Student ridership soars on Duluth busesParticipation in the DTA’s U-Pass program has soared beyond expectations as students take advantage of a free lift to campus.
By: Steve Kuchera and Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
By any measure, the 11-year-old program designed to encourage Twin Ports college students to ride the bus is succeeding.
Before the U-Pass program began in September 2000, UMD bus ridership averaged just 4,000 a month. Last semester ridership averaged a record 69,274 a month.
“We knew it would be successful; we didn’t know it would be this successful,” UMD interim director of Auxiliary Services John Brostrom said Tuesday. “The numbers are going through the roof.”
Ridership at the University of Minnesota Duluth during calendar year 2011 set a new record of 567,354 — up 10 percent from 2010. Lake Superior College and the College of St. Scholastica each also set new ridership records: 176,616 at LSC and 47,618 at CSS. Ridership at the University of Wisconsin-Superior was 26,265, down slightly from 2010.
The U-Pass program allows full-time students, faculty and staff enrolled or employed at UMD, UWS, LSC or CSS to get free bus rides with their college IDs.
A bus is the only transportation option for LSC students Joey Chapa and Melissa Sanchez. Chapa has no vehicle and Sanchez
Sanchez said Tuesday that students have to build class schedules around the bus schedule or suffer what she experienced last semester. She had to leave a class early to catch the bus or wait an hour for another one.
This semester, things are right in line, she said.
Originally from Hibbing, Sanchez said it took a while to learn the bus routes. She now uses one often to get around outside of the school route.
“It’s a big change from Hibbing,” she said.
LSC student Willie Holloway shares his car with his brother, who works downtown. On Tuesday afternoon he was getting on the downtown bus to pick up his car.
“It’s not as convenient as I would like it to be,” he said of the limited runs at the college. But the mild complaint is trumped by the free factor, he said.
The U-Pass program began after a handful of UMD and Duluth Transit Authority officials met for breakfast at Perkins to brainstorm ways to encourage students to take the bus to school.
“We knew we had to do something to encourage more people to ride the bus because we didn’t want to pave the campus over with blacktop, nor did we want to put in a (parking) ramp” as enrollment grew, Brostrom said.
UMD enrollment grew 30 percent between fall 2000 and fall 2011: from 9,087 to 11,806 students.
U-Pass ridership has increased steadily since 2000 and accounts for nearly 12 percent of the DTA’s overall ridership. During fall and spring semesters, however, U-Pass ridership accounts for nearly 20 percent of the DTA’s passengers.
Cost savings for students is one reason for U-Pass’s popularity, DTA director of administration Jim Heilig said.
“Obviously there were years when fuel costs went up, and college students are always pressed for money,” he said. “The bus is a great alternative. It is free.”
Student Robert Aldrich has been in Duluth for three years after moving from Winona. He uses the bus every day to get to LSC and has noticed the popularity of the bus with students.
“Sometimes it’s standing-room-only,” he said.
The schools pay the DTA for U-Pass service. UMD recently signed a new contract with the DTA that goes through August 31, 2017, paying the DTA an average of about $400,000 a year “at no cost to the student,” Brostrom said.
Customer surveys have revealed reasons other than cost savings that make U-Pass popular with riders, Heilig said. Others include convenience and ease of use.
The DTA has tried to tailor the system to meet riders’ needs, he said, adding buses and fine-tuning routes. When UMD built Kirby Plaza, the main entrance on Kirby Drive was paid for by the DTA and designed as a much-needed bus center for the school. The area has a passenger waiting lobby, route-specific bus shelters equipped with electronic signs that operate with a GPS-based “Intelligent Transportation System” and provide “real-time” bus departure times. The location also brought bus riders to a single location on campus; before, different buses stopped at different areas on campus.
The DTA saw an immediate increase in ridership after the hub opened in late 2004.
“Bringing everything together really turned that into what we would call a hub,” Heilig said.
The U-Pass program benefits more than just the bus riders. Having more riders — and hence more buses — going to the colleges provides more bus service throughout the area, Heilig said.
“It enhances the whole transportation system,” he said.
“The U-Pass program helps reduce the need for campus parking, gets cars off the road, and creates a convenience for students and other members of the campus community,” UMD spokeswoman Susan Banovetz said. “Also, it’s a great way for students to learn the benefit of using mass transit in their daily lives, a lesson to carry forward in their lives.”
DTA driver Vernis Ziegelmann has been on the job for 19 years. “Oh, my gosh, yes,” he said when asked about increased student ridership. “It’s gone way up.”
He said, along with the school routes, students can go anywhere free — Spirit Mountain, Superior, the mall. “That pass is like gold,” he said.
Ziegelmann said the vagaries of the economy — “gas is always going up, not down” —make the bus a good option. “People have to pinch and some end up parking the car,” he said.
“It’s good, reliable transportation,” he said. “There’s no scraping snow and ice and it’s a warm bus.”