Columbia officials explore Lawrence's coordinated city-KU bus system

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 | 2:47 p.m. CST; updated 2:20 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 1, 2012
Danny Kaiser, assistant director of Parking and Transit for the University of Kansas, showed Columbia residents and officials KU's transit system last week. Columbia officials have been touring different universities around the Midwest in hopes of revamping its transit system in the future.

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jayhawk Boulevard is bustling with people in the late afternoon. They grab the student newspaper, clutch their iPhones and gaze east down the long road at the heart of the University of Kansas, hoping to catch a glimpse of their bus.

Some of the buses are affixed with small Jayhawks; the others are striped in white and turquoise. Students pour into both as they pass by, making no distinction between them. 


Lawrence — city and university systems combined

Riders per year: 2.9 million

Budget: $7.2 million

  • KU on Wheels: $4.3 million
  • Lawrence Transit System: $2.9 million

Number of buses: About 80

Number of routes: 17

Regular bus fare: $1

Reduced bus fare: 50 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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Marlee Kalbach, a senior studying to be a math teacher, boarded a Route 42 Jayhawk bus. She lives near 11th and Missouri streets, a 10-minute walk from the bus stop at Snow Hall.

"Yeah, I'm lazy," Kalbach said. "I'd rather take the bus."

Adhithi Ravi, a graduate student studying computer science, climbed on a Lawrence city bus — one of the white and turquoise models — to go to her apartment about two miles south of campus. 

"I don't have a car," Ravi said. "I don't see the reason I need one. (The bus) goes all over the city."

Columbia city officials took a trip to Lawrence on Friday to learn about KU on Wheels and the Lawrence Transit System. Local officials refer to them as a "coordinated bus system." It was the second of three planned trips to Midwestern college towns with bus systems that are partially funded by student fees. Columbia officials, MU students and others visited Ames, Iowa on Feb. 17. A trip to Urbana-Champaign, Ill., home of the University of Illinois, is set for March 9.

In Lawrence, the KU and city bus systems share a command center, their routes are printed on one map and they accept each others' bus passes and fares. Combined, the two systems carry about 2.9 million riders annually. Lawrence city buses carry about 300,000 riders per year; KU on Wheels carries 2.3 million. About 300,000 rides are counted on Route 11, a jointly funded route. 

The Columbia bus system carries 2.2 million riders annually.  

Lawrence city buses run in 30-, 40- and 60-minute intervals until about 8 p.m. KU on Wheels runs until about 6 p.m., except for two campus circulators that run until 10:30 p.m. No buses run on Sundays.

Columbia city buses also run about 40 minutes apart, stop running at about 6 p.m. three days a week and do not run on Sundays. Columbia buses run until about 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.

KU on Wheels pays for eight routes, which start on campus and extend to areas of the city with high student populations. The Lawrence Transit System operates a baseline system around town, also including eight routes. The two systems share expenses on just one route, No. 11, which runs through downtown and campus.

Robert Nugent, transit administrator for the Lawrence Transit System, said the partnership between the two systems has worked out well.

"A bus is a bus is a bus," Nugent said. "(Riders will) get on any bus that comes through. That's all a part of collaboration."

After the partnership took effect in 2008, Nugent worked with Danny Kaiser, the assistant director of parking and transit at KU, to redraw nine routes to rid the city of duplicate service.

"Even if we do follow each other on the same street, we're providing the service that's needed, not excess service," Kaiser said. 

Both systems pay a private company, MV Transportation, to run their day-to-day operations, including hiring and managing drivers, dispatchers and road supervisors as well as vehicle maintenance.

Each semester, students at KU pay an $87.30 fee, which makes up two-thirds of KU on Wheels' $4.3 million budget. The rest comes from KU Parking and Transit. Each year, the KU student senate must re-authorize the fee. 

Lawrence Transit System's budget is $2.9 million. Forty-five percent of that comes from federal grants. The majority of the rest comes from a quarter-cent sales tax approved by residents in 2008. The five-member Lawrence City Commission acts as the steward of the city bus system's finances.

Most of both systems' budget goes to MV transportation, Nugent said.

It costs the two systems in Lawrence $1.99 for each bus ride they provide. In Columbia, it costs $1.86, according to information from the National Transit Database, a federal body established by Congress to compile data on public transportation systems in the United States. 

Creating the coordinated system

Lawrence established its city bus system 10 years ago. A few years after its inception, budgetary issues threatened its existence. 

"It was struggling for sure," Lawrence Mayor Aron Cromwell said. "It was a significant expense. We were at a point in which we were going to have to make changes to it or get rid of it."

The city asked voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax to keep the buses running. It passed overwhelmingly. 

"It was really surprising how the community came out in favor of transit," Nugent said. "Senior groups supported it, and KU students helped get it passed."

KU officials began planning a collaboration between KU on Wheels and the city bus system once the referendum passed.

At the same time, in 2007, students voted to increase their annual KU on Wheels fee to make all routes fare-free and to give Parking and Transit enough money to replace aging buses as needed.

Casey Briner, a senior studying anthropology, is the student senate transportation coordinator, the liaison between student government and KU on Wheels. She said the fee increase passed because students — not the administration — took the lead in the campaign.

