At 4:30 in the morning Saturday, a time when Chippewa Street finally goes to sleep, four college students hopped on the last bus going back to campus.
The bus idled for a few minutes to catch stragglers. A still-chipper Nitasha Seth kicked off her shoes, settled into her seat and praised the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's new "Late Night Shuttle."
"It's definitely the convenience. You don't have to pay for parking. You don't have to worry about driving," said Seth, a Canisius College sophomore from the Town of Tonawanda.
This is the second and final weekend of the trial run for the shuttle, which takes riders on a late-night loop from Canisius, Buffalo State College and Elmwood Avenue to Chippewa and back.
Ridership went up on each of the first three nights, though the NFTA has not decided whether to extend the service permanently. The service had 56 riders overnight Oct. 15, 62 riders overnight Oct. 16 and 82 riders late Friday and early Saturday.
Despite fears that drunken bar patrons might act unruly on the late-night trips back to campus, NFTA officials and bus drivers said they have not had any problems with riders.
The entertainment shuttle -- the NFTA doesn't like the term "bar bus" -- is a response to a request from Canisius students. They wanted late-night access to downtown on weekends.
"It's not the drinking bus. That's not why we're offering the service," said NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer, who noted that students could use it to visit any of a number of venues.
The NFTA also is using the shuttle as a chance to encourage Buffalo State students to vote to join its University Pass transit program. Canisius and Bryant & Stratton students already have joined the service. Students from all three colleges got to ride for free.
"If Buffalo State votes to join the University Pass program, we'll continue" the shuttle, said Walt Zmuda, the NFTA's director of surface transportation.
Setting off from Canisius at 10 Friday night, the first run got off to a slow start. The bus did not pick up any students at Canisius and Buffalo State before getting two Buffalo State students on Elmwood.
Rose Cabrera and Mayra Zapata, both from New York City, sipped some Snapple as they rode to their jobs taking money at the door of Sphere Entertainment Complex. "It's economical," said Cabrera, who figured that a taxi would cost $10 or so each way. "It's safer."
"I would definitely take advantage of it because we have no vehicle," Zapata said.
Driver Marty Smith said the students have been polite and appreciative. "There's a lot of opportunity here for growth, as long as they promote it," Smith said.
On Smith's second loop, three buddies got on at Buffalo State to take the bus to the bars.
Robert Weimer, a junior from Orchard Park, usually has to bum a ride to get downtown. He found out about the shuttle from "this pretty cute girl" handing out fliers in the Campbell Student Union.
"I think it's a great idea," he said.
The three buses Friday and early Saturday got most of their riders between midnight and 3 a.m. The buses that left downtown at 3:30 and 4 in the morning were empty.
The 4:30 bus had just the four Canisius students. Seth and her friend Mindy Miller chatted away despite the late hour. The handicap of being under 21 did not stop them from enjoying a night on the town.
Miller, a sophomore from Fredonia, said the bus could cut down on drunken driving. After an evening out, she said, she would not want to drive, "and I wouldn't feel comfortable getting behind the wheel with someone else."
Reached at a more reasonable hour Saturday afternoon, Ellen Conley, vice president for student affairs at Canisius, had measured praise for the service. "I like the safety idea," Conley said. "If the students were going down to Shea's or Studio Arena, I'd like it even more. But I'm being a realist."