At 4:04 p.m. on a balmy July afternoon, Anita Bidurukontam sits with her legs crossed, waiting for the number 5. With her reflective sunglasses, citrus colored shirt and white slacks, the first year computer science graduate student looks as if she belongs in a sunny cafÃ© along the Mediterranean coast, sipping an iced tea. But instead she’s alone at a characteristically busy HARTline bus stop along Leroy Collins Boulevard outside the Administration Building. She looks as if she is somehow outside the heat, outside the drone of Bull Runner shuttles passing by.
When she speaks, she does so softly, in few words, with politeness and not a hint of discomfort. She explains that she rides HARTline not because she has to, but because she prefers to.
“It’s more convenient,” she says.
She is reluctant to offer any criticism at all for the county’s public transportation provider, insisting that her buses are routinely on time, with polite and helpful service. Always.
And, at least with this bus, she’s right. The 5 comes into view one minute before the schedule says it should arrive. Bidurukontam, who is on her phone, hangs up and calmly gathers her stuff together.
As she does, the bus rumbles up, slowing down only slightly with the door open and a the driver belts, “Route 5, route 5,” into the bus’ loudspeaker. When he sees that no one is standing at the edge of the road waving him down, he moves on, leaving Bidurukontam at the stop.
The Choice Riders
Despite the mishap, Bidurukontam is exactly the type of rider HARTline is trying to reach on campus. Claiming responsibility for the transit needs of all of Hillsborough County, HARTline (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Line) serves a population of more than 900,000 and makes slightly less than nine and a half million trips per year, according to the 2002 Florida Transit Handbook. But, as impressive as those figures sound, HARTline could be doing a lot better, especially at USF. Sure, there are a number of students who currently ride the bus because they have no other alternative, but it’s the people who have a choice that HARTline wants to convert. And, in a small way, they’re succeeding.
According to HARTline’s 2002 Community Report, “Making Connections,” 51 percent of the current HARTline users ride the bus by choice, a five percent increase from the amount of choice riders in 1997.
But that doesn’t mean USF students are riding. Rick Fallin, transportation supervisor for USF’s Parking and Transportation Services said that, based on a survey performed a few years ago, less than one percent of USF students actually ride HARTline buses. And while HARTline regular ridership only accounts for about two percent of the entire population of Hillsborough County, there is little doubt at HARTline that student ridership numbers can be improved.
That’s why the organization has partnered with Parking and Transportation Services to create a program geared specifically towards students. Starting this fall, students will be able to ride any HARTline bus anywhere for free. Whether a student is traveling from their apartment to campus or making a trip between two off-campus locations, all they will have to do is show their student I.D., and they will be exempt from paying the bus fare.
But, according to some students, having to pay a fare isn’t the problem.
Temmira Nicholson, a junior majoring in social work, has been riding HARTline since she was a teenager. With years of riding experience under her belt, Nicholson was somewhat critical when discussing the current bus service.
When asked if she considered HARTline’s service to be good, Nicholson responded, “I wouldn’t go for good. There’s times when it can be bad because it’s hot and you’re waiting for the bus, but it comes late.”
Nicholson added that, even when the buses are on time, the drivers are sometimes a problem.
“Sometimes you might meet a real nice bus driver, and sometimes you might meet a real snobby bus driver who’ll get kind of sarcastic with you,” she said.
Lastly, Nicholson noted that cleanliness is also an issue on the bus at times. Summing up the issues she believes HARTline should address to improve service, Nicholson said, “They should have cleaner buses, have more sheds at their stops and have their bus drivers at least improve on how they treat people … and don’t be so late.”
Katie Neely offered a different perspective. Donning a freshly issued Honors Program T-shirt, the freshman said that, as a car driver, HARTline is occasionally a problem.”I think it’s a traffic hazard,” she said. “People drive so fast down here, and then when the bus stops, if you’re behind them … I keep almost crashing into them.”
While the complaint might seem a bit irrelevant at first, the statistics seem to back her up. Based on information from the 2002 Florida Transit Handbook, HARTline ranks last in the state when it comes to safety incidents per mile traveled. While, in many cases, an “incident” is simply a minor safety issue on board, the figure does include auto accidents.
Freshman Carlin Nguyen offered a different perspective. Braving the summer heat in a long-sleeve shirt, Nguyen put his reasons for not riding HARTline bluntly.
