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Get On The Bus: Metro Grapples With Finding Right Formula To Meet Regional Demand

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon

The Number 70 Grand bus is Thelonda Malone’s primary source of transportation — besides her feet. 

Malone uses the Metro Transit's busiest bus route to get to and from work. She says it’s useful. But some aspects of the ride could use some improvement.

For one thing: When Malone gets off work at 5:30 p.m., she says she has a “50 percent chance of even being able to get on the bus.” If Malone does catch that second bus, she usually has to stand.

“[It’s] very uncomfortable,” said Malone while riding a packed bus on a frigid morning. “I mean, I work on houses. After eight hours of hard labor, I want to be able to pay for my seat and have one. I don’t want to have to stand. I don’t have to wait on the next bus.”

One the other end of the spectrum is Miranda Rectenwald. The Barnhart resident drives to Shrewsbury to catch the MetroLink train. She then gets on the Number 1 Gold Line bus to avoid parking in often bustling Clayton.

Unlike Malone, Rectenwald can always find a seat.

“Usually there’s about two of us on the bus,” she said. “Sometimes I’m the only one. Usually it’s empty when I take it down to Wydown or to Skinker.”

Brown's and Rectenwald's experiences illustrate the differences across Metro's 73 bus lines. Some routes, such as the Grand line, are absolutely packed. Others, like the Gold line, rarely have more than a handful of riders. 

Connecting the region

Ray Friem, Metro's chief operating officer, says he knows the Grand line’s capacity issues are a problem. In fact, the route has been busy for decades — even when it was a streetcar line.

But the Grand line is only a piece of a larger puzzle. Metro's bus routes cross St. Louis, St. Louis County and Illinois' Metro East.

“We have to provide a geographically balanced product,” Friem said, adding that one of Metro’s primary goals is to “connect 95 percent of the people and give them access to 95 percent of the jobs in the St. Louis region.”

That connection is not just a matter of geography. It is also a matter of timing. Many working people who ride the bus, he said, need it at different points in the day.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
Metro's Jessica Mefford-Miller and Ray Friem speak with St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon about the service's capacity issues.

“These bus routes go past different enterprises with different shift times,” Friem said. “The commuting patterns on different bus routes can be unique. And that’s one of the challenges of managing the entire system. The medical people tend to let out their shift times around 2 o’clock. The commercial people, they get out at 3 p.m. And then we have the late night workers.”

Jessica Mefford-Miller, the chief of planning and system development at Metro, said the Grand line is the “only route where we have capacity issues where we physically can’t fit all of the passengers on each trip.” Besides spanning across the city, the Grand line also connects with major bus routes and with MetroLink.

"Grand, in and by itself, has a distributional quality to it," Friem said. "Just about every major bus line crosses Grand at some point as well. If you can get the Grand line, you can get just about anywhere in the region pretty quickly."

How to fix the Grand line’s capacity issues, though, isn’t easy. For one thing, he said,  buying more buses isn’t a readily available option. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
The Grand bus line stretches from the near North Riverfront in north St. Louis to Loughborough Commons in south St. Louis.

“We’ve known for some time we’d like to increase service on Grand itself. And you have to understand: We’re committed. Our fleet is basically committed. We don’t have [any] spares,” Friem said. “So, if we say Grand needs more buses to be more comfortable, that’s three buses that have to either come off of another line or I have to make a capital purchase.

“And there’s no bus store. You don’t go buy a bus at a lot somewhere,” he added. “You place an order and you get it two years later.”

Recently, Friem said, Metro received a grant to purchase used and re-purposed 60-foot, articulated buses. He said those buses will hold more people — and be less expensive than buying more 40-foot buses.

Mefford-Miller said the 60-foot, articulated buses have 53 seats, compared to 43 seats on the 40-foot buses. But they also have additional standing room.

Both Friem and Mefford-Miller said that as the longer buses are phased in, older buses nearing the end of their life span will be retired. 

“It’s more cost-effective to run at the same basic level in terms of buses per hour, but to just add capacity to the bus,” he said. “And since the time frame [to get the buses onto the route] was equal, it was more cost-effective for the region to buy the 60-foot bus.”

