Finally, we come back to the bus, the system that Little Rock operates to move its citizens around and through the city. Really, it was the whole reason I started the blog so I feel it is appropriate to end with it as well. Little Rock’s bus system was just as foreign to me as any other city’s system, as I can imagine it is for most people. It was easy enough to figure out overall but often difficult to find out the specific info needed for a typical trip. Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) is primarily for people who have to use it instead of for the whole population and visitors. But once you ride it a few times its pretty easy to use.
– Saved gas and miles on the car
– Bike racks allowed me to travel a much larger area from a bus stop than if I was just walking
– Though usually off by a few minutes, the bus is very reliable- The busses were very clean and had good security
– I was able to read and relax rather than focus on driving in traffic
– Information can only be obtained online or at the main bus station or at a few bus shelters that have maps
– Most busses have a minimum 30 minutes between busses- Trips must be planned so you don’t miss a bus and have to wait an extra half hour for the next one
– Most busses stop running between 8 and 9, some even earlier- Weekend bus schedules are very limited and some busses don’t even run.
– Busses are at the mercy of traffic and can take longer during rush hour.
CATA seems to be in an in-between condition right now. On one hand, they do have an extensive system that covers a majority of Little Rock inside the belt way, and even further out in some cases, that allow residents who do not have their own transportation to move through the city. However, because of the long intervals between busses and limited hours of operation, it isn’t encouraging or even practical in many cases for most people to give up their cars entirely and rely solely on the bus and gain the benefit of saving hundreds of dollars every month by not owning a car. But CATA has a limited budget. It’s a wonder they do as much as they do know with it. But how could they make CATA be an integral part of Little Rock and not just some foreign entity that most people see but rarely acknowledge?
How can CATA become more user friendly?
Provide more Bus Shelters with Route Information.
There are a few bus shelters around Little Rock and North Little Rock. However bus shelters are expensive, costly to maintain and difficult to keep from being vandalized. Because of this, they are often only used in areas that have the highest concentration of riders. A possible solution to this is an Adopt-a-stop program. Many cities have citizens, local businesses or organizations that help maintain bus stops. A well maintained, bus stop can be a benefit to local business and neighborhoods as opposed to one that is poorly maintained.
Provide More Locations to Buy Bus Passes.
Right now the only place to buy bus passes are at the CATA station and three other places downtown during regular business hours and with cash or check only. But what if UAMS or UALR students could buy a pass on campus? What if they were for sale at Walgreens? What if you could buy a pass for a weekend trip to Little Rock at the airport? What if there were bus pass machines around town where you could swipe your debit card on a weekend and buy a pass? Like the bus itself, If CATA could provide more access to passes, more people would buy them.
Bar Codes at Bus Stops
As smart phones become more and more popular, many of us are able to access the internet anywhere at any time. Right now most bus stops are no more than a small yellow sigh on a post with a picture of a bus and a phone number to call. What if CATA added QR codes to all their bus signs? That way, if you are at a bus stop and want to find out where it goes and when it runs, you can scan the code with your phone and the appropriate route and timetable would pop up.
Bus Route Sign Posts.
For a less high tech solution, this was a great idea I saw in Vancouver. Their bus system was excellent. We took a bus out of the city center to the North edge of town to Lynn Canyon. This was a beautiful state park just 20 minutes outside of town. Near the entrance to the park was the bus stop. It was a simple sign, just like ours, but lower down on the pole was a small plastic tube, kind of like those containers you use at the drive through at banks. And inside was a simple 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper with the route number, name, and timetables. And if the bus times or bus number ever changed, all they had to do was print off a new schedule and stick it in the tube. Genius!
How can CATA encourage people to ride?
