College towns transit

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – Lack of parking and difficult traffic are common complaints on college campuses, but both Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi have tackled those concerns with transit systems.
Each comes at it from a different direction.
Ole Miss has a compact campus that increasingly emphasizes getting around on foot or bike, so students and employees use Oxford-University Transit primarily for getting to and from campus rather than around it.
Daniel Lee, an Ole Miss psychology and English major from South Korea, rides OUT to campus every day from his apartment on Old Taylor Road. Like many international students, he doesn’t own a car in this country.
“It’s really convenient, but I only use it to go to class,” he said. “I hitch a ride with my roommates for shopping.”
Assistant University attorney Donna Gurley said OUT serves the needs of hundreds of carless students like Lee, provides a “greener” alternative to driving and eases parking congestion.
“Parking has always been an issue,” she said.
From the city’s perspective, OUT also was designed to reduce traffic and parking demand in Oxford – especially downtown.
“It’s also a way to provide transportation to a portion of our population that didn’t have consistent transportation available before,” said OUT manager Ron Biggs.
At MSU, the focus has been on-campus since the shuttle system’s inception in 1996, when parking on the sprawling Starkville campus was assigned by zone.
“By parking vehicles in certain zones and not allowing them to move around, it was only fair that we give some alternative transportation,” said Mike Harris, director of parking operations at MSU.
At both schools, summer routes are pared: Some OUT routes run only once an hour instead of every half-hour. Summer shuttles at MSU are much more limited – only one route runs, compared to five during the fall and spring semesters.
Matilda Asuzu, an MSU senior communications major from Baton Rouge, has never had a car on campus.
“I have a bike to get me around campus and other close places,” she said. “During the semester I’ll use the shuttle to get to class or if I’m going to the library or back to my dorm.”
A few off-campus options in the transit system make life easier for carless students at MSU during regular semesters. A route serves campus and shopping centers on Saturday mornings, while another route goes to downtown bars and restaurants on weekend nights.

Planning ahead
In Oxford, the city and the university split the cost of their transit system, which began in October 2008, depending largely on state and federal grants during its early years.
Ole Miss contributes an additional amount that allows its students, faculty and staff members to board any OUT bus without charge, while townspeople and visitors pay up to $1 per ride.
Oxford aldermen agreed just this week to a two-year extension of OUT’s contract with McDonald Transit, the Texas-based company that manages the system.
At MSU, shuttle costs are covered by vehicle rentals to campus departments and through parking fees.
Both systems are looking forward to GPS-based systems that will enable riders to learn from computers, smart phones or signs at shuttle stops exactly when the next bus will arrive. And those changes are expected to boost ridership.
“We anticipate it to expand exponentially because of the GPS,” MSU’s Harris said.
OUT, which has added three new routes to its original two, plans a new park-and-ride site at the Old Taylor Road entrance to campus that will offer service every 10 minutes during peak times. New bus stop shelters will be built this summer, and Biggs anticipates ridership this fall may average 1,000 per day.
Gurley and other officials are gratified.
“In the month of April, we had over 16,000 riders,” she said. “I didn’t think this early in the program we’d have so many riders.”
MSU Transit officials, who serve 5,000 to 6,000 riders per day during peak times, hope eventually to extend regular bus service to the city of Starkville.
“Nothing is limiting us on the imagination side, but obviously resources are always very tight, especially right now,” Harris said. “We certainly don’t want campus to suffer by expanding too quickly.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 218-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.