Creating a new university transit program can be a huge undertaking. Hurdles include finding potential revenue sources to get the program off the ground, figuring out what service meets the needs of students and the community, and identifying partnering opportunities.
Through collaborative and cooperative efforts, universities and cities can benefit from more revenue and mobility for the university and community.
Bob Bourne, founder of Bourne Transit Consulting, points out that when cities with a population between 50,000 and 200,000 cooperate, more money comes into that city, primarily from Small Transit Intensive Cities (STIC) grants. Some small towns with universities get ridership numbers that rival cities with populations of 200,000 to one million, even though their populations are all under 200,000, making them eligible for the funds. For example, the average number of rides per capita is roughly 16 for cities with populations between 200,000 and one million, Bourne says. Lawrence, Kan.; Missoula, Mont.; and Laramie, Wyo., run about 35 rides per capita. The university transit system provides the ridership numbers to get that money.
There’s a difference in how a city and a university operate, Bourne says. While a university has to convince thousands of students to enroll every year, he adds, a city doesn’t try and get 500 or 1,000 new residents. “If people move to a city, they accommodate them,” he says. “If no one moves there, it’s no big deal. They want to have less crime, fire, sewage, garbage. The city mentality is to reduce; the university mentality is to expand.”
However, when the two cooperate they get more money and can split it however they see fit. In addition to the benefit of more funding, increased ridership is another positive result of these collaborations, which may require improving frequency.
“It’s a spinoff benefit to non-university community members,” Bourne says. “Residents who have nothing to do with the university have buses running every 10 minutes in a city of 60,000 people. That’s pretty good.”
One common thread in successful university-city transit system collaborations is cooperation.
“It sounds awful simple, but the act of sitting down and discussing what has to be done and the benefits of it becomes more complex,” Bourne says.
Cooperating, then investing in the resources to do the work is necessary. “Staff invests a significant amount of time. There has to be a commitment,” Bourne says. “You’ve got to do some different things that the university systems on their own don’t have to do, [such as] survey riders and do National Transit Database reporting.”
Service over structure
Shifting the focus from governance structure to service helped Lawrence, Kan.-based Kansas University (KU) and Lawrence Transit System offer transit benefits to the entire community.
The city of Lawrence has a population of about 90,000 and is home to KU, with 20,000 undergraduates and a total of about 25,000 students on campus. “If you throw in faculty and staff, that’s a big portion of our community that is also part of the university,” Robert Nugent, transit administrator, Lawrence Transit System says. Of those 25,000 students, only 4,000 live in campus residences and about 2,000 are international students.
Often when a university and city or county collaborate on service, it’s done to create something like a regional transportation authority, Nugent says. However, KU and Lawrence Transit System tried a different tack. They agreed to coordinate service without creating a transit authority first, focusing on working together to provide the best possible service. In the future, they acknowledged that work may lead to a transit authority.
What initially inspired the new framework, Nugent adds, was that the community and the commission wanted one provider.
“It put us in a different situation from a lot of providers, which may have a board with part city, part university people on it to guide them,” Nugent says. “We don’t [have that]. We’ve done that through how we plan and design our services.”
The process still entails having two guiding bodies: the city transit commission and the university. They have to agree on service changes and design and do all the planning together. Major decisions on policies or route changes have to pass both Lawrence and KU boards. A city advisory board and KU’s transit board then advise the city commission and the university provost who have the ultimate decision-making authority.
“We have not needed to develop some new super board,” Danny Kaiser, assistant director, parking and transit, KU, says. “If you do that your people will worry about the representation ratio. We’ve avoided all that. We have to make decisions by consensus, which is even better.”
“We designed a service that works best for all, throwing out that ‘who’s-paying-for-it’ stuff,” Nugent explains. “We designed something that worked and then figured out who’s paying for it and how.”