Management & Operations

Key Strategies to Building, Retaining Transit Ridership

Posted on October 18, 2006 by Janna Starcic, Managing Editor

In the transit business, boosting ridership is not as simple as following the mantra “if you build it they will come.” In some respects the opposite is true, which requires putting service where your customers are.

With the cost of fuel remaining at peak levels, public transportation entities have ample opportunity to attract new riders ready to leave their cars for other options, as well as to retain current riders. Strategies for increasing ridership can range from building an extension to your rail service, adding vehicles to the fleet to increase frequency on bus routes or simply installing better signage at bus stops.

A recent Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) study, (H-32) Elements Needed to Create High Ridership Transit Systems, offers methods for promoting ridership growth culled from in-depth case studies of 12 U.S. operations. “We also looked at the initiatives of 100 agencies of various types and sizes,” says Dan Fleishman, study principal investigator and vice president of Medford, Mass.-based consulting firm Transystems. In addition to study insights, there is a range of methods of growing ridership being used by various agencies across the nation.

Identify service gaps
According to the TCRP study, initiatives for improving ridership can be broken down into four categories: operating and service adjustments; partnerships and coordination; marketing, promotional and information; and fare collection and structure. But before a bus or rail system begins to implement any of the former elements, it must first identify any gaps in service, Fleishman says.

Identifying service needs and opportunities, which include evaluating your current service, routes, ridership, productivity and other measures on each route, Fleishman says, are important steps to take before implementing any ridership-enhancing strategies. “Evaluate your overall route structure to see if it makes sense, and at the same time look at travel patterns,” he adds.

It is also key to study your system’s demographic profile to see if the region has changed. “You may have put your roots down 20 years ago, and meanwhile, all the people and jobs have moved to the suburbs, while all of your routes still go downtown,” Fleishman says.

Conducting passenger surveys and focus groups to find out what types of issues exist on the system are also beneficial in this initial stage. “[Find out] what your riders think are the issues, the problems and what are the good things related to the current service,” Fleishman says. Systems must also look into market segmentation and identify any new or emerging markets in the region that may be tapped.

Adjust operations, service
Once you identify where system changes should be made, this will make it easier to find which method to employ. The first strategies identified by the TCRP study as a means to attract and retain customers are operation and service adjustments. This category encompasses scheduling and frequency of service, types of services offered and amenities.

The Regional Transportation Commission of Northern Nevada (RTC) used this method to augment productive bus routes. “We are focusing on what we call the primary transportation network, which are the most traveled routes of the system,” says RTC Public Information Officer James McGrath. The focus includes providing more service on these routes — more frequency and extended hours.

Ridership at the RTC is on the rise, with a 9.8% increase in March over last year’s figures. The system provided 8.54 million rides between February 2005 and 2006, an estimated 26,000 people a day. “Some of that we attribute to more frequency, more convenience, and some to high gas prices,” McGrath says. “But at the same time, no matter how high gas prices are, if [public transit] isn’t convenient, [people] are not going to use it.”

In general, operating and service adjustments were the most effective in terms of boosting ridership, according to the TCRP study, but marketing and fare collection (other initiatives) were also important in supporting other service-type changes, Fleishman says.

Partner and coordinate
The second category derived by the study involves partnerships and coordination. “We found it useful [for agencies] to work with other entities in the community, to capitalize on some of their built-in markets such as the universities — they have a lot of potential riders,” Fleishman says.

Northern Nevada’s RTC tapped the student market by partnering with the University of Nevada and offering student passes to offset limited parking spaces and the high cost of parking permits for students. Recently, the RTC extended its free downtown commuter service to the campus. “This allows the students the opportunity to connect to our transit hub, and the chance to hang out downtown free of charge,” McGrath says.

The Greater Bridgeport Transit Authority (GBTA) in Connecticut is laying the groundwork for future partnerships and coordination of services by holding workshops to promote its services. “We have held some parking workshops where we were striving to present ideas how to reduce demand for parking in the city center,” says GBTA General Manager, Ron Kilcoyne. Community developers and stakeholders were invited to hear presentations about Eco-passes (annual transit passes provided by employers), shuttle circulation and car-sharing options, to name a few of the ideas discussed.

As a result, one of the prime developers of a new downtown housing structure committed to buying annual transit passes for their tenants, Kilcoyne says. “We are trying to be proactive and engaged in the whole downtown development so that there are supportive policies in place, such as the eco-passes, that will result in more ridership.”

