Yes, You CAN, part 7

Mini Transportation Odyssey, St. Ignace to Ann Arbor

by Larry Krieg
Straites Bridge Bus view 800

Crossing the Straits of Mackinac on Indian Trails

I’m actually home in Ypsilanti now. Thought I could finish this series off when I got to East Lansing, but I was exhausted and a little feverish. So rather than give you details of the last legs of the trip, how about a wrap-up of taking public transportation to upper Michigan?

I’ll start off by saying how much I respect the folks at Indian Trails. They are a family-owned small business running a customer-oriented service that covers a huge territory on a very limited budget, and do it quite well. Please keep that in mind as I focus on what I believe we need to make public transportation to upper Michigan a world-class option and a thriving public-private partnership.

 

Summary

Schedules

We’ve been very fortunate to be able to arrange through ticketing on Amtrak to as many parts of Michigan distant from passenger trains as we have. In many cases, though, the wait times between train and bus, or bus and train, add significantly to the overall trip time. I’d encourage Amtrak, MDOT, and Indian Trails to work together as schedules for Michigan rail service are modified.

With the increase in speed, train schedules will soon be modified. MDOT would like to add more trains between Pontiac and Chicago, eventually up to ten daily where there are only three now – but that will be a couple of decades out. Can schedules of both train and bus service be coordinated? I hope so, because seamless transfers are what make a multi-modal system work for the traveling public.

I’m told that Upper Peninsula service is at night because that way, buses will arrive at the larger southern cities during the day, when people can do their business there.

Makes a certain amount of sense…but why not work toward also having service in the U.P. during the day, allowing travelers to enjoy the beauty and arrive at U.P. destinations during daylight hours? That would make sense if Michigan would like to open the U.P. to tourists who prefer quality public transportation: millennials, the elderly, and international visitors. With the extremely high cost of flying to U.P. airports, a significant tourist market segment could be kept open by providing motor coach schedules attractive to tourists.

Frequencies

As I mentioned, MDOT would like to increase the number of trains running. Hand-in-hand with that should go an increase in the state-supported bus route frequencies.

This would require more funding, of course; perhaps the “Pure Michigan” office (Michigan Economic Development Corporation, MEDC) would be able to underwrite extra service scheduled for tourism. That office has certainly been willing to pay for photographic “wraps” that make the Indian Trails buses rolling “Pure Michigan” billboards. I’d suggest the funds would be better spent scheduling service that is oriented to tourists, rather than creating billboards that roll mainly in the dark.

There is plenty of evidence that millennials, seniors, and international travelers would prefer not to have to drive long hours to get to “Pure Michigan”. It’s fairly apparent that the “Pure Michigan” bus-wraps are not intended to lure more people onto these buses. If they were, why would they cover the buses’ large, panoramic windows? Yes, you can sort-of see out of them – but you can’t get a great view, and certainly not decent photos through them.

Straites Bridge Laker - wrap 800

Lake Freighter from the Mackinac Bridge, through a wrap darkly

For the western U.P., a tourist schedule would leave Milwaukee fairly early in the morning, say 9 AM (offset from the current schedule by 12 hours). It would arrive in Escanaba about 3 PM, Marquette about 5:30 PM, and Hancock about 8 PM. During the warmer half of the year, that would provide daylight all along the route…and perhaps it wouldn’t need to be run during the colder half of the year – or not at first.

From the east side of Lake Michigan, buses already run north during the day…sort-of. They start very early in the morning: 4:15 AM from Grand Rapids, 5:05 AM from Bay City, but a really tough 2:35 AM from East Lansing. None of those bus schedules coordinate with Amtrak at all, and the hours make them unsuitable for tourists in most cases. So when Amtrak schedules are revisited, having Indian Trails schedules that leave Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and (say) Dearborn just after the first east-bound Amtrak service calls, buses would get to St. Ignace late afternoon or early evening – in time for dinner and checking into a room.

Stations

Another way to make the service more attractive would be to make sure the bus stations are in locations where they can connect with their towns. I know, from a discussion with them last year, that Indian Trails has a hard time getting permission to stop at suitable places. A couple of approaches that might help…

Aim for high density or high connectivity: places like college campuses have relatively high densities of potential bus-riders. Indian Trails routes hit them in Houghton, East Lansing, Mt. Pleasant, Alma, and Petoskey. But they miss in Sault Ste. Marie (Lake Superior State University) and Marquette (Northern Michigan University).