“It’s just the time,” he said. “It takes a long ass time just to get to one place. I’d rather drive my car.”
And he has a point.
While travel times from the campus to some locations, such as Ybor City and downtown, are relatively comparable to traveling by auto, other trips aren’t nearly as reasonable. Based on research done by The Oracle, a bus trip to the Brandon Town Center from USF takes, on average, slightly less than five hours round-trip. Going to International Plaza takes almost three hours round-trip. For HARTline riders who have no transportation choice, this is a major inconvenience. For those who have an option, it makes the decision of whether to take the bus a fairly quick one.
“I think that people who can’t afford transportation say they like the bus because it’s their only form of transportation,” said Nguyen. “But since I have a car, I don’t like the bus transportation system.”
Jill Cappadoro, director of public relations at HARTline, said that the issue of time consuming bus trips all boils down to money.
“We don’t try to hide from those long bus rides,” she said. “We simply maintain that we are offering the best service we can right now with the funding we have.”
Cappadoro added that increasing route frequency and cutting down on riders’ travel time is a high priority at HARTline, but because of low ridership and limited funds, some routes will continue to be long.
Despite students’ hesitations however, Steve Polzin, a research faculty member at the Center for Urban Transportation Research, said that college campuses are generally strong transit areas.
“If you look across the country at campus environments, campus cities tend to be good transit cities,” he said. “Gainesville, for example – they carry huge numbers of students up there.”
While Polzin, who also serves as a volunteer citizen representative on the HARTline Board of Directors, acknowledges that USF is at a slight disadvantage because of its traditional commuter population, he mentions that significant changes have been made just in the past few years that make USF more friendly to transit.
“If you look at Bull Runner, it’s doing dramatically better than it was just two, three years ago,” he said. “We’ve got more on campus housing; we’ve got more large clusters of students, height housing near campus and the parking costs have gone up. All those things are conducive to making transit work better.”
One of the strongest indicators that USF students are open to transit has been the recent success of the Bull Runner shuttles on campus. When Bull Runner was first introduced in 1997, not many students jumped aboard. During the past five years, however, ridership numbers have shot up, with some of the most popular routes occasionally having to turn students away because the shuttles are already too full.
“We’ve had incredible growth,” said Fallin. He added that since 1997, Bull Runner has seen anywhere between a 300 to 400 percent increase in ridership numbers.
“The growth has proved the success of the program,” Fallin said.
Students seem to agree.
Neely, who hadn’t yet used Bull Runner, said it would be a benefit during her time at USF.
“Isn’t that the one that takes you to sporting events?” she asked. “I think that’s an awesome idea.
Ronesha Brewer, a freshman who currently rides both HARTline and Bull Runner, was pleased with how the two services compliment each other.
“I really appreciate it (Bull Runner) because it connects to the (University Area) transfer center,” she said. “So instead of me having to catch another bus, I can just get on the shuttle.”
Bull Runner’s service has become so good, in fact, that it actually has eliminated the need for HARTline to certain destinations.
Ed Crawford, public liason for HARTline, said that HARTline does not even attempt to convince students to take the bus to the University Mall simply because the Bull Runner already goes there.
“We wouldn’t try to duplicate something you guys are already doing better,” Crawford said. “I mean, we have no intention of going around and circulating the internal campus. We couldn’t possibly keep up with you.”
A Cure All?
Based on the relationship between USF and HARTline in the past, it would be easy for students to be cynical about the current level of service being offered. The issue of long and inconvenient bus trips seems so clear-cut that it would be impossible to miss. Yet, somehow, at least from the student perspective, it might seem as if HARTline’s decision-makers have missed it altogether. But they haven’t, and the U-Pass program proves they’re at least making an effort to make things easier for student transit users.
Though the impact of the program is still a question mark for many, HARTline is betting large, partly because the program will alleviate the burden of payment on current users, but more importantly because it has the potential to bring in new ones.
Crawford said the U-Pass program is not just a solution for potential student transit users, it’s the solution.
“The U-Pass program is the answer to the issue,” he said during a phone interview. “The issue currently is that the level of service is not sufficient to be effective for most people. Anybody who has a choice about moving around is probably going to exercise whatever that other choice is.”
Crawford, who is currently running for a seat on the county commission, added that USF is not the first university to attempt a program like the U-Pass, and the idea has had success in the past. He said that UCLA instituted the program a few years ago with “huge success” despite the fact that Los Angeles has a strong car culture.
