Editorial: Transit center key to ridership

Selecting a transit hub that will foster route efficiency should be the top priority for the Lawrence City Commission as it ponders how to grow ridership on the city’s bus system.

From 2016 to 2017, there was a 1.4-percent increase in total ridership of the city’s buses after the city extended two bus routes and doubled the frequency of three others in August 2016. Almost two-thirds of Lawrence’s bus riders go to and from the University of Kansas campus.

The city would like to see ridership increase at a faster pace and encourage greater use of the bus system by riders not associated with KU.

The city is up against national trends that show bus ridership is down overall. Public transit ridership fell in 42 of the 50 biggest metropolitan areas in the U.S. last year, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data compiled by Transitcenter. Bus ridership in the Kansas City metropolitan area fell by about 600,000 riders last year, or by about 4 percent, according to the data. University communities similar in size to Lawrence, such as Columbia, Mo., and Iowa City, also saw significant drops in bus ridership.

Factors such as low gas prices, the emergence of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft and the rise of online shopping are all factors in the decrease in mass transit.

Against such trends, Lawrence is in a good position, given that bus ridership is still growing, albeit at a slow pace.

Commissioners offered thoughts on increasing ridership. Commissioner Matthew Herbert suggested prioritizing infill development to concentrate commercial districts more effectively. Herbert and Commissioner Jennifer Ananda said the cultural stigma of bus ridership — primarily that it is an option of last resort — needs to be removed by making the bus more convenient and accessible to neighborhoods.

The first step in making that cultural shift is implementing a transit hub that will allow for shorter routes and faster transfers, decreasing all routes to less than 30 minutes. The city has been debating the transit center for years. Locations were abandoned after neighborhood complaints and grants didn’t come through.

Now, the city has set aside $5 million to build a transit center and a consultant has evaluated potential locations and narrowed the options to five. The locations selected include Vermont Street between Seventh and Eighth streets; Vermont Street between Ninth and 10th streets; the southeast corner of Bob Billings Parkway and Crestline Drive; 1941 Stewart Ave.; and the northeast corner of Clinton Parkway and Lawrence Avenue. All can accommodate a building that would allow riders to be inside while they wait to change buses.

The city is expected to make a final decision on a transit center location in the coming months. That decision and the subsequent construction of the hub should do more for ridership of the city’s bus system than anything since its inception.