Bowling Green’s growth outpaces public transportation

Mar 21, 2023 | News

Story and photos by Mariia Novoselia

With confident steps revealing familiarity, Yanet Moges, a Western Kentucky University student from Ethiopia, opens the door to the office of GO bg Transit.

She visits the public transit service office in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to buy a four-ride bus pass.

Inside the office, rays of sunshine brighten up a table covered with brochures outlining bus routes, employment opportunity notices and a colorful schedule poster for those purchasing passes. 

“This is where the adventure begins,” Moges said. “It is a ritual that I have grown to love.”

Moges visits the office of Go bg Transit once a fortnight. She said that buying the pass “is never just about buying a piece of paper that will let you get onto the bus.”

When Yanet Moges rides the bus to the Greenwood Mall, she gets a comprehensive tour of Bowling Green. The bus travels across the city past its residential buildings, banks, parks and fast-food restaurants and down the highly congested Scottsville Road, the main thoroughfare into Bowling Green off Interstate 65.

Moges said that in Ethiopia people engage in small talk like in the United States, although the topics the are “slightly different.” The small talk she encountered the time she bought her first pass was “unusual but very nice,” Moges said. 

Small talk is not the only aspect of life that differs from Ethiopia.

Moges recalls her first day in the United States with an even broader smile. 

“It was surreal,” she said.

She arrived in August 2018, after her plane landed in Los Angeles completing a 17-hour flight.   

Moges said her aunts cooked Ethiopian food to welcome her, but it “tasted nothing like the food I had at home a day ago” because of the lack of “authentic ingredients” in the welcome buffet.  

“I am very grateful for them trying to make the Americanized version of Ethiopian food,” Moges said.

On her way to America, Moges was listening to “Hagere,” one of her favorite songs performed by a local singer from Ethiopia.  

In Amharic, one of the official languages in Ethiopia, “hagere” means “my home,” Moges said.

Moges said the song is about traveling and the challenges of moving abroad. She said she does not relate to the song in terms of the hardships it describes but identifies with the feeling of homesickness. 

Moges said she listens to this song every time she travels. 

“Even if the traveling is as short as a bus ride,” she said.

The demand for and use of public transportation services is changing drastically in Bowling Green. The city’s arteries are becoming choked, and public transportation lies at the heart of the problem.

The office of GO bg Transit, located off 304 E.11th Ave., is open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 5:49 p.m., except for 10 holidays, such as Memorial Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in 2011, the city’s population totaled a little more than 57,000. Ten years later that number grew to 73,500, an increase of 16,000. The city is gaining some 1,000 residents a year.

Jackson Stahl, economic development coordinator at the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce, provided data that shows that in 2020, Warren County was the second fastest growing county in the state of Kentucky with an increase of more than 18% in the past decade. 

Stahl’s data also shows that immigrants make up more than 9% of the population in Warren County, making it “the only county in the region to have gained over 100 new immigrants every year since 2011.” 

Bowling Green is a refugee resettlement center. Data from the Kentucky Office for Refugees shows that Bluegrass has become home to more than 30,800 refugees from throughout the world since 1994. 

Jessie Meier, a Department of Justice accredited representative at the International Center of Kentucky, said that a lot of refugees, asylees and immigrants who the center works with use the city’s public transportation system.

Within the past year, the International Center has helped more than 1,500 refugees, asylees and immigrants from several different countries, Meier said. 

 Meier said that buying a car can take anywhere from 18 months to three years for these people because usually refugees must wait for at least three months before they can get a job. This, in return, affects their “purchasing powers.” 

Nasir Ahmad is an Afghan community navigator in Bowling Green. His position was created within the Neighborhood and Community Services Department of the city of Bowling Green. Ahmad, appointed in late May 2022, said his duties include talking to the community to find out how their integration process is going and providing them with resources. 

Ahmad said some people may also face difficulties getting a driver’s license because of Afghans language barriers. 

Afghans use public transportation a lot, Ahmad said. 

But Afghans in Bowling Green do not.  

