Rural College Campuses Solve Student Transportation Challenges With Shuttles -- And Bikes

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MSU-Billings students arriving on campus from the new shuttle service

(Billings, MT – YPR) – The car-centric West poses a challenge for college students who arrive on campus without a car. Public transportation can be limited, and far flung classrooms, and snow and ice storms can be a challenge for students who live on campus -- but attend classes miles away. Transportation is also a challenge for "land locked" campuses that can't add more parking spaces and are looking for ways to encourage the campus community to become more "green."

Now three Montana campuses with affiliated Colleges of Technology, located miles away, have transit options for its students. Montana State University-Billings became the last campus to get a shuttle for its students beginning with the current spring semester.

Jeannie McIsaac-Tracy is the director of Student Life and Auxiliary Services at MSU-Billings. She says 90 students live in the residency halls but take the majority of their classes at the COT, seven miles away.

“We have no housing at the COT,” she says. McIsaac-Tracy says the new shuttle service tells students, “yes you can live with us, be part of the evening campus life, and not have that additional expense of driving back and forth.”

Student Johnny Maetzold is one of those students. “I’ve been driving out there,” he says. “But now that the bus is here and money is a little tight, I think I might ride it a few times.”

McIsaac-Tracy says the free shuttle is an important sustainability issue for the city of Billings, Montana’s largest community. “If you watch in the morning, you see car after car after car leaving this lot (at MSU-Billings) and driving out and back.” She says in addition to reducing traffic congestion, the shuttle could reduce the use of gasoline and automobile emissions. “So we’re excited about the environmental issue of running the shuttle.”

The MSU-Billings 18-seat bus is currently a pilot project. Campus officials say they will evaluate usage and work on a funding source at the end of the semester.

The University of Montana-Missoula has been fine-tuning its student transit since 1999. What initially sparked the issue was the need for more parking, but the lack of land on or adjacent to campus.

That’s when the student government created and pays for the Associated Students of UM Office of Transportation. The campus now runs six buses a day between its COT and two Park and Ride lots.

Director Nancy Wilson says the office estimates it will carry about 450,000 riders this year on its system. “About 40% of our ridership walks to the bus stop and the other 60% drives to the bus stop,” she says.

In addition to free bus service, UM also has 50 bicycles that students can borrow for free for up to two days -- or students can rent a bicycle, helmet, light, and lock for $30/semester. Wilson says that “works really well for international students.”

U-M's fleet of bicycles

Wilson says UM continues to look into whether to offer its students car share.  “We’ve looked into it several times,” she says. “We’re not sure if our community is large enough to support a car share at this point.”

Boise State University in Idaho has a car share program for its students.

Wilson says UM also works with the city bus service  and a community based transportation organization, Missoula in Motion, to help students get around the area by bicycle or city transit.

Montana Tech in Butte also is working with the Butte-Silverbow Bus service to transport students for free from its uptown campus and residency halls to its COT. That service started in January 2010.