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Friendly Rider sees growing ridership

Friendly Rider Transit driver Al Knutson picks up riders at Humphrey Manor on Tuesday. Photo by Zach Kayser, Pioneer Journal

Friendly Rider Transit Manager George Behl said Tuesday that his bus service saw an increase of approximately 3,500 rides in 2012 from the previous year.

Behl added that the jump was actually part of a steady pattern of increases; an average of 10 percent each year since the first full year of operation in 2004. Behl said people stepped onto a Friendly Rider bus more than 52,000 times in 2012.

"We've grown almost every year," Behl said.

Behl said the jump could be attributed to a variety of factors, but the one he placed the most emphasis on was the dedication and compassion of the bus drivers.

"They're very helpful people by nature," Behl said. "That goes a long way to making people feel comfortable riding the bus."

While he was working inside the Wadena County Human Services office, Dispatcher Rick Pederson said teamwork is the reason for the success of Friendly Rider.

"George and the drivers have done a good job putting it all together, that's for sure," he said. "It's amazing what everybody does for everybody else."

County Commissioner David Hillukka said the reason the service works could simply be that it's local.

"When the people who are receiving the phone calls are local, they understand the local area better, and they're better able to respond," Hillukka said.

Behl said other possible causes for the rise in ridership included a successful marketing campaign and an aging population. Friendly Rider Transit has a special appeal to seniors who want to maintain their independence by living at home, he added.

"They might not be able to drive, but they can do everything else," he said. "By using the bus, it allows them to stay at home longer."

Behl added that a possible growth market for Friendly Rider in the future could be Wadena area youth, who he said differ from kids in urban areas in that they are unfamiliar with public transportation.

"In Wadena, parents tend to drive their kids wherever they need to go," Behl said. "Bigger cities, they have subways and bigger transit, and kids grow up using it."