Major changes on the horizon as Lawrence marks 20 years of citywide bus service

A T rider boards a bus on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 at the downtown bus hub at Seventh and Vermont streets.

It has been 20 years since Lawrence debuted its bus service, and with a new transit center and route redesign on the horizon, city leaders say decisions made in the next year will be pivotal for the service’s future.

The city marked the transit system’s 20th anniversary this month, but the idea of a citywide bus system had been talked about long before the first buses went into service. By the time the City Commission approved spending property tax revenues for the service in 1999, which together with federal and state transportation funding got the service started, it had been a topic of discussion for more than a decade, according to newspaper archives. As with many government decisions, there were critics, but when the choice to continue funding the service with a special sales tax was put to voters in 2008 and again in 2017, the answer was a resounding yes.

Commissioner Stuart Boley said that when the city transit debate was first going on — long before his days in local government — he had been unsure whether the service would get off the ground. However, now that he’s seen the people who have come to rely on it, he said its necessity now and in the future is clear.

“Lawrence transit is really important in getting people to school and to work, and it’s going to be critical to our environmental sustainability efforts,” Boley said.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei, who has worked for several Lawrence social service organizations, agreed. Finkeldei said that while some people chose to ride the bus for environmental reasons, in his experience there were also a lot of people whose only way of getting to social service facilities, health clinics, grocery stores and city buildings was using the bus.

“People need that type of transportation,” Finkeldei said. “I think it’s important to have that available to them on the human service side.”

However, in recent years, city leaders have discussed the perception that for many, the bus is a last resort, rather than a choice. And a common complaint is that some bus routes take significantly longer than driving a personal vehicle. Local leaders say that in order to get more people to ride the bus, the city will need to build on the improvements of the last 20 years — and be open to some larger structural changes.

Improvements in past 20 years

When the bus service began on Dec. 16, 2000, it had eight fixed routes and buses running once an hour, as well as paratransit service. In 2008, the city began coordinating its routes with the University of Kansas bus service.

Currently there are 10 city-only routes, seven of which now run every 30 or 40 minutes, and two routes that are coordinated with KU, according to city Transit and Parking Manager Adam Weigel. Weigel said that coordination has definitely been the change with the largest impact, allowing all Lawrence residents to use both systems seamlessly.

“That has been probably the most impactful thing that has been done over the life of the system,” Weigel said.

Other improvements have included the addition of the after-hours Night Line service; mobile tools with real-time bus information; more places to buy bus passes; bike racks on all buses; and the addition of benches and shelters to some bus stops.

But perhaps the most significant changes to the service since its inception could come in the next two years.

New things coming

The city is moving forward with plans to build a new bus transfer hub, and the process to design the facility and determine how bus routes should be restructured is set to begin next year.

While routes are typically tweaked every year, the upcoming reevaluation of the city’s bus routes will be a great opportunity to make more substantial changes, Weigel said. The city currently uses a hub-and-spokes structure for its bus routes, meaning that the city operates various routes that often require riders to change buses at a specific transfer location, currently located downtown. But Weigel said the city could consider other transit strategies instead. Those might include high-frequency routes that run every 15 minutes along major corridors; subsidized ride-hailing services for the less-dense areas of the city; or adjustments to fare structures to promote equity, including the option of eliminating fares.

“It’s so rare that a community gets to step back and think holistically about what we are trying to achieve,” Weigel said.

Whatever changes take place in the transit system, they’ll have to take the new bus hub into account.

The hub has been on the city’s to-do list for many years now, but it had been delayed because of a long-running debate over where to build it. The city ordered two location studies — one in 2014 and the other in 2018 — and both recommended locating the hub near the intersection of 21st and Iowa streets. But the city encountered pushback from residents of the nearby Schwegler Neighborhood, and last year the City Commission settled on locating the hub on KU property at the intersection of Bob Billings Parkway and Crestline Drive. The city has allocated $4.5 million for the new facility’s construction.

Weigel said the route redesign process and the design work for the transfer hub could begin as early as February and would be finished by the end of the year. Construction on the bus hub is expected to be finished by August 2022. A few other improvements are also slated for the next two years, including the addition of shelters or benches for at least 21 bus stops in 2021 and the addition of five electric buses in 2022.

Once complete, the bus hub will serve as a more geographically central transfer point for the service. Finkeldei said he hoped the bus hub would help cut down on travel times, as that is a common concern he hears from riders.

“As I hear from users of the T, the major concern is the length of time it takes to get from point X to point Y,” Finkeldei said.

Increasing ridership

At the heart of redesigning routes and making other improvements to the structure and function of the service is the need to increase ridership.

While ridership on the Lawrence bus service has generally increased, there have been drops in ridership in the past couple of years, as the Journal-World previously reported. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, low gas prices and drops in KU enrollment were some of the reasons cited at the time. Though year-end numbers for 2020 are not yet available, many cities have seen decreases in their bus ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it comes to increasing ridership, Weigel said that convenience, comfort and affordability are the three factors that determine how people travel. Weigel said one of the reasons ride-hailing is so popular is that it’s easy to summon a ride using your phone, and he said the city needs to make it just as easy for residents to understand how the transit system works.

The other key component to convenience is frequency. Weigel said high-frequency routes are usually found between areas that generate a lot of traffic and activity. In Lawrence, such areas might include downtown, KU, South Iowa Street, or the Sixth and Wakarusa intersection.

Weigel said a high-frequency route is one where the bus comes at least every 15 minutes, which he said is the threshold where most people do not consult a bus schedule.

“They just go to the bus route,” Weigel said. “High-frequency routes can eliminate one of the transit barriers, which is trip planning.”

The city currently has no high-frequency routes.

Making public transit a more comfortable experience can be done by improving shelters and other amenities, Weigel said. But the last issue he cited — affordability — is a bit more complex.

Weigel said improving affordability is about more than just changing the fare prices. It can also be about giving people more ways to pay the fare, including letting people pay a daily fare or buy a bus pass with their cellphone.

Another option might be eliminating fares altogether. But Weigel said that fares make up about 6% or 7% of the transit service’s annual budget, or about $450,000 per year, so if fares are eliminated, it would require cuts to transit service in some places or an increase in taxes.

Both Boley and Finkeldei said they were open to discussing all of the potential changes that Weigel mentioned, and Boley added that ridership and the transit system’s efficiency will both increase as the city continues its efforts to increase infill development and density.

If during the transit debate in the 1990s he was unsure, Boley said he is now optimistic for the service’s future, especially with the upcoming bus hub and route redesign.

“The idea is that (the bus service) becomes better, easier to ride and more attractive,” Boley said. “These are going to be important aspects as we try to bring the ridership back after the pandemic.”

Given that voters have chosen to keep the bus service going since 2008, Finkeldei said city leaders and officials know there’s a demand for the service, and it’s their responsibility to keep making it better.

“This is a unique service that the city provides, in a sense that the voters have voted to fund it,” Finkeldei said. “We know it’s a service they want, so the city’s job is to take those funds and use them in the absolute best way possible.”


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