The old college try: Struggling IndyGo courting campuses to boost ridership

May 2, 2005

One solution for a city bus system struggling to lure riders might be academic-get college students on board.

The Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp. is in talks with colleges and vocational schools about the potential of discounted fares for students who opt to take the bus to and from campus.

The push also has a longer-term goal of conditioning students to use public transportation after they graduate to the work world.

Financially sputtering IndyGo, which finished 2004 in the black only after route cuts and a $2 million loan from the city, trails other transit systems in offering discounts to students attending college and other postsecondary schools. For example:

Central Ohio Transit Authority in Columbus, Ohio, has had deals with several schools, including Ohio State University, since 1997. Students flash their OSU I.D. cards to ride. The rate of $9 a quarter, or $13.50 per semester, comes out of fees students pay to the university.

Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority offers unlimited bus and rail access to students for $40 a month.

Bloomington Transit hauls Indiana University students, who pay a compulsory university fee of $7.50 to $30 per semester, depending on how many credit hours they take.

"It's a matter of getting to the students. The students have to see a value in this," said Michael Terry, manager of business development for IndyGo.

Terry already has the ear of administrators such as David Wantz, vice president of student affairs at the University of Indianapolis.

"We have so many students driving cars that I'm faced with a parking problem," Wantz said of the south-side campus.

Terry also has approached Ivy Tech State College and IUPUI, where finding a parking space can be maddening.

"The congestion of parking is starting to interfere with the whole experience of attending college," said Terry, who is likely to exploit that fact in marketing.

Tough sell

Terry will need all the help he can get in a city obsessed with the personal vehicle.

In a survey of 300 students by IUPUI's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, only 7 percent indicated they would take the city bus if it were more efficient.

"This implies that we have deepseated preferences for our cars and that it will likely take extraordinary efforts to get our students out of their cars and into public transit," said James L. Perry, the IUPUI professor who led the research.

The chief reason students probably don't use transit "is that their lives are packed with school, family, work and community obligations," Perry said.

"Their over-programming, together with the long commute times on IndyGo routes, means that our students will typically resort to private autos for commuting rather than the bus."

So, Terry said, "You've got to look at, 'Are they able to save some money with another alternative to owning and operating a car?'"

Other students have little choice other than to take the bus, including international students at U of I. For them, the city's bus service is often lacking compared with what they're accustomed to back home.

"In Kuwait, there are buses like every five minutes or less to where we want to go, but in Indianapolis, there are very few buses around and they travel at 30- to 40-minute intervals," said Merwyn D'Cruz, who graduated in December with a double major in international relations and communications. "I have missed a couple of [job] interviews as a result."

For example, Bus 22, which runs on Hanna Avenue through campus, stops service some nights around 11 p.m., making it a turnoff for students who want to spend time in nightspots downtown, Wantz said.

About two weeks ago, D'Cruz and a couple of friends missed the last bus to the south side and had to wait three or four hours until another route started functioning.

Besides increased frequency and destinations, former student D'Cruz recommends that IndyGo add information booths at bus stops so riders can find out whether a particular bus will arrive, "instead of waiting in the cold for hours on end."

Financial breaks

Terry said IndyGo is studying what kind of route and service changes would be needed to win over students.

What kind of financial breaks IndyGo might offer to students is also being discussed. Central Ohio Transit System, in Columbus, offers a 40-percent discount to student riders.

The $40 Atlanta's MARTA charges students compares with the standard rate of $52.50 a month. Recently, Georgia State University decided to subsidize the rate for its students, cutting the price of a monthly pass to $26.

"They don't want to build any more parking" on campus, said George Saunders, senior account executive at MARTA.

How to assess students the fees is another matter. A compulsory fee such as one IU requires of some students wouldn't play well in Indianapolis, said Jeff Moore, chief operating officer of Ivy Tech State College.

Like IUPUI, Ivy Tech's campus downtown also is facing a shortage of parking spaces. "It's very expensive for us to buy property and pave for parking."

Moore said he and IndyGo's Terry are trying to ascertain from students how public transportation would fit their needs and what needs to change to lure them on board.

The two have already hosted student forums. They've learned that some students would be more inclined to use the bus if schedules were clear and easy to understand and if service were dependable.

Central Ohio Transit Authority, which said 14 percent of its riders are students, addressed those concerns by essentially publishing a "bus riding for dummies" section on its Web site. Students are given a phone number to call to see which bus they need to board to a particular destination.

The site even offers a primer on bus riding:

"Wait for the bus to stop and open its doors before boarding. Flash your current [ID] to the bus operator. Then find an available seat. If you're new, sit near the bus operator in case you have any questions, but leave space for senior citizens and persons with disabilities. If the bus is full, stand and hold onto the railing," states the COTA site for students.

Such tutorials aren't surprising to Terry, who said public transportation has lost "generations" of people since the car gained in popularity. "You have people in college now who aren't used to using public transportation as a life skill."

Terry and Moore are looking at better bus solutions for Ivy Tech students who also take courses at IUPUI. There is a bus route now between the schools, but not an express route. Making difficult such a service is that class schedules change each semester. "So part of it is a logistics kind of exercise that we're going to try to work through."
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