Painted Bus Routes
I have come to realize that the biggest benefit of using the bus as a public transportation option is also its biggest drawback. Starting in the 20’s busses began to become a more common site in cities and were preferred to the “noisy and bumpy” streetcars because busses were so much more flexible. Where as a Streetcar could only travel on the provided track, a bus could go anywhere in a city and could constantly update its route to be the most beneficial to riders. So over the decades, cities slow tore up there street car rails leaving the bus as the primary way to get around town. However today, far fewer people rely on or choose to use public transit. And though the bus has been around all this time, its ridership in most areas has continued to decrease in proportion to population increase. However public Transportation has seen a revival in rail transit. And though it is costly, most areas that implement a rail system see larger than projected numbers in ridership year after year, (except of course for Little Rock’s trolley which is more of a tourist ride than actual public transportation). So why is rail on the rise while the bus continues to fall behind? Because of the rail itself. When you arrive at a rail stop you can see the actual rail so you know at some point, and regularly, there will be a train that will pass by. And you can see where is comes from and see where it goes. The bus on the other hand offers no such security. And there you are, standing on the side of a busy street at a little sign post waiting for the bus, wondering where it goes and hoping that it comes soon. But rather that adding miles of costly track, is there a quick fix that could be done to help provide that visual reassurance and increase bus ridership? What about painted bus routes? It sounds kind of silly. Like a strip of paint on the road would actually encourage people to ride the bus. But if the bus route is in your neighborhood is marked and you see it driving to work and driving to the grocery store and driving to school and driving to the bank and driving to….etc, you start to realize, “Hey, there’s a bus that goes everywhere or near everywhere I need to go.” Or you may learn where that bus they see pass by everyday in front of their neighborhood comes from and goes to. I think this would be a great experiment to do either on the West Markham or McCain Mall Lines, just to see what would happen.
Bus Pass give-aways to selected neighborhoods that would benefit the most.
What if CATA target selected neighborhoods that were situated close to an existing route but had low ridership and distributed 10 ride passes to all the residents? It wouldn’t cost anything and the worst that could happen is no one would ride. No harm done. But maybe a few residents would become curious and decide to give it a try.
My experience was difficult because I lived downtown and didn’t need the bus much. But I did learn a few things that were beneficial. First, I should have purchased a 10 ride pass instead of a 31 day pass. The 31 day pass is great if you use the bus for commuting to work or school almost every day. I however only rode the bus 13 times the entire month. And while it was reassuring to know I had unlimited bus usage for the entire month and didn’t have to have exact change each time, it wasn’t necessary. I should have got a 10 ride pass which allows a 10 rides and does not expire. After my 31 day pass expired I purchased a 10 ride pass and carry it with me.Oak Forest United Methodist Church.
But perhaps the most important think I learned about using the bus for my situation is what kind of trips are better for the bus and what kind are better for a car. I have given up on the idea of using the bus system for typical and unplanned events and have decided to only use it for regularly scheduled activities that occur at the same time and same place every week. I have found this to be the most beneficial use for the bus. The difficulties of working out a route for each separate occurrence outweighs the easily benefits. However because I don’t need it to commute to and from work every day, there are a limited number of regular events I participate in. A few weeks back I joined my Church’s Hand Bell Choir. We’re pretty awesome …. all three of us. So I have decided this will be my weekly bus ride. I have ridden twice and have already figured out the schedule. I originally would leave my church after practice and biked over to UALR to catch the bus back downtown. However I know now I can stay and practice an extra 10 minutes or so and wait for the bus to come down the side street next to my church. After my second time riding I started questioning if even this would be worth it. I calculated up the gas and found that It would actually cost me more to ride the bus than the gas to drive there. But on the other hand I was saving the wear of those miles on my car and I wasn’t adding any pollution. It takes a good ten minutes extra each way but were those extra 10 minutes really that important? I probably would have just spent them watching TV or something rather than reading the paper on the bus. It was a tossup but what really caused me to decide to continue riding was some reading I found about the health benefits of people who rode mass transit and it got me to thinking how because I ride the bus, I do bike more and walk more. It may not be a lot more but every little bit more that I rely on my car less makes the health benefits more and more advantageous. I ride the bus not for the convenience but rather the experience.