Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Thursday, January 18, 2018

The AU shuttle service has reached a low point

Can you trust the Wonk Bus for your transportation needs?

The AU shuttle service has reached a low point

Every day, hundreds of American University students gather around their nearest shuttle stop with glossy eyes staring at their phones, friends huddled together, waiting for the AU shuttle to take them to Tenleytown. For many, it is the safest and quickest way to get around the area. But this semester, the shuttles have been making fleeting appearances, leaving students confused.

The AU shuttle service, sometimes called the Wonk Bus, is a common sight on campus. The buses have two routes that can take you to the former law school campus in Spring Valley, the new law school on Nebraska Avenue and the Tenleytown Metro. This semester, however, the shuttle seems to be a mystery to students. How much extra time will we need to wait for the shuttle? It may be more than the seven to ten minutes for the blue route that is promised on the website.

That’s right. The shuttle is supposed to run every 15 minutes, and a schedule is even posted by the shuttle stops. But this semester, I have waited upwards of 25 minutes for the shuttle, and I am not the only student who has recently had bad experiences with this AU service.

David Brewer is a junior who commutes to school from Bethesda, making him heavily reliant on the shuttle services. For him, the shuttle sticking to its schedule can make the difference between him being on-time and late to class. “Oftentimes, I’ll run to catch the shuttle from the top of the escalator as I see it may be about to leave. The drivers have on more than one occasion stared at me as they drove off or shut the doors in my face,” Brewer said.

Max Testa shares similar frustrations, and now finds it faster for him to walk to campus from Tenleytown. “Justify it however you want, but at the end of the day it’s really just a lot of shit,” he said.

After speaking to Assistant Director of Facilities Operations Mark Feist and Shuttle Operations and Maintenance Manager Alef Worku, I found out that there is only one blue route bus operating until 10 a.m., which starts again during rush hour, with more buses running after 4 p.m if deemed necessary. Throughout the day, there are three red route buses circulating. The red buses take about 45 minutes to complete a full circle and the blue buses take about 25 minutes. This means that if you decided to wait for the blue bus to avoid the extra time the red route takes, it is possible that you will be waiting for about half an hour.

The reason for adding the red route extends beyond serving Spring Valley commuters, of which there are only about 100, according to the data collected by Worku’s team.

“The reasoning of getting the red route is that’s the only option we have to serve Spring Valley, main campus and East Campus at the same time,” Worku said. After consulting with a transportation consultant, Worku and his team concluded that this is the best way to deal with campus expansion and still cater to the needs of students.

Like Brewer and Testa, I have had to wait for the shuttle for over 20 minutes. During these instances, while waiting for the shuttle, I have tried to check the SE Transit app. I remember during my freshman year the app would show me the location and direction of every single bus. Last year, after the addition of some new buses, the app became less trustworthy; oftentimes it only showed red route buses. Then, I updated my iPhone to iOS 11 and tried to track down the elusive Wonk Bus, only to be told that the app has to be updated to work with the new software. iPhone users were completely on their own with no knowledge of the shuttle’s whereabouts, forcing them to make an impromptu decision on whether they will walk or wait.

Now there is a new app that was launched on Nov. 1. AU is now using the TransLoc Rider app to track the shuttles. The application allows students to see how long they have to wait for the shuttle and where it is. However, not that many students seem to know about it, even though Feist and Worku have tried to spread the word. Based off the analytics that I saw, this seems to be a much more accurate app than what was in place before.

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with the shuttle services is the fact that several buses are not in use and are parked outside Watkins building. You can find at least three idle buses, two of which have been parked in front of Watkins building since the beginning of the semester. I walked over to the stop near Anderson Hall a little over a week ago near 6 p.m., when students usually start leaving campus, and found four parked buses, not including the two by the Watkins building. 

“[It is] not so much that there are extra buses, it's more that...we are meeting our demand by using our budget in the most effective way,” Feist said. 

They keep those extra buses there as a backup, and there are more parked during the day than there are during rush hour, he added. To me, having to wait 25 minutes for a blue route bus does not seem to be the most efficient way to serve students, but I realize this is something that will take time to fully understand. Feist and Worku emphasized that they are open to feedback about the shuttles and want to know more about what students want.

Nevertheless, the school is responsible for telling students all of the above information about the shuttle services. There should be a better channel for communication between students and facilities management so that students know how to help make a change instead of bottling up their frustrations, spending more money or in general feeling like they can’t trust the shuttle service system.

Sonikka Loganathan is a junior in the school of communication.  


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