UT Profile: Students take the reins for U. of Montana transit system

Posted on August 20, 2012

Initiated in 1999, the Associated Students of the University of Montana Office of Transportation (ASUM) began a unique transportation service for its students, staff, faculty and community.

“There was a recommendation from a campus and community wide transportation committee that we needed an office to promote transportation options,” explained Nancy Wilson, director of ASUM. “At the time, the university said they had no funding to do that, so the students imposed a $4 student fee on themselves and started ASUM Transportation to promote those transportation options.”

The creation of ASUM resulted in a small van service that eventually grew to a nine transit bus operation, which grew from serving 3,600 passengers in its first year to 445,000 in 2011.

So what’s so unique about ASUM’s program? It’s all student run.

“We have all student drivers, which is a great thing to do,” explained Wilson. “We have a top-notch, nationally-certified training program, and many of our students end up using their commercial licenses to pay for their education.”

ASUM’s board is also composed of all students who oversee an annual budget of $1 million.

“It really gets a lot of young people invested in the transit industry and the transportation options industry, and many of the students on that board end up going out into community planning jobs, transit agency jobs and higher degrees in the transportation sector,” said Wilson, who in her capacity, carries out what the students want, educates the ever-changing board, and attends community and university planning meetings.

One slight drawback of the program, said Wilson, is that, because the board is comprised of about 12 to 15 students, ranging from freshman to graduate program students each year, there is an obviously high turnover rate and learning curve.

“It takes the board about three months every year to get their feet under them, because transportation funding is complicated and the politics of transportation is complicated,” explained Wilson. “We try to get students that will be on the board more than a year, so we have some continuity.”

One of the positives to having a board that changes nearly every year, said Wilson, is that it allows ideas to sometimes be used and reassessed several times.

“We don’t get stuck in that place that a lot of transit agencies get into, where they say ‘we’ve tried that and it didn’t work,’” she said. “When you have a young board, and you say that, they usually will say, ‘let’s try again.’"

One example of that mentality is how the system began, when service was tried from a park & ride for the third time and accomplished success. ASUM now provides service from two park & rides south and two park & rides east of the university, as well as two shuttles between the Missoula College, formerly College of Technology, and main campus.

Like many universities today, ASUM also runs a successful late-night shuttle service, dubbed UDash, six nights a week. When UDash service hours were recently extended from midnight to 2:30 a.m. on Thursdays, ridership increased 133%, with Friday and Saturday night usage also increasing 58% in 2011, compared to the previous year.  

Additionally, ASUM runs two successful bicycling programs that help their students get around its approximate one square mile campus. The Cruiser Co-Op program allows students to check out a bicycle for a two-day period free of charge with a valid school identification, while a semester bicycle program enables students to rent a bicycle, helmet, light and lock for an entire semester for only $35.

“The semester program is really nice for our international students,” said Wilson. “Currently, we have 35 bicycles available for that program and 50 for our Cruiser program, and would like to increase both of those numbers soon.”

Currently, ASUM has no plans expand services but is working with its local transit system, the Missoula Urban Transportation District, to grow their services in the community.

“We would like to see community-wide transit service every 15 minutes, until at least 11 p.m.,” Wilson explained. “So, we’d really like to work first with them to expand, and then, for us to expand as needed.”










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