As the fall 2020 semester quickly approached, NAU took many measures to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff in order to operate through the pandemic. The University Transit Services is no exception.
A popular way for students and staff to get around campus is through public transportation, but buses would not be able to follow social distancing guidelines if they were to continue functioning as they did prepandemic. As the buses are an important part of the campus’ facilities and are used by many, the university figured out a way to continue the services while keeping the drivers and riders safe.
Director of Transit Services, Erin Stam, who has been at NAU for almost 20 years, said she works in Transit Services because she loves to help students in any way she can.
“A lot of people would be surprised at how many opportunities I actually get to interact with students, whether it’s my student-employees or students with parking or shuttle,” Stam said. “So professionally speaking, I don’t do transit to do transit, I work at the university to work with students.”
Stam said the majority of people on campus rely on buses, which are especially needed when students have back-to-back classes on opposite ends of campus.
“We’ve taken great lengths to make it as safe as possible, but we know for a fact you still need shuttles,” Stam said. “A lot of people don’t realize only about 30 to 35% of students actually bring a vehicle to campus.”
As director, Stam said she is responsible for all the employees of the AXELite, Louie Line and Jacks Line. She said she works on all the budgets and any goals and strategic plans for Transit Services, and is continuously assessing how the service can improve.
During the school year, Stam explained that Transit Services sees about 10,000 riders a day. Throughout the year, it sees over one million riders. Stam said it is clear Transit Services are necessary, even during COVID-19, because over 90% of students said they use the shuttle every year, according to a survey conducted by NAU in the spring.
One of the first adjustments Transit Services made during the virus outbreak, Stam said, was adding a chain six feet behind the driver to create some separation on the bus and distance between drivers and riders.
“Most of our full-time drivers are on the bus eight to 10 hours a day,” Stam said. “So, we definitely want to make sure we are protecting them as employees.”
Junior Megan Eisenach has been working as a campus bus driver for two years.
“I have not been nervous or scared to drive the bus during the pandemic,” Eisenach said. “Safety measures, such as distancing the drivers from the passengers and requiring passengers to wear masks on the bus, have been implemented to protect the drivers and other students while riding the shuttle.”
Another safety precaution Transit Services implemented was reducing the maximum capacity of the buses. Stam said other staff members helped her and Transit Services figure out a way to social distance while still effectively transporting enough students around campus. The staff members wore masks and gave examples of what it would look like if passengers rode six feet apart.
“If you’re in a seat and facing forward, even if you have the people to the side of you, if you’re facing forward there is more open space,” Stam said.
However, there are different models of buses, Stam explained, and the amount of maximum passengers per bus could be anywhere between 24 and 30 this semester. There are also a few smaller buses with only one door instead of two. So, Stam said Transit Services is also keeping their drivers safe by installing Plexiglas barriers around the driver for protection.
Transit Services also changed its system by having buses only use the AXELite route, Stam said. That way, all the buses are on one loop and the wait time is lower with the reduced capacity. Riders can reference the AXExpress Shuttle Tracker and see real-time bus movement through GPS to monitor when buses arrive at a stop.
Stam also said in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed at every bus stop.
“[The buses] implemented cleaning stations at the Pine Ridge bus stop so that each bus can be sanitized after each run [loop],” Eisenach said.
At the end of the business day, Stam said the buses undergo a thorough sanitizing. Transit Services has an entire crew solely for cleaning the buses.
Stam said that while ridership is lower than usual, she expects it to pick back up in the winter.
“We have encouraged students to really think about walking, just as another way for them to stay safe,” Stam said. “But, we have riders every single day, and the buses are being very well-utilized even with the reduced capacity.”
NAU’s Transit Services have worked hard to keep students safe while continuing to provide transportation.
Even through the changes, Stam and Eisenach said that they are happy they still get to help make a difference on campus.
“It’s reassuring to know that we make such a positive impact on the students even if our role seems small,” Eisenach said. “The amazing service by the essential campus workers like bus drivers, food staff, janitorial staff, traffic controllers and many more are what makes NAU such an amazing place to go to school. It feels good to be part of that.”