Morgan Dubois is riding the bus four or five times a week, more than he ever did before Mountain Line upgraded Route 1.
In August, that bus line started running every 15 minutes.
“It’s great. It’s just convenient,” Dubois said as he waited for a bus downtown Wednesday. “I’m not worried about being late for work.”
After a yearlong analysis, Mountain Line updated its routes last summer, moving inefficient buses into Missoula’s denser urban core to put more people on its fleet. A couple of months into the new system, Mountain Line general manager Michael Tree said the bus agency hit a new passenger record but will continue to iron out snags for at least the next couple of months.
Route 1, which runs from downtown to the University of Montana to Southgate Mall, is the star of the new system. (It even has a new name of its own now – “Bolt!” – but more on that later.) The goal is that buses appear at stops so often, riders don’t need to check schedules.
“The beauty is that on Route 1, people really responded to that 15-minute service, and that’s neat to see,” Tree said.
In October, the number of riders on Route 1 increased 29 percent over the previous year, according to Mountain Line. The uptick on all routes was 4 percent from last October to this one, and Tree said those 82,565 total rides are a record high for the month.
That’s the good news, but some routes saw decreases, planned and unplanned. Route 10 was eliminated because of low demand, and a vanpool has taken its place; the cut resulted in an expected 2,261 dip in riders for the month of October.
The decrease that troubles Tree took place on Route 8, a “key route” that runs from UM to Southgate Mall to Community Medical Center. Here, the number of October rides fell 1,076 over the previous year, or 18 percent.
“Our main concern is why it dipped in ridership overall,” Tree said.
Mountain Line has asked its consultant to take a closer look at Route 8, and Tree said the line will be modified as needed but not eliminated.
“We will be looking for ways to increase the frequency of the buses on the route, and to make adjustments to allow the route to be easier to use,” Tree said.
September was the first full month the changes were in place, and as expected, the number of riders dropped an estimated 14 percent as people learned the new system, Tree said. October brought a record high, but he said new routes generally take a roller-coaster ride for four months or so.
November data aren’t tallied yet, Tree said, but at around the sixth or even eighth month, passengers will settle into a normal pattern.
After hearing consultants talk about more efficient service, board member Dick King wanted to give the new route a test ride for himself.
“You have to go out and experience it. Does it really work?” King said.
So he and his wife recently hopped on Route 12 to the UM campus. They attended a MOLLI class. Then, King walked 10 minutes to the Missoula Public Library to do some research for an hour, he hopped a bus to a noon lecture near UM, boarded another bus to a meeting at the Mountain Line office on the Westside, and returned downtown.
“I would have had to drive if I didn’t have the 15-minute connection,” said King, who noted driving would mean trying to find parking near UM, too. “That opens up so many possibilities. I was pretty pleased how slick it was.”
As Mountain Line moves ahead with its new service, it also wants to encourage more people to try Route 1. As part of the push, the agency has branded Route 1 as the Bolt.
In a new logo, a lightning rod strikes from the end of the “L,” and the tag line is “You gotta Bolt!” Bus stops will get signs designating them as Bolt connections.
Last week, Mountain Line mailed 2,700 bus passes to households within a five-minute walk of a Route 1 bus stop, Tree said. He said he hopes for a 10 percent to 20 percent increase as riders try out the new service.
“The five-minute walk is the key. Most of the studies that have been done in the U.S. focus around that five-minute corridor,” Tree said.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, firstname.lastname@example.org or on MissoulaRedTape.com.