COLUMN: This bus experiment turned out worse than I hoped

Thursday, August 26, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:53 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 26, 2010

A friend who lives downtown told me it is nearly impossible to grocery shop using Columbia Transit.

I am a big fan of public transportation. I grew up in a tiny town where the only form of public transportation were school buses and carpools. When I lived in Japan for a semester, the extensive train and bus system blew my mind. Now, people quickly tire of me expounding on the benefits of good public transit and how I dream of the day America follows through on President Barack Obama's plan for high-speed trains.

Thus, I took my friend's complaint as a challenge. I live in a college apartment complex on Old 63 South, so if I chose not to drive, it would be faster for me to walk to the grocery store than take a bus. So, I decided to leave from the friend's apartment downtown. I walked to Wabash Station, the downtown hub for buses, and caught the 103 East line to the Gerbes on Paris Road.

I found it's not impossible to grocery shop using Columbia Transit, but it's not fun or easy. Columbia expanded its routes and tweaked the bus schedule recently; the changes became effective Aug. 2. Alas, there is a long way to go until Columbia Transit could be considered an effective way, or even a top choice, to get around the city.

Here are some things I learned on my trip:

1. Plan in advance. I appreciate that the city expanded the Columbia Transit routes to reach more workplaces. But that doesn't help me if I want to go somewhere in the middle of the day because the buses run so infrequently. The line I took ran about every 40 minutes until 9:25 a.m. The next bus on that line ran at 2:45 p.m., which I took. If I had missed the 4:05 p.m. bus, I would've had to wait for the last bus of the day at 5:25 p.m to return to the station.

The city should make the weekday schedule the same as the Saturday schedule, which has a bus departing Wabash Station almost every hour for each line.

2. Bring your own schedule because few stops have one posted. I cannot fathom why there is not at least a complete schedule posted, if not one specific to that stop or that line. While waiting for a bus, a man kept asking me questions, such as when the next bus was arriving. He revealed he was riding the bus for the first time. Unfortunately, I couldn't help him much because it was also my first time. Fortunately, I printed out a schedule and map before I left, so I showed him that.

3. Pack two bottles of Gatorade, because you might end up waiting 26 minutes past the scheduled time. I know not all public transit systems run like clockwork. I can be forgiving of that, because I am chronically late. However, two women on the bus missed an appointment, and one man was late to work. Some people live at the mercy of the bus's punctuality.

Other people fry in the sun, because there is room for only a few people inside the shelter. You can't wait inside a store, because the bus might come at any second and if you miss it, the wait for the next bus will be even longer.

4. Compare the bus map to the city map, because not all the stops on the bus schedule are shown on the bus map. I exited the bus at the Gerbes Paris Road stop and popped into the store to buy some ice cream and nail clippers. That only took me 10 minutes, so I decided to catch the bus at the Brown Station Road and Lawnridge stop on its way back to Wabash Station.

Lawnridge is not shown on the map for that line. I couldn't find the stop and was unwilling to walk too far away from the bus stop in case I got lost. It appears all the other streets listed on the schedule are on the map, but not Lawnridge. For a minute, I thought maybe the schedule meant Blueridge, because it also spelled Broadway wrong, and I know errors slip into print sometimes, despite our best efforts. When I searched it on the Internet, I found Lawnridge Court is near Blue Ridge Road, but not the same. So, the map does indeed omit the location of one street with a stop. That just doesn't seem helpful to me.

5. Don't buy your ice cream until the second before the bus is supposed to arrive. I made a rookie mistake and bought a pint of ice cream and two York Peppermint Patties immediately. My heart almost began melting when I pictured the state of my treats in my backpack as I waited an hour until the next bus, stood for an extra 26 minutes at the bus stop, rode back to the station and then walked back to my friend's apartment.

It is possible to use the bus system to grocery shop. But it's not easy or practical. Most people enter the bus from Wabash Station, which feels close to residential areas downtown and around Broadway, until you are carting milk or other perishables in heat pushing 90 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

With as much effort as Columbia put into the Bike Boulevard project, some money could be directed toward creating bus-friendly streets downtown and in residential neighborhoods, so you can enter and exit the bus closer to your home. Otherwise, when do the people who rely on the bus get to buy Ben & Jerry's Karmel Sutra to stick in the freezer for a rainy day?

