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Private Shuttles Give Students Choices, Leaving the Public with Fewer

A slow-moving river of cars and buses winds around junior Brittany Minnick as she sits on a metal bench outside Joe Frank Harris Commons. It’s the last day of classes for the fall semester at the University of Georgia, and bumper-to-bumper traffic inches through East Campus Village with the sound of brakes squealing as cars stop and go. Three red, black and white UGA buses roar into the circular loading area as Minnick pulls out a thick stack of white and pink flash cards: 300 vocabulary terms for her Spanish final. She always just misses her apartment complex’s 1:20 p.m. shuttle, so she’ll study while waiting for it to return in about 25 minutes.

Minnick lives at The Lodge on North Avenue, about a mile away from North Campus and downtown, or two and half miles from East Campus Village, where she waits now for the shuttle. She could walk, pay for parking or take a public bus run by Athens Transit, but she likes the private shuttle. She doesn’t have to worry about the weather or navigating traffic, there’s no additional cost, and it’s a direct route on a bus with other students, people like her.

“It’s just a really convenient amenity to have in an apartment complex in this area,” she says. In fact, Minnick considers the private shuttle a necessity. Next year, she’s planning to move to The Connection off Atlanta Highway, which also has a shuttle.

As Athens-Clarke County conducts a study on how various transit options in Athens can fit together more efficiently, private shuttles run by student apartment complexes are under scrutiny. Over the past two years, Athens Transit’s ridership has declined along some routes, a few of which the bus system extended to student complexes at the request of the complexes themselves, according to Director Butch McDuffie. “All of a sudden they’re running their own shuttles, and people aren’t getting on our buses,” he says.

Managers and representatives of student apartment complexes say the students want the shuttles, and that they’re trying to compete with other student complexes, not Athens Transit. “We’re a supporter of the local transit system,” says Steve Messer, regional supervisor with Asset Campus Housing. The Connection, a local student complex in his portfolio, staggers its schedule with Athens Transit’s routes 20 and 21. “We’re not trying to duplicate service,” he says.

Sitting outside Joe Frank Harris Commons and going through flashcards, Minnick isn’t thinking about how complicated the issue of transportation is for a small city with a big university, two transit systems and now private shuttles. At the moment, she’s got 300 Spanish terms to review as she waits for her shuttle amidst the slow-moving sludge of afternoon traffic.

Transportation Choices

With the explosion of new student apartments downtown, McDuffie says it makes sense that complexes are providing shuttles. He understands the need to compete with residences that are walkable to campus, shopping and nightlife. “The downside of that, though, is that many of these properties have come to us in the past and asked us to increase service to them,” he says, “and now they’re providing vans and shuttles, and we’ve lost that ridership.”

As an amenity, the cost of private shuttles is embedded into rent at the apartment complexes that offer them. Because of this, UGA students often don’t realize that they are paying twice for transportation—once through student transportation fees and again through their rental agreements, McDuffie says.

UGA pays a discounted bulk rate to Athens Transit for each ride taken by affiliated students, faculty and staff. The money comes from general parking fees and semester transportation fees. Students don’t perceive that they are paying to ride when they swipe their IDs to board a bus, but these card swipes mean dollars for Athens Transit. When students with UGA take private shuttles instead of public buses, McDuffie says, Athens Transit notices the loss in fare revenue.

Seven student apartment complexes provide some form of private shuttle service; previously Athens Transit thought there were as many as 13. Four of these confirmed that they provide day service: Athens Ridge; Abbey West; The Lodge, where Minnick lives; and The Connection, where she will move next year.

Brittney Belt, a third-year advertising major, takes The Connection’s private shuttle every day. It wasn’t her intent to use the shuttle so much; she missed the deadline to register for a campus parking pass. But Belt doesn’t limit her options to the private shuttle. If buses for routes 20 or 21 will get her home faster, she’ll take those instead of waiting on a shuttle. Though she doesn’t use Athens Transit as much, she likes being able to swipe her UGA card and hop on a bus. “I think that it’s a good option here,” she says. “Especially for people who don’t have cars or people like me who don’t like to waste gas.”

Abbey West on Epps Bridge Parkway is another complex that ultimately began to offer a private shuttle after Athens Transit extended routes to reach students there. Morgan Ewton, a sophomore majoring in dietetics, sees the shuttle as an economically and environmentally friendly way to get to UGA. “If I have the option to take my car or the shuttle, I usually take the shuttle,” she says. ”It’s better on gas, the environment and overall convenience.” While Ewton doesn’t use Athens Transit as much as the shuttle, sometimes she’ll use public transit to get around town; for example, taking route 12 to get to her boyfriend’s place.

“People are people; they are going to use whatever form of transit is easiest,” says Tyler Dewey, executive director of BikeAthens. Dewey says transit planning has been playing identity politics, as officials and planners create solutions based on the idea that people have one mode of transportation, such as the car driver or the transit rider, the city bus rider or the shuttle taker.

“It might just come down to convenience,” Dewey says.

Private Amenities

Not everyone thinks students will choose public transit, even if it is the quickest way from one place to the next. “If they feel like they are riding a public bus, then they aren’t going to ride it,” says Shawn Regan, regional supervisor with Asset Campus Housing, which manages The Lodge.

The Lodge, which is serviced during the day by Athens Transit routes 1, 3 and 24, began running its own private shuttle service in April 2013. “Our residents asked for it,” General Manager Helen Williams says, adding that there were no rent increases to pay for the shuttle.

But student requests are not usually how shuttle service becomes part of an amenity package. “Generally, we’ll advise property owners on whether it’s necessary for that property in that market,” Regan says. The current owner of The Lodge purchased the complex in 2015, after the private shuttle became an amenity.

