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Time to reform a flawed bus-system

BY GUEST EDITORIAL | JANUARY 23, 2012 7:20 AM

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I do not use the Iowa City bus-system, but for the past two years I have seen our community struggle to understand and deal with disturbances outside the Old Capitol Town Center: crowds of youth waiting for the buses and among a select few and in rare instances, arguing and fighting.

On Jan. 18, The Daily Iowan ran a story about an increase in policing and surveillance both at the bus stop and on the buses themselves as a means to curb the violence.

But what the story misses — and what our community seems to ignore altogether — is that these bus-stop scenes are symptoms of larger problems, namely those of an obsolete bus system. And instead of asking questions about what's wrong with our bus system, we have given control of the problem to the Police Department.

For some reason, we have come to agree — or have become complacent enough to believe — that having eight to 10 white police officers with guns surrounding and watching a crowd of young black kids is a good idea.

Some of us in this community are troubled by such a response. Moreover, we are troubled by a lack of pro-activity by the community to revisit a transportation system that hauls students from all over the city to one transfer point at the same time of the day instead of shuttling them home.

I have been spending time in our community talking to some of these students and other bus riders for my work on CrossingBorders.us, a community storytelling website and my dissertation research. I have been troubled to hear about the workings of a transportation system that, to many, is their only option to get around.

How do we accept limited or no service on days over the weekend? How can we endorse a system that makes a particular set of students take a transfer to get to and from school? And why are we encouraging the city and its Police Department to corral and intimidate a bunch of black kids at a bus stop instead of trying to help them get home?

It is time for this community to demand from our elected officials a true study of its transportation system. Though this never made it into the DI story, the city has apparently never done a comprehensive evaluation of its transit system, according to Chris O'Brien, the city's transportation services director.

Instead, O'Brien told the paper, the city chooses to make tweaks every other year as "improvements." Indeed, it seems the city's most recent improvements, according to the next proposed city budget, includes staffing and route reductions.

But if the city wants to rely on a statement that we need not spend money to look at an issue it is already tweaking, maybe Coralville — which recently considered spending $17,000 on a traffic study in the wake of development — can help us come up with money. After all, our bus system supplements its bus system, many Iowa City residents work there, and we share the same school system.

Still, I wonder why no one seems to be asking two major questions: Why are there huge crowds of kids at the downtown bus stop? Why is the city's only transfer point downtown?

Second question first. Presumably, the city wants the bus hub to be downtown to increase business and residents' access to business.

But that's not happening.

Over the last 20 years, business has moved — or expanded — outside of the downtown. So has housing. Many of the jobs for those in lower socioeconomic positions are throughout the city. They are in Coralville or in places where bus transit is not easily accessible. How is public busing helping these people succeed?

As to the first question I posed, our downtown transit hub looks like it does, in part, because of rules the School District says it must follow. These rules determine who can be transported by school districts based upon how far they live from their respective school and the district, then, is not required to provide buses to many of the youth you see downtown.

Therefore, many of these students must use city transit, and that means a ride home that is much longer than it needs to be (A shuttle from City High to Lakeside Drive, for instance, should take about 10 minutes. For these youth, it can take an hour.).

This transportation issue is a community one that could easily be resolved. A third-party study of our bus system may reveal ways Iowa City can incorporate direct and fluid routes, ways of moving people more easily and based upon the needs of riders.

But this is not a city-government issue alone. It is one that could be resolved through community partnerships among the city, the University of Iowa, the School District, and local businesses.

If university officials argue that shuttling of School District students and improving overall city transit is not their concern, they would be wrong. If the university is going to inhabit something like 70 percent of the Old Capitol mall, where the bus stop is, then it has a responsibility to solve these issues, too.

School District officials will likely say shuttling these students instead of bottlenecking them at the mall is unfair and possibly against federal laws or some such thing. Well, then we need to look beyond the schools for help.

For their proposed part in solving the problem, downtown Iowa City businesses may argue that they do not have the money and interest in investing in a shuttle for kids. Instead, like one mall flower shop, they may just move their businesses somewhere else. Yeah, I don't know how to solve that one.

And while the rest of us who, like me, do not ride the bus, may ignore the topic or flick our nose at kids acting like kids, I argue that we, too, must move past this problem by looking at larger — or even simpler — solutions.

We must be able to do more than turn to enforcement and the threat of violence to solve this problem. And we must be smarter than blaming kids.

Robert (Ted) Gutsche Jr. is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Iowa.


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