Overhaul of Columbia bus system aims for increased ridership

Monday, July 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:41 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Brenda Lee drives the 104W bus route Thursday. She recorded every passenger, the time, and the type of fare used on a tally sheet. The tally sheets will be used to determine what additional routes and times the bus should run. The city hopes to make changes to the system by fall 2014.

COLUMBIA — With ridership down across the board on Columbia Transit's 11 regular bus lines, the city is starting to shake things up.

In a May 22 Columbia City Council work session, Columbia Transit proposed a massive overhaul of the bus route system branded as CoMo Connect. The main objectives are to adjust hours of operation, expand route coverage, decrease wait times and create more efficiently networked routes, according to the presentation.

Changes proposed with CoMo Connect

  • Adjusting hours of operation to 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday.
  • Expanding route coverage over nine proposed routes.
  • 35 connection points throughout the city, as opposed to only one at Wabash Station downtown.
  • More efficiently run routes and shorter wait times between buses.
  • GPS in all buses that allow real time tracking of the buses from a smart phone app.

If the city is awarded a $12 million TIGER Grant, the next level could include:

  • State of the art shelters with signs showing when the next bus is expected to arrive and better lighting at night.
  • New buses fueled by compressed natural gas.
  • Increased bike racks and capabilities to carry bikes on the bus.

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The changes are designed to increase ridership, which decreased by 8.8 percent from 2011 to 2012 and continues to drop. According to ridership numbers obtained from Steven Sapp of Columbia Public Works, ridership has gone down on every route except the ParaTransit line this fiscal year to date for an overall decline of 20 percent.

Drew Brooks, transportation administrator for Columbia Transit, said measures being taken to address ridership trends include hiring a new marketing specialist and trying to attract new riders. He said no one factor led to the drop, pointing to raising fares and stabilizing gas prices as major reasons.

"We know what we've done is not working," he said. "Ridership was up 13 percent in 2010 but it has eroded over time. It was way up when gas prices were up, but now that people have gotten used to gas being about the same price, people have worked affordable driving into their budget."

The most noticeable drop has been on the Black and Gold routes, which run from the MU campus to various off-campus student housing such as Campus View, Gateway and Grindstone Canyon. Through June of the 2012 fiscal year, Columbia Transit counted 474,138 riders. During the same time frame in the 2013 fiscal year, there were 295,674 riders — a decrease of 38 percent.

Big changes for riders

In all, nine routes are proposed, not including a downtown orbiter route still under discussion. The routes will have 35 connection points throughout the city, as opposed to single connection point at Wabash Station downtown.

Brooks said that they are using data gathered by new GPS technology as well as input from bus drivers, to work out the best locations for routes and stops. He said the routes would be locked into place no later than the end of February.

"We're getting feedback from the public and staff to make sure we're making the right decisions," Brooks said. "Since there's no more central location on the routes, we have drivers out on the routes now figuring out where they can make shift changes or breaks."

When the new system goes into effect, it is anticipated that the wider coverage and shorter wait times will lead to more people riding the bus on a regular basis. Brooks said most of the changes being put into place are in response to frequent complaints from riders.

Some of these problems include no service to Lake of the Woods and Scott Boulevard, which would be remedied by two routes: one would run along Scott Boulevard and another along Clark Lane near Lake of the Woods.

Another frequent complaint was that buses don't run late enough, don't start early enough and don't run at all on Sundays. Expanding hours on all routes to 8 p.m. and later on Saturday was part of the proposal.

One of the biggest changes, Brooks said, is reducing wait times from 40 to 80 minutes to 15-30 minutes.

"People don't realize how significant shorter wait times really is,'" Brooks said. "People just get used to it and think that's the way it is. If it takes 40 minutes for a bus to come, then they'll wait 40 minutes. It'll be a game changer and our secret weapon."

While the routes aren't necessarily shorter, they are designed to be more efficient. The two core connector routes, running north-south and east-west through the downtown areas, will have four buses running on 15 minute intervals during peak hours (6:25 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m.) and two buses at 30 minute intervals during off-peak hours.

