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College, Cars and BATA

NMC students look for transportation alternatives

Choices | March 16, 2012 | By Glenn Puit

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Chloe Granahan lives in Crawford County and is a student at Northwestern Michigan College.

Chloe Granahan endures long commutes to attend classes at Northwestern Michigan College. Local leaders are now looking to public transit to help alleviate some of these commuting burdens for students.

To get to her classes she has to drive an hour each way, five days a week, enduring long commutes and a loss of time and money.

“It’s a lot of gas money,” she said recently as she walked the NMC campus.

Matt Weaver drives in from Benzie County for his classes at NMC three days a week. He spends roughly $160 a month on gas.

These students are hardly unusual. In fact, the latest statistics show families in Northern Michigan, on average, are spending as much as $11,540 a year to operate their cars, yet the median income for families in rural counties is $36,000 or less.

And the commuting burns more than gasoline; it also burns up time. Blaine Simcox drives 30 minutes each way to get to his classes, while Madeline Sicinski drives in from Elk Rapids four days a week.

With approximately 5,200 students enrolled in the college, and with many commuting by car, some are exploring better ways to help alleviate the transportation burdens the spread-out region’s young people bear. The BATA bus system, or Bay Area Transportation Authority, does service the NMC campus, but its crowded parking lots and sparsely populated bus stops clearly indicate most students at NMC use cars.

Several students interviewed for this story said they don’t view the bus system as time-friendly when compared to their cars.

“It’s not really convenient—the scheduling of the bus times don’t fit my time of day,” said Mr. Simcox.

But BATA officials hope to change that by broadly reshaping the way the bus agency runs its routes; they say that, in the long run, they are optimistic about getting more students to ride the bus. The Authority recently conducted a groundbreaking study of how best to improve the bus system, the region’s largest; part of the projected makeover includes backing away from its traditional, often slow, door-to-door dial-a-ride service in favor of many more direct, “fixed” routes operating on tightly defined schedules.

BATA officials say the changes will make bus riding much more attractive, particularly to regular commuters.

That includes NMC students and employees: BATA believes it can help students with long commutes by beefing up its village connector routes, which provide direct rides from outlying areas into town. By September, BATA expects to have direct routes running into Traverse City from Interlochen, Acme, Kingsley, Empire and Northport.

Students near these direct routes will be able to park their car, hop on the bus, and then ride a shuttle from downtown Traverse City to campus. BATA leaders expect the proposal to be convenient and cost effective for students.

A parking lot at Northwestern Michigan College, where many students depend on cars to get to and from class.

“We want to show (students) the cost savings by riding the bus rather than driving, and what we are trying to do is build a fan base at NMC,” said Carrie Thompson, business development director at BATA.

Another long-term proposal BATA is floating is a campus connector route that makes multiple stops on a direct route through Traverse City, replacing BATA’s current express route and connecting NMC’s main campus to the University Center and Munson Hospital.

BATA Director Tom Menzel said this would be a 15-hour-per-day service, increasing overall campus service to 90 hours a week. The route would offer a bus that stops at the campus every 20 minutes on a route that connects multiple campus outlets with two park-and-ride locations so students could just park their car and hop on the bus to get to campus and back.

“We are looking at how do we change the existing business model to be able to add value to new demographics, including visitors coming into town, (and students) taking the bus,” Mr. Menzel said.

Tim Nelson, president of Northwestern Michigan College, is a supporter of the Grand Vision, and, with that in mind, he believes a coordinated, thoughtful approach to difficult issues like transportation is the way to go. He also believes public transit can be a benefit to students.

“Our belief is organizations no longer have the assets available to own everything themselves,” Mr. Nelson said recently in an interview.

“Any time we are looking at (finding) a solution (to a problem,) we are trying to look at what the impact within the region is, and are there regional partners that should be engaged,” said Mr. Nelson.

Tim Nelson, president of Northwestern Michigan College, is looking for help from transit experts and advocates to gain data that could, in the long run, help get more students on the bus.

With this in mind, Mr. Nelson said NMC is committed to working with BATA to help students and NMC staffers access a more convenient bus system.

The high costs of simply getting around to classes and work is one college students at NMC know well, and Mr. Nelson, as president of the college, believes there are ways public transit can help get students to and from class.

“We are focusing our conversations right now on how to build a longer-term plan to help our students and our clients use public transit,” Mr. Nelson said.

“Long term we have to do something in this region to help facilitate moving people around other than just automobiles,” Mr. Nelson said. “You can’t just keep building roads and you can’t just keep building parking lots.”

The critical component, Mr. Nelson said, in getting students and others to ride the bus at the college is that they have to find the public transit system to be more valuable to them than riding in their car.

“We’ve had some successes with public transportation,” Mr. Nelson said. “We have a number of BATA stops so some of our students use them. But I think a challenge for a rural area is can you get to a critical mass that you can meet the value proposition requirements of an individual to say its better for me to get on a bus than it is to get in my car. If it is going to take you two times as long or three times as long to be on a bus, most people in our society are going to say that’s not worth it to me.”

He’s not interested in paving college-owned land for more parking lots and he does not like the idea of a parking garage.

“I hate the concept of paving over more property,” Mr. Nelson said. “The college has more property. We have 54 acres behind Eastern Avenue but I don’t want to put a bunch of parking in there. I don’t want to spend lots of money on parking.”

The Grand Vision process came up with a 50-year growth plan for the region, and a survey of citizens revealed that a remarkable 80 percent of area residents favor public transit investment. Mr. Nelson said he would like to see specific data gathered about transportation patterns that impact the college, and he wants that data to drive decisions about public transit.

“I am looking for people who are experts in transportation to do the work to come up with suggested solutions that meet the value proposition test for the college and for the people we are serving and move us forward,” Mr. Nelson said. “The college is very open to pursuing this but we are data informed to the point of describing the value…which is an acceptable solution for which groups of people.”

Many students interviewed for this story found the idea of parking their car in an outlying area and hopping on the bus for a reasonably priced fair very appealing.

“Most definitely I’d consider it,” Ms. Granahan said.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist and journalist at The Michigan Land Use Institute. 

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