Starting Monday, scheduled bus service on several Bloomington Transit fixed routes are ending a couple hours earlier.
By around 9:30 p.m. on Monday, the big 40-foot buses on Routes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 had ended their runs for the day.
But Bloomington residents could still take rides using the public transportation system—from 9 a.m. to midnight—through a program that Bloomington Transit is marketing as BT Late Nite.
For areas of the city within a quarter mile of those early-ending routes, BT Late Nite now offers passengers who have a smartphone the option of taking rides using Uber or Lyft—for just the regular $1 fare. BT Late Nite operates Monday through Friday.
The difference between the actual cost of the ride on Uber/Lyft and the $1 fare paid by the passenger is covered by BT. Both ride hailing companies are handling the BT portion of the fare through a voucher system.
After the BT Late Nite test ride taken by The B Square on Monday evening, the Uber fare of $8.90 was still shown on the digital receipt as a “pending” charge against the B Square’s credit card. Based on Uber documentation, that should eventually be adjusted down to $1, with the rest of the amount covered by the BT Late Nite voucher.
The $7.90 that BT will pay for the B Square’s ride—from the Dairy Queen on South Walnut to 6th and Walnut streets downtown—is less than the average cost per rider that BT typically spends to provide late-night service using 40-foot buses.
At this month’s regular board meeting, planning and special projects manager Zac Huneck briefed the five-member BT board on the typical cost per ride in the late evening, for the routes that that are seeing an earlier end to their regular bus service.
Starting around 9 p.m. the cost per ride using big buses is $10 to $12, but by 10 p.m. it goes up to $13 or $15, Huneck said. After 11 p.m. BT’s cost per ride goes up to around $25, Huneck said.
BT’s subsidy per ride for BT Late Night is limited to $19 per ride. That means if the number of riders stays about the same, BT is not expecting to see dramatically increased overall costs for BT Late Night, compared to the fixed-route service.
The B Square has not tested out the other option for BT Late Night, which is for passengers who need a wheelchair-accessible vehicle or do not have a smartphone. Those passengers are supposed to be able to arrange an on-demand ride by calling BT Dispatch at 812-336-7433.
A big motivation for BT to launch BT Late Nite as a six-month pilot stems from its driver shortage. Because of the shortage, BT has not been able to give its current drivers their earned paid time off—which is crucial for retaining those drivers. BT general manager John Connell has characterized the choice as one between trying out some kind of Uber/Lyft type option, or eliminating all service after 9 p.m.
The B Square’s test run of BT Late Nite on Monday night came after an outbound trip using the fixed route bus system. That meant walking three blocks south to the downtown transit center paying a $1 fare, and riding the 8:11 p.m. Route 1 South bus to the intersection of Winslow Road and Walnut Street, then walking a couple hundred yards north to the Dairy Queen.
The Dairy Queen’s walkup window is closed, so arriving on foot, after a bus ride, meant standing in line with cars waiting in the drive-thru. Without any mishaps, The B Square was able to achieve the goal of the expedition—a vanilla ice cream cone dipped in chocolate.
The Uber driver took about 11 minutes to arrive after The B Square’s ride was ordered. The driver indicated that there was not any kind of flag in the system to alert him to the fact that the ride was getting subsidized by BT. In fact, he was not even familiar with the concept of BT subsidized rides.
The trip back home, straight north up Walnut took about 7 minutes. That compares to about 16 minutes on the big bus for the ride south. The fixed-route bus trip also included some extra time for walking before the start and after the finish of the bus trip.