When Scott Lucas rode the bus to work for a week, he didn’t see many other PhD’s.
“Not a lot of people looked like me,” said Lucas, vice president for career and technical education at Wichita State University Tech.
Instead, he found himself surrounded by construction workers, hospital employees, fast-food slingers, parolees and students — a different but rich ecosystem of “friendship and shared camaraderie that is developed amongst the riders that take the same routes and buses day in and day out.”
“I saw more face tattoos on day one than I had probably seen the majority of my life,” he said, chuckling. “Typically, I was the only one in slacks and a buttoned-up shirt.”
There’s a reason why city buses aren’t filled with white collars.
What Lucas found riding the bus for a week was that his regular 11-mile, 17-minute car commute was, on average, an hour and 35 minutes on Wichita Transit.
He said about half that time was spent on the bus. The other half was walking to and from bus stops or waiting for connections.
He chronicled his experiences on Facebook, from the soreness in his tailbone from the unaccustomed bouncing on thinly padded seats, to the dead frog he walked past on his way to the bus stop.
“I rode on the first day and the last day with a guy that gets on at 5:40am and gets off at 6:20pm every day and that’s his routine to make sure he gets to work on-time,” he wrote. “On my last bus, I talked to a young man looking to further his education, so if he follows through the last 4 days have been worth it.”
Lucas said the experience “really opened my eyes to what our community and the folks in our community go through.”
It was an odyssey to get from his house, in the Benjamin Hills neighborhood near 21st and Amidon, to his job at the National Center for Aviation Training, on Webb Road just north of Jabara Airport.
The trip started with a 15- to 20-minute walk to the nearest bus stop, then a ride downtown to the Transit Center, then a transfer to a route that got him as far as Rock Road. After a 20- to 30-minute wait, he could catch a bus north on Rock that swings over to Webb and finally, a five-minute walk from the stop to his office.
To get the full experience, sometimes he left at 6:30 a.m., sometimes at 5:30. He had to give up his morning workout because with a full workday and three hours a day on the bus, there wasn’t time for much else, he said.
Riding the bus gave Lucas “just a glimmer into a different socio-economic piece that I don’t necessarily see every day.”
“I made some friends on the last day I rode,” he said. “I just happened to be sitting at a bus stop and two gentlemen came up and we struck up a conversation, and we took photos together and selfies and just sort of hung out. They were both ex-felons. They have to have the bus. They just don’t have the financial means to buy a car and do those types of things.”
Lucas gave a brief report on his experiences to the City Council last week, along with a plea for better bus service.
He found an ally in Mayor Jeff Longwell, whose 37-year-old daughter, Angela Pankratz, has cerebral palsy and can’t drive.
She rode the bus for a year to a previous job. It wasn’t great, but she can’t even do that now since taking a job in the Maize school district.
There is no regional transit system and the only city bus that currently runs outside Wichita is essentially a charter service that transports workers for a meat packing plant in Arkansas City, Longwell said. Now she has to depend on her husband, mother or friends for rides to work, Longwell said.
“It didn’t surprise me one bit” that it took Lucas more than an hour and a half by bus to cover a distance he can drive in 17 minutes. “I might be a little surprised that he made that trek that quick. I’ve hear people take as long as 2 1/2 hours to get across town.”
The problem Lucas encountered is that the city’s transit system is based on a “spoke and hub system” where most routes begin and end at the downtown Transit Center. It’s cheaper than a “grid system” but the downside for riders is they sometimes have to go a long way out of their way to get where they want to go.
“There was a time in our history when we had a very robust transit system,” Longwell said. “We had a grid system, and we went away from the grid system because people quit using transit.
“We love our personal vehicles in this area, and transit has almost become one (service) that just carries those that are transit-dependent for the most part.”
That could be changing. The Q Line motor trolley system has become more popular since the route was changed to just run up and down Douglas Avenue.
Longwell said the city is in the process of evaluating other routes to create more of a “hybrid grid system,” including an east-west connector that would run on Central from the west side to the east side without the need for a transfer at the hub.
“Who knows?” he said. “As we continue to see demographics and dynamics change in our city, that could come back.”