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Challenge aims to draw more bus riders

(Duluth News Tribune file photo)1 / 4
Heath Hickok, DTA marketing director, speaks at the 2016 DTA Commuter Challenge breakfast. (Photo by Anna Jones)2 / 4
Jarvis Keys, Rideshare coordinator for MnDOT, speaks at the 2016 DTA Commuter Challenge breakfast. (Photo by Anna Jones)3 / 4
Duluth citizens attend the Commuter Challenge breakfast to hear about the benefits of bus riding. (Photo by Anna Jones)4 / 4

Although the Duluth Transit Authority has been around for over a century, there is still a vast number of Duluthians who don't use public transportation. To encourage commuters to ride the bus, the DTA recently began its third annual Commuter Challenge month.

The Commuter Challenge is an initiative in which people are encouraged to walk, bike or bus to work rather than using automobiles. It was kicked off Tuesday with a breakfast and presentation on the benefits of using alternative transportation methods. The challenge runs through the month of July.

"I ride the bus five days a week to and from work," said breakfast attendee Angela Lalonde. "I take two buses every day, having to transfer from one to another. Some people are still skeptic on riding the bus, I am always trying to get people to go with me. A lot of the people I work with are younger, so I try and get them to take the bus with me."

The idea behind the Commuter Challenge is that by getting people to ride just once, more will become frequent bus riders. Jarvis Keys, Rideshare coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, estimates that for every 100 new people who ride the bus for the first time, at least 10 will continue to ride it regularly.

"We've always said that if we can get people to try these alternatives, that would be a success because if they try it, then they may like it and then stay with it," Keys said. "Hopefully they'll stay with it; that was our intent."

The DTA strives to make every bus ride a pleasant experience so people will keep coming back. Their mission statement is to provide public transit that is safe, convenient, efficient and affordable.

"We hire bus operators for their personalities and their customer service skills, not for their driving skills," said Heath Hickok, DTA director of marketing. "We can train anyone how to drive but we can't train them how to interact with the public."

The DTA hopes every bus ride is successful and enjoyable because it may be someone's first impression of public transportation, which could be the determining factor on whether or not they ride again.

"We don't want people to try the bus and get frustrated because they can't navigate the system, a bus operator was rude to them or the seat wasn't clean," Hickok said. "So everything we do from an operational standpoint on a day to day basis plays into the idea of having a new rider try it."

One of the most substantial communal benefits of increased public transportation use is minimizing air pollution. One bus produces the same amount of pollutants as about 25 automobiles. With each bus containing 38 seats, full buses can have a positive impact on the environment, while empty buses do not.

The DTA is constantly trying to make their fleet more environmentally friendly. In the summer of 2017 there will be seven new electric buses, which are considerably more fuel efficient and have two additional seats.

"The quicker we can transition to electric, the quicker our buses will be running on solar, wind and hydro," Hickok said.