Bikes save the environment, promote health and exercise and take up little room. But, bikes are not air conditioned or heated, they don't carry several bags of groceries and you can't ride them with children or friends for the most part. It's wonderful Columbia is always striving to make the city even more easily accessible by bike. It would be even more wonderful if Columbia was easily accessible by bus for the people who don't have the time or can afford the lifestyle that lets people use bikes as a primary means of transportation.

Columbia Transit has gotten better. It should count its Aug. 2 changes as a victory, but keep pushing for more frequent runs, more stops downtown and more user-friendly services.

Molly Harbarger was an assistant city editor with the Missourian, and is now the projects editor at The Maneater. She wishes you the best.

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Megan Clark August 26, 2010 | 2:10 a.m.

Hi, Molly. Your column points to an additional problem with Columbia Transit I hadn't considered before: confusing directions. Your point about the lack of daytime weekday buses is based on an inaccurate understanding of the schedule. The bus schedule uses shading to represent the less-frequent Saturday schedule, and you assumed the non-shaded times were the only weekday departures. In reality, all of the departures on there represent the weekday schedule, but just the shaded ones are used on Saturdays. So, really, the weekday departures for that line are every 40 minutes until 10:05, then every 80 minutes until 2:05, after which it goes back to every 40 minutes.

I don't disagree that there are several challenges when dealing with local buses, though. I don't ride them that frequently, but the new route map certainly looks like an improvement.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez August 26, 2010 | 5:43 a.m.

They should make it every hour on the hour for consistency I agree. Thankfully I do not have to use the transit system much anymore if at all and might not have to this Winter. Yes it needs a lot of work but as with any government agency they first need to listen to exactly what their riders say and not what they only want to hear.

(Report Comment)
Ellen Thomas August 26, 2010 | 12:13 p.m.

I see Megan Clark already pointed out your confusion regarding the bus schedule. It's pretty bad in the middle of the day, but not THAT bad. But I think the important point here is how difficult it is for people not familiar with the system to read the schedule. I have been using Columbia Transit for years, and when they first published the new schedule, I thought the same thing you did. Besides that, the new routes and schedules have been in place for several weeks now, and there is still no updated map and timetable available. Surely, that should have been made available BEFORE implementing the new routes!

The new routes are big improvements, in that they supply parts of town that haven't been served. I took the new orange south yesterday, and it was being used pretty well, so obviously there was a need, but, things are even more confusing than ever--for example, the Orange south runs one direction in the morning, and the other direction in the afternoons, and as you say, there are many errors on the route maps. For example, it incorrectly describes the use of the black and white arrows to indicate direction, and seems to refer to the same transfer point by different names in different places.. or maybe they ARE different--I can't really tell. You are right that it would be helpful to have timetables at all stops, but having ANY timetables posted, as they have at the timed points, is a big new improvement!

I have to say that I have not had an experience with a bus being seriously late for many years, and the new "timed points" on the route should be helpful, as well. I do think that they are trying to improve the system, but the fact is that public transportation is expensive, and there is not much public will to make the investment in a better system. And so it becomes a downward spiral--people don't use the bus, so they don't want to support spending on an improved system, so it becomes an inadequate system, so people try it or just hear about it, and don't use the bus, and so on.

By the way, one of the great things about the bus system is the bike racks--it makes it really easy to use the bus for long or unpleasant distances, and then get quickly around at the ends of your journey. My only worry is enough people may figure out how great this is, and I won't be able to count on a spot on the bike rack!

(Report Comment)
Molly Harbarger August 26, 2010 | 2:13 p.m.

Thanks for pointing that out, Megan and Ellen! I apologize I didn't fully understand the schedule before writing about it. That certainly is a good lesson, though, on how Columbia Transit can make the bus system more user-friendly. I assumed that the shaded blocks that were labeled as Sunday only, meant they only ran on Sunday, not weekdays, not the other way around.

For everyone who read the column and didn't catch my mistake: The shaded yellow blocks on the schedule that are labeled Sunday Only mean those times run every day of the week, including Sundays, but the non-shaded times do not. I did not understand that when I rode the bus, nor when I wrote the column. I apologize, but am glad that it points out how confusing the bus schedule is.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez August 26, 2010 | 3:55 p.m.

[it would be helpful to have timetables at all stops, but having ANY timetables posted, as they have at the timed points, is a big new improvement!]

They used to have these at a lot of bus stops but people kept tearing them off the poles so why waste the money in constantly replacing them?

(Report Comment)

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