Ahmad said that he has never seen an Afghani on the Go bg Transit, and he thinks some people he works with as a community navigator may not know the public transportation system exists. 

Calista Foster, a secondary migration case manager at the International Center of Kentucky, said the organization used to hold special trainings for refugees, asylees and immigrants on how to use public transportation.

Foster said the Center would buy tickets for “incoming arrivals” in advance and along with an interpreter, lead them to a bus stop. Together, they would go around the city, transfer from one bus onto another to demonstrate how the system works. 

Foster said the initiative had to be put on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the International Center is working to bring the trainings back in the future. 

Much like people in Afghanistan, residents of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and the city Moges was born and raised in, use public transportation a lot. 

“Sometimes busses carry way more people than they are supposed to,” Moges said about the demand for public transportation in her home country.

 “The busses are much larger than these, though.”

With her pass in hand, Moges now heads to a nearby bus stop.

She said that “usually” the bus she needs arrives on time.

The bus stop from which Moges tends to start her journeys sits in front of the office of GO bg Transit. Four out of five bus routes currently in operation pick up and drop off at that spot. The only route that does not is the “Pink Line,” Route 6. 

Up the road, the Warren County Justice Center and a rather empty parking lot create a spacious corridor. A white bus slowly approaches Moges and three other soon-to-be passengers. Just above the windshield, orange letters on a narrow black screen read “Route 3.” 

“That’s the one,” Moges said.

More and more people commute to Bowling Green for work, which causes congestion on roads, parking issues and more. 

laRobert Gil, manager at Go bg Transit said that some 40,000 people drive into Bowling Green for work. 

Add to that an increasing number of delivery vehicles in a have-it-brought-to-me world and more and more lawn service businesses that park trucks and trailers wherever it is most convenient, and well, you get the drift.

Data provided by Stahl shows that as of 2018, workers from more than 650 counties from multiple states traveled to Warren County for work. Barren County alone has been sending more than 2,700 employees each day since 2005, the report shows. 

New evolving industries are set to create more jobs in Warren County and attract more people to Bowling Green. 

For example, in October 2018, Tyson Foods, Inc. announced its plan to build a “state-of-the-art bacon plant in Bowling Green.” Its press release stated that the plant is supposed to start operation in late 2023, opening 450 work opportunities.  

Estimates from Stahl’s data show that the population in Warren County is projected to grow by more than 35,000 people, or 26 %, by 2034. 

One way the city can address congestion on the roads is to encourage public transportation use. But it does not seem to get a lot of traction.

 For example, Morgan Meyers, a Western Kentucky University sophomore from Louisville, Kentucky, said that driving on the U.S. 31-W Bypass through town can take up to an hour on a busy day.

Meyers described the bypass as “the most inconvenient road” she ever encountered, and she used highways in downtown Louisville for four years to attend school prior to coming to Bowling Green. 

U.S. Census Bureau data for Bowling Green shows the aggregate number of vehicles, such as cars, trucks or vans, used in commuting in 2021 was a little more than 28,000. By contrast, in Louisville, where the population is more than 628,000, the aggregate number of vehicles in 2021 topped 226,800, almost 10 times more than that in Bowling Green. 

“This (bypass) is just too congested,” Meyers said.    

Route 3 is also known as the “Green Line.” It is one of the five bus routes currently offered by Go bg Transit. Its stops include major shopping spots in Bowling Green such as Walmart, Target and the Greenwood Mall, Moges’ destination.  

Gil said that most people take the “Green Line” for work – primarily “females in their mid-40’s who work at different hotels” along Scottsville Road. 

Gil said that while Route 3 is helpful for a lot of people, it is not the one that gets the heaviest use. 

According to data provided by Gil, Route 2, or the “Blue Line,” was the most popular route in the 2020-2021 fiscal year with more than 11,100 passengers. 

In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, Route 4, or the “Yellow Line” took the lead in terms of ridership numbers with more than 12,300 passengers.

