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Sunday, April 21, 2024 — Houston, TX

BRC Express shuttle expands to off-campus population

Alice Sun / Thresher

By Ivana Hsyung     3/26/24 11:38pm

Rice is piloting three shuttles that will transport undergraduate and graduate students to high-density residential areas off-campus free of charge starting March 18. The three lines will expand the BioScience Research Collaborative Express route to South Braeswood residential areas, the Rice Graduate Apartment shuttle for students living north of Hermann Park and the Rice Village shuttle for the North Bissonnet area. Currently, only the BRC Express route has been expanded. All routes are available on the apps TransLoc and Ride Systems.

According to Sustainability Program Coordinator Kristiana Bowles, the project began after receiving feedback from Graduate Student Association leadership regarding a pressing need for expanded transportation options.

Former GSA president Dhiraj Jain said that the implementation of off-campus shuttles was the biggest project that he wanted to work on upon his election last year. 

“Based on surveys, we found out that more than 90% of grad students live off campus, and most of them were within a two mile radius of Rice,” Jain said. 

Jain said that when he first came to Houston, he felt the pressure to save and buy a car since Houston lacks accessible public transport and did not want other students to feel that way.. 

Jain and former Student Association president Solomon Ni introduced the idea during the October administration forum. According to Jain, the associate vice president for campus services and sustainability Rick Mello reached out to Jain and Ni expressing interest in working on the project after the forum. 

“The extension of the BRC Express route is the culmination of a partnership between our team and the GSA leadership which included a great deal of discussion, data analysis and collaboration,” Mello wrote in an email to the Thresher.

Mello especially commends Jain and GSA Student Advocacy Vice President Xin Tan for their work on this project.

“Dhiraj and Xin did what good leaders do — advocated for the students they represent on an initiative that will benefit the entire Rice Community,” Mello wrote. 

According to Jain, Ni wanted undergraduate off-campus student data to be included in the analysis so that the data would be more inclusive and the shuttle service could be useful to undergraduates as well. This data was collected through the Survey of All Students. 

“Most of the undergrads are much closer to Rice as compared to graduate students. We see a lot of undergraduates living in Life Tower, which is just south of the BRC, and then more in the north of Hermann Park, but this was already represented by grad data. Since it’s basically one-to-one, we didn't have to do a lot of changes to our routes,” Jain said.

Tan explained that clusters of students center around Bissonet, south of campus near Braeswood, Hermann Park and north of highway 59 around upper Kirby. Establishing new routes requires significant capital for both new vehicles and new drivers, and the decision to institute additional routes are pending the results from the pilot. 

“A compromise is that we repurpose the current route of least utility and extend to those areas,” Tan said.

According to Jain, the team was careful not to overlap with existing bus stops and additionally avoided directly stopping in front of residential areas.

“We found public lots like Kroger or Randalls, and talked with those respective managements. They were okay with us having our shuttle stops there,” Jain said.

Bowles said that she worked alongside Radulescu and Juan Araniva, the shuttle driver coordinator, to test the route feasibility of each proposed expansion. 

“I convened a final meeting to review the findings from the route tests and present the proposed BRC Express expansion. Upon review, it was agreed that it should be the first route piloted during the Spring 2024 semester,” Bowles said. 

According to Tan, the decision to begin with the BRC Express route expansion was due to low BRC Express ridership and a high non-serviced off-campus Braeswood population. The second expansion will be that of the RGA route to Hermann Park. 

The lower priority was due to the fact that “[it] had the least population out of all living clusters. Deviating RGA can also present a significant delay of about 10-15 minutes each iteration,” Tan said.

The BRC shuttle originally ran from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. According to Jain, the full route time has been increased by 2 hours into the evening to accommodate the route expansion. The route expansion will only run in mornings and evenings, so the shuttle will follow the original route for the remainder of the day. 

“[The shuttle] will be going from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., especially because that’s when grad students typically go back home from the lab,” Jain said.

Tan encourages everyone to use the service as much as possible and to also give as much feedback as possible. 

“We can consider operating this as a separate route, increasing more shuttles to serve this route or even changing the deviation of different times,” Tan said. 

According to Tan, a specific threshold for shuttle usage to guarantee its permanence has not been set yet. 

“One of the things we hope to implement is having a swiping system, so there is a record of how many people get on or get off at what place. But this requires a lot of infrastructure update[s] to both the ride shuttle and the Rice ID itself,” Tan said.

Tan states that the off-campus routes may look different in the upcoming years as well, based on student usage and whether the current routes affect student housing density. Jain similarly emphasized the importance of using the shuttle as much as possible during the pilot. 

“It would be a good tool to have for other upcoming years. We definitely want it to be continued on, so make sure you all use it as much as possible,” Jain said. 

Tan echoed this sentiment. 

“We hope the students can use the service as much as possible because only usage can justify the expenses.”

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