The Nightline bus route is unlikely to return this semester due to lower than expected ridership and a lack of funding.
While there has been no official announcement from SA, it appears Nightline will not receive the funding needed to continue.
Nightline was created as a partnership between the Student Association (SA), the Saginaw Transit Authority and Regional Services (STARS) and the Kochville Township and Saginaw Downtown Development Authorities (DDAs).
“I do not believe that the Nightline will be continuing this year, but I still have not received a final answer,” said SA President Caitlin Coulter.
SA Executive Assistant Raegan Schultz agreed, citing STARS’ lack of interest in renewing the partnership.
“It does not appear that this will be something SA will be supporting this year,” Schultz said. “There has been no ask by STARS for support for this line.”
For two full semesters, Nightline buses provided SVSU students with a free, safe and dependable way to get to downtown Saginaw, commercial areas, bars, restaurants and entertainment like the Stardust Lanes bowling alley. Organizers hoped that having the route would discourage drunken driving and make the city of Saginaw more accessible to students without reliable transportation.
During its initial four-week trial period during the Winter 2017 semester, the route ran from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., Thursday through Saturday, with pickups on the hour. Over the next two semesters of full route service, the drop-offs and times changed somewhat, but the route remained a convenient way for students to get around popular areas of Saginaw and Kochville Township.
Leading up to the trial period’s launch in March 2017, SA and its partners heavily promoted Nightline on campus and through social media posts directed at students.
Hopes for the route’s success were high enough to secure outside funding from STARS, appropriations from SA and support from SVSU’s Office of External Affairs and Office of Student Affairs.
“After putting together a focus group, we determined that a pilot route would be put into place to gauge student interest in a service like this,” said then-SA President Cody McKay in 2017.
McKay had hoped to gain ridership from across the student body, but he was especially hopeful that international students, freshmen and other student cohorts less likely to have their own cars would ride the route.
Nightline’s trial program’s budget totaled $10,000, funded by a $3,750 appropriation from SA and the remainder coming from its partners.
With McKay reporting somewhere between 10 and 20 riders each night and increased ridership toward the end of the trial, Nightline appeared to be a success. Most student feedback was positive, as reported at the time by SA members and SVSU administrators.
“I’m hearing that it’s been a really positive experience for everybody,” Dean of Students Sydney Childs said, during the trial period. “I think it’s also dispelling a lot of myths about the city, which is also an important aspect of the idea.”
When SA considered funding the route’s first full semester during their general meeting on Aug. 21, 2017, the Association was presented with hundreds of student signatures supporting the return of Nightline.
A resolution appropriating $7500 was subsequently written and passed with a 17-2 vote.
However, ridership did not meet expectations during its two semesters of full operation after the trial period. While, according to the Office of External Affairs, the trial period saw 519 rides over the course of four weekends, only 445 riders used the bus line during the entire Fall 2017 semester.
After Nightline’s disappointing fall run, SA and its partners doubled down on the route with increased advertising, student outreach and promotions from local businesses along the route.
“Our numbers were lower than expected, so if students want to keep the Nightline, they need to use it,” said then-SA President Lauren Kreiss in January 2018.
Nightline did end up received funding for its second semester, Winter 2018, with funds coming from the same partners and a $10,000 appropriation from SA.
STARS Executive Director Glenn Steffens determined at the time that, while rider feedback was still looking good, many students living on campus still had not heard of Nightline by the end of 2017.
Despite heavy promotion efforts going into the Winter 2018 semester that included table sits, fliers and giveaways, ridership did not grow.
Several partners involved in STARS cited Michigan’s car-centric culture as a major obstacle to the route’s success.
“We are a society, especially in Michigan, where a lot of people have never used mass transit before,” said SVSU Director of Governmental Affairs John Kaczynski this January.
As SA and its partners’ appeals that students use Nightline or lose it proved ineffective, the route’s future began to look uncertain.
“If (funders) are going to drop money and invest in this type of system, they need to know that students have bought in,” Steffens said in January.
With ridership as low as it has been, no guarantee of outside matching funds and no plans from SA or SVSU to fully fund the program themselves, Nightline’s demise now appears all but certain.
Instead, SA is pivoting to providing more student support and engaging the student body. This semester, SA plans to organize mental health support, open forums and outreach to RSOs.
The Nightline bus route does still appear on STARS’ “new routes” map on its website, but the map has not been updated since 2017. SVSU’s transportation information page shows three current shuttle routes that service SVSU but does not contain any information about Nightline.
Students can still take advantage of STARS’ dial-a-ride service and regional bus lines to get around town and run errands.