On Tuesday, March 12, Lauren Meyers, head of the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) sent an email blast to students across campus with the subject field, “Riding the Struggle Bus,” inviting students to participate in a town hall meeting with Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) to discuss the growing system flaw.
The student association, which look out for the greater good of the student body, is concerned with none other than holding our University administration accountable for late and overcrowded buses in dangerously cold weather conditions, as they have crafted a resolution to better the system.
Ross Allanson, director of Parking and Transportation Services, was the only member able to make it to the meeting. Perhaps the buses kept the other members from coming. Although students have many negative things to say about the busing system, it is important to note that PTS handled 4 million students on the bus last year and 5 million cars on campus. They fund student U-Passes in order to subsidize busing to students. They placed Nice Ride, Bird and Lime Scooters on campus, and they are responsible for negotiating the free Campus Zone Passes, which provide free stops on the light rail for West Bank, East Bank, and Stadium Village.
The first student-asked question dived into a unique issue we rarely discuss, “The campus zone pass is really useful, but groceries are nowhere near campus, they’re always one stop pass what it covers, how do we combat this?”
Most students would just say, “screw it,” and joyride for the two minutes; however, Allanson actually noted this is an issue in discussion.
“We have Fresh Thyme by Prospect Park [a light rail stop just past Stadium Village], this is something we are talking to Metro Transit about this,” noted Allanson.
Allanson emphasized that the passes are in constant renegotiation and reassessment, which is necessary to adapt to the growing needs of students in a tuition-spiking environment.
“In roughly 2000, the University was the recipient of a grant that kicked off the U-Pass program,” added Allanson, referencing the constant reassessment.
Considering constant reassessment was something that was further brought up in the main debate of the meeting, which is the extreme overcrowding on buses, and what PTS doing adapt to or combat it.
“One of the things on a university campus, which is something that won’t surprise anyone, when there is a break in between classes, there will be crowding on our buses, it is the reality of it,” said Allanson.
“We have a capacity of 1600 to 1700 students, we would anticipate that a couple of things are going to happen [in the spring], there is a walking and biking component, scooters this spring, so there will be alternative modes this summer.”
Yet that does not attest to the current issue at hand: When classes get out, it is a mass surge to the bus, including a vicious Darwinian drama of pushing your way onto an already overcrowded bus, risking injury, and furthermore heightening the stress of bus drivers. Currently, numerous drivers will allow students to stand past the safety line in the front and ask students to lean back to see out of their rear-view windows.
“I have an 8 a.m. in Carlson [one of the farthest corners of the University], and I have run into challenges riding the circulator specifically at the Bridges stop, where it will come and already be entirely full,” said another student.
Another primary issue that the busing system faces is called “bus bunching,” as Allanson calls it, which is fairly normal. As buses hit lights, take too long of stops, bus drivers take too long of breaks, etc, the lost time piles up, and buses get on each others’ tails. This is a particularly large issue at the Scholar’s Walk, just before the Bruininks Hall stop, as students do not yield to the crosswalk, building up traffic, buses included.
Bus bunching can also contribute to the shady timelines of when a bus will be at a stop, or where the bus’s last stop is, due to the Gopher Trip app software not being able to predict these common issues.
The students at the meeting did not like Allanson’s response: “Because of budgetary issues, the 4th Street circulator and University Ave circulator must stop at the time they do. If we extend a budget in one area, we must cut it in the other,” when asked to talk on the stop-time issue.
I inquired about potentially updating the app or potentially switching to an Uber-esque theme in which the buses would update real-time with tagging on when the last bus is and where the last stop is. Allanson took note and stated, “If you have a specific date and time, we have a comment form, to find out what happened and what issues may have occurred,” when I further inquired about a bus skipping my stop on its last round.
On the topic of software coding, another student enlightened Allanson, “The code to get these real-time correctional time updates is already there, it is open-source computer programming.”
However, what is most alarming is the negligent treatment of disabled students. The paratransit app is out of date, and if it is difficult to board a bus for able-bodied students. Then there is no account for disabled students.
Kit O’Neil, a UMN student who is in a wheelchair wrote in to MSA, “I have had difficulty with access to campus buses in the winter. Sometimes the ramps do not work,” O’Neil also noted that it is embarrassing and frustrating to feel like a burden and that sometimes she has fallen out of her wheelchair getting off bus ramps.
“We have a good relationship with our bus operators. We will be sure to makes sure that they are certainly trained,” stated Allanson.
Concluding the meeting, Allanson was pressed on the budgetary issue as previously stated, to which he stated that PTS will be working with MSA to provide a transparent budget to balance issues.
Nonetheless, Allanson agreed with students that action needs to occur.
“We have planned and started addressing the issues, so we can actually get to what’s important: frequency, time, duration, situational overloads. Hearing, listening, and engaging, because a couple of the stories I heard [today] are to be honest with you, concerning,” said Allanson.
Another student asked in conclusion, “Do you realistically think the bus system is equally balanced?
To which Allanson responded, “I think it is constantly changing.”