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.” [PAGEBREAK]
The group’s first and most important task was to create a joint transit guide. “That is the core of what we did when we started,” Nugent says.
“We had to discuss things together, like, what’s our lost and found policy? How do we do service alerts? How are we going to put fares together? We started thinking together, not just providing service together.”
The university also changed their contractor to the city’s (SMV Transportation), so that their contract time frames would coincide and they would have a common contractor to help with coordination.
Bourne, who consulted with the city and KU, recommended a shared route. Route 11 combined two city and two university routes that were in the same corridor. The new route runs more often and more days per year. It features the strengths of the city — running service six days a week — and that of the university — capacity.
“We had to double the number of vehicles on Route 11 because the ridership overwhelmed us,” Nugent recalls. “Prior to coordinating, we had two different buses. Students didn’t know that they could ride the city service and people in the community didn’t know they could ride the university service. [Now], no matter whether the university’s in session or not, people can get where they need to go.”
KU and Lawrence also combined more service to provide 16 routes, six days a week, 14 hours a day, all year.
University students can ride for free if they show their ID, except for students being picked up on campus; they don’t need to show their ID. Students pre-pay a fee for transit services as part of their tuition, which brings in about $3.3 million a year. That funds a significant portion of KU’s service, and about $1.5 million per year comes from parking revenues. The city receives about $1.5 million in federal 5307 and about $2 million in local funds.
Since the city had carrying capacity that was going unused, KU putting more people on Lawrence buses without fare wasn’t costing them anything. KU simply collects fares from non-university riders and gives them to the city.
The biggest benefit to the community, Nugent says, is a system that’s easy to use and open to anyone. “If people in our community see a bus now, they get on it. They don’t care if it’s a city or a university bus. They generally know where the route’s going.”
The route has also allowed Lawrence and KU to be more efficient.
“We haven’t reduced service hours,” Kaiser says. “It’s allowed us to do more with the same amount. We’ve improved the service so much that it nets us hours that we can put elsewhere.”
Kaiser stresses that the collaboration’s success depended on focusing on the service, not the organizational structure.
“That may have been one of the most important realizations we came to. Don’t worry about who’s paying for what, whose board is making the decision,” he adds. “It will evolve into what it needs to be. Boards need to make decisions and approve things, but that can’t be what drives the system. The system has to be driven by the service needs.”
KU and the City of Lawrence also created a new transit facility together. “We were sharing a space that, working together, was too small to meet our needs,” Kaiser explains.
The university built the facility and leased the space to the city. The center houses the administrative offices of MV Transportation staff; training, break and dispatch rooms; and maintenance space that can easily accommodate six transit buses. It includes a fueling station for diesel and gasoline.
“We’re able to allocate the costs that need to be shared and keep track of everything else [more efficiently],” Kaiser says.
Lawrence and KU are starting their second coordinated route this fall. The university will fund two new buses and the city will pay for one.
Team to cut costs
The city of Missoula, Mont. also shares a common route with the local university, allowing people to get on the first bus that shows up. In addition, the system initiates students into careers in transit.
Despite running several shuttles, two bus routes and late night service, and providing 444,994 rides in 2011, the University of Montana (UM) is able to offer a transit system “on the inexpensive side,” as Nancy Wilson, director, Associated Students of the University of Montana Office of Transportation University Center, puts it, with help from an eight-member student board guiding its million-dollar budget and an alliance with Mountain Line, the City of Missoula’s transit system.
While most university transit systems are run by the university’s parking offices, UM’s transit system is run by the Associated Students of Montana (ASUM). It is completely run on a student fee, and owned and operated by the student government.
ASUM started running a Park-N-Ride when Mountain Line couldn’t dedicate specific region-wide funds to support university need.
“We knew we needed additional transit service on campus. We thought it was going to be a small affair,” Wilson says. “It’s turned out to be larger than anybody [thought]. We have nine buses and carried about a half million people in nine months.”
Because ASUM and Mountain Line combined their ridership numbers, the City of Missoula received STIC grant funding. Since UM’s ridership numbers helped, Mountain Line reduced the cost for UM to provide free rides for students, faculty and staff.
“We work together, making sure we meet demand and generate the funds we can to increase service in the Missoula area, which we all hope will be the outcome of the extra funding,” Wilson says.
“It’s unusual, but it’s a great relationship,” she adds. “Our student drivers end up paying for their education with their commercial driver’s license. Many of our board members move on to the transit world.”[PAGEBREAK]
Unlimited access is another factor in many successful combined systems. In 1989, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (C-U MTD) adopted an unlimited access system early, partnering with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I), and a number of systems have since followed their lead, including KU, UM and Penn State.
“It’s been a very successful program. We had about three million rides before we started, and last year we had our best ridership year ever, at 11.1 million,” Bill Volk, managing director, C-U MTD, says.
Students pay a fee for unlimited access to the entire transit system each semester. This year, that fee will be $52. The university also subsidizes unlimited access to the system for faculty and staff.
C-U MTD runs five routes connecting the campus area with downtown with a five-minute frequency in corridors that connect to the central campus. About 70% of those rides are university-related.
The university is CU-MTD’s primary traffic generator and the economic engine of the community. That makes unlimited access a boon to mobility in the community, Volk explains, because it creates opportunities for students and on-campus residents to move around the community for jobs, recreation and shopping, and enables people to choose more freely where they live. It’s also good for business, creating more opportunities for apartment rentals farther away from the central campus.
“Often a university and city want to reduce the negative impact on the community. A lot of times that’s cars and parking,” Volk says. “Unlimited access helps that process a great deal.”