COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - They're free to ride, air-conditioned, equipped with WiFi, phone chargers, and very friendly drivers. The four eye-catching teal and pink buses – part of COMET's Soda Cap Connector routes – hit the road last September as a way to give Columbians an easy way to get around downtown. They operate from Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. They're paid for with Richland County's penny tax.
However, there's a problem: not many people are riding them.
Friday morning at 11 a.m., WIS reporter Chad Mills and photojournalist Jeff Diamond boarded one of the buses to document the underwhelming ridership. During the two-and-a-half hours that followed, multiple bus drivers said they only average about 15-20 riders each day.
They started at the State Museum, rode through the Vista, across Main Street, to Five Points, and back to the museum.
At 11:16, the day's first rider boarded near the State House and hopped out a few minutes later near the Chic-fil-A in Five Points.
The day's first rider wasn't alone. About eight more got on over the next hour.
"I live up on Devine Street about 20 feet from a bus stop, so I'd rather use their gas than mine," said Jim Verne, one of the riders.
"It's comfortable. It's nice. We have a nice driver," said Edith Rogal, who rides the Soda Cap often from Five Points to the Gervais Street Publix.
When Rogal, Verne, and a few others exited, there was a long lull as the empty bus toured the familiar stops. Riders disappeared.
Around 1 p.m., WIS boarded a separate Soda Cap bus which travels a slightly different route. That route takes riders from the State Museum, through downtown, to the Allen University area, down Harden Street, and back to the State Museum.
On that bus ride, only one person boarded and quickly realized he was on the wrong bus. He meant to hop on one of the regular COMET buses instead of the Soda Cap Connector.
John Andoh, COMET's director, admits there's a problem. He said the Soda Cap Connector needs to be completely revamped, reinvented, and redesigned.
Of the two Soda Cap routes, Andoh said—over the past five months—one route averages 4.75 riders an hour and the other 2.69 an hour. In order for the service to be sustainable, Andoh said that number needs to increase to eight riders or more each hour.
Andoh said each Soda Cap bus costs $64.08 an hour to operate without including gas. Andoh said it's his goal to make the service more cost-effective for the taxpayers who fund it.
The director said he'll look to reimagine the Soda Cap Connector over the next few months. He said he wants more involvement from groups like the Vista Guild and the Five Points Association. He said he'll also look to advertise the service better. He might also adjust routes. Earlier this summer, COMET announced a new bus and route that'll take riders to Columbia Fireflies games; Andoh hopes that new route will increase ridership on the Soda Cap.
However, there's also another solution Andoh hasn't ruled out. He said if the Soda Cap Connector can't attract more riders, he might have to recommend discontinuing it.
"That is an option on the table," he said. "We have to be very cautious on how we're spending our taxpayers' revenue."