The total number of passengers grew from a little more than 47,100 in the 2020-2021 fiscal year to more than 54,100 in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, according to Gil’s data. 

The “Red Line,” or Route 1, circulates around the northern part of the city and stops at places like The Medical Center and the Fairview Plaza.

The “Blue Line” primarily operates within the northwestern part of Bowling Green. It passes institutions like the Housing Authority and the Warren County High School, and it circles around Walmart.  

The “Yellow Line,” travels through the central, western and southwestern parts of the city. Someone who gets on the “Yellow Line” bus where Moges boarded the “Green Line” bus, will drive past the main campus of WKU, as well as its southern counterpart, along with the Greenwood Mall and then back up the U.S. 31 W Bypass. 

The “Pink Line,” or Route 6, is the only route that cannot be boarded from the bus stop at Center Street. It operates in the southeastern part of Bowling Green and can only be reached by transfer from the “Yellow Line” or the “Green Line.” Among other destinations, the “Pink Line” travels to several health facilities, such as the Western Kentucky Orthopaedic and Neurosurgical Associates. 

Routes 1, Route 2 and Route 4 start operating at 6 a.m., promptly followed by Route 3, that begins to circulate around the city at 6:05 a.m. Route 6 begins its daily journey at 6:35 a.m. 

All routes finish their shift before 6 p.m.

“We are lucky we got the seats,” Moges said. 

As more people board what started out as an almost empty bus, her comment starts making sense.

Gil said the people who use public transportation in Bowling Green are people who “have to use public transportation in Bowling Green because they do not have another choice.”

“[Using personal vehicles] is part of our mentality,” he said. 

U.S. Census Bureau data for 2021 shows that 85.2 % of people in Bowling Green who are at least 16 years old travelled to work by car. By comparison, on the state level the number of people whose primary mode of transportation is an automobile is made up of 84.8 %, and 75.6 % on the national level.  

The same survey shows that only 0.8 % of people in Bowling Green use public transportation to arrive at their workplace. This number compares with another mode of commuting – walking. More than 7 % of residents walk to work. 

But on the state level, the correlation is similar: The number of people who prefer walking to using a public transportation system is greater by 1.5 %.

On the national level, public transportation users outweigh those who walk to their workplace by 0.3 %. 

The use of public transport had been steadily declining since 2015 until it hit its lowest point – 0.2 % – in 2020 and jumped back to 0.8 % in 2021, according to the estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Data from the bureau goes back to 2010, and the number of people in Bowling Green who would use public transportation as their primary mode of commuting to work is yet to have topped 0.8 %. 

As more and more people get on the bus, the chatters around Moges become louder and exponentially, more so compelling. 

Moges said sometimes she bears witness to the most interesting conversations. 

A few minutes earlier, a man wearing an orange sweater who sat a few seats in front of her was telling the bus driver about his family and how many children he has. 

Moges, set to become an accountant and with a natural knack for cracking numbers, admitted that she was trying to calculate the man’s age.  

Between the orange sweater man and the driver there is a thin see-through wall – just one example of COVID-19’s legacy. 

Gil said that because of the pandemic, a decision was made to discontinue Route 5, or the “Purple Line,” and Saturday service.

The chances of bringing the busses back on Saturdays are extremely low, said Gil. He said not enough drivers want to work on Saturdays and his budget lacks the money to pay them. 

Reports provided by Gil show that operating funding for Go bg Transit saw a modest increase from 2015 to 2020 — from $1.13 million to $1.67 million. 

In 2021, operating funds were reduced to $1.46 million.

Moges said that not having bus services on Saturdays can be “inconvenient.”

Instagram and Facebook posts about vacancies for the position of a Go bg Transit driver started showing up on the feeds of Bowling Green residents at the beginning of September.  

Carroll Duckworth, director of transportation at Community Action of Southern Kentucky, said that there are currently 12 bus drivers and that the organization is looking for two more full-time drivers and four more part-time bus drivers. 

According to the job offer for a part-time Go bg Transit bus driver, the starting salary ranges from $12.75 to $15.25 an hour. 

