The Collegian
Saturday, July 04, 2020

Administration attempts to save bus route to campus

As the Greater Richmond Transit Company considers cutting its bus service to the University of Richmond, campus administrators are creating a marketing plan they hope will increase ridership among students and staff.

Earlier last year, Human Resource Services contacted GRTC to purchase bus passes for its employees, said Lisa Miles, coordinator of Common Ground and a member of the Common Ground Action Committee on accessibility and transportation.

The administration ultimately decided to commit to investing in bus passes for employees because it would help fulfill the community engagement aspect of the Strategic Plan, would assist employees who may not otherwise have a means of transportation to the campus and would reduce the carbon footprint of the university, said Carl Sorensen, associate vice president for human resources.

As of fall 2008, all University of Richmond employees have access to free GRTC passes, and about 70 staff members use the Route 16 bus regularly, Sorensen said. After staff members were given access to bus passes, internal discussions determined that students should be given access to GRTC as well, he said.

The university spends $4,000 per month on bus travel for its staff and students, he said.

But students and staff who use the bus to travel to and from campus may be forced to find an alternate form of transportation.

Last summer, GRTC completed an 18-month study and identified seven underperforming routes, including Westhampton Route 16, which serves this campus. Route 16 costs $912,300 to operate, but only produces $149,100 in revenue, according to the GRTC study.

Facing a $763,200 deficit and low ridership along Route 16, GRTC is considering cutting the line, John M. Lewis Jr., GRTC Chief Executive Officer, said during a City Hall meeting last November. Lewis said a decision would be postponed until January, but GRTC has yet to decide if the line merits elimination. Route 16 is one of 10 lines facing elimination under GRTC's proposal, Sorensen said.

At a school where half of the freshmen do not have a car on campus, access to the city bus line is crucial, said Andy Gurka, chairman of the action committee and the area coordinator for University Forest Apartments. Students and staff alike have taken advantage of the service -- 224 students and 108 university employees have claimed bus passes, according to One Card Services. Student may claim their free bus passes at One Card Services.

Even though service to the campus remains threatened, students and staff who require Route 16 to travel to and from campus continue to use the bus.

Alex Borwick, a freshman, said she took the bus in part to try to save the line. As a Bonner Scholar, Borwick uses the bus three times a week to volunteer at VCU Medical Center. Despite being occasionally late and enduring a bumpy ride, Borwick appreciates the service and says she isn't sure what she would do without it.

The university provides transportation alternatives to the GRTC bus, including the Spider shuttle and service shuttles, which frequently take students off campus. As part of the renovations to the Tyler Haynes Commons, Miles said he thought transportation information regarding all services should be publicized there, because it's a central location on campus.

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The action committee is attempting to better promote Route 16 in order to stimulate ridership, she said.

"We want to create the opportunity for students to engage with the bus and figure out what it can do for their lives," Miles said. "We can't just assume that people will use it if you hand it a bus pass."

Part of the process has been reversing the negative feelings some students display toward public transportation and making students feel comfortable riding the bus, Miles said.

"There's a stigma people have about public transportation," Gurka said. "They're intimidated by it, especially if they didn't use public transportation back home."

The action committee is working with the student government associations and the Center for Civic Engagement to develop a list of points of interest for Richmond students, Gurka said. The Route 16 bus, which stops along Grove Avenue, provides students with access to The Fan, the museum district, UR Downtown and many restaurants, he said.

Gurka said he had relied heavily on public transportation during his time at Loyola University Chicago. He said he had felt far less intimidated when he had been accompanied by others, and said Richmond students could benefit from traveling in groups.

To get students interested in using the line, faculty members could encourage students to take the bus off campus for courses that require students to travel, resident assistants could conduct off-campus programs with their residents while using the bus line for transportation, and orientation advisers could take first-year students off campus during orientation -- to show students the benefits of the bus and make its use more habitual, he said.

One organization that relies heavily on the Westhampton Route 16 is the Bonner Scholars Program. Students in the program are required to complete approximately 40 hours of community engagement per month, and transportation off-campus is an absolute necessity.

"Since Bonners serve at thirty non-profits throughout Richmond on a weekly basis, it is vital that they have convenient, reliable and safe transportation," said Bryan Figura, coordinator of the Bonner Scholars Program. "The GRTC bus passes enable our students to serve in their community, build relationships with city residents, learn from their service experiences, and ultimately develop into citizen leaders.

"We also hope that the free passes will encourage all students, including but not limited to Bonners, to explore the city beyond their service, curricular and research interests."

Sophomore Bonner Scholar Chaz Barracks transferred to Richmond in part because he wanted to volunteer in a more vibrant community, he said. He has enjoyed riding the bus because it has provided a relaxing ride and affords him an opportunity to meet other college students and faculty. And he frequently asks dining hall staff what dinner will be on a particular night, he said.

Barracks encourages students to use the bus more, but suggested they bring a pair of sneakers and an iPod.

"People associate using the bus with being car-less, as though it's not a choice, but a last resort," Barracks said. "But in reality, it's a free opportunity for UR students to explore the city stop-by-stop.

"Even if I did have my car, I would still take the bus because I don't like parking, and if I'm running late, I can always blame the bus."

If more students like Borwick and Barracks continue to use the bus, ridership on the line will increase, which could sway GRTC's decision, Sorensen said.

Contact reporter Jimmy Young at jimmy.young@richmond.edu

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