The seven other neighborhood routes will have one bus running on 30 minute intervals.

Brooks said having buses running in both directions will dramatically decrease travel times because it won't be necessary to ride the entire route to reach a destination.

"On a hot day, you can't ride the bus to the grocery store and get ice cream unless you bring a cooler with you," Brooks said. "It would melt before you got home because the wait and travel time is too long."

There has been pressure on Columbia Transit to make changes to its bus system for some time now, most of which has come from Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit. Many of the things the coalition brought to attention ended up in the city proposal, said Matt Kriete, co-chair of the transit group. This included reducing wait times and moving away from Wabash Station as a central transfer location.

Kriete called the city plan a step in the right direction, staying within budget while expanding route coverage. He said that his organization's work to bring public attention to the bus system informed the city's plan.

"It's inconvenient now to have 40 minute wait times, you have to plan your whole day around the bus rather than just being able to walk up and wait," he said. "CoMo Connect would be a much more user friendly and convenient system. Transit staff did a great job working toward what the public was looking for."

New technology

While the routes won't be changed until next August, the first phase of the project has been set in motion.

As part of its planned overhaul, Columbia Transit has begun installing technology in its buses to assist commuters and administrators as they evaluate routes.

Last week, Columbia Transit installed GPS devices that will allow users to know a vehicle's real-time location through a web and mobile app. Brooks said the cost was $162,682.

The device on the bus transmits the data, which displays the bus' location. The programming uses an algorithm that can provide users with an estimated arrival time based on its location and history.

"It's going to be raining data that we can use that will not only help our customers but help our management help our customers," said Sapp, from Columbia Public Works.

Sapp estimated that a bus transmits its location almost every second, allowing viewers to see the vehicle on a live map as it moves along its route from stop to stop.

"The trackers actually move in real time, it's not just refreshing every five seconds," he said. "It's like watching a bunch of spiders crawling across the screen."

Sapp said the GPS technology could eventually be installed in other public works vehicles, including garbage trucks and snow plows.

Sapp said the app will be available on both iPhone and Android phones.

The second phase of the technology installation, which Columbia Transit hopes to have approved by the City Council in August, is the addition of passenger counters and audio that announces stops. This phase will cost $682,244, Brooks said.

After the counters are installed on the buses, Brooks said they will be used to evaluate current routes. If a particular stop shows little or no traffic, it might be removed.

Funding the project

Columbia Transit emphasized it would be staying within its means to fund the changes, but additional funding could come from two other sources.

The first is a proposed $10 increase for parking passes in city garages downtown and lots that would go directly to Columbia Transit. This would generate an estimated $292,000 in increased revenue, according to the presentation, which would additionally be matched by the Federal Transit Administration.

People purchasing these more expensive parking passes would receive a "Park & Ride" bus pass which would work for unlimited rides on all routes as long as they continue paying for the space.

Brooks said the ordinance was expected to go before the City Council in September and, if approved, would take effect in October.

Columbia Transit also has applied for a TIGER grant, a yearly fund set up by the U.S. Department of Transportation that will give out about $473 million this year. Columbia has applied for a grant of more than $12 million, which would go to new bus shelters, bike share stations at bus stops, new buses fueled by compressed natural gas and natural gas fueling stations along with electric vehicle charging stations.

Barbara Buffaloe, city sustainability manager, said CoMo Connect would still be implemented if the TIGER Grant was not awarded, but the money would help take the project to the next level.

The high-tech shelters would feature signs showing when the next bus is expected to arrive along with updates in real time, as well as better lighting powered by solar panels.

"CoMo Connect is a complete redesign of the system that shows that we're serious about changing how we handle transportation with the community," Buffaloe said. "We want to make it so you want to ride the bus, not that you have to."

Arthur Cook-Bremer contributed to this report.

Supervising is John Schneller.

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