When the University of Michigan campus closed in March, transit coach operator Ken Bowman’s bus was one of the only vehicles in town still operating.
“It was like a ghost town,” Bowman said. “You could go down State Street and not pass a human being. …You got this feeling of, you’re the last person on this planet, because nothing’s there. Nothing’s open, nobody’s walking around, nobody’s driving around.”
Six months later, with the doors open for the University’s hybrid, in-residence semester, the campus bus system is back with big changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The traditional Bursley-Baits, Northwood and the twin Commuter routes have been replaced by a new system designed to reduce ride time. Buses are also cutting capacity in half, requiring face coverings and keeping windows open to increase airflow.
Siqian Shen, associate professor of industrial and operations engineering, started developing new routes in June with one parameter: each route had to take fewer than 15 minutes. Any longer, a College of Engineering study found, and the risk of airborne COVID-19 transmission between passengers is too large.
“A lot of the routes we had before like Commuter South, Commuter North, if you come from the very beginning to the end that’s way above 15 minutes — it’s like an hour,” Shen said. “Those bus routes cannot exist.”
Shen and her team of engineering students built a hub-and-spoke system modeled after large metropolitan areas to reduce ride times. Frequent Campus Commuter buses connect the two highest traffic stops: Pierpont Commons on North Campus and the Central Campus Transit Center on Central Campus. Pierpont and CCTC serve as the “hubs” for their campuses. “Spoke” routes such as Bursley-Bait Loop and Stadium-Diag Loop branch off from the centralized hubs and don’t cross over to the other campus.
With the changes in routes, instead of spending thirty minutes on Commuter North all the way from the Crisler Center through Central Campus and the Medical Campus to Pierpont Commons, one would take a Stadium-Diag Loop bus to CCTC and transfer over to a Campus Commuter bus to take to North Campus, spending fewer than 15 minutes on each bus.
Shen noted the efficiency of the new routes. The hub-and-spoke system offers riders more direct rides with fewer stops at low-traffic stations and unnecessary detours, she said, invoking her frequent trips between North and Central campus.
“So, if I take a Commuter South or a Commuter North, that kind of route, it takes me to the Medical Campus, and it kind of wastes a few minutes on the Medical Campus,” Shen said. “For me, I don’t read books or whatever on the bus, so I actually prefer something that I can just take directly to Central Campus if possible.”
Shen said trips are shorter on average with the new routes, even including some extra walking and transfer time. The use of shorter routes and fewer stops means buses show up to hubs more frequently than ever, even with the same number of buses as in years past. The Campus Commuter runs every two minutes on weekdays, a pleasant surprise to LSA senior Jack White, a longtime bus rider.
“I’ve never seen a full bus (this year), and this is what, like the third or fourth campus connector that’s come past in four minutes?” White said.
The hub-and-spoke system also allows for greater flexibility in case buses break down or drivers fail their daily symptom tests, Shen said, because one bus affects far fewer stops.
While Shen is a proponent of the hub-and-spoke system, she told The Daily the necessity of frequent transfers might be the biggest downfall to public opinion of the hub-and-spoke system.
“Somebody might feel frustrated now, like ‘I have to get off the bus and get on another bus,’” Shen said.
Rackham and Medical student Harsha Gouda used to take the Bursley-Baits route all the way from Central Campus to right outside his co-op. Now, he either walks about five minutes or takes two buses.
“It’s a little bit inconvenient, but considering the situation, I think keeping the big picture in mind this is better,” Gouda said.
Bowman, who is well-known for his bus posts in the “Umich Memes for Wolverteens” Facebook group, said while he understands the necessity of shorter routes, he does not enjoy driving them.
“It’s one of those deals where to talk about it, to put it on paper looks good, but when you actually go to execute it, there are all kinds of problems,” Bowman said. “… Bursley-Baits has been turned into a loop route that covers practically nothing.”
Nearly all of the students The Daily spoke to on buses said they felt safe given the low density and face-covering mandate, including LSA freshman Jackson Joyce, who rides the bus about five times a week.
“I think everybody I’ve seen on the bus has worn their masks, and for the most part people are separating themselves, so I think it’s going pretty well,” Joyce said.
Transit coach operator Kevin Lewis said he’s only had face-covering issues with less than one percent of his riders.
“We just won’t let you on if you don’t have a mask,” Lewis said. “I mean, it’s pretty black and white.”
Gouda, however, said he has felt uncomfortable when the bus is occasionally more crowded on weekends due to reduced service.
“I could definitely wait ten more minutes for the next bus, but I don’t know if the next bus is also going to be crowded,” Gouda said.
The University’s unique split-campus setup makes buses an essential aspect of campus culture. White said he hopes freshmen will eventually experience the packed buses of the past.
“As the bus is about to go, stepping on as the doors close, or when you’re actually holding on — giving a hug to the guy next to you basically — to squeeze on to be the last one on a crowded bus, as annoying as that could’ve been sometimes, I loved it,” White said.
Lewis said he appreciates that his job as a transit coach operator gives him the chance to take students — “our leaders and future” — where they need to go to learn.
“It’s not as challenging as some of the exams that all the students are taking, but hey, if I can do my part to get them there, I like it,” Lewis said.
Even with all the changes this fall, Bowman said he hopes students know the buses are still rolling.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Bowman. “We’re gonna be here for you.”
Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.