Losing faith?

But not every rider is satisfied with adding longer buses. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon

Brian Marston, a St. Louis resident who works at Washington University, documented the Grand line’s capacity issues by posting a Facebook picture last year of a full bus. An avid bicyclist who dislikes driving, Marston said he’s Metro’s target consumer. But, he said, the Grand line is just too uncomfortable.

“What’s happening now is a lot of people who are living near Grand that tried the bus once or twice and had this experience where it’s incredibly uncomfortable, it’s packed, the bus is late,” he said. “And they just give up on it.”

Marston said to “really to address the demand that’s there," Metro has to “run more buses.” He said if the agency's Board of Commissioners or CEO regularly rode the Grand bus, they would have a "more visceral feel for what the issue is."

“They need to focus on where the demand is right now. And right now, that’s the Number 70 Grand line,” Marston said. “They should do a good job with that first and then think about having routes that go other places that don’t have as many people on them.”

Friem said shifting buses from other routes has unintended consequences. 

Metro's highest average weekday boardings (through November):
  • #70 Grand: 9,032

  • #95 Kingshighway: 4,482

  • #11 Chippewa: 4,288

  • #90 Hampton: 3,787

  • #74 Florissant: 3,737
“Your options are to take buses away from somewhere else and keep your costs neutral. That means lowering service somewhere else in the region. Or finding more resources from our funding partners and then just buying three more buses,” Friem said. 

Rectenwald, the Gold Line user from Barnhart, said her bus route “would be a lot more useful if the route actually went and stopped at better places. And maybe more people would actually use it.”

“It doesn’t connect well with a lot of the other lines. And it doesn’t stop at a lot of stores,” said Rectenwald, who also works at Washington University. “It doesn’t really stop anywhere overly useful unless you happen to be going to Wash U, I guess.”

Ray Mundy, the director of the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Center for Transportation Studies, said other cities often have trouble supplying enough buses during "peak time." That's the term used to describe when buses have the most demand.

Mundy says it's not unusual to spread out bus routes into areas that are paying taxes for the service. 

“Because they’re supported more by taxes than they are at the fare box, the natural tendency is to spread that service out,” Mundy said. “So even if buses are running very, very lightly used or no use at all, they’re still going to say they have half-hour or hourly service into a politically geographic region that’s paying taxes.” 

Mundy says contracting with private companies may help alleviate capacity issues. That's what some cities, such as Phoenix, have done. But he says that option often results in conflict with labor unions.

Friem says Metro tried contracting with private companies in the past but isn’t doing so at this time. But he said Metro is “always” watching other cities that do contract with private companies.   

'Like a party'

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
Passengers prepare to disembark the Grand bus.

Mefford-Miller said in a typical month on a route like the Number 70 Grand, Metro might get six to seven complaints about capacity. She said “given that we’re carrying about 9,000 passenger boardings per weekday, I would say that’s a pretty low complaint rate.”

Asked if a crowded bus was a bad thing, Friem said, “It becomes problematic when we can’t put people on the bus, when we physically leave people behind.  

“But the buses are designed for people to stand and travel and commute safely,” he said. “The other thing is we try to be a little bit more sensitive. New York’s one thing. But in St. Louis and the Midwest, we have a little different tolerance level."

Michaela Turner uses the Number 40 bus to get downtown. She too says her ride is often crowded — especially in the afternoon. 

But Turner — a south St. Louis resident who teaches yoga — has a different attitude about the experience. Many of the people who ride her bus have gotten to know each other. Those people, she said, have become “a small community and kind of like a party.”

“I would say a crowded bus is a great thing,” she added. “I step off it feeling very full of energy and happy that I’m connected with all these people.”

Perhaps Angela Brown best represents Turner’s ideal. She spends her ride chatting up passengers — and the bus driver. She said that the line could use more buses — or, perhaps, longer ones. But she appreciates how the line is close to her home and can connect her to the MetroLink.  

“I like the line.  The line is real cool,” Brown said.

Inform our coverage

This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. 

To learn more about the Network and how you can become a source, please click here: https://www.publicinsightnetwork.org/

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.