"That's the only way you'll be received," Briner said. "Peer to peer, student to student."

Two years after student fees replaced traditional fares and prepaid bus passes, student ridership doubled to about 2 million, Kaiser said.

Passenger numbers also increased on city bus routes after the two systems began to coordinate services in 2009. City buses carried 549,186 rides in 2009. By the next year, that number increased to 670,756, according to the University Daily Kansan, a campus newspaper. 

Riding with disabilities

Richard Bach, 72, waited for a Route 10 city bus on a bench in front of Snow Hall Friday afternoon.

The retired mechanical engineer and Kansas State University alumnus had just left his speech therapy session in Haworth Hall.

Bach cannot drive because of a stroke he suffered several years ago. 

His wife, Jackie Bader, still drives, but Bach rides the bus from his house to campus on the days he has therapy.

The bus comes by his house near Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, about four miles west of campus, every hour, so it's important to know exactly when it's coming, he said.

"The only people that really ride the buses are students and poor people," Bach said.

The Lawrence Transit System and KU on Wheels each have a paratransit system for people with disabilities: T Lift and JayLift, respectively.

T Lift provides about 200 to 220 trips per day, Nugent said. JayLift provides 20 to 30 rides per day. 

Nugent said it's not surprising those numbers are high compared to communities of a similar size. 

"Forty percent of the population (in Lawrence) is above age 24," Nugent said. "It's a good place to retire."

Considering the Kansas system

As Columbia officials, MU students and other community members reflected on the trip, some thought a coordinated effort with separate city and university bus systems could work in Columbia. 

"I would say it's possible (here)," said Drew Brooks, Columbia transportation supervisor. "I was really impressed with their long-term planning. I thought it was a really interesting model."

Brooks said he didn't know if contracting day-to-day operations to a private firm would work in Columbia.

"At one time we looked at contracting out the paratransit service," Brooks said. "At that time, it was more expensive than it was to do it on our own."

MU Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator Lee Henson was the only university employee on the trip. Solstice Transportation Group, the consulting firm hired by MU to assess students' transportation needs, did not send a representative. 

Henson said he liked the coordinated systems.

"It seems like it would be simplest that way," Henson said. "That way, different funding sources wouldn't have to be commingled."

Todd Oberlin, a member of the Tiger Transit Movement, a student organization formed to educate students about public transportation, said the students' proactive attitude stood out.

"The students stepped up and said, 'We need this,' and then passed the fee," Oberlin said. "Also, there's so much to be gained from cooperation between the school and the city."

Ian Thomas, executive director of PedNet Coalition, said the Lawrence system is relevant to Columbia because it has recently transformed.

"It's interesting that neither the university nor the city is the supreme proprietor of the transit system," Thomas said. "And they're so well-coordinated that the fact that it's two separate systems is unknown to the participants in the system."

Avoiding a steep walk home

At a bus stop in front of Bailey Hall, students again awaited their ride home.

Ashli Hertzog and Andi Sehutz, both freshmen, live atop Daisy Hill, an area of campus with five residence halls that house about 2,400 students.

They said they take the buses every day because of the distance from classes and because they don't want to walk up the hill, which is just one of Lawrence's prominent, steep slopes.  

As the women boarded a bus that would soon climb Daisy Hill, a man passed by wearing a blue T-shirt bearing the cartoon image of a crosswalk figure scaling a 45-degree incline.

"HILL YES," it read. 

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Richard Saunders February 29, 2012 | 5:09 p.m.

So, both of the successful bus systems studied (Ames and Lawrence) depend upon mandatory student fees to fund them, regardless of whether a student desires (or is feasibly able) to use the service.

Looks like all the City of Columbia needs to do is to make MU students "an offer they can't refuse."

Meanwhile, these fees will be funded by the same inescapable student loan debt-enslavement scam that has made education unaffordable.

Sounds like a win-win to me! (read: I am no longer a student)


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 1, 2012 | 4:39 a.m.

Are you suggesting that Columbia would consider adopting something used in connection with University of Kansas, aka KU? Would you really throw poor old Truman the Tiger "under the bus," figuratively speaking?

This is it, Martha, it's the end of the world (at least as we've previously experienced it)!

[The muffled laughter you're hearing is emanating from the UMKC, UMSL and MS&T campuses.]

(Report Comment)
Steve Spellman March 1, 2012 | 9:26 p.m.

Making it more student-centric seems to be the main thing in common for success in like college towns. run the routes more where people actually go, and people will want to use it.

I know the City has a lot invested in Wabash Station (somewhat driven by the carrot of Federal funds, if memory serves), but that's not a good spot. move it to campus somewhere. non-students likely don't care too much, as long as near downtwon maybe, but that's ideal for students.
Like any business that doesn't want to go bankrupt, serving most of your customers' needs is usually a good thing. Interesting that since reforms, KU buses see more riders, but also more non-student riders as a result.

I'd also like to see examples of where High Schoolers use the city/university buses to get to here school. We're building all these High School parking lots so kids can park for free in cars they personally can't afford anyway, so how about change the bus service to accommodate them, and shift some school bus money into free K-12 student riding passes. Put it all on the table.

(Report Comment)

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