New buses. More stops. Wireless online access.
Such are only a few of the service upgrades and envisioned amenities for transit, the service that used to just be a matter of getting from here to there.
Now it’s becoming more about the trip itself, and what riders can get done during it.
“I do think, especially with the people we have associated with our transit, that we’re really committed to making sure everyone enjoys the ride,” said Donna Hultine, director of parking and transit at Kansas University.
Helping fuel the focus is a newfound infusion of financing.
The Lawrence Transit System, known as the T, is getting nearly $2 million in financing through the federal economic stimulus program. And on April 1, consumers started paying additional sales taxes in Lawrence to help finance ongoing and enhanced transit service.
Johnson Country Transit also is investing in its system, ramping up the frequency of service on its popular K-10 Connector that runs from three spots in Lawrence to stops at Johnson County Community College and KU’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
Coming soon: Two over-the-road motorcoaches for the trips along K-10, offering a new level of comfort and convenience for riders headed to and from class or work.
“We’re working on adding a wireless component,” said Alice Amrein, transportation director for Johnson County Transit. “We’re starting it as a pilot on the K-10 Connector. Hopefully we’ll have it going in the next 30 to 60 days.”
Johnson County Transit, also known as the JO, is working to increase fares by up to 80 percent on the connector. Offering wireless connectivity for laptops and other devices could go a long way toward helping riders get the most for their money, Amrein said.
“We think the fares are commensurate with the level of service and the amenities that they will see,” she said.
Next stop: New buses
The T isn’t looking toward such amenities — at least not yet, said Casey Toomay, interim transit administrator.
For now the focus is on the most basic of services: increasing the efficiency and timing of buses, and improving the reliability and performance of the vehicles themselves.
The T plans to replace its fleet of 12 diesel buses with new models that run on alternative fuel. Six to eight of the buses would be similar in size to the current 29-foot-long buses that now run on city streets, Toomay said.
Another four to six likely would be smaller, similar to the ones currently serving the T’s paratransit service that provides door-to-door rides for people who qualify.
For Toomay and others working on the T, improving the ride is more about boosting efficiency, adding bus frequency and — as early as this coming fall — implementing a “designated stop” system.
Such a stop system would establish specific loading and unloading locations for passengers every quarter-mile or so on each route, rather than allowing people to continue simply flagging down a bus from the curb.
“That improves the timing of your route, which riders would see as an improvement,” Toomay said.
The T and KU on Wheels, which serves KU, also are combining routes to increase service beginning in the fall. The main coordinated route — connecting downtown Lawrence with campus and on to the retail area on South Iowa Street — will allow passengers to catch rides every 30 minutes, instead of the current 80, without either service having to spend more money.
“That’s our most immediate improvement,” Toomay said.
KU on Wheels also has been busy with its own host of efficiency and timing issues. Just this past fall, the system went to a “free-fare” approach, in an effort to reduce parking demand on campus and boost transit ridership.
After having 1.2 million riders last academic year, Hultine said, KU on Wheels is on track to have 2.5 million riders. Much of this year has been spent tweaking operations to see that as many people who want to ride actually can get onto a bus.
As the academic year began, Hultine said, a route serving the Meadowbrook Apartments proved so popular that some residents ended up being left at the curb. Ridership soon dropped.
“People couldn’t count on the bus getting there on time,” she said. “We’ve tweaked and tweaked to get that trust back. People make their whole schedule based on what we say we will do. We want to get them back.”
Such efforts won’t simply be limited to running more buses, or more often.
While riders already can sign up for text alerts, informing them of when a KU on Wheels bus has been taken out of service or been forced into being rerouted, Hultine would like to take the concept even further.
Hultine would like to use GPS technology to give anyone a chance to track the timing and positioning of each of the system’s 43 vehicles.
“It’s a would-be-nice thing,” she said. “It’s on our wish list.”
Such a system also could communicate other messages to potential patrons, she said.
“There are systems that have bus shelters that have flashing-message signs that tell you how many minutes it will be until a bus gets there,” Hultine said. “Anything can be done with money.”