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BATA Riders: More Village Service Means More Customers

MLUI report finds bus users’ needs match Grand Vision’s goals

October 12, 2009 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Grand Traverse area bus riders say they want more frequent service between villages and cities—a goal supported by the Grand Vision’s own recent findings

TRAVERSE CITY—Doug commutes each weekday morning from Omena to his job in Traverse City. But the young man hasn’t driven to work in months. Instead, he rides the bus—and he thinks he knows how to get more people to do the same thing.

Doug, who declined to share his last name, is just one of a growing number of commuters who roll into work from several villages in Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties on one of the Bay Area Transportation Authority’s increasingly popular “Village Connector” routes. Like many others who commute on a Connector, he believes that beefing up their fixed routes and sticking to strict schedules are keys to attracting many more riders to BATA.

“Until they expand the fixed routes, I don’t know if they’re going to increase ridership,” Doug asserts.

A report just released by the Michigan Land Use Institute, based on interviews with Doug, other bus riders, and some of the system’s drivers, says that many other local bus riders agree.

Entitled Expanding Transportation Choices in the Grand Traverse Region,  the Institute report looks closely at BATA’s two-county service, which largely resembles that provided by other transit agencies operating deep in the Michigan countryside: It mostly provides door-to-door dial-a-ride service for people who have no other way of getting around.

But the new report focuses on the other, smaller part of BATA’s service—its fairly new, fixed-route Village Connectors. Connector riders and bus drivers quoted in the report agree that adding more frequent, better-promoted Village Connectors would attract many more people.

The report, with its from-the field observations and advice, arrives as the next phase of a vastly larger study, thecitizen-based Grand Vision transportation and land use project, gets underway.

A new “Grand Vision working group” aimed at public transportation is forming; the group, one of six that are open to public participation, will try to make the Vision’s transit findings a reality. Significantly, those findings, based on more than a dozen community workshops, comments from 15,000 area residents, and a scientifically random survey, point directly at what the Connectors’ riders said they want: stronger transit connections between villages and cities.

Meanwhile, BATA appears increasingly interested in rethinking how it picks up and delivers passengers. Last week, the two-county agency launched its own community-wide, self-selecting, online survey to find out how best to persuade local residents and business owners to use the bus. BATA officials are urging people who don’t ride the bus to complete a 35-question survey to help them figure out how to make the bus either their first or a second choice for getting around.

Grand New Mission
There are also other signs of change at BATA. The agency recently hired a new executive director, Tom Menzel, a Traverse City native who most recently brought significant changes to the city’s largest summer event, the National Cherry Festival, as its director.

Last month, Mr. Menzel persuaded the BATA Board of Directors to adopt its first-ever official mission statement, and the statement shifts how the agency views itself. It calls for expanding service to well beyond those who would be trapped in their homes without dial-a-ride.

“Our intent is to serve the whole population with different demographic profiles as much as we can,” according to Mr. Menzel.

The Institute’s study and BATA’s own survey could help guide changes in bus service suggested by the Grand Vision’s final report. One of the Vision’s new working groups, led by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, is likely to look at both MLUI’s and BATA’s research when figuring out how best to translate the big project’s transportation goals into reality. The working group, which is open to public participation, will promote service improvements at BATA and the four other bus agencies that serve the six-county region—including faster, wide-ranging, regional bus service.

Meanwhile, directors from all five bus agencies are already talking about a more regional approach to service in Kalkaska, Wexford, Benzie, Antrim, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse Counties. Meeting bi-monthly under the sponsorship of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, they have already found a way to possibly link Benzie Bus and BATA, via fixed routes through Interlochen.

The agencies are also considering coordinated marketing and promotion campaigns.

Promotion, Frequency Are Crucial
Beyond revealing that BATA’s current patrons clearly like and want more fixed routes, the Institute report finds that riders use the Connector in different ways. Many either bike, walk, carpool, or drive to a bus stop every day, year round. Some only ride in the winter, to escape white-knuckled driving in northern Michigan’s frequent blizzards. Others ride more in the summer, when the walk or bike ride to a bus stop is pleasant and easy.

And, once on the bus, commuters said they made good use of their riding time by booting up their laptops, catching up on reading, chatting with their neighbors, or even taking a quick siesta.

“I get a lot of work done on the bus,” says Lissa Edwards, an editor of Traverse magazine who frequently rides the Empire Village Connector from her home in Glen Arbor to downtown Traverse City. “But sometimes it’s just nice to chill out. It’s a good way to get the day rolling.”

The Institute study also looked at what made the Connectors’ riders ditch their cars and get on the bus. Most people said they found their way onto the bus either through word of mouth or by becoming more curious about the service as it whizzed by their house every day.

Those observations reinforce another statement heard frequently from the riders and drivers interviewed for the report: There’s a big lack of promotion for BATA’s fixed-route service, and that is keeping bus ridership down. Most riders said they believe that most people just don’t know that a dependable, fixed-route bus runs through their town.

“It’s never been advertised,” notes Bill, a BATA bus driver who did not want to give his last name, about the route he operates. “I’ve never seen anyone advertising it. We have stops where there’s nothing to let people know it’s even there.”

Bill said that BATA should post signs along the route designating where the buses stop, what time they arrive, and when they get to their final destination.

But while most people interviewed for the Institute report agreed that BATA should do more promotion, they also said that they are yearning for more scheduled trip times, more routes, and weekend service in outlying counties. Many of them said that, given current schedules, they must either get to work an hour early or an hour late. They strongly agreed that more service times means more flexibility—a hot commodity for commuters.

Perfectly Positioned
The Institute report also notes that some of the challenges facing the formation of a well-coordinated regional bus system are beyond the control of any bus agency. For example, the report points out that in order to make bus travel convenient for most people, bus stops should be located within a 10 to 15 minute walk of most residents. This will require a significant shift in future growth patterns away from low-density rural areas and toward existing population centers.

In another match between what works for public transit and what the Grand Vision found residents in the region desire, that pattern is exactly what, by far, most of the region’s residents prefer.

Planning experts also point out that building transit systems that better connect cities and villages promotes new housing and business investment in those areas, too.

“If there is one regional public investment that can most directly influence future growth patterns, I think it will be an investment in a coordinated, efficient public transit system,” said John Fregonese, a Grand Vision consultant who says he sees a great opportunity in the region’s transit system. “I believe that the Grand Traverse region is perfectly positioned to get this done."

Hannah Clark, a senior at the University of Michigan, interned with the Michigan Land Use Institute this summer. She interviewed riders and drivers on all five bus systems in the Grand Traverse region, and authored the Institute’s transit report. Reach her at hannah@mlui.org.

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