“The purpose was to provide transportation where there was a need,” said Ray Beck, the man responsible for overseeing and establishing the City-owned transit system in Columbia from its inception 50 years ago in 1965. Beck says that the goal should always be to improve the system and “keep the buses clean, reliable and timely.” These values have held strong over time and have guided and shaped Columbia’s public bus service over the last 50 years into what it is today.
Prior to the City’s involvement with the public bus system, Columbia’s bus service was privately run by Glenn E. Watson. Known as The Columbia Municipal Bus Lines, Watson’s fleet was comprised of only around 3 or 4 small buses and ran from 1939 to 1965. In the Spring of 1965, after operating at a deficit for several years and failing to turn things around financially, Watson approached the City of Columbia. Unable to land a subsidy to continue operating the Bus Lines, Watson eventually proposed that the City take over the bus service.
Due to the bus system’s lack of profit margin, the City was initially very reluctant and tabled the issue. However, in August of 1965, after surveying the public and determining that there was in fact a demand for the buses, Columbia City Council created a new transportation division within the Public Works Department. Beck, a Public Works employee at the time, was put in charge of the new division and given a 30 day deadline to make all necessary arrangements to run a successful transit system.
“It was a big challenge to start the bus system as quick as we did,” Beck said, “We didn’t have any buses. We didn’t have any drivers. We didn’t have any route layouts. We didn’t have anything.”
Beck turned to the Missouri Bi-State Development Agency, the company in charge of the St. Louis bus system at the time, for some much needed advice and assistance. Bi-State obliged and provided the City with temporary buses, training personnel and a route consultant.
On September 9, 1965, the Columbia bus system was officially born. The fledgeling service featured an orbital pulse style route system that used 9th and Broadway as the original transfer point with rates of 15 cents per ride. Football service, student shuttles and additional routes were added as demand from the Columbia public grew. Over the next decades, the bus service continued to grow and adapt to the public’s needs, eventually garnering an annual ridership of over one million.
In more recent years, however, the City became increasingly aware that a change needed to be made in order to continue providing the public with the reliable transit service established in earlier times. According to retired Para-Transit bus driver, Rob Davis, the old, orbital pulse style route system needed to adapt to maintain efficiency. “Traffic was getting so bad that there was no way the old system could work. Buses were getting further and further behind in the afternoons, they had to make a change.”
This change came in the form of a challenge from City Manager Mike Matthes, who implored transit staff to come up with a plan to revitalize and improve upon the existing bus system. In 2013, the improvement plan, known as COMO Connect, introduced a new networked route system with routes circulating customers into core connector routes that promised to better serve the Columbia public.
On February 17, 2014, Columbia City Council approved the staff’s COMO Connect project, effectively introducing the new route system and name. While the transition from the Columbia Transit orbital pulse routes to the new COMO Connect networked system was not entirely without its hiccups, much of the public has appreciated and embraced the efforts made.
Cindy Mustard, former Executive Director of the Voluntary Action Center, a local nonprofit social service agency that has worked with the transit system to help more than 5,000 low-income candidates get bus passes in order to become more independent, has seen a noticeable improvement since the change. Prior to this reevaluation of the system, the transit officials “didn’t always listen to what the riders wanted,” said Mustard, “it was taking people a lot of time to get from point a to b.” However, after the rebrand and implementation of the new networked system, “there’s more networking and a lot more bus stops. It makes more sense.”
Mustard went on to say that neighborhood routes better answer questions like “Where are the basic needs? Where are the jobs” stating that “the City has come around to addressing these problems a lot better than they used to.” When describing how the public would be impacted if the bus system no longer existed, Mustard said “It would be a lot more difficult for people to get to work, or to that first job interview without buses. Without buses, I think a lot of people would be stranded.”
Davis too agreed that continuing public transit in Columbia should remain a priority, saying “a lot of people think that a transit system should make money, but that’s not what it’s for. It’s an all encompassing type of thing that helps everyone.” Going on to say that Para-Transit passengers in particular “realize that it’s their lifeline to staying independent and getting to do what they want with their lives.”
Since its start 50 years ago in 1965 under the guidance and influence of transit staff , the Columbia bus system has managed to navigate countless changes and challenges. By continuously looking to the public for guidance and input, the system will continue to adapt in order to remain relevant and reliable for years to come.
The City of Columbia has a long history of bus transportation, and without even knowing it, it has affected every aspect of our lives. For many years it has helped hard working men and women get to work and earn a living for their family. It has helped kids get to and from school, and out to meet up with their friends at the movies or local diner. It’s been the symbol of team spirit as the “Spirit Bus” shuttle for football games at Mizzou. It’s also created steady jobs for many drivers and staff members in our community over the years.
The city bus may never be viewed as the flashiest or swankiest part of Columbia’s rich history, but to our customers and our staff, it’s an important part of our lives that helps us connect with our community and our lives wouldn’t be the same without it. Our customers are the faces of public transit, and their stories and memories are our history.
We are asking Columbia to share your stories with us and tell us how the city bus has been a part of your life. What’s your earliest memory of riding the city bus in Columbia? Is there a certain driver that made a special impact on your life? Do you have any photos or videos of riding the bus 10, 20, 30 years ago?