Campaign under way to attract riders — and walkers — to city buses

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:43 a.m. CST, Wednesday, March 9, 2011

COLUMBIA — Every bus rider is a pedestrian at some point, and those pedestrians are more active because of it.

The average bus rider walks 19 minutes every day, but the average North American only walks six minutes daily. The riders are burning calories as they journey to the bus stop, even if they only walk or bike short distances.

“I know that we have a fairly significant amount of riders who ride bikes,” Columbia Transit Transportation Supervisor Drew Brooks said. “We have bike racks, and we transport a lot of bikes on every bus.”

In 2008, PedNet Coalition received a $400,000 Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundationc to combat childhood obesity. Supporters of the health initiative formed a group called Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods. The group has divided into several smaller teams to examine a variety of solutions to the obesity epidemic.

Columbians for Modern, Efficient Travel went public Thursday with its campaign to expand and improve city bus service to encourage more bus riders and, consequently, get more people walking to bus stops. Expanding bus service could also help those living in lower income areas to better access fresh produce.

Before Karen Hayes of Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods moved to Columbia, she walked to the bus stop daily in whichever city she lived in —Kansas City, Detroit or Baltimore.

“It was sometimes unnerving because the apartment I was living in involved walking along a highway like 63,” she said. “There wasn’t a sidewalk for a long period of time, but I was healthier.”

Hayes didn’t buy her first car, a Ford Pinto wagon, until she was 23 because she didn’t need one.

“It’s a radical notion to get Americans healthy,” Hayes said. “It’s important not just because of longevity; it’s just important for the nation. If we’re healthier, we can help to take care of our communities and leave a lasting positive energy.”

Hayes has lived in Columbia for 25 years. She works for Burrell Behavioral Health and she helps clients looking for more independence learn to ride the bus. She still uses the bus when she can, but here she has to drive more. That time in her car cuts down on calories burned, and she readily admits she was healthier when she lived in Baltimore.

“Even if you’re fidgeting at the bus stop you’re burning calories,” she said. “It may not be as much as running, but you’re burning some, and it all adds up to a cumulative effect.”

When Hayes lived in Kansas City she lugged shopping bags to the bus stop and then all the way home. Consequently she had to be careful about how much she purchased, but the fresh produce was worth the haul.

“We’ve become this whole nation of warehouse people,” she said. “If we don’t have six boxes of cereal, we don’t feel good. Maybe that’s part of the problem.”

Michelle Windmoeller, a member of Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods’ Better Public Transportation team, came to Columbia after growing up elsewhere. Using the bus in her hometown was common, and she frequently rode the city bus to school.

It didn't occur to her that this was out of the ordinary until she moved to Columbia. However, at the Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods meetings she began to understand that most people could use help to navigate the bus system.

“If there’s one person out there who’s saying it, there's a hundred who aren’t saying it,” Windmoeller said.

Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods plans to arrange classes on how to use the bus system. The classes will be taught by frequent bus users.

“You can tell new riders because they’re trying to get on before the bus has disembarked passengers,” Hayes said.

Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods wants to expand routes in the city and make buses more frequent. The group plans to examine bus schedules and stops, and make suggestions to Columbia Transit on how the schedules can be more readable and convenient.

Columbia Transit redesigned bus schedules and timetables in August. Before the switch, the buses came at different times on Saturdays; now there’s one schedule for all six days city buses are in service.

“The one we had prior to August was terrible; I even had a lot of difficulty reading it,” Brooks said.

Now, buses make their rounds every 40 minutes. Before, if buses were off schedule, riders would wait at the bus stop for up to 60 minutes.

Most delays have been eliminated with the exception of Thursday and Friday afternoons, Brooks said. “That may just be the nature of our traffic in Columbia, but the new changes have improved our timing dramatically,” he said.

Since the switch, the number of bus riders has increased by 18 percent. Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhood’s project director, Ian Thomas, believes even more people would ride the city buses if they were more frequent.

“It wouldn’t haven’t to be perfect, but buses coming every 20 minutes would keep you from worrying about what time the next bus is coming,” Thomas said. “You know it’s going to be by within 20 minutes, and it’s going to get you to your destination.”

Even Brooks acknowledged the current schedule isn’t ideal. However, the buses themselves cost just under $400,000, and keeping them running isn't cheap either.

"Funding sources are pretty stagnant right now," Brooks said. "If we can find ways to increase that funding, then we can find ways to make those improvements."

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Louis Schneebaum March 8, 2011 | 1:34 p.m.

I wholeheartedly support this: better transit system = better community in the long run.

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