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Editorial: Timely arrival of ‘Sober Shuttle’

After a year of planning, the University of Massachusetts Amherst last month launched a new transportation option, the Sober Shuttle. This bus offers free transportation from downtown Amherst to the campus at 1:20 a.m. and 2 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, after the free Five College PVTA buses stop running.

The Sober Shuttle addresses a long-standing problem: the troubles caused when inebriated students make their way on foot — or worse, in cars — back to campus after a night of revelry downtown.

Lots of things go wrong. Students hurt themselves getting home. They can be taken advantage of by taxicab operators, a problem the town has addressed. And there is the well-known nuisance of loud and rowdy students making their way back to campus through residential neighborhoods, whose inhabitants are understandably fed up with having their sleep interrupted.

Unveiled at the end of January, the Sober Shuttle will run through the spring semester. It is spearheaded by Student Government Association President Akshay Kapoor. He said he sees the bus as a way to “extend an olive branch” to the town and to residents who have suffered disruptions from a small number of UMass students.

We hope organizers realize it takes time for good ideas to take hold. Even if buses run partially filled, that’s no reason to give up hope on the shuttles. They are offering a needed service.

In its first weekend in operation, ridership was low on Thursday, but Friday and Saturday saw about 60 passengers each night. Organizers expect more riders as the spring semester proceeds.

The notion of a designated driver for groups of people out drinking, first promoted in the 1920s in Scandinavia, didn’t move into widespread use in this country until the 1980s — and only after concerted public education campaigns. Changing habits takes time, effort and repetition.

The last direct public bus run leaves downtown Amherst around 1:05 a.m., timing that does not allow students to leave the bars and get a bite to eat before heading back to campus. In practice this has forced students to walk back, try to hail a cab or accept a ride that may not be safe.

The Sober Shuttle will cost $11,600 this semester — $4,800 to rent the bus and hire the driver, and $6,800 for the police escort.

We believe this is money well spent. Apparently so do UMass students, who approved an increase in their mandatory student activities fee in a referendum to fund the effort. Kapoor said the cost boils down to $1.05 per semester per student.

Unfortunately, Sober Shuttle rides are available only to students with a UMass ID. This means people they are with will not be permitted to board.

This is a short-sighted policy that may keep UMass students from taking the shuttle. Why would they leave friends behind? The Sober Shuttle should find ways to get people aboard, not keep them off. This UMass-only policy will not help neighbors regain nighttime peace.

The university should do everything its power to encourage use of the shuttle, not put roadblocks in its way.

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