Normally a property as close to campus as The Lodge is to UGA would not get a private shuttle, but the campus parking situation makes it worthwhile to offer, Regan says. He and his colleagues will also look at the public transit that’s available, where it goes, its branding and how students feel about it. Transit that goes directly into complexes rather than stopping at the entrance is favorable, he says, and so are routes that go straight to campus. Buses and routes that play on UGA themes, colors and mascots make the students feel more comfortable with taking transit, he says.

Though Athens Transit has a stop just outside the complex, its large, plain white buses cannot go inside The Lodge’s front gates, because that’s private property. If Minnick took Athens Transit, she would have to transfer at the Multimodal Transportation Center to a second bus or walk to get to her final destination, either campus or her apartment at The Lodge. She has only ever taken the shuttle.

Just before 1:50 p.m., The Lodge’s small 25-seat bus, skinned in red with giant photos of a pool and smiling students, pulls around the circle in front of East Campus Village. Minnick boards and immediately slides into the first seat behind the driver. “I always get on the front seat when I get on the bus,” she says. “It’s easier to sit up here.”

Minnick is one of a half-dozen students on the shuttle this particular afternoon, the last day of fall classes. The shuttle makes its way through the UGA campus; its metal shell rattles loudly as the bus bounces over dips in the asphalt on the way to downtown. Minnick looks out the window, saying she prefers watching traffic from her seat on the bus rather than dealing with student drivers on congested roads.

The Lodge’s shuttle service is contracted out to Green Way Shuttles, based in St. Louis. Cory Scruton, a partner with the company, says it began nine years ago with a single shuttle handling three student complexes near the University of Missouri. Green Way Shuttles now provides service for complexes at 15 universities, including two near UGA: The Lodge on days and weekend nights and another Athens student complex, The Reserve, on weekend nights and game days.

Scruton says his customers like the ability of their shuttles to drive into the complex instead of picking up residents outside. Private shuttles offer flexibility apartment complexes want, such as night service or special events as an add-on. “We will try to tailor whatever type of service to their needs,” he says.

Green Way Shuttles will work with universities and cities on where their shuttles can stop, load and unload students. Scruton says sometimes there are concerns from city or campus transit about competition, but when it comes down to it, if the apartment complex feels their service is better, that is their decision. “It’s just a choice thing,” he says.

No Free Ride

That choice has been costly to Athens Transit, which has seen the greatest drops in ridership from the three routes that pass The Lodge. According to Athens Transit data, UGA ridership fell by 80 percent from April 2013–April 2014 for routes 1 and 24. Those drops contributed to an 18 percent decrease in total ridership for route 1 and a 25 percent overall decrease for route 24. Another route that passes The Lodge in one direction, route 3, also lost riders. UGA ridership fell by 33 percent, contributing to a decline in total ridership of 13 percent in 2014.

If shuttles are costing Athens Transit ridership, they are also costing the apartment complexes that provide them. Regan with Asset Campus Housing and The Lodge says once an amenity is offered to residents, it’s difficult to take away; this is why adding a shuttle is carefully considered. And while Messer wouldn’t say how much it costs to run the shuttles at The Connection, he wouldn’t downplay the expense, either. “From a property standpoint, it’s not inexpensive to run one. It’s costly,” he says. “We shoulder that expense because it keeps us relevant and competitive in the market. And our residents like it.”

Getting apartment complexes and Athens Transit together to negotiate route extensions is possible, but it’s also difficult and complicated when properties change hands every few years or so, McDuffie says. Furthering the complication, some complexes may be outside the Athens Transit service area altogether, but their private shuttles still have an impact.

Athens Ridge, which opened in 2014, is just on the other side of the Oconee County line. Representatives of the complex approached Athens Transit about getting a stop on route 9, but the complex is out of the service area. “That’s why we did the shuttle system,” community assistant Kyla Lee says, “because we realize we are a little further off campus.” 

Athens Transit is in the middle of a year-long study of its entire system and operating area. The study looks not only at origin points, but also destinations, according to Rachel Hatcher, senior planner and project manager with consulting firm RS&H, which is leading the study. Although Athens Ridge is in Oconee County, its ridership remains important. “Users will still impact services in the operating area,” she says.

UGA ridership has a major impact on transportation choices in Athens. McDuffie says 60 percent of farebox revenue comes from people affiliated with UGA. Early results from RS&H’s study shows that 40 percent of daily Athens Transit ridership comes from just two routes, 12 and 14, which gather mostly student riders at complexes along Riverbend Road and the large Lakeside development. The popularity of these routes helps fund other routes that are less busy but still needed by the community, McDuffie says.

If ridership along student apartment complex routes falls due to students preferring their complex’s private shuttles, Athens Transit could decide to decrease service and invest in other routes. In addition to UGA folks who do take public transit, changes to routes that pass The Lodge would affect 90,000 trips made by non-UGA riders, or 77 percent of all ridership along routes 1, 3 and 24. These trips include students, staff and faculty going to and from Athens Technical College, which does not have a bulk fare discount deal with Athens Transit like UGA; riders pay out-of-pocket.

The End of the Road

The little red shuttle pulls into The Lodge’s gates. Minnick and the half-dozen other passengers gather their books, bags and coats, seemingly unaware of the extent to which their living and transportation preferences are studied, predicted and provided for as consumers and as residents of Athens. For Minnick, that Spanish final is fast approaching.

The shuttle empties, and a few more students get on. Soon the shuttle takes off, rounding the buildings in the complex before exiting onto North Avenue. Just outside the gates, the shuttle passes the covered Athens Transit stop outside the apartment complex, where no one is waiting.