Suzanne Perez Tobias

Seriously, Wichita, it’s past time to fix our city bus system

When my son decided to live at home after high school and attend Wichita State University, I figured we could wait a little longer to get him a car of his own.

Why pay for a vehicle, fuel, insurance and parking when you could save that money and just ride the bus to school and work?

We live near Towne East Square, and I saw Wichita city buses pass regularly by a sheltered stop a few blocks from our house. It should be simple to catch a bus there and ride it 5 miles to WSU’s campus, right?

Wrong.

We quickly discovered what Scott Lucas related to the Wichita City Council last week: Public transit in Wichita is an onerous, impractical, time-sucking proposition.

Because of our city’s outdated “spoke and hub” bus system, in which most routes begin and end downtown, there was no simple way for Jack to travel back and forth to school. Transferring routes and waiting up to 45 minutes for the next bus meant his commute would have taken an hour or more. Limited hours on many routes raised another challenge, making it impossible to ride the bus home from evening classes.

We quickly abandoned the bus idea and found Jack a low-budget used car. But not everybody has that option. And in a metropolitan area the size of Wichita, it shouldn’t be necessary.

Lucas, a vice president for career and technical education at WSU Tech, rode the bus for a week and found that his regular 17-minute commute took more than an hour and a half on Wichita Transit. He chronicled his experience on social media and related it to city leaders last week, along with a plea for better bus service.

“It truly opened my eyes to what people go through,” he told the City Council.

If Wichita genuinely wants to be a vibrant, modern city, we have to improve our public transportation.

A primary challenge, no doubt, will be counteracting a culture in which the car is king. Wichita, like most American cities, is utterly dependent on them, a fact that surfaced earlier this year around parking for the new downtown ballpark.

In Wichita, gas is cheap and space is plentiful. Suburban sprawl has extended the distances we travel to work or elsewhere, so private vehicles are imperative. We’re not New York or Chicago or Boston, and dang it, we don’t want to be.

Meanwhile, city buses remain the realm of the disadvantaged or destitute — another fact Lucas learned during his treks — so there’s not a huge outcry for more convenient public transit.

But there are reasons to hope.

Within the past year, Wichita has reworked its free Q-Line trolley to make it easier to travel along Douglas Avenue. More Wichita students ride city buses to school, and a new partnership with Wichita State allows WSU students and employees to ride any city bus for free.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said the city is evaluating options to create more of a “hybrid grid system,” including an east-west connector that would bypass the downtown hub.

Improvements need to happen — and soon.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.
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