MANKATO — When city buses began accepting Minnesota State University riders free this fall, Transit Foreman Mark Anderson expected more riders — perhaps 25 percent or 30 percent more.
The response has been even greater.
In September, ridership increased citywide by 75 percent compared to the same month last year. In October, it rose by 61 percent.
Anderson said the change has been very successful, though sustaining such a large increase so fast has caused a few growing pains.
“Right now, we’re handling it pretty well. Anytime you try to do something that’s a little innovative, there’s going to be a learning curve adapting to the new system,” Anderson said.
As it always has, the city will be billing the university for bus services, so city taxpayers won’t be paying for the students’ new privilege.
In a typical year, the university pays about $180,000, and the bill for this new service is estimated at $350,000, said David Cowan, facilities services director for MSU.
The students’ rides are not actually free — about two-thirds of the service is paid for by a new, 75 cents per credit “green fee” paid by Minnesota State University students. The rest comes from residential life and parking funds.
Students are happy to pay for the bus through fees and merely show their university ID cards to ride, said Soyal Shrestha, Minnesota State Student Association president. It has been especially popular with international and first-year students, who often lack vehicles.
The extra payments to the city also have expanded service, including a nighttime route to James Avenue.
The intense demand has led the Student Senate and the city to work together on making minor changes to service, too.
For example, a bus happened to drop off students only a few minutes before class, so the buses made minor changes so that students arrived about three minutes earlier, Shrestha said.
The city also revamped its routes in late August, so the increase in ridership may be partly caused by more convenient routes.
Anderson hopes the new routes and the change for MSU will get more people riding the bus for years to come.
“Changing habits is always hard and getting people out of their cars is one of the most difficult things to do,” he said. But that can change “if you put good, reliable service on the road and market it well.”