Brown: CyRide upgrades made for you, the student

Phil Brown

If you have been to Iowa State’s campus, it is almost a given that you have noticed the CyRide buses. Those CyRide buses, or at least the people in charge of them, also have noticed you.

CyRide is one of those services that can easily be taken for granted. The continual stream of buses marching around Ames like clockwork can seem like just another thing that happens without much thought or input. As it turns out, there is an enormous effort being put into making CyRide not only a better bus system for the city of Ames but a transit model for college campuses all over the country.

Warren Madden, ISU senior vice president for business and finance and a veteran member of the local Transit Board, which combines student, university, and city interests concerning public transit in Ames, recognizes that CyRide is not just Ames’ bus system. It is also a student service. He said that “the system has been responsive to student needs.”

That does make sense, considering 89 percent of last year’s riders were either students or children under the age of five — anyone who was not required to pay fare. That large proportion seems even larger when compared to the 61 percent of CyRide’s local funding that is given by students.

Examples of just how CyRide works for students are both long-standing and numerous. They include developments like incorporating extensive routes to western Ames, where many students can find affordable apartment housing, adding bike racks to the fronts of buses, providing two dedicated campus circulator routes and working with the University to provide a free-fare service based on student fees. CyRide has even worked on their service times, providing students the Moonlight Express, commonly referred to by other, less dignified names.

CyRide and the Transit Board are not satisfied with their exceptional service, however. They are continually applying for federal grants to improve and revamp the existing services. The CyRide headquarters, located on the northeast corner of Iowa State’s main campus, reminds one of a bus-themed Tetris game. There currently is not even enough garage space to cover all buses in use. Nine of the current 84-bus fleet have to brave their nights under a blanket of stars.

This will hopefully be changed soon, said Sheri Kyras, CyRide’s director of transit, as a multi-million-dollar proposal is in the works that would establish garage space for 11 additional buses, raise the current garage roof levels — so the CyBrid buses have full access — and install floodgates to ensure the buses will not be damaged in the event of a large flood.

That is not to say the last string of CyRide upgrades will only affect students indirectly. In a few weeks, our campus will be home to two articulated buses, each of which are essentially two buses connected by a flexible middle. According to a study done by consulting group URS Corporation about six years ago, articulated buses will be a significant improvement for the clogged and cramped hours on the Orange Route. Each of the $524,000 buses was purchased through federal grant funding, which typically provides 80 percent of project costs, leaving the remaining funds to be gathered locally.

CyRide officials visited with representatives from the Champaign-Urbana area in Illinois, which currently employs a fleet of articulated buses, about some of the problems and benefits they have noticed. A test-run was also staged last summer to make sure the new buses would be able to drive the routes expected. After six years of build-up, the articulated buses were given the go-ahead. The brand new buses are on schedule to be in service later this fall, sleek and shiny in their bright new Cyclone paint.

The on-route infrastructure of CyRide is also looking at upgrades in the near future, with a six-month to one-yearlong study in the works that would evaluate the current situation, and the viability or necessity of new, smaller projects. These would cover an array of things such as increased numbers of benches, permanent stepping platforms, increased or altered signage, and even changes in routing.

The CyRide student fee — $62.50 per semester, for anyone counting — has been stable over the last five years, while enrollment has been steadily increasing. The excess funds this has created have been put into a trust fund recently totaling $1.5 million. The account is designed to keep fees constant when enrollment is down, or for funding when the students feel there is a project worth supporting.

One of those projects is quite possibly the most exciting development CyRide is currently making. The NextBus GPS tracking system that is already installed in the CyRide buses will allow anyone with a smartphone or an Internet connection to track all buses in real time. Testing is currently underway, and the system is on schedule to be fully operational in the beginning months of 2013.

CyRide not only provides a first-class service to Ames and the ISU family, but it is constantly working to improve that service. I suggest that each of us take full advantage of this improving CyRide system.