For Columbia, a model for community, student transit in Ames, Iowa

Friday, February 24, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:39 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 1, 2012
Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid shows Iowa City's GPS based real-time bus schedule on Feb. 17 while visiting Ames, Iowa. Both Ames and Columbia wish to incorporate such a real-time schedule. McDavid said funding has been approved, and that he hopes to implement the GPS technology in Columbia's transit system within the next year.

AMES, Iowa — Most Iowa State University students climb aboard a red and yellow striped bus every day. Public transportation is ingrained into their routine in a way that would be expected in New York City, not a central Iowa town of approximately 60,000 population.

Many, such as freshman Brian Llamas, have little to say about the bus system known as CyRide, except that it takes them where they want to go.

CyRide at a Glance


Riders per year: 5.8 million, 89 percent students

Budget: $8.2 million

  • Government of the Student Body: $3.5 million
  • Iowa State University: $641,000
  • State: $578,000
  • Federal: $1.5 million
  • Fares: $320,000
  • Ames: $1.4 million
  • Smaller funding sources make up the rest of the budget.

Number of buses: About 80

Number of routes: 12

Price of student fees: $62.61

Regular bus fare: $1.25

Reduced bus fare: 60 cents


Riders per year: 2.2 million, 74 percent students 

Budget: $4.8 million

  • Transportation sales tax: $1.5 million
  • Federal: $1.4 million
  • MU shuttle contract: $1 million
  • Miscellaneous: $900,000

Number of buses: 36

Number of routes: 9

Regular bus fare: $1.50

Reduced bus fare: 75 cents

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“I take the bus every morning to class,” Llamas said. “Everybody uses the buses here.”

Llamas said there are so many people trying to board in the mornings that buses run directly behind each other.

“One fills up, and up comes the next one. It keeps going,” he said.

Columbia city officials organized a trip to Ames last Friday to see CyRide firsthand. Many of them, including Mayor Bob McDavid, already believe it is an exemplar for the city bus system in Columbia.

In Ames, buses carry about 5.8 million riders, or 106 rides per capita, annually. The Columbia bus system carries 2.2 million riders annually, or 20 rides per capita.

Buses in Ames run seven days a week, until past midnight every day but Sunday during the school year. They cover campus and the majority of the city. CyRide comes frequently; wait times average 10 to 20 minutes.

In Columbia, buses stop running shortly after business hours on three of five weekdays. There is no service on Sundays, and buses typically run about 40 minutes apart.

What makes these systems so different? The answer: student fees.

Each semester, students at Iowa State University pay a $62.61 fee, which goes to CyRide and gives students a bus pass without further costs.

“There’s no way the bus system could operate and take you all over town without the collaboration between the university and the city,” Ames Mayor Ann Campbell said.

Nearly $3.5 million of CyRide’s $8.2 million budget comes from student fees. Iowa State contributes an additional $641,000, pushing the university’s total contribution to about half of CyRide’s budget.

City, university worked out differences

In the late 1970s, Ames had two fragmented bus systems: one run by the city, the other by Iowa State.   

Members of the university's Government of the Student Body studied their transportation needs and passed a referendum pledging student money to create a more unified bus system.

The students approached the city, intent on creating an independent transit board to govern a new system. But Iowa State administrators balked.

Campbell, who helped lead a citizen group that pushed for unified transit, said it was difficult to bring the two sides together.

“I can vividly remember sitting in those meetings, going to present to the university,” she said. “I walked out saying: ‘We’re never going to see this transit system in Ames.’ It was a territorial issue.

“But we were lucky with the student leadership we had at the time.”

Iowa State administrators eventually agreed to collaborate with the city, and the transit board that governs CyRide was created. It is made up of two Government of the Student Body representatives, a City Council member, the city manager, an Iowa State administrator and a mayoral appointee.

The two systems merged. The board aggregated revenue from the city, the university and student fees. It redrew routes and made a campus-centric route free to students. Passenger numbers exploded.

From 1980 to 2001, passengers by year increased by more than nine times. Students approved an additional fee in 2001 that helped make all routes in Ames free to students. Ridership has increased by an additional 79 percent in the decade since.

“It’s the best return on our dollar that we get from any club or organization that we give money to,” said Dakota Hoben, president of the Government of the Student Body.

“We hear the fewest number of complaints (from CyRide) than from anything else,” Hoben said. “CyRide makes it so students don’t need a car.”

Warren Madden, Iowa State vice president of business and finance and a transit board trustee, said the university is pleased with the long-standing collaboration.

“We concluded it’s better to have one bus system,” Madden said. “It’s economically advantageous and provides a higher level of services for both of us.”

“(It has) reduced the investment we probably would’ve had to make in more parking structures,” he said.

About 11 percent of passengers are nonstudents, and they account for about 638,000 rides per year.

Bob Anders, a personal banker at US Bank, serves on the transit board as the mayor's appointee. He takes a brown line and then a red line bus from his home north of campus to work during the week. 

"My employer pays a portion of the monthly (bus) ticket," Anders said. "I'm very fortunate."

