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On Listening Bus, CATA staff hear rider feedback on the go

An image of the inside of a CATA Bus from the back of the bus looking forward.
Arjun Thakkar
Route 8 is a less busy route with fewer passengers.

Updated February 3 at 7:20 p.m. ET

On a frigid winter afternoon, Michigan State University graduate student Jacob Watkins rides the Capital Area Transportation Authority's Route 1 bus to get to campus. It’s an East-West route with service every 15 minutes that connects downtown Lansing to East Lansing and the Meridian Mall. It’s one of the organization's most busy routes and a popular option for students.

Also aboard the bus are staff with CATA. One of them sits next to Watkins and asks him if he could share his thoughts on the service. Watkins says he appreciates having the option to ride the bus because it's a more sustainable way to travel.

"I think it's great that there is a robust public transportation system in the capital area," Watkins said. "I think, especially in light of the current world, the current state of the environment, it's important that we all continue to invest more in public transportation and not less."

An image of the main hall at the CATA Transportation Center.
Arjun Thakkar
CATA's Listening Bus routes begin their journey at the CATA Transportation Center

Getting direct feedback from riders is part of CATA's new Listening Bus program. The organization is rolling out an unconventional approach to gathering input, with CATA staff hopping on bus routes to ask those who use the service how it could be improved.

This isn’t the first time CATA is taking feedback from the public, but it is its first time doing it on buses. CATA spokesperson Lolo Robison says the organization wants to understand the needs of its riders.

In the past, the organization has set up a space on Michigan State University’s campus and at its main station in Lansing to hear from transit users. But it didn’t get much student input and would hear comments from people who didn’t necessarily use the service.

“And that's kind of what spawned this idea that if we got on the bus, we would actually know that we're talking to our riders," Robison said.

On the listening bus, CATA staff are all ears. They chat with riders about their experiences and pass out feedback forms for them to fill out. In return, they hand out branded fanny packs filled with treats, including a round-trip bus pass.

Many of the riders have positive comments to share about CATA.

Gab Borja takes classes at Lansing Community College and commutes to the campus by bus every day. He’s thankful to have the option to use public transit to get to class.

"Honestly, I think more students should try CATA," Borja said. "It’s something that every student should take advantage of, especially like those who come from out of state or don't have a car. I think CATA is really the way to go for in terms of going around.”

Robison says riders on the first set of listening buses told staff they generally think CATA is on-time and reliable. But some said they’d like to see improved safety and more frequent service.

While he's grateful for the frequent service on Route 1, Watkins has run into issues with other CATA lines. Route 15 on Kalamazoo Street would be more convenient for his commute, but that bus runs less frequently, making it frustrating if he misses it.

“It goes basically right by my apartment, like very close by," Watkins said. "So that route runs every hour. If it ran every even half hour, that'd be incredible.”

Robison says bus frequency on a given route depends on if there is demand from riders. And with a nationwide shortage of bus drivers, she says changing how often a bus comes on one route could affect levels of service on others.

After the first Listening Bus returns to the station, CATA staff pause for a moment before boarding Route 8, which heads down Pennsylvania Avenue with service to Holt. They bump into Mykul, a rider who was also on the Route 1 service earlier in the day. He says he has to ride CATA because he can’t afford to drive a car.

Mykul, clutching a cane in his hand, notes that infrequent bus service often forces him to walk an uncomfortable distance to catch a bus. He says he has trouble getting from downtown Lansing to the McLaren Greater Lansing Hospital.

“Oh, well take this bus and then wait, and then cross the street and get on this other bus, then if it's still running, you can get this other one," Mykul said. "Well, no, I'm sick. I'm going to the hospital. I don't have to worry about that.”

Victoria Ericks is an LCC student who has to ride Route 8 to get to class. She says she's experienced harassment by other riders and would like to see more safety measures on the buses.

"There is like a big issue with female harassment, basically just people on the bus constantly like bothering girls or students," Ericks said. "It's not fun. It honestly makes me want to walk all the way to school."

Robison says it’s important for CATA to be equitable in making changes for its passengers. Some changes, such as making lighting fixes and other safety improvements, could happen with little delay. But others, such as changing a route, would require greater thought and public comment to ensure the adjustment doesn't negatively affect marginalized groups.

She adds the listening initiative can also help to educate riders on the organization’s travel options. That includes smaller vehicles that can offer direct rides with pick up and drop off for those with limited mobility.

“We do want to give riders a voice, and we want to be held accountable by our riders for our service to them,” Robison said.

CATA has three more listening buses scheduled in the spring months and Robison adds CATA is thinking of making it a monthly program. The organization will continue to evaluate what changes can be implemented immediately and which will require more public input.

Editor's Note: CATA is a financial supporter of WKAR.

Corrected: February 3, 2023 at 7:20 PM EST
Story updated to accurately reflect the bus pass CATA gave away to respondents.
Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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