High connectivity places are locations where people can conveniently transfer to another service. For example, many people coming to St. Ignace would like to take the ferry to Mackinac Island. But the beautiful Indian Trails transfer station is a long walk from any of the ferries. In Sault Ste. Marie, the bus from St. Ignace arrives after service at the transit station has ceased operations. Why not go to the downtown, where tourists wishing to see the locks would be able to do so without waiting for another bus?

Leverage “Pure Michigan” to find nice places to stop: Owners of some tourist enterprises apparently do not believe that buses will bring them good customers. In partnership with MEDC, some of these enterprises  might be provided with reasons and incentives to welcome the buses.

Transfer Facilities: The eastern U.P. transfer station in St. Ignace, completed about six years ago, is a fairly good model for what makes passengers feel respected and valued. (I’d recommend restrooms accommodating more than one person at a time, and better connections to St. Ignace’s tourist destinations, though.)

Escanaba Encounter

Escanaba transfer hub

The Escanaba hub leaves a great deal to be desired. The facility doesn’t belong to Indian Trails, so at current levels of funding and fares, it’s doubtful Indian Trails by itself could bring a wonderful transfer station into being. How about partnering with “Pure Michigan” (MEDC) in this? What about a Michigan Welcome station somewhere near Escanaba that could serve both automotive and bus travelers, staffed primarily by MDOT or MEDC, but with an office for bus ticketing and issue-resolution that would be open during transfer hours. (Yes, there is a quaint log-cabin style Welcome Center further south, in Menominee, but it does not even have space for RVs, let alone motor coaches.)

While we’re thinking about it, good transfer station design would allow passengers to wait indoors, in comfortable seats which look out windows where the buses are visible, to transfer without crossing in front of or behind buses, and have real-time electronic displays telling passengers where to catch their bus, and when it is realistically expected to leave.

Helpful Touches

There are certain things that make the difference between “basic transportation” and “attractive transportation”. A lot has to do with little touches that tell passengers, “we value your business and respect you as a person”. Those of us old enough to remember airline travel before the 1980s will immediately recall what we’ve lost in today’s typical airline service. The same touches can make the difference between repeat customers and “never again,” for customers who have a choice. Here are a few:

Leg-room: In an effort to provide more seating, the new generation of Indian Trails buses are arranged with seats that are relatively close together. (I didn’t measure the precise pitch.)  Older buses have a very welcome few inches more leg-room: MUCH appreciated!)

Communication with Passengers: A few of the drivers – possibly they were newer hires – were very reluctant to speak with passengers, answering questions with furtive mumbles. Perhaps it would help to have a scripted “welcome aboard” message, and scripted arrival messages and instructions on how to transfer to another bus at a hub.

Real-Time Tracking: Indian Trails affiliate Michigan Flyer has equipped its buses with a clever low-cost bus-tracking system designed by two Detroit programmers, using off-the-shelf consumer electronics. Together with a free smart-phone app, it provides a view of every bus in the system, its direction, and arrival time at stops along the way. Something like that would be very helpful for the rest of the Indian Trail fleet.

On-line Reservations: As I write this, Indian Trails is in the process of moving from their current on-line sales system to a more flexible one, that can keep track of the number of seats sold on each bus. With the new system, they should be able to guarantee a seat for every ticket sold – a guarantee they cannot make with the current system.

“Radio Silence”: some drivers are in the habit of turning on a radio and listening to local radio stations at their seat, or piping it into the passenger area. It’s hard to please everybody with music, so there should be a policy of “no radio when passengers are aboard”.

Communication with Dispatcher: Drivers appear to communicate with the dispatcher using cell phones. Good idea…but how about a means of communication that can be used while the driver is actually driving? There were several occasions on the way from St. Ignace to East Lansing when the driver would (very properly) keep the bus standing still while he consulted with the dispatcher. There appeared to be lack of adequate communication at times, as when attempting to locate a passenger boarding in Alma, who never actually boarded. The bus ended up quite late in Lansing, and due to a further communication problem, the connecting bus to Kalamazoo had to be called back to pick up transferring passengers.

In Conclusion

Yes, you CAN get there, Michigan! Our combination of Amtrak and Indian Trails provides a good start on the way to an effective, attractive, ecologically sustainable transportation system serving upper Michigan. But we have a long way to go before we can say we have a world-class system that makes travel to and within “Pure Michigan” truly attractive for those preferring not to drive themselves. So let’s keep working on it!

Cheers! – Larry

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