University Transit Turns to Technology, Partnerships to Cope with Demand

Posted on November 16, 2011 by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor - Also by this author

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Gainesville (Fla.) RTS has provided bus service for the University of Florida since 1996. Students pay $7.88 per credit hour to ride the buses fare-free. The university has been instrumental in helping the transit agency upgrade its buses and operations.
Gainesville (Fla.) RTS has provided bus service for the University of Florida since 1996. Students pay $7.88 per credit hour to ride the buses fare-free.  The university has been instrumental in helping the transit agency upgrade its buses and operations.
To accommodate increasing ridership and tightening budgets, university transit systems run by both private and public operators are adding more onboard technologies to increase efficiency and seeking support to expand or maintain services via public-private partnerships. Some public operators have also been able to maintain services by expanding bus pass deals to small businesses.

Still, with nearly every state making cuts to higher education and more students enrolling in colleges and universities in over a decade, - including older students returning to school to increase their job prospects - public transportation resources are being spread thinner year by year.

Budget cuts, rising enrollment
This year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report that concluded that state tax revenue is still declining and budget reserves are mostly depleted, causing at least 43 states to make spending cuts to higher education. However, many universities and colleges are facing significantly higher enrollment numbers and have had no choice but to raise fees. In particular, the report states, "Florida's 11 public universities raised tuition by 15% for the 2010-11 academic year. This tuition hike combined with a similar increase in 2009-10, results in a total two-year increase of 32%."

Additionally, while enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions went up by 9% between 1989 and 1999, enrollment spiked 38%, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million, between 1999 and 2009, according to a recent National Center for Education Statistics report.

Transit industry consultant Bob Bourne, founder of Bourne Transit Consulting, has seen firsthand how state budgets are impacting university and college transit systems.

"The states are hammering the universities in general, and that's been going on for well over 10 years all over the country," he says.

Dovetailing with that are the state cuts to transit systems. Bourne points to Wisconsin as a prime example.

"The [states are] reducing the percentage they pay of the cost. Local transit authorities have to find a way to make that up and some are making it up with service cuts," he says. This can be especially dangerous because, for a system that has a high university ridership, reducing service will be ineffective, he explains. He has also seen increased student enrollment at universities nationwide.

"[The systems] have to have a better-than-30-minute interval. The burden's on the local transit system to re-work their agreement with the university to try to replace some of those lost city funds so they can maintain their service level," says Bourne.

Conversely, Bourne says, some university bus systems are struggling because they under-utilize free ride systems, and consequently, the students are not hopping aboard. Students tend to avoid using buses with a frequency of 30 minutes or longer, or are not well-coordinated with class start and end times.

Fast, frequent, free
As Bourne sees it, university transit systems that run "fast, frequent and free" — systems with relatively straight routes with frequencies of five to 20 minutes that students board for free and pay for through tuition fees — are the ones that will continue to be successful and gain financial support. Champaign-Urbana (Ill.) Mass Transit District (MTD), in particular, has had success using this model to serve the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he says. Between the school's three available routes, buses run every five minutes. Since the frequency was increased in 1989, from every 30 minutes, ridership has been rising steadily. The students pay a $50 fee per semester for unlimited, fare-free service, Bill Volk, MTD's managing director says.

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