Anders said he doesn't use the bus as much on weekends. 

"For the most part, the nonstudent residents of Ames, with the exception of the ones that work at the university and ones that are low-income and disabled, are not as tuned in to the transit system as I think they could or should be."

Anders said bus stops become more spread out as you get farther from campus and downtown. 

"In the old part of the city, the red and green (lines) run fairly close together," he said.

Up north, in a more affluent part of the community that has a lower density of homes, transit is not as prevalent, Anders said. "But if you're logical about this, you realize who's paying. The system is designed to go to locations that have high student populations."

Ames' paratransit system for people with disabilities is called Dial-A-Ride. It runs whenever city buses do. CyRide pays Story County about $155,000 annually to provide the service, and residents pay $2 per ride. Regular bus fare is $1.25.

As Columbia officials, transit advisory commission members, MU student representatives and others rode a CyRide bus through the Iowa campus, it was clear many were impressed.

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said Iowa State's campus is comparable to MU’s, making it a good model for what could be done in Columbia.

“The amount of time it takes to walk across campus is about the same,” Hoppe said. “But the students find the bus service very valuable in getting from class to class on time.”

Columbia Transportation Supervisor Drew Brooks said he realizes how important it is to share information with the student body.

In Ames, "it was a student-driven effort. It sounds like it was a grass-roots effort," Brooks said. In Columbia, "there's been miscommunication and misinformation."

Anne Ahlvers, a member of the Tiger Transit Movement, a student organization formed to educate students about public transportation, said seeing a successful transit system in person encouraged her. 

“It’s not so elusive,” she said. “It’s something I feel we can attain.”

James Hatler, also a member of the Tiger Transit Movement, said he liked the Ames setup.

“The campus seems to be the hub of the system,” he said. Columbia’s “hub is over at Wabash Station, but most of the ridership in our system is around campus and to campus.”

Falisha Humphrey, a representative of Solstice Transportation Group, the consulting firm hired by MU to assess students' transportation needs, also went on the Iowa trip. Solstice President Mitch Skyer said he hopes to deliver recommendations to MU by the end of the semester.

McDavid said he has studied Ames’ bus system for the past six months.

“The thing I hadn’t seen or appreciated was the student satisfaction with this very comprehensive service,” he said.

In an orange line bus, traveling through the heart of campus on Osborn Drive, Iowa State students touted CyRide.

Lacie Heiserman, an elementary education major, said she takes the bus every day after class to the commuter parking lot near Jack Trice Stadium, where she gets her car and drives to her afternoon student teaching position.  

Government of the Student Body treasurer Arjay Vander Velden said the late night bus "Midnight Express" is particularly successful.

Vander Velden said the bus stops in front of Campustown, an area with student bars close to Greek houses, several times late at night on Fridays and Saturdays.

"It's played into the culture of the nightlife," he said. "People get dropped off or take a bus to Campustown so they can take the bus back. They don't have to worry about taking a cab or anything."

Megan Traxel, a junior studying kinesiology, said everyone learns how to use the buses in their own way.

“Once you get past the first time where you screw up, you figure out how it works pretty quick,” she said.

Without pausing or breaking eye contact, Traxel stood up.

“This is my stop,” she said. 

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Ellis Smith February 25, 2012 | 3:49 a.m.

I have previously posted a comment (to another article) about CyRide's success versus the situation in Columbia. CyRide works well in large part because of the distance between the ISU campus and downtown Ames. It's possible to walk the distance, but few would have either the time or inclination to do so. Some use bicycles.

Here, all three college campuses are close to downtown Columbia (within "walking distance").

Also, are any or all of the three institutions of higher learning in Columbia willing to put up (along with the city) the money required to run a similar bus system to CyRide? According to what we read in this newspaper, UM System is in sorry shape for operating funds. (Lots of things are peachy keen provided you don't have to pay for them.)

The separation between downtown Ames and the ISU campus is not accidental: the campus was from day one intended to be physically separate from the city.

(Report Comment)
Jacob Kirn February 25, 2012 | 3:39 p.m.

Hi Mr. Smith. I'm the reporter for this story.

To answer your comment about downtown in relation to ISU's campus:
Students and CyRide officials said that Ames' downtown area is not particularly vibrant. Students go to bars in an area adjacent to campus called Campustown. It would appear the Cyride system is in place more to shuttle students from their dorms and off-campus apartments to class.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 25, 2012 | 7:35 p.m.

It seems we might readily agree on one thing: the physical layouts are different. That alone might require more than minor adjustments if the CyRide example is to be used here.

Also, with MU students presently complaining about the costs of tuition and fees, how will they like a hike in activity fees to help pay for the bus service, especially when quite a few of them live close enough to downtown Columbia (Harpo's, etc.) that they don't NEED a bus to get there?

PS: The area directly south of the ISU campus, which has commercial establishments plus Greek houses, is commonly referred to as "Dog Town." The east-west street that separates the two is called Lincoln Way.

(Report Comment)

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