Chip Jenkins, transportation manager at Warren County School District, also said that his organization is lacking bus drivers. 

Jenkins said there are currently 11 open routes in Warren County, which is “an improvement,” since in the summer, there were 23. 

The starting salary for a Warren County School District bus driver is around $17 an hour, Jenkins said. 

Topper Transit bus drivers’ starting salary is between $16-$17 per hour, said Tim McWhorter, assistant director at Transit Operations at Parking and Transportation Services at WKU. 

There are currently 13 WKU transit bus drivers, McWhorter said.   

WKU transit is just one of the alternatives available in Bowling Green. 

A trip from any bus stop on main campus to the mall will also take around 30 minutes. Unlike the Go bg Transit bus, the WKU shopping shuttle is free.

The four-ride bus pass, that Moges bought only a short while ago, cost her $5. Alternatively, she could have bought a single $2 pass, an all-day pass for $5, a 9-ride pass for $10, or a monthly pass for $40. 

Due to her full-time enrollment status, Moges is also eligible for the student pass, which costs $50 per one semester. 

McWhorter said that apart from discounts for students, Topper Transit “may have more opportunities to collaborate with Go bg Transit in the future.” 

With the one-way trip taking up around 30 minutes, Go bg Transit and WKU Transit take second place in terms of how fast Moges, as a car-less student, can commute to the mall. 

The Bowling Green fleet is small, and finding drivers remains a problem.

Uber/Lyft services are awarded first place. Estimates from the apps of this kind of service show that a trip from Center Street, where Moges’ bus stop was located to the Greenwood Mall — a popular location — should only take 15 minutes. 

Moges said she would only use this kind of transportation if there were no other options available because of how expensive the Uber/Lyft services are.

Lyft’s app estimates the price of the trip at approximately $15. 

Finally, a rather innovative alternative to public transportation busses is a Wheels scooter. These scooters were brought to campus seemingly overnight at the beginning of the Fall 2022 term. 

Moges described them as “fun but also kind of unpredictable.”

Jennifer Tougas, assistant vice president for business services at WKU, said that the Wheels scooters program has been “good so far.”

Tougas said that at the beginning of the semester there was a problem with overflow parking of the scooters which resulted in them blocking buildings, but the matter got resolved. 

Unlocking a scooter costs $1. After that, every minute of the ride costs 29 cents. 

Google Maps service estimates that cycling from main campus of WKU to the Greenwood Mall should take about 25 minutes. This means that the ride would cost Moges, or whoever decides to embark on such an adventure, $8.25.  

However, Wheels scooters can only be parked within the area of downtown, as well as main and South campus of WKU, which would significantly increase the cost of a round trip to the mall.

Smoothly, the bus stops. The Greenwood Mall sits in front of Moges in all its splendor. 

“Every journey is unique,” Moges said. “I remember how confused but also intrigued I was when I took the bus for the first time last semester.”

Moges said that what could really increase the number of Go bg Transit users is “a powerful information campaign.”

Moges said she only found out about the public transportation system in Bowling Green several months after she arrived at WKU. 

She said increasing the number of seats inside the busses could also improve the system. 

Roy Boyles who was waiting at the bus stop by the Justice Center said he uses Go bg Transit “frequently.”

His favorite thing about it is “some of the bus drivers.” Although, there is one bus driver who “gives [him] attitude,” he said. 

Boyles said he wishes bus stops had more benches. 

“I can only stand for so long,” he said.   

Another passenger who goes by the initials AT, said if he could change anything about the bus, he would “extend the routes to Louisville Road or Nashville Road.”

“And serve some cocktails,” he said.

A woman in a navy-blue coat whose name is Patty, said she feels “blessed to have public transportation,” as she was boarding the bus.

What makes working for a public transportation system “really special” is the fact that it is “the easiest job with the biggest responsibility,” Gil said. “We are transporting human lives that cannot be replaced.”

Moges returns to the bus stop in about an hour and a half. 

“Another journey is about to begin,” she said.

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