My family lives in Burlington and loves riding the bus to school, ECHO, Shelburne Museum and our favorite restaurants. For routine trips such as school drop-off and pick-up, we often choose the bus even though it takes a bit longer than it would by car (or e-bike). We’re a one-car family of four, so when the car is not available, the bus is our only choice. But the kids vastly prefer it and we all enjoy not having to deal with the hassle of car seats! A climate-controlled ride, and not needing a parking space wherever we go are added bonuses.
But Green Mountain Transit’s quirks make me wonder how much better its service, and ultimately ridership, could be if it made some simple improvements. Here are a few ideas that would be relatively easy and inexpensive to implement.
Before taking our first trip last year, we spent about an hour trying to piece together a mental map of the combination of routes that would get us where we wanted to go. And after all that preparation, we still botched a connection and as a result, got an unplanned tour of the other end of town. It really shouldn’t be this hard, and I say this as a native English speaker who has lived in Burlington a number of years. Imagine what a newcomer must think.
Investing in better communications would go a long way towards improving the rider experience, beginning with how route information is presented on the GMT website. An easy to find, interactive, system map would help answer questions like ‘does a bus route go there?’ And ‘where are the stops?’
Some people are good at interpreting a text description of a place. Others need a map. So why not employ both in GMT’s service alerts? A text-only alert, like the one below offers riders a quiz on street names and addresses, but doesn’t help them understand the spatial relationship between those names and their current location.
A map would show the route detour and clearly connect the dots between “You Are Here” and the “Closest Bus Stop is Here”.
GMT should also make sure it is conveying accurate information. Last fall, when the stop at Howard and St. Paul Street was not being served, a temporary sign directed riders to the nearest stop on East Allen Street (which happens to be 2.8 miles away in Winooski). Even if, after staring in confusion for a while, one realized that it was a reused sign sending an unintended message, a rider would still have no idea where the detour would lead them.
Contrast this with an experience I had in Ottawa recently. The bus I wanted to ride was affected by a road closure. There is very clear detour information at bus stops and on the provider’s website. What’s better, as a tourist with no knowledge of the area, I didn’t even need to know that it was a detour because updated information was available through Google Transit and other 3rd party trip planners.
There has been a huge improvement recently with the adoption of the Transit app for trip planning and bus tracking. Having this friendly user interface with up-to-date time predictions, coupled with increased frequency of service along many of the new Chittenden County routes is really exciting for GMT and its riders. That said, the data needs to be maintained and the agency needs to be responsive when errors are found. (My wife reported one error in the route information that is going on two weeks with neither a response nor a resolution.) It would also be useful to have fewer tweets about the weather and more notification about things that matter to riders such as when buses break down or are otherwise behind schedule. Providing accurate information, in the right places at the right times, would build trust in the service and likely earn new riders by word of mouth.
Relaxed Fare Policies
At the Downtown Transit Center, GMT provides transfer tickets that are good for a free boarding within 60 minutes. That is plenty of time to return for free after certain types of trips, yet current policy states this is not to be used to “reverse directions”. Is there really any reason to charge someone a second time to ride a bus, regardless of which direction they are heading? I would argue no. Drivers are gifted two hours of free parking in downtown garages. Why not offer a similar incentive to people who use this greener mode of transportation? And the benefit should be extended outside of the Transit Center as well.
Here is a simple example. In the morning when I take my kids to preschool on the bus, we ride the Blue Line outbound and get off part-way down the route near their school in South Burlington. I then have enough time to walk to school, get the kids situated, walk back, and make a treacherous crossing of Shelburne Road to reach the bus stop on the other side. At that point I pay again to board the exact same Blue Line bus that I just got off, which is now heading inbound. It feels unnecessary to pay twice for the same route. And I am not the only one doing this. On some mornings we are one of five families doing the same out-and-back school run along the route.
What if the agency actually encouraged taking the bus for routine errands such as this by providing a free return trip?
Another policy worth revising is that the second child under six per paying adult is charged a fare. Young children should ride free regardless of how many are accompanying a parent. If the adult has a child in each arm as well as a stroller, it is hard to free a hand to swipe one ticket. And, paying multiple times slows down the bus. Most drivers would likely prefer the extra time to be spent getting families into seats and moving the ticket line along.
In an organization that currently takes in just 16% of its revenue from passenger fares, is it really being served by nickeling and diming people in these ways?
In addition to making the bus experience more welcoming, we can go a lot further to encourage people to ride along, by using creative marketing and community partnerships. As a bicyclist, one of my favorite incentive programs is Bicycle Benefits, where a customer can get perks such as half off a dozen bagels at Myer’s or 5% off groceries at City Market simply by riding a bike to get there. Could we setup a similar program for bus riders?
There have been a lot of great changes recently with the potential to encourage new riders, including: the route overhaul and increased service frequency, a proper tracking app, and a ticketing app. But there still needs to be outreach to invite people to try this new and improved product. For example, there are now five buses per hour between downtown Winooski and downtown Burlington (20 minute service on the Blue Line and 30 minute service on the Green Line). I would make sure that everyone that works downtown or at UVM Medical Center knows this, and has an incentive to try it out.
The city provides free parking on Sundays, holidays, and for the first two hours at other times. Let’s acknowledge that people can and do contribute to the economy without parking a vehicle downtown, and sweeten the pot for sustainable transportation by offering equivalent incentives for GMT patrons.
Brendan Hogan lives with his wife and two young children in Burlington, where he enjoys getting around by foot, bike, and bus whenever possible. He is a member of the Burlington Public Works Commission, and works in the areas of transportation safety and efficiency as Lead Modeling and Simulation Engineer at The MITRE Corporation.