Choice Rider Experience - MET Bus


I abhor driving, it is drudgery. But it just so happens that my two boys, Julian and Roman, really like soccer and hockey. By and large, these programs are run out of Waterloo's excellent Young Arena and Sportsplex facilities. In our just-in-time society, that means driving. Couple the drive with the maze of one-way couplets, pointless four-way stops, and endless traffic signals in downtown Waterloo, it is the stuff of road rage. There must be a better way. Enter MET transit.

I am a proponent of public transit. I've written about the topic in Transportation Dilemma. I've held a transportation summit of City, UNI, INRCOG, and citizen participants. We are making progress, but it is slow. Infrastructure-wise, University Avenue will feature our best effort in accommodation including bus turnouts.

HappyRider.jpgGenerally speaking, I am critical of our local bus system. It's operation is tailored to economically disadvantaged users, ignoring an entire population of choice riders. In doing so, it maintains an operational monopoly serving a minor subset of potential users. Monopolies (particularly those that are taxpayer-funded) never have to meet true market needs, they are slow (or the last) to adopt innovation, and don't operate to serve performance metrics. When choice riders take a greater share of ridership, the service will have met its potential (including CF citizen return on their $400,000 per year investment). When choice ridership increases, we will have successfully mastered the cost, convenience, and comfort equation

I put my youngest, Roman, through MET rider training so eventually he will build the confidence to do it on his own. Julian will follow. We mastered the exact change requirement, the route, and stop request. As an added measure of safety, they also carry a low-cost, mobile phone (thanks Republic Wireless!*). How does it measure up to the 'choice' variables?

  • Cost (grade: B+): at a child's fare of $0.75, a chauffeured ride to Waterloo is well worth it. If driving, you need to account for fuel (and all the other burdened costs of ownership) and time (about 2 hours away from other productive tasks). If I can avoid a trip, I would gladly pay $15. This service is a bargain. There are also means-tested fares. I only wish there was a family price too, because if you ride as a family, a two-way trip adds up.
  • Convenience (grade: D): The route was amazingly fast. I picked up the Yellow bus on Main and was dropped adjacent to both Young Arena and the Sportsplex. Sure, transit gaps existALO-Route.JPG, but by and large, the routes are sensible. But the wait time!! The greatest deficiency was the lack of a locator application (i.e. GPS-based) for bus routes (most cities have function, in Iowa City a locator app was a student project!). In 2014, the fixed routes were finally included in Google Transit (my route), a convenient planning tool. In terms of Web, the MET website is not mobile friendly, content is poor, and it is not intuitively designed (must be a product from 1990s), there is no other way to put it. So the ride was fast, about 17 minutes, but I waited more than 30 minutes for buses. I'm not calling for more buses, I just want to know when to make my walk to the pick up point! This feature would bump the grade by two letters!
  • Comfort (grade: A): the buses were extremely comfortable. Sure they were clean, but the drivers made this ride truly pleasurable... beyond friendly and helpful. I don't know if this is MET 'culture' or just a couple exceptional individuals, they made my day.CleanBus.jpg

There are many things our transit authority could do better. The #1 suggestion would be a bus locator app for phones. I would also love to see integration with a community bike-share program at major stops. For high-volume points, better shelters would be welcomed. But all things considered, I will be using this service at every opportunity. Sadly, the bus doesn't get close to my work place making a drive or bike ride all but necessary. For my kids (and let me be judged for free-range parenting), they will soon use this service to get to their practices in Waterloo on a regular basis. I encourage you to consider this service for your own transportation needs!



* Author's note: I don't get paid or receive any benefit from product placement. I like to share good ideas, things and products.

