Management & Operations

How to Fill Those Empty Seats

Posted on March 1, 2003 by Janna Starcic, associate editor

Increasing fallout from the slumping economy in the form of budget cuts and unemployment have added to the challenges transit agencies face in the longstanding effort to boost ridership. U.S. ridership fell 1.46% in the third quarter of 2002 compared to the same quarter in 2001, according to the American Public Transportation Association. To offset those declines, agencies are reaching out to new customers, as well as retaining current riders with educational videos, transfer centers and guides. At the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) ridership figures dipped in 2002 because of a reduction in levels of service. “We cut about $1.5 million from the budget. The reductions in service were relatively modest. We spread some headways and routes,” says Mark Swope, KCATA director of planning. In November 2002, KCATA conducted a customer satisfaction survey and received 1,115 responses. According to the responses, KCATA customers were very satisfied with the attributes of the system, such as bus cleanliness and driver friendliness. Where the dissatisfaction came through was in the amount of service available, says Cynthia Baker, director of marketing. “Clearly [the service issues] are directly related to funding,” Baker says. “There is not enough service to meet the current need. Next year, if we don’t find a new funding source, we’ll be looking at a $10 million to $12 million service cut, which is about 25% of our services.” Funding isn’t always the main obstacle that transit properties need to overcome to maintain or boost passenger counts. Unemployment is another economic factor that has contributed to reductions in ridership. “People are being laid off, and they are not making that work trip that they were previously making on the bus,” Swope says. A combination of cuts in service and continued weakness in the economy resulted in a 5% ridership loss over the past year at KCATA, Swope says. The San Mateo County (Calif.) Transit District (SamTrans) has also seen a decline in ridership numbers due to economic factors. “The recession impacted the Bay Area greatly. Thousands of high-tech workers were laid off here,” says Jamie Maltby, public information officer for SamTrans. “If you don’t have a job to go to, then you are not going to take those rides on transit.” Average weekday ridership numbers for Samtrans’ bus service for FY 2001/2002 were 32,362, with the current count at 27,688 for FY 2002/2003. Figures are also down for Samtrans’ rail agency, Caltrain, which runs service between San Jose and San Francisco. Maltby says ridership has declined to some degree due to the lack of available riders. Public transit, hard sell The Rapid Transit System in Rapid City, S.D., has seen a 4% decline in its ridership. The system, which has six buses devoted to fixed-route service, counted 240,000 passengers in 2001. That number fell to 230,000 in 2002. “Our ridership actually peaked in 1999, and declined 3% each year, except for last year,” says Rapid Transit General Manager Rich Sager. According to a recent survey, passenger trip patterns for the system changed. Trips to the local mall, for example, are more purpose-driven instead of recreational, Sager says. In addition, student use of the system has waned. Sager is not sure what is contributing to the losses, but he says that attracting riders has been difficult. He cites the public’s reluctance to give up driving cars, not funding or the economy, as the underlying reason for this problem. “The Midwest mentality, particularly here is, ‘Why would I take the bus when I can drive anywhere in 15 minutes?’” Sager says. Though Rapid Transit has been actively courting new riders by reducing student bus passes from $25 to $15 and offering free rides to seniors on Fridays, attracting choice riders remains elusive. “Basically, what we have are people who are transit dependent. We attract people who have no other option,” Sager says. “I think [public transportation] has been a very difficult sell.” Educational tools One of the ways transit systems are reaching out to prospective riders is through education. Metro in St. Louis, formerly the Bi-State Development Agency, developed a set of how-to videos explaining various aspects of the system. The videos, which debuted last fall, provide a comprehensive overview of the Metro system and how to use it, from getting maps and schedules to paying fares. One video addresses how to make connections between Metro’s bus and light rail systems and how to board bicycles. A second video provides additional information for riders with disabilities. The videos are available in Spanish and Bosnian — two populations experiencing significant growth in the region. Distribution sites for the videos include schools, social and civic organizations and employer worksites around the community. Another educational tool being offered by St. Louis’ Metro is a system guide, featuring a map of the entire transit system in the Missouri and Illinois region. The guide includes detailed information on fares and passes, phone numbers and tips for using the system. “In essence we are doing a back-to-basics campaign,” says Patrick McLean, Metro’s division director of marketing and communications. “We literally have to train generations of individuals on how to use public transit.” Although system-wide ridership is down 4.5% due to cuts in bus service on its Missouri side and an increase in monthly pass prices from $40 to $45 a month, Metro is not looking for a quick fix. “I think it’s a long-term issue,” McLean says of the educational tools’ impact on ridership. Guiding the way The Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) in Lansing, Mich., is educating its riders by using strategically placed people, called CATA guides, throughout the system to answer questions. The guide program, developed in conjunction with a 1999 partnership to provide transportation to students of Michigan State University (MSU), consists of 15 CATA administrative employees wearing distinctive hats, giving personal assistance to new students at key boarding areas. The concept originated out of the need to educate the new influx of university riders. “We had fantastic success with that,” says Sandy Dragoo, CATA’s executive director. “[Riders] had a real, live person telling them how to make their ride work.” CATA ridership has climbed steadily for the past seven years, with record-breaking numbers for the past five. In 2002, residents took more than 8.7 million rides, an increase of 10% from 2001, with 7.9 million. Dragoo says that CATA’s success in attracting riders is based on several contributing factors. “We can never say, ‘Well, that’s the [one] thing that made our ridership go up,’” she says. Build it and