“I think that our experience and the experience around the country and, in fact, around the world, is if you remove the barrier of payment, or at least the apparent payment, the chances are ridership goes up,” he said. “Now, how much it goes up depends – depends on the campus, where the routes are, how frequent they are, the perception of the level of service … but it always goes up.”
Students, however, are a little more ambivalent on the subject.
Ana Galvez, a graduate student in speech pathology, said that, while the U-Pass program might be beneficial to some, it’s still not enough to entice her onto the buses.
“It’s probably not for me,” she said. “Because I can get in my car and leave and come when I need to.”
Galvez, who says she has used HARTline in the past, said that while the current service is OK, it’s not very convenient for her travel needs.
“I think if it’s convenient, you know, convenient times, I would probably use it,” she said. “If it came more often, that might help.”
Marc Garofani, a senior in accounting, also said he probably won’t be riding the bus, even if it is free.
“It probably wouldn’t change my outlook,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to hassle with finding the schedule, when the bus is running, finding where the closest pickup is and all that.”
But there are some students who support the idea.
Bidurukontam, with her characteristically concise responses, merely said, “That’s great,” when informed about the U-Pass program.
Brewer added that the extra money she’ll save on the fare price could come in handy.
“I spend a lot of money catching the bus,” she said. “But I could spend that money on other things. I could buy a book or something.”
Melissa Merchant, who has never rode a HARTline bus, said the U-Pass program might sweeten the deal just enough to make her ride.
“I would probably take the bus,” she said. “Because you can study while you’re on. You don’t have to pay attention to what you’re doing.”
Regardless of whether students plan to make use of the program, though, those interviewed were generally in favor of giving it a shot. Although Parking and Transportation Services has to pay HARTline for allowing students to ride for free, those interviewed said that the relatively low cost of instituting the program is worth the risk. While Parking and Transportation Services was unwilling to discuss the actual cost of the program while negotiations were still taking place, representatives at HARTline have indicated that initial figures were somewhere in the ballpark of $5,000.
“The university isn’t exactly dropping Fort Knox on our head,” said Crawford. “It’s a very modest amount of money.” Crawford added that, under the current agreement, the cost of running the U-Pass program for two years is comparable to the cost of building one parking space in a structured parking garage.
“I think it’s worth a space in a structured parking garage to find out whether or not there’s a demand,” he said. “Because, otherwise, what people are saying is, ‘We don’t want to know what the demand is.’ Well, let’s find out.”
While Garofani originally said he’d like to see the U-Pass funds used for other projects, he changed his mind when told the approximate cost.
“I would definitely say it’s worth it if those figures are correct,” he said. “That’s too small of an amount to have an impact on any construction projects.”
A Generation Without Transit
For students who might decide to try out HARTLine for the first time because of the U-Pass program, there are several things to keep in mind about riding the buses.
Tucked away behind the Engineering building lies the facility for the Center for Urban Transportation Research, where Polzin works, specializing in transit issues. On the second floor of the facility, in a large conference room with bare walls, Polzin spoke about the obstacles students face when initially attempting to ride transit.
“Historically, everyone when they were a kid grew up using the bus,” he said. “And over time as cars became more available, they may have started using cars. But we do have a generation now that’s never been exposed to bus service.”
Polzin continued that it is this lack of exposure to transit that causes many students to shy away from the bus system.
“It’s an assimilation issue,” he said. “It’s a little bit intimidating. It takes experience, and the reality is this generation isn’t as used to transit, and it’s sometimes difficult to get people to make changes.”
He added that simply getting used to the routes can be a daunting task.
“Route information is complex,” he said. “There’s ways to make it easier (to learn), but it’s not simple. We’ve got 47 routes (HARTline’s 2002 Community Report claims that there are currently 50 routes). They have different hours and different schedules and you’re trying to coordinate them to meet and not have long transfers, so it is a very complicated system.”
And Bidurukontam standing on the edge of the sidewalk watching the five bus roll on by the Physics building is a testament to what that complication means to riders – uncertainty. Even when the system is working well, it has flaws.
But Bidurukontam doesn’t seem to mind all that much.
“Was that it?” she asks, smiling. She pauses. “I guess I’d better go to the library and wait for the next one. It won’t be here for another 30 minutes.”
She checks the road for cars, pausing for a moment before crossing the wide boulevard.
Contact Dustin Dwyer at email@example.com