Despite revamp, Columbia buses still face tepid student interest

Tiger Line shuttle service picks up students and university staff from parking lots and off-campus housing. Tatiana Darie/Missouri Business Alert
The Tiger Line shuttle service picks up students and university staff from parking lots and off-campus housing. | Tatiana Darie/Missouri Business Alert

Columbia bus driver Ms. Brown, as she is best known to her riders, greets customers with a smile every day. She aims to be more than a driver to them, also serving as a counselor and friend.

Brown said though riders appreciate the new extended bus service in town, they still have one big concern.

“The main thing is that the buses are late,” said Brown, who did not give her first name. “And sometimes we can’t help it because of traffic, road construction, it could be bad weather, it could be an accident. We don’t have a button to push that says, ‘Wings, fly over traffic.’”

Public transit remains a challenge for Columbia, a city of about 115,000 residents. The city’s transportation system is hampered by long wait times and limited evening and weekend service.

CoMo Connect, Columbia’s new transportation system launched in August, runs 11 individual routes across town, all operating until 8 p.m. There is no service on Sundays or during city holidays. All the buses are equipped with GPS technology and can be tracked in real-time through a smartphone app.

After CoMo Connect’s launch, ridership jumped about 11 percent, according to the Columbia Public Works Department. But it is still unclear what led to the increase and whether people are satisfied with the new system.

Chris Shad, 23, is a law student at the University of Missouri who lives a 45-minute walk from campus. Sometimes he catches the bus, but sometimes he just walks.

“The only real (problem) I have is that Thursday and Friday routes used to run a little bit later, so I could stay at school later those days, Shad said. “But now all the routes all end at the same time, so it’s kind of rough in that perspective.”

The new bus system replaced the old “hub-and-spoke” system, in which bus routes started and finished at a central station downtown. The new network of routes link up through transfer points throughout the city.

Ashley Lauer, who does not own a car and frequently rides the bus to work, said she doesn’t like when the bus doesn’t show up because it can get slightly uncomfortable to wait out in the cold.

“You can track it if you have a smartphone, but otherwise you don’t really have a way to know where the bus is, or if it’s coming or anything like that,” Lauer said. “But I think ever since they did the new routes and added more buses, I think it’s been better for everybody.”

Not an efficient, modern system

CoMo Connect | Tatiana Darie/Missouri Business Alert
CoMo Connect driver “Ms. Brown” says on-time arrivals remain a challenge for the city’s transit system. | Tatiana Darie/Missouri Business Alert

New routes and more buses aren’t enough to make the system modern and efficient, said Rachel Ruhlen, a member of the Public Transit Advisory Commission, which advises city staff and the city council on public transit matters.

“What makes our public system not viable at the moment is the fact that we don’t have evening hours, Sunday hours (or) enough frequencies,” Ruhlen said. “If you miss a bus or a bus misses you and that was the last bus for the day, you are stranded.”

One of the remaining concerns regarding public transit is the lack of funding to extend hours and increase bus frequency. Without that expansion, the bus system looks less appealing to MU students, according to Jackson Hambrick, the president of Sustain Mizzou, a nonprofit run by students to promote a sustainable lifestyle on campus.

Here, Hambrick said, students prefer driving because it’s more convenient. Accordingly, MU has put more resources into building parking spaces than it has into improving the bus service.

Mike Sokoff, the director of MU Parking and Transportation, said the university had to build more parking structures on campus to meet increased demand.

“When you start thinking about the amount of growth the university has seen over the years, increased enrollment, expansion of the staff, then look at the geography at MU, the only option is to go up,” Sokoff said.

MU has 24,000 parking spaces on campus, spanning seven garages and at least 63 parking lots. The university partnered with the city to create the Tiger Line, a shuttle service that picks up students and staff from parking lots and off-campus residences. The buses run every day in intervals of 10 to 20 minutes but operate during the fall and spring semesters only.

Students at MU pay a transportation fee of $23.85 per semester. Of that, about $17 goes toward the Tiger Line and about $7 goes to bond repayments for one of the parking structures on campus, Sokoff said.

Drew Brooks, Columbia’s multi-modal manager, said public transit could be improved if students got more involved, since they make up 70 percent of the ridership. An analysis by students at Columbia’s Stephens College that looked at other Midwestern towns similar to Columbia found that public bus systems in Ames, Iowa and Lawrence, Kan., get more than 40 percent of their funding from their cities’ major universities. In Champaign-Urbana, Ill., the bus line gets most of its funding from the state.

Transit System Comparison: Funding Models | Tatiana Darie/Missouri Business Alert
Tatiana Darie/Missouri Business Alert

In Ames and Lawrence, student initiatives led to more robust public transportation, according to Brooks. But this is not the case in Columbia, he said.

“It doesn’t seem, from our perspective, that students are terribly engaged,” Brooks said. “That might be a problem with this particular campus, that has ample parking.”

Sustain Mizzou’s Hambrick said students are not yet demanding a better public transit because driving seems to be ingrained in the campus community. However, he said there are signs that could change.

“Hopefully, through education and awareness of the new system, more students will ride,” Hambrick said.

No financial incentive

Both Ruhlen and Brooks said they believe MU does not have a financial incentive to do more to improve the city’s public transportation because of its sizable investment in parking garages throughout the years.

According to a document obtained by Missouri Business Alert, MU Parking & Transportation spent $3.7 million of its $9 million budget last year repaying bonds issued for building parking structures. The university estimates to make bond repayments for the next 10 years at least, Sokoff said.

Tatiana Darie/Missouri Business Alert
Tatiana Darie/Missouri Business Alert

However, students are directly contributing to retire the debt of a single parking structure on campus, the Hitt Street Garage. From the $1,422,381 raised from student transportation fees last year, around $1 million, or 71 percent, went to finance the Tiger Line. Around $417,000, or 29 percent, was dedicated to a bond repayment. The other debt payment obligations are financed from the department’s operational budget, which does not include student fees.

Sokoff said the university and the city have a good working relationship, but MU cannot do more to help due to lack of demand.

“There is always someone who wants more, but the question is how much more are you willing to pay for that? It’s not free,” Sokoff said, citing a 2012 survey, where a majority of respondents said they would not use bus routes to go the entertainment and shopping district of the city.

Yet the same study showed that, while students seemed to be satisfied with the current service, 75 percent said they were willing to pay an additional fee for better transportation. The results refer to the Tiger Line shuttle, which is a service for students and university staff.

A different report submitted to the city of Columbia in September shows 60 percent of the residents surveyed are supportive 0f increasing the amount the city spends to improve public transit over the next couple of years, even though just under a quarter have taken the bus.

A cultural shift

Some city council members are now working on an initiative for the 2016 ballot that would raise funds to improve public transportation. City council member Ian Thomas said change is inevitable and the city needs to work with the university to build a more robust transportation system.

“People in Columbia are used to cars. Everybody supported the car culture, but the new millennial generation are not buying cars, not driving — they prefer walkable places,” Thomas said. “We don’t want to build more parking spaces downtown, but we need to make (Columbia) more vibrant.”

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