia’s small-town charm intact, rather than the oversize blue beasts that are often half-empty as they make their occasional rounds. Stopping service before 6:30 p.m. is no help either. At 6:30 p.m., or even 9:30 p.m., my night is just beginning.    

Many towns will never make transit work because strip malls and suburban sprawl have reduced their downtowns to abandoned storefronts and absent nightlife. Not so in Columbia. Broadway is booming as growth pushes the city’s population past the 100,000 mark. All we need are more riders and more frequent routes to more places.

If you don’t think public transit is a serious issue, for Columbia or the nation as a whole, wait until gas prices soar back to the $3- to $4-a-gallon range. Or wait until you have to fork over your wages for auto repairs, especially with the economy in the toilet. Then we’ll see if it’s an issue.

There are many good things I can say about Columbia’s buses. Drivers are exceedingly kind. I strike up conversations with people I would never meet otherwise, and I avoid the headache of MU’s six-story parking garages. A buck a ride is reasonable.

But I feel for those who rely on buses. And for transit-inclined students such as me, until bus service improves, hopping a ride is a last resort.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU.

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