IOWA CITY — With 26 routes, more than 600 bus stops and varying schedules, even transportation experts find Iowa City’s transit system a little convoluted.
“I know when I started looking at the system, I got very confused and I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” said Thomas Wittmann, principal with Nelson Nygaard, a consulting firm hired by the city to study its transit service.
With that confusion as a backdrop, Wittmann and Darian Nagle-Gamm, Iowa City director of transportation services, presented the Iowa City Council with a possible new transit system featuring consolidated routes, more service times and more Saturday routes. The proposed route changes are the result of a $225,000 study launched last year with assistance from Coralville and the University and Iowa, whose routes also were studied.
Nagle-Gamm said the goals of the study were to remove barriers to transit use, improve interagency coordination, leverage technology and increase ridership. Iowa City Transit served 1.15 million passengers in the last fiscal year, a decrease of 22 percent due in large part to the current pandemic. Ridership is expected to decrease in the next fiscal year, Nagle-Gamm said.
Wittmann said the study included data on the Iowa City market, operating data and public input.
“We wanted to see where are people using the service now, how are people using the service now and when are they using the service now,” he said.
The proposed new transit system improves on-time performance, provides a faster service, better weeknight and Saturday service, a higher frequency of buses during the midday and improved access to retail destinations and job centers.
Under the proposed system, the 26 routes would be consolidated to 13 routes and those routes would remain the same regardless of whether it’s during the day, evening or weekend, which is not currently the case. Seven routes would have 15- to 30-minute service during midday hours, Wittmann said.
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Improvements under the new routes also include connecting some west-side residents with the Walmart retail area south of Highway 1 and connecting south residents with the Heinz Road industrial area.
The drawback is not all residents served under the current system will be as close to a bus stop, Wittmann said.
“We’re asking certain folks to walk a little bit further,” he said.
Wittmann said it would be possible for the city to consolidate up to 150 bus stops and relocate an additional 30. While some people might have to walk a little farther to get to stop, the trade-off is an improved transit service, he said.
“Most people are willing to trade faster bus service for a slightly longer walk,” Wittmann said.
Not included in the proposal is the addition of Sunday bus service. Wittmann said Sunday service would not fit within the current budget without reducing weekday and Saturday service, which would do more harm to ridership than good, he said.
“What you would lose is greater than what you would gain on Sundays, in my opinion,” he said.
The council presentation also included information on the city’s fare system. Wittmann noted the current fare structure includes 16 categories and only three of those are compatible with the Coralville transit system.
The fare discussion also included a big question for council to consider.
“Do you need to have a fare in the first place?” Wittmann said.
Without a fare system, Iowa City could see an increase in ridership, which is in line with the council’s climate change goals. Wittmann said dropping fares could lead to a 700,000 to 1 million increase in rides.
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“You could have a massive increase in ridership,” he said, though that would add more than $1 million to operating costs each year.
The transit changes will be presented to the public in early 2021. After development any implementation plan, the Iowa City Council could weigh in on the changes in spring 2021 with an eye on implementation that summer.
Council members said they were excited to see the proposal, but needed time to digest the plethora of proposed changes, including to the fare system.
“I was really excited to finally get this information,” said council member Pauline Taylor, noting the current transit system is decades old. “It is high time for changes.”
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