Consultant hears complaints about bus fare structure from Wichita riders, staff

A rider boards a bus Monday at the Downtown Wichita Transit center. (Dec. 15, 2014)
A rider boards a bus Monday at the Downtown Wichita Transit center. (Dec. 15, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Sometimes, you have to pay for a bus ride downtown to buy a pass to ride the bus for the rest of the week.

That seeming anomaly was one of several issues that riders brought up Monday afternoon as a consulting firm hired by Wichita Transit embarked on a research project to untangle the city’s complicated fare structure.

Rider Cece Shepherd, who lives near 31st and Seneca, said she lives on disability payments and uses the bus for all her transportation needs: medical, shopping and social.

She said she prefers to use a weekly bus pass. But to buy one, she has to pay cash on the bus to ride it to the Downtown Transit Center, the only place where the passes are sold.

Dillons stores sell a 20-ride pass for the transit system, but it costs more than the weekly pass.

“If they’d get the day passes, seven-day pass or whatever down there, that would be good,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd said it would be even better to also sell bus passes through QuikTrip stores, which are numerous in Wichita and easily accessible to people who don’t have transportation

Shepherd was one of about a half-dozen members of the riding public who shared their thoughts with Paul Supawanich, a senior associate with Nelson/Nygaard, a San Francisco-based consulting firm.

Supawanich is on a two-day fact-finding trip for the consultants’ study. He spent Monday meeting with bus system staff members and users and taking a ride on a bus. On Tuesday, he’s scheduled to meet with the Transit Advisory Board and other stakeholders from the business and education communities.

He said he’s looking for commonality of issues between the people who ride the bus and the people who run them.

“It gives us an opportunity to look at things we can change and have pretty widespread support,” he said.

Staff members and riders complain of the complexity of the price structure and the difficulty in dealing with multiple levels of fares and passes.

Wichita bus fares come in three different price levels: adult, youth and senior/disabled, plus transfers if the rider needs to change buses to get to his or her destination.

In addition, there are 11 different permutations of multiday and multiride passes. They range in price from $5 for a one-day unlimited ticket to $190 for a 120-day semester pass for college students.

Supawanich said most cities he’s seen don’t have that many different price levels, but it will take some research to figure out how to simplify the fare structure without harming the system.

“There’s not one silver bullet,” he said.

In addition to wanting more places to buy bus passes, the riders also said it would be a better value if the service hours were expanded to include nights and Sundays.

Bus patron Marsha Hall said she doesn’t have a car and has to get a ride to church. Also, the schedule doesn’t take into account people who work jobs with irregular and night hours, she said.

Another complaint was that the cost of a pass doesn’t seem to save that much compared to paying the fare on the bus. That, the users said, discourages casual riders from becoming regular riders.

“The pricing structure, it doesn’t appear to offer a very significant discount if you buy more,” said bus user Raymond Clause. “The savings, they’re hard to find in this pricing structure. If it was a dollar or two cheaper, people might buy the passes, and then they wouldn’t feel cheated out of Sundays.

“They’d go, ‘Yeah, but I’m saving so much and it’s good for the whole month and that’s a great thing.’ ”

And nobody seemed to understand or like having to buy transfers. Heads nodded all around when it was suggested that those be eliminated.

“I think the simpler, the better,” said Chris Green, who said he’s an occasional bus rider. “I think it would make it less intimidating (for infrequent or first-time riders). If everybody knew they could get on the bus for a dollar, that might help get everyone to do that.”

Clause added that the transit system also needs to promote itself better. He said the buses are new, clean and comfortable, but, unlike more transit-dependent cities, Wichitans have been trained to “look down their nose” at people who ride them.

“It’s shameful, and I’m embarrassed for my community for this, but they think ‘The buses are for people who are poor and pathetic.’

“There’s a lot of classism in our culture here, a lot of it.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.