they will come Transportation centers have also become an important piece of the ridership puzzle because they add value to surrounding areas and offer passengers alternate transportation options in one location. CATA added to its growth with a downtown transportation center in Lansing, Mich., which was built in 1997. More recently, in January 2003, CATA dedicated its newest transportation center and parking ramp intermodal facility, which is located on the MSU campus. The new $23.2 million center, part of a cooperative agreement between the university and CATA, features direct phone link access to CATA’s customer service, print maps and timetables, indoor seating, a convenience store and restrooms. Riders can bike or drive to the transportation center and hop on a bus taking them to every part of campus and to transfer points for off-campus travel in CATA’s 500-square-mile service area. Everett Transit in Washington is another system whose passenger counts benefited from the existence of a transportation center. Everett Station, a four-story, 58,000-square-foot multimodal station, provides facilities for Everett Transit, Community Transit and Sound Transit, the regional provider. In addition to public transit, the station is home to Greyhound and Amtrak facilities, with a consortium of five colleges leasing classroom and office space, says Tom Hingson, transportation systems manager for Everett Transit. The multimodal station has played an integral part in attracting new passengers, he says. “We reconfigured some routes so they would serve the station better and provided more direct service between the local community college and Everett Station,” Hingson says. On a different scale, St. Louis’ Metro is banking on a series of transfer centers to boost bus ridership in areas that will receive light rail service in the future. “Our interest was in making the bus service more meaningful [to those people],” Metro’s McLean says. The first completed transfer center, Ballas MetroBus Center, was built in an affluent neighborhood. At first, that caused some concern for area residents, who have since shifted to support the project. “Now that the facility is finished, it has added value to the community,” McLean says. “As time goes by, it will build ridership in that area, where it was not as strong.” Economical alternative Providing passengers with an economical, effective alternative to commuting to work attracts choice riders to Calgary Transit in Alberta, Canada. “I think Calgarians have seen the value of using public transit within the city,” says Ron Collins of Calgary Transit. It costs $2 for an adult fare for the system and $65 for a monthly pass, an affordable option when compared to the alternative — driving into downtown Calgary and paying for parking, which could inflate a commuter’s transportation budget by several hundred dollars a year. “It’s still a very good bang for the buck,” Collins says of the transit system. The annual number of passengers on Calgary Transit’s system, bus and light rail combined, climbed from 75 million in 2000 to 77 million in 2002. More than half of Calgary Transit customers (55%) have access to a vehicle, according to a customer survey. Forty-two percent of Calgary’s work force uses Calgary Transit to get downtown, Collins says. Like many other large cities, congestion is a problem for Calgary. Collins says citizens are encouraged to park their vehicles and to use the transit system. “Not only does it help with the congestion issue, it also helps the environment,” he says. Calgary’s light rail system, the C Train, uses wind-generated electricity. Convincing riders of the value of saving money and time by using public transportation is a strategy also being used by KCATA to maintain its current riders. “We’ve been able to attract new riders; however, the key is that we are losing 46% of our riders after four years,” KCATA’s Baker says. “That says to us that we must market to our current customers.” When riders, 50% of whom are transit-dependent, can afford to buy a car, they leave the system, Baker says. KCATA’s campaign targeting current riders spreads the message that customers are doing the right thing by using public transit by saving money, avoiding traffic and helping the environment. In addition to its radio and television commercial ads, KCATA will use an interior sign campaign to display messages inside buses. “We hope to reinforce all the value of transit through our commercials,” Baker says. Creating system awareness Creating system awareness is also crucial to attracting riders. Some transit properties have developed television commercials and installed new bus stop signs to boost their public presence. Television commercials have been a very successful medium for KCATA. The commercials, based on a character called “Gabe, the No. 1 bus fan,” developed a following throughout the community. “I think that directly relates to why we have so many new riders, because of the awareness we’ve built. We’ve had a lot of transit properties call us asking for the rights to duplicate [the commercials],” Baker says. Installing bus stop signs is another way transit properties are making their presence known throughout the community. Everett Transit began replacing bus stop signs as part of its promotional campaign that included a new system logo and paint scheme for buses. The signs feature the new red-and-white color scheme and specific route numbers, which did not exist on earlier signs. Tailoring services Some of the most prevalent requests from public transportation users pertain to service expansion. By adding service hours and tailoring routes to meet riders’ needs, transit agencies are seeing repeat customers. Calgary Transit, which added an estimated 50,000 new service hours in 2002, attributes its higher rider count to this expansion. “We are providing more service that is better and more effective,” Collins says. “I think that’s caught on with our customers.” The Toledo (Ohio) Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) found an opportunity to increase its ridership by providing bus service for the opening of a baseball stadium. “We promoted the service to the new Fifth-Third Field,” says Craig Bruns, secretary treasurer for TARTA. Buses ran from 13 park-and-ride lots in outlying areas. “We probably carried 25,000 to 40,000 people to the new ballfield,” Bruns says. Everett Transit also benefited from reconfigured service routes, with passenger boarding for February 2003 shooting up 50%. This burst resulted from a change in service by neighboring transit provider Community Transit, which ran service along some Everett Transit corridors. “Essentially, we are no longer competing with each other along the same corridors within the city limits,” says Everett Transit’s Hingson.

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