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StarTran waiving bus fares, reducing hours as ridership declines, piloting on-demand service in Lincoln
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StarTran waiving bus fares, reducing hours as ridership declines, piloting on-demand service in Lincoln

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Dramatically lower ridership on StarTran buses has led city transportation officials to reduce service hours and runs and make rides free during the pandemic, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird announced Tuesday.

Ridership on March 26 reached an all-time daily low of 3,200 passengers, about one-fourth of the daily average of 12,000 riders, Gaylor Baird said. 

Starting Thursday, StarTran will operate using its Saturday service model, where buses generally reach stops hourly instead of every 30 minutes.

On Mondays through Saturdays, buses will run from 6:40 a.m. and finish their last route at 7:40 p.m., which is about two hours earlier than the last run for StarTran buses on weekdays. Buses do not operate on Sundays.

Riders will board at the back of the buses instead of at the front, but those who need to use a ramp or have the bus lowered will continue to board at the front, the mayor said.

HandiVan rides will also be free, while operating on a reduced schedule.

"We expect that ridership will continue to decline as residents follow the social distancing recommendations to stay home and telework," the mayor said. "At the same time, we understand that public transportation is essential for many to get to work or to take care of their basic needs." 

Lincoln will pilot an on-demand transportation service beginning in mid-April to help fill the gaps from the Saturday service model, the mayor announced. 

Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Department Director Liz Elliott said the program, which will use vans, had already been planned prior to the pandemic, but transportation staff members rolled it out sooner because they believe it may offer needed benefits to the city's transit system during this time.

Originally, StarTran officials aimed to see its benefits for the HandiVan services, where rides are scheduled for passengers with disabilities or who are unable to ride fixed-route buses.

"However, with this pandemic, we are rolling it out to try to fill in the gaps because we do realize that this reduced bus service will cause some difficulties and challenges for some of the public still trying to get to and from work in those early hours of the day or later in the evening," Elliott said.

The project will use a mobile app allowing people to arrange transportation minutes before their ride, much like with the ride-share services Uber and Lyft, Elliott said.

As part of the overall StarTran changes, the city has suspended its downtown trolley bus service, she said. 

Lincoln's changes follow those made at transit agencies elsewhere in the U.S. and the region, Elliott said. 

Omaha's bus service, Metro, enacted the same measures last week.

Earlier this month, staff posted signs in buses to space passengers out throughout the buses, and on busier routes, StarTran ran two buses together to keep them from filling up beyond nine passengers in each bus, Elliott said. 

Ridership has gotten so low and business closures have led StarTran to discontinue the double busing, she said.

She hopes the measures will accommodate the ridership dropoff while keeping the buses safe for the public and the drivers while maintaining a key service.

For more detailed information about the StarTran changes, riders should visit Startran.lincoln.ne.gov.

Richard Schmeling, who leads Citizens for Improved Transit, has been pushing for the city to adopt a fare-free transit system for several months after Kansas City, Missouri, did so last year.

Lincoln's change still is a big deal even if it's in response to an emergency, and it helps correct a problem, he said.

Often at bus stops during times of regular service, someone waiting for the bus doesn't have their money ready when they reach the fare box and the line gets backed up, he said.

"If we go fare-free, then you know we don’t have that congestion," Schmeling said. 

Schmeling often rides buses six times a week, but said since the pandemic, he's cut back his trips into the community for groceries and other necessary errands to three days a week.

He also believes riding the bus less often decreases his risk of getting the coronavirus.

"My feeling is I’m not going to go and just ride buses for fun," Schmeling said.

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Photos: The scene in Lincoln

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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Local government reporter

Riley Johnson reports on local government in Lincoln.

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