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Throwback Tulsa: City-operated bus service turns 50 in 2018

Throwback Tulsa: City-operated bus service turns 50 in 2018


How do you get people to ride the bus?

Tulsa city officials hope to find the answer when they launch a rapid transit bus route along an 18-mile stretch of Peoria Avenue in 2019.

Ridership on Tulsa’s city buses has been declining since the end of World War II, when competition from automobiles accelerated.

Chicago-based Tulsa City Lines, which held the bus franchise from 1937-57, held cash drawings, limerick and essay contests, a “Mystery Rider” contest and a Stop and Shop promotion in which merchants would refund fares to customers who bought $3 worth of merchandise.

In the 1960s, an official suggested painting buses purple with pink polka dots, or with psychedelic designs.

But such campaigns did little to reverse the downward trend, which saw ridership fall by 16.3 million riders from 1946 to 1955, according to a March 27, 1955, Tulsa World story.

A Tulsa City Lines company official quoted in the story blamed not only automobiles, but the resulting traffic congestion that slowed buses and inconvenienced passengers. He also cited city growth into sparsely populated areas, the five-day work week, longer vacations and television. (In the ‘50s, television was blamed for everything, just as today we blame the internet.)

‘Jitneys’ used during strikes

His solution?

Raise parking meter rates, stop building parking lots and garages, and ban cars from  downtown streets during rush hours. Oh, and designating special lanes for buses would be nice too, he said.

The bus official forgot to mention that customers were frustrated by frequent strikes that stranded passengers while the company and its union employees hashed out labor disputes. During bus strikes, the city issued temporary licenses to “jitneys” (private vehicles that operated like an early-day Uber or Lyft service) to get people around.

In January 1957, MK&O Transit Lines easily won the 25-year bus franchise in a special election with a heavy voter turnout. Locally owned and operated as an intercity and interstate bus company, MK&O was run by Howard W. Allen and his son, Robert. They promised to hire the City Line drivers and mechanics, buy 100 new 45-seat buses and to add air conditioning when it was commercially practical.

But MK&O faced the same problems as its predecessor, and in April 1968 stunned Tulsans by announcing it would cease operating the city bus system by July 1, 1969, unless it was granted some form of subsidy.

“The past 11 years have seen vast changes in the geographic area of the city,” Robert Allen wrote in a letter to Mayor James M. Hewgley, “as well as in the transportation habits of people. All of these have had an effect upon the city bus passenger volume.

“There has been a steady decline in passengers carried each year since the immediate post-war period of 1946 when a peak of 29 million passengers were carried by the city bus system.”

He said that when MK&O began operations in 1957, ridership had dropped to 11 million and that for the calendar year 1967, it had fallen to 3.7 million. The company was spending $104 for every $100 it received in fares.

The city’s predicament got even worse on July 19 when union bus drivers went out on a 52-day strike. Faced with the dilemma of either subsidizing the bus company or taking over the service themselves, Tulsa leaders chose the latter.

LaFortune picked to lead

On Aug. 2, 1968, the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority was created. Mayor Hewgley named seven members to the authority and they chose Street Commissioner (and future mayor) Robert J. LaFortune as chairman.

“The city has made a commitment to sustain some bus transportation within the city. Service can and must be restored. That is the commitment under which we will operate,” LaFortune said after the city had agreed to provide $60,000 to jumpstart the authority.

Bus drivers returned to work on Sept. 9, this time as public employees. The transit authority agreed to an $11,700-a-month lease purchase of MK&O’s 45 buses and equipment.

By taking over the bus system, Tulsa joined a national trend, recognizing that providing public transportation is a civic responsibility. It also enabled the city to apply for federal funds to purchase new buses.

Today, Tulsa Transit provides about 3 million passenger trips a year.

A downtown bus station opened at Fourth Street and Denver Avenue in 1998 and a mid-town station at 33rd Street and Memorial Drive was added in 2001.

The 2016 Vision Tulsa package includes dedicated sales tax money for public transit. It will fund the Peoria rapid transit line, a second line on 11th Street, expanded service to Brookside and the Gathering Place and Sunday bus service.

Read more Throwback Tulsa stories.

Debbie Jackson 918-581-8374

Twitter: @SundayTW

Hilary Pittman 918-732-8182

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