Helping to 'drive' public transit traffic

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When Jake Huebsch lacked wheels but needed a way to return to his home in Mankato earlier this year, he turned to his phone.

The Friendly Rider Transit Director had taken a load of family belongings on a one-way trip to Fargo. By making connections with his smartphone, he bought tickets from three different transportation services (Amtrak, Light Rail, Bus) running between Fargo and Mankato. His $62.50 trip was set up with a gadget he could slip into his pocket.

Huebsch believes it will not be long before the average rider has the same transportation acumen.

"That is just the direction a lot of things are going," Huebsch said.

From the Friendly Rider Headquarters on Harry-Rich Drive in Wadena, Huebsch is throwing his previous experience as a Mankato Transportation Planner behind the local public transit service.

Does he have some ideas of his own? Oh, yeah.

Huebsch believes traditional means of advertising like newspapers and radio are always going to be a good way to go, but Cozy Theater-goers are presently being treated to a couple videos pushing the Friendly Rider service. What Huebsch would like to see is more people educated in the possibilities of public transit.

Before Huebsch took over the reins, there were discussions about combining Friendly Rider and Becker County Transit. Becker County had purchased the same dispatching software as Friendly Rider.

"That might be an opportunity to grow," Huebsch said. "Meaning that if we had a contract with them, we'd do all their dispatching here."

Friendly Rider is not a new service to Wadena-area people, but the extent to which it can be tapped is still being realized. The service is using the same type of buses being used at airports to get airline passengers between the airport terminal and their rental car service or their motel.

Friendly Rider is still growing. Two years ago it provided 45,173 rides. In 2016 the ridership grew to 54,023. Before 2017 is over, the ridership is expected to top 60,000.

"We have been pretty successful," Huebsch said, giving his predecessor, Ryan Damlo, a full measure of credit.

Wadena and Staples are the two main communities that Friendly Rider serves, but there are many others as well. Friendly Rider buses visit 17 communities between Brainerd and Ottertail.

Seniors who have given up their car keys but still want the independence of living in their own homes make up a lot of the ridership. Tickets can be purchased with a phone call to Friendly Rider. A woman in California has kept her elderly mother mobile by purchasing tickets for her by phone from the Golden State. Along with the mobility is a type of independence Huebsch knows is very important to the elderly.

Friendly Rider is a public transit service, funded in a large part by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. That means anyone with the price of a ticket can ride. Some are employees of certain businesses in Wadena. A good deal of their riders are school-aged. Huebsch is adamant that when younger riders are aboard they become the priority. Wi-fi is being added to Friendly Rider buses, just as it has been to some school buses, for the benefit of the young riders. Audio and video resources keep the Friendly Rider staff informed as to what is happening aboard each of the buses.

Friendly Rider operates seven buses (with a new one coming in the spring) and employs 15 drivers. The biggest driver on the staff is technology. As their riders become more sophisticated, Huebsch feels compelled to add more technology to Friendly Rider's plate.

At the present time, the Friendly Rider staff knows exactly where each of their buses is located by computer software. That is a resource some riders want to share. Right now it is still "down the road" but Huebsch said it is coming.

"We get calls 'where is the bus' and I think people expect some of those technology things," Huebsch said.

Safety, efficiency and timeliness are all important in the world of public transit.

"I think it's becoming more reliable," Huebsch said. "I think over time people are just becoming more aware of the opportunities."