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  • Mark Little
    Nick, one more comment. Cedar Falls does not fund MET $400,00 per year. The actual total for service is $352,240, $299,535 of which is for Route 9 and 50% of the cost for Routes 6 & 7. The remaining funds the Paratransit service. The subsidies provided by Cedar Falls for both the Fixed Route service and Paratransit do not cover the entire cost of their service, federal, state and other funding sources make up the difference.
  • Mark Little
    Nick, I just came across this site as I was searching for something else. For the most part, I agree with your views in this post. I have been with MET since June of 1980. I remember when I started we had approximately 35% more service on the street. But, in the mid-to-late 80’s due to the local economy, MET’s local funding was reduced and services were cut. Back then MET operated all day service with additional buses operating on “peak hours”. This is the service that was cut and the funding that provided this service was never restored. The peak service was an excellent service to attract the “choice riders” as you talk about in this post. But without knowing the “whole” story, I’m sure one could wonder why MET cannot implement the features as you alluded to. Briefly, let me explain the challenges faced with ALL public transit systems. Capital replacement for bus funding: Due to lack of funding, Iowa transit systems operates one on the oldest fleets in the nation. Although MET’s fleet is probably in better shape than most other Iowa transit systems, still 45% of our buses are at or beyond their useful life. Funds received under the federal transit program for buses in Iowa flow through the IDOT and are awarded to transit systems in Iowa based on the systems age/miles of their buses. Today, over 65% of the Iowa fleet is at, or past, it’s federal useful life. It would take approximately $165 million dollars to replace these vehicles. On a good year, Iowa will receive 8-10 million, yes on a good year! Oh, and by the way, Iowa is a “donor state” meaning that Iowa puts more into the transportation fund than it receives. I would prefer that Iowa keeps the money sent to D.C. and let us fund our own projects. But, good luck to get any of our Federal Representatives to talk about that. Federal and State Operating funds have increased very little for the past several years, 2% to 3% on average, some years with no increase. Same with the local funding. I’m sure there are some that will say that transit should not be so dependent of tax payer funding. I disagree, there is not one transit system in the United States that purely operates on fares. The highest farebox return that I have ever heard was at CTA in Chicago. If I remember correctly, fares were approximately 22% of their total revenue. A transit system could not even come close to raising fares enough to cover all of the expenses. Why do I pay taxes then? Public transit is a community service, as is police, fire and the public library. In ending, I totally agree that MET is a system currently operating for the transit dependent. We do not cover enough area within the cities and the frequency is lacking to attract choice riders, not uncommon to most systems of our size or other urban transit systems in Iowa. The GPS feature as you and Rob described is great, but it costs money. Should we proceed with a project like this when almost half of our fleet is past it’s useful life?? It does no good to have a GPS app when the bus is broken down on the side of the road. As for your assessment of the MET website, I disagree. Yes it can be improved but designed from the 1990’s?? MET operates with a very lean staff and does a very good job with what we have to work with. It would be great to have all of the bells and whistles like the much larger transit agencies but that’s not possible today. MET is proud of the service we offer on the funding we receive. It is vitally important to the elderly, students, workers and the disabled community that have no other way to travel in our area, something I believe most people take for granted. Ride the bus, talk to the riders and ask them how important MET is in their life. I cannot disagree more with Rob’s comment “we are REALLY behind the times here”. Behind the times compared to what? New York transit, Chicago or Los Angeles?? Yes, probably, but our budget is a tad bit smaller. Compare our overall operations with transit systems of a similar size and I think you will find out different. I truly believe you are a transit supporter Nick. I think we need to sit down sometime and have a talk about how a public transit system is operated and the funding challenges and regulations that they are faced with. It is not just MET, it is most every transit system across the states. Lastly, every three years the Federal Transit Administration conducts a Triennial Review of all transit systems in the United States. MET’s review was in early May of this year. In the seventeen areas reviewed MET had ZERO deficiencies, something only accomplished by a handful of transit agencies each year according to the Federal Transit Administration.
    Mark Little, G.M.
    MET Transit
  • Rob Green
    Nick, I couldn’t agree more about GPS location. I often catch the #9 to UNI in the mornings at 4th an Walnut, and even though the bus stop is 100 feet from my house, I still find myself standing out in the cold for 6-7 minutes, and if it’s late, I find myself wondering, “Did I miss it??” First world problems, I know…but I have to think we are REALLY behind the times here. If you married GPS service with a few strategic bus stop signs (and a QR code for the app), I think we could increase ridership. Would love to see a LOT more people on the buses.