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Riding the #99 Downtown Circulator Bus

October 26, 2009 Downtown, Public Transit 13 Comments

Last week I rode the fairly new #99 Downtown Circulator bus with Metro employee Courtney Sloger.  I had met Ms. Sloger a few weeks earlier as part of a panel with Dr. Todd Swanstrom of the University of Missouri St. Louis discussing transit for What’s Up Magazine.  Sloger doesn’t own a car and uses transit herself.  She is one of a couple of writers on Metro’s NextStop STL blog.

It was at this panel discussion I first heard of the #99 bus.  I was so excited I wrote a post about it last month that included the route map:

When I agreed to ride the #99 with her I planned to use the opportunity to use my wheelchair to try the lift for entry/exit.  The battery on my chair decided otherwise.  With the chair no longer taking a charge I would need to drive my car to a point along the route.  To simplify meeting Sloger I picked her up at Metro’s offices in Laclede’s Landing.  I drove to 10th & Washington Ave where there was plenty of on-street parking on 10th.  The time was around 4:30pm a week ago today. The bus stop was just around the corner on Washington Ave.

One of the amazing things about this route is the frequency of the buses, only 10 minutes.  So we caught the next Westbound bus.  I rode a bus in Seattle in March so I knew I could walk up the steps without issue.  The buses being used are shorter than most in their fleet.  This makes navigating downtown streets easier.  Many seats still remained empty.

We headed West on Washington and turned left onto Tucker.  Nobody got on or off along Tucker.  At Spruce we turned right to head to the Civic Center Station with many bus routes, MetroLink, Greyhound and Amtrak.  The #99 doesn’t board/unboard inside the bus section but along 14th street adjacent to the bus terminal.  If you are passing through this point on the #99 be sure to get a transfer ticket when you board.

Resuming the ride when went in the direction we had just come from except now we were going East on Washington Ave.  We turned right (South) on Broadway.  We took Broadway South past Busch Stadium until we turned left at Poplar and left again on 4th.  I didn’t set my timer but the entire round trip was much faster than I expected.

Along the way we talked about destinations nearby and how to market the route beyond the current ridership, mostly blue-collar transit dependent riders from my observation.  I suggested the buses need a special look.  While I preferred new low-floor buses Courtney Sloger thought a wrap works into the budget better.  Agreed, just something to make the bus stand out from the others.

Many cities have transit lines to help you navigate from destination to destination.  But just who are those more likely to take a ride on the #99?

Downtown residents and office workers seems an obvious answer.  Tourists and visitors here for conventions?  The wrap should include the words “downtown circulator” in big letters, I suggested.  And a graphic of the route.  Listing destinations reachable via the bus would help too.

When I visit a city I like to ride a bus or streetcar line to observe what is out there so I’ll know what to come back to on foot.  But the current #99 misses one of the best parts of downtown, the two blocks of Washington Ave between Tucker and 14th. Visitors should see this.  Granted if they exited at Tucker when the bus turn they’d be right there but I think going through it is better.  I’d like to see the route modified to go up & down 14th rather than Tucker (12th). The problem is 14th is often closed at Chestnut for special events at Soldier’s Memorial.  I guess on those days the bus could take Tucker.

For tourists they’d still need to know where they are going because destinations are not announced. Many places are close, but not obvious, such as Citygarden, Union Station, City Museum, and Culinaria.  Someone might get into town late on a Saturday.  After checking into their hotel on 4th they could take the #99 to grab a bite at a number of places such as the 12th Street Diner at Tucker & Washington Ave. While the diner is open 24 hours on the weekend, the bus line stops around midnight.  Check the schedule for hours & directions.

I suggested Metro get hotel concierges to ride the route at least once.  Downtown guides too.

As a helpful tool for downtown residents I suppose it depends upon where you live.  If you are in the Edison Warehouse at 14th & Spruce it is am easy way to get you closer to stores like Macy’s, Culinaria and others.  The steps into the bus, however, make bringing on purchases a challenge.  For those of us West of 16th the line doesn’t help much.  For people in the Pointe 400 apartments (old Pet building) on 4th Street it would be an excellent way to connect with restaurants and other destinations  that are a good walk from your place.

I invite each of you when you are downtown next to ride the #99.  See what you think.  I like the possibilities it offers for the future.  Certainly needs a special look.  Most definitely needs low-floor vehicles to eliminate the steps.But it is a step in the right direction.  Thanks Courtney Sloger for pushing me to ride the #99.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "13 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jimmy Z says:

    Chicago’s CTA produces an excellent guide just for visitors, http://www.transitchicago.com/assets/1/brochures/downtown_sightseeing_guide.pdf, plus they have a dedicated link on their website for visitors, which Metro’s lacks. The guide answers the basic questions on how to ride, what it costs, how to get to major attractions and where the major downtown hotels are located – it ain’t rocket science, but it does take some work to put together initially, but once it’s done, all that’s required are regular updates.

    Much of what you’re looking for was developed 25 years ago in Denver, with their 16th Street (transit) Mall. 16th Street was their Washington, where the downtown retail was centered. Like many cities, they closed the street and made it into a mall to compete with the suburbs, with similar “success” (not). Unlike many cities, they also made it transit corridor, with very-frequent service (as frequently as every 70 seconds – 8 buses, compared to what you found with the 1 route 99 one here “One of the amazing things about this route is the frequency of the buses, only 10 minutes.”). The buses are custom, with low floors and multiple, wide doors, plus, since they’re free, fare collection is a non-issue. And since the mall happened when other construction was at a standstill, much like today, everything’s that’s been built since then (which is a lot) is oriented toward the mall, positively “informing” urban development. And today, the old retail has been replaced with restaurants and service businesses supporting the current office, residential and convention populations. http://www.rtd-denver.com/FREEMallRide.shtml

    The challenge here, as both Route 99 and Metrolink illustrate, is that our downtown isn’t linear. Depending on how you define the densest core (Lucas to Chestnut [6 blocks]? Tucker to 3rd [9 blocks]?), how do you pick just one on which to focus service? Or do you do like Chicago, and create the St. Louis Loop? The other challenge here is that (I assume) Metro still wants to collect their $2 fare, even if you’re only going a few blocks. Denver justifies their “free” service in two ways. One, many riders use it for commuting every day, so they’re already paying a fare, either at the other farebox or with a monthly pass. And two, since everyone is paying the sales tax that provides the 75% plus the system doesn’t receive from the farebox, combined with lots of riders only riding a few blocks, the real “lost” revenus is probabaly only a nickle or less per person – it would take more to collect and track the fares than they’d bring in, plus it’s good PR since many riders, especially on weekends, are suburbanites who never pay to ride any bus otherwise (it gives them a reason to support, or at least not object to as vociferously, the 1% sales tax that supports RTD). Bottom line, make it free and make it frequent, and you’ll see a LOT more use. Bottom line squared, do the same thing in downtown Clayton, and you just might convince St. Louis County voters to pay more to support Metro here!

  2. Jennifer says:

    “Free and frequent,” everyone likes the sound of that…but how could that become a reality? What about partnering with downtown hotels, organizations, and tourist destinations to get some of the funding for such a route? Does anybody here think that’s a good idea and/or might work?

  3. Dennis says:

    This makes me think of that old saying,”the name says it”. I agree that the head sign on this bus should read “Downtown Circulator”. If I were an out of town tourist and read that, I would know exactly what it ment. And think “hey, just what I need”.

  4. Jimmy Z says:

    Jennifer, like I tried to say, it’s a policy and budgeting decision. If you look at each route as a separate profit center, it’ll never happen. But if you look at each route as a component in an integrated system, put in place to move people from Point A to Point B, and thus to attract more riders, it starts to make sense. Every bus route is already heavily subsidized by the taxpayers. Most cover relatively long distances; a downtown circulator doesn’t. The “first mile” and the “last mile” of any potential trip on transit is the real challenge. Metro’s fare structure rewards single-seat trips / penalizes riders who need to transfer. IF the circulator were nominally “free” downtown, the real question then becomes how many riders have already paid elsewhere? (A surprising number would have.) But if you really need to justify “free” service, how about looking at a small surcharge on downtown parking garages, lots and meters, and/or $2/day surcharge on downtown hotel rooms? Those two groups would be two most likely to be “abusing the privilege”.

  5. Dave says:

    I haven’t used the downtown circulor simply because I work at 17th and Washington. I like the concept and would love to see it come west to 14th St. as I would began using it then.

    Steve, you mentioned putting the route on the outside of the bus? What a great idea for all bus lines! It would be great to see buses rolling around the city with the map plastered on the side to get some idea if it serviced the area you needed or not. In addition to people thinking buses are not “clean” or that they’re “dangerous”, one of the biggest reasons they are not used is because people find them confusing and don’t know where they go. I’m guessing this idea is not feasible simply because buses are swapped out on different lines frequently. It would be great if someone could come up with an idea to make that happen.

  6. Jimmy Z says:

    A better idea is to just keep the bus routes consistent with major streets. People grasp where the #57 Manchester, the #70 Grand and the #91 Olive routes go; they have a harder time with the #30 that connects the Shrewsbury and Rock Road Metrolink stations via downtown or the #8 that connects Loughborough Commons and BJC. KISS! And instead of trying to read a passing bus, it’s better to put up maps and schedules at major bus stops – the two challenges are keeping them current and unvandalized . . .

    [slp — my thought on the route map on the bus is that it would peak curiosity by those that see it, then they might look for a detailed map or hop on board and see where it goes.]

  7. Tim E says:

    I wonder if downtown could benefit by pursuing the possibility of a TDD, Transportation Development District, to promote a free transit service particular to downtown like the circular.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Surcharges, taxes, and the like are always a nice idea when the sole question is getting some funds, but since Metro has no taxing authority they would have to be voluntary. That’s why I suggested partnerships; voluntary or involuntary, we’d be looking at getting some help for the businesses and organizations that truly benefit from having free-flowing circulation downtown. Many business owners do recognize the value of transit to their business, in getting customers to them, in getting employees to them, and in generating that elusive “livability” that attracts people to live, work, and play in a given space. Often it’s just a question of pointing it out.

  9. Cheryl says:

    TDDs have been discussed to support Metro. I think TDDs could work. But any TDD should support Metro, not some independent transit service. We currently have a TDD for the Delmar Loop with the idea of building a separate trolley with no connection to Metro. Using a TDD to build small independent transit services, of any kind, is much less useful than using a TDD to support specific Metro routes – of any kind, streetcar, bus, etc.

  10. Jennifer says:

    I think people like a TDD because it’s a defined area supporting a specific project. That’s nice – people want to know what they are getting for their money, and they like that it directly benefits them because they are in the area being taxed. That’s one solution to specific projects.

    But transit is ultimately a regional concern and is definitely more useful if it connects across the region. I think the Moving Transit Forward long-range planning workshops going on right now are so exciting because the end result will be a regional plan that is prioritized, so people will see exactly how and where enhancements, amenities, and additional service will be added. They will be able to see the benefits to themselves right away, and how it interacts and benefits the region as a whole.

    But back to TDD – what’s Proposition M (and the concurring City sales tax hike) if not a sort of region-wide TDD?

  11. Jimmy Z says:

    The key part to this equation is that “Metro has no taxing authority”. I guess it’s not surprising, given the local political culture, but it’s a really hard way to run a transit, or any, agency. Having to essentially beg local governments every year for operating funds has it’s roots in who’s actually “in control” over how much the budget is/”should be” and how and where it gets spent – it’s old-school politics at its finest. I guess I spent too many years in Denver, where their transit district is a quasi-governmental agency, much like Metro/Bi-State (and many suburban fire districts) here, but is run by a board elected directly by the voters (unlike the appointed board here) AND has the ability to impose taxes directly, with voter approval. Their structure creates both more direct accountability for regional decisions and provides a steady, predictable income stream. But much like changing the city’s charter to bring it into the 21st century, changing Metro’s structure to do the same will require a lot of effort that won’t be happening anytime soon, leaving us with fewer options, things like pushing for the passage of son-of-Proposition M in the county . . .

  12. Cheryl says:


    Prop M was a lot different from a region wide TDD. I am now remembering that TDDs cannot be used for operating costs, just capital cost or mostly just capital costs. I think there was talk of a new law to allow TDDs to cover operating costs. I am not for sure. Does anyone remember?

    Other than the Delmar Loop TDD, I think all the TDDs have been used for roads, parking lots, etc. So, unless you can use a TDD for operating costs by getting a new law passed, a TDD is more or less useless for transit. On the Delmar Loop, I guess the TDD will just cover the costs of buying the trolleys, etc.

    Besides this deficiency, the Missouri auditor pointed out a lot of problems with TDDs in 2006. Here is their bulleted list.

    Our audit disclosed various issues regarding the TDDs in the areas of public awareness/involvement, and accountability and compliance, including:

    · There is no requirement for the public to be notified when a property owner(s)/developer files a petition with the circuit court to form a TDD. In addition, public hearings regarding the establishment of TDDs are not required to be held.

    · Neither registered voters nor their elected representatives are involved in the decision to levy taxes for most TDDs.

    · There is no requirement the petitions filed with the circuit court include any information regarding estimated transportation project costs or the anticipated revenues that will be collected over the life of the TDD.

    · There is no requirement for an independent review or oversight of TDD transportation project costs or other expenditures.

    · There is disagreement over whether the construction of a TDD-funded transportation project(s) can be started prior to the legal establishment of the applicable TDD.

    · Most TDD sales taxes are not collected by the Missouri Department of Revenue, creating less assurance over the controls and monitoring of such revenue.

    · Many TDDs had not filed annual financial reports with the State Auditor’s Office (SAO), as required, and the current audit requirements related to TDDs need to be reconsidered.

    · In many cases, significant project costs were initially paid by the private developer(s), who were then subsequently reimbursed by the TDD after bonds or other debt had been issued. Such reimbursement process weakens the accountability over project-related costs.

    · The revenues of TDDs located in TIF areas are being handled in different manners, and in some instances there is not adequate assurance TDD sales tax revenues are only used to pay the TDD’s share of bond financing costs.

  13. Pat says:

    The whole original purpose of the Downtown Circulator was to make up for the bus routes that use to come actually through downtown (e.g. #10 Gravois, before it became the “Gravois-Lindell,” originally came all the way east to 4th Street, convenient to many hotels and apartment buildings, before it would turn west at 4th and Washington to begin its westward route). The Natural Bridge was another example. When Metro cut back due to budget concerns, the new downtown “terminus” point for these buses became the Civic Center Station. When the state kicked in some money to partially restore service, the decision was to keep the terminus as Civic Center, and offer people the chance to transfer, say, from the #10 at its final downtown stop there to the Circulator in order to get to where the buses normally ended up-4th Street. Of course, to do so the rider would have to buy a transfer (extra 75 cents) for this “restored” service. I use to ride the #10 A LOT for grocery shopping, but when the “almost to my doorstep” service ended, that was also the end of my riding that bus.


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