Transporting a town: Redesigning the CyRide bus system

As a passenger, public transportation is easy. All it takes is a little planning, and you’re waiting at a near-by stop with the 12:45 p.m. bus quickly approaching in the distance. It’s on time, you’re on time, and all is right with your day.

But, what you don’t know is the amount of planning that public transportation demands. It can take months or even years of research and preparation to design a working bus route. And that’s just one route. What if it was a series of routes? What if it was a whole town?

To find out, we talked with Sheri Kyras, the transit director at CyRide in Ames, Iowa.

About Ames and CyRide

Home to Iowa State University (ISU), the City of the Ames is located in the central part of Story County and has a population of over 60,000. It is also home to the CyRide bus system, which has seen a rapid increase in use (about 58 percent) in the past 10 years, due in part to the continued growth of the university.

To accommodate CyRide passengers, the CyRide team began looking for ways to improve their service in 2016. The bus system, which has been operating in its modern form since 1976, is currently undergoing a complete system redesign.

Why is it important to revamp the CyRide routes?

Ten years ago, CyRide carried about four million riders annually. Today it’s close to seven million. The route structure has stayed basically the same, although we’ve added buses and one or two new routes. Now, our ridership has started to plateau along with university enrollment. Because the growth of ridership has slowed down, we thought it was a good time to go back and reassess whether the current route structure is the best that it could be, in light of the additional riders. That was the impetus to start the redesign plan.

What kind of things were you looking to change?

The CyRide board started with some guiding principles as we were looking at the service. We also started with an overall goal for the study, which was to make it the most efficient and effective system that it could be while carrying seven million riders. We used that as the basis for what we wanted to look at within the system. We wanted to balance the needs within the service with the existing infrastructure. We looked at areas where ridership was lighter and where we could do things differently. We had to balance, because it can’t be all about efficiency. A large segment of the Ames population relies on CyRide, and that needs to be accommodated whether it’s efficient or not. We had to keep important routes in mind and be mindful of what the community needs, what the university within the community needs, and where the majority of our ridership comes from.

How efficient is CyRide? Is that something you’re looking to improve?

When we hired Nelson\Nygaard, a transportation consulting firm, we asked them to do a peer analysis on certain performance factors, meaning they surveyed other bus service systems similar to CyRide for a comparison. What they found was that CyRide is at the very top. I don’t know that we weren’t efficient before, but the goal moving forward is that we’re providing the best system for riders and the best transportation for the future.

What are some of the changes you foresee in the system redesign?

One way that we try to be as efficient as possible with our service now is that we have a “core service,” as seen on our current schedule, which represents about 36–38 buses. Then we have almost that many more buses that we call “extra buses,” which we add to routes to provide additional capacity, especially before or after classes. What our consultant suggested, and the board approved, is to take some of those buses and actually schedule them in. That means that there will be more buses all at once rather than spreading them throughout the day. Ultimately, it will even out the passenger loads and make the bus schedule more transparent for student riders.

These changes aren’t happening overnight. How long does a system redesign process take?

We started putting the proposal together in January 2016. After that, we went through the bidding process and hired the consulting firm in May. Then we went through the contracts process, and they actually started work in July. In the last few weeks, the board gave the final approval on the new routes. Soon, we as staff are going to sit down and start to put together a new implementation plan and then we’ll know what parts and pieces of the system redesign we need to accomplish. The first, smaller set of changes are being planned for May 2018 when school is out for the summer—there are some changes that are easier to make when most students have left. Right now we’re planning that everything else will be done by August 2018.

What kind of things do you need to consider when implementing a new plan?

There’s a lot of parts and pieces to that. For example, we need to consider where to put new bus stops and shelters. We also need to reconfigure the route map and complete additional planning studies to meet federal requirements. Then, we’ll hold public meetings that detail the official changes that are going to be implemented into the next budget year. We also need to redo all the schedules and educate the drivers, employees, and public of the new changes.

What are your goals for the system redesign?

I’m hoping that overall it’s more convenient for our customers moving forward. Obviously, with a change like this, it’s going to be more convenient for some riders and less convenient for others. But, I’m hoping it’s easier to use our service and that it’s more transparent, with more of the trips being on the schedule. Those are my two takeaways from this whole process.

How will CyRide continue to move forward in the future?

This is the first time we’ve ever done anything of this magnitude. We will want to do it again, because things do change. Developments are changing, the city is changing. We’re going to want to keep looking at where we need to change our service to match the needs of the community. We’ll want to look at it at least every five years to keep CyRide running smoothly.

References

Related links

Ridership statistics: http://www.cyride.com/index.aspx?page=1240

Sustainability efforts: http://www.cyride.com/index.aspx?page=920

(Article) CyRide seeks change: http://www.iowastatedaily.com/news/article_894e6b14-a5ed-11e6-942f-8bea44c87907.html

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer