– Barney Semtner
Great cities have great public transit systems. That’s a fact. I have seen many people roll their eyes when we start talking about our own local transit system. The common theme I hear is that it doesn’t go when or where I can use it, or nobody rides it or it is very costly for the city to operate. Well, Oklahoma City’s Embark bus system is growing and benefiting more and more of our citizens.
A few years ago, an Embark rider survey found that 63 percent of bus users say they have better access to grocery stores because of the bus system and 55 percent said they had better access to health care facilities.
It is the old chicken and the egg story, do you add service to increase riders or do you add service after riders commit to using the system. In 2013 the Oklahoma City Council named expanded transit as one of its priorities, and citizen surveys showed an interest in expanded service. Following a route-realignment in 2014, many routes were smoothed out to run more efficiently and also the routes were increased in frequency. We didn’t expand to include new locations, but we adjusted to serve the current system better. Bus frequencies were adjusted so that rather than coming by every 90 minutes, they arrive every 30 minutes and in some cases every 15 minutes.
Oklahoma City had been the largest city in America without bus service past 7 p.m. prior to adding evening service (to run from 7 pm to midnight) on the four most popular routes in the system. In early 2016, four routes added evening service, and this summer, a fifth route will add evening service. Adding the evening service exceeded everyone’s expectations. Many riders agreed that the night service is great but adding Sunday service would be even better. Oklahoma City remains one of the largest cities without bus service on Sunday. Beginning in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the City Council increased the budget for public transit by over $1 million for the coming fiscal year to add Sunday service on 16 of the system’s bus routes. Sunday service will begin next January. This is a spectacularly bold move for Oklahoma City.
Two years ago the Embark system turned its focus on replacing the aging fleet of buses. We have recently replaced 18 buses that were beyond their 12 year life expectancy. The recent GO-Bond Issue that passed last September will insure the purchase of replacement buses on schedule for the next 7 years. At the same time, the decision was made to switch all buses from diesel to CNG fuel. The 18 new buses recently purchased and all future bus purchases will be equipped to run on CNG fuel.
Embark has come a long ways in the last few years. On-board WiFi has been added. A website with real time bus locations and trip-planner software makes riding the bus very convenient. The reliability of regular, consistent services has attracted many riders who have a choice to drive their cars but choose to take the bus. Many riders want to see more cross-town bus routes, rather than most routes having to go to the transfer center in downtown, which also requires purchasing another ticket to get back on another bus. The Embark system would love to meet needs of more riders but it goes back to funding. Only about 15% of the revenue used to operate the Embark system comes from passenger tickets. The balance primarily comes from the City of Oklahoma City annual general revenue appropriation and federal grants. The Embark system is growing and I would encourage you to experience it. See for yourself. It is a great ride!