Partnering with other transit agencies is another valuable way to enhance ridership through coordinated services. Raleigh/Durham, N.C.-based Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) was one of many transit agencies in the three-county region of Research Triangle Park (RTP) that joined forces to coordinate their respective services. “We worked together to make our services meet better, so that when people were traveling through several different services, it was seamless,” says TTA Marketing Coordinator Julie Woosley. The partnership also produced a regional transit information Website (, launched in July, providing customers with an assortment of transit options. Other expected partnership outcroppings include a regional call center, slated for March 2007, and a certified regional paratransit program.

Employer outreach
Reaching out to local employers in the community is another effective way to develop partnerships that will promote ridership growth. One such partnership is a free shuttle service between New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express (RRE) and the UNM (University of New Mexico) Hospital. The shuttle, which is being funded completely by the hospital, is designed to bring its hospital employees from the downtown Albuquerque Rail Runner station directly to the facility.

“We did an employee survey and got an overwhelming response for this service,” says UNM Hospitals’ Transportation Manager Janey Flores. “Limited parking is just one of a number of reasons why we want to encourage our employees to use the Rail Runner to get to work.”

New Mexico’s Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG), which operates the newly launched Rail Runner (passenger service began mid-July), conducted an outreach to partner with local businesses to possibly offer free shuttle service, incentives or discounted passes for their employees to ride the rail service to work.

“It makes good business sense to encourage [this service] because it adds up to more ridership for us and less tardiness and absenteeism for the businesses, and a less stressed employee shows up at work,” says Augusta Meyers, MRCOG communications manager. “Just taking a walk down to the Albuquerque station, you can see how it has boosted ridership, with so many people getting off the train and going directly to the shuttles,” says Meyers.

Other local businesses have shown interest in partnering with the RRE, including the University of New Mexico, which is developing its own shuttle service.

Marketing and information
Marketing, promotion and information make up the third ridership building initiative identified by the TCRP study. “[This initiative] is basically getting the word out and letting riders know what types of services you have,” Transystems’ Fleishman says. The informational aspect of this initiative involves letting people know about the service and how to use it.

Recently, the RTC began a comprehensive re-branding of all its services to make them more attractive and understandable to consumers. “We did a market analysis about three years ago, which told us there was a huge disconnect with who we were as the Regional Transportation Commission and what we did as an agency,” McGrath says, adding “because we had strange names.”

This effort, being phased in over two years, involves fresh paint schemes and livery as well as new names for the services: Citifare (public transit) became RTC Ride; CitiLift (paratransit) is now RTC Access and Pride (a commuter route) is RTC Intercity. “We started in May with the service name changes, branding them for exactly what they do, instead of more ubiquitous names,” McGrath says.

Other RTC re-branding efforts include a revamped bus book offering more detailed maps and new bus stop signs marked with route numbers.

Similarly, the GBTA, which provides fixed-route bus and paratransit service, plans to replace its individual system timetables and maps, with a combined version designed to fit into a jacket pocket or purse. Also as part of its re-branding efforts, the agency is looking to upgrade to more distinctive signage for its estimated 2,000 bus stops. “I’ve been collecting bus stop signs from other agencies to see what we might want,” says Kilcoyne.

Challenging people to ride
The promotions aspect of the initiative has proven effective for TTA. “We have held a number of events aimed at increasing ridership and retaining existing and new riders,” says Woosley. “Ridership on our system has increased 7.8% for the year ending in June.”

Of all the public transit promotions, it is the TTA’s involvement with the SmartCommute Challenge, the second annual regional event, which has been the most effective, says Woosley. The challenge encourages employees and students of the three-county region to get to work or school by bus, bike, foot, carpool, vanpool or by telecommuting at least once over a seven-week period. All participants are entered into a drawing to win prizes.

The SmartCommute program was started by the TDM (Transportation Demand Management) program in the RTP region. For four years, the successful promotion was only offered to RTP employees. In 2005, TTA partnered with SmartCommute to offer the challenge to the entire region, which drew more than 12,000 people. “It was phenomenally successful,” Woosley says of the program, chosen for an APTA AdWheel award.

During the challenge, the TTA conducted a survey and found that an estimated 64% of participants were not previous transportation users. “A follow up survey found that 30% of the folks who had originally taken the challenge were still using the alternative mode three months later,” Woosley says.

Fare collection, structure
Fare collection and fare structure are two subcategories making up the fourth TCRP initiative. For the latter category, agencies can simplify fare structures, reduce fares or the number of zones. The second sub-category, fare collection, includes equipping operations to make fare payment easier by, for example, using automated fare collection systems that accept magnetic farecards or contactless smart cards.

Connecticut’s GBTA used a new fare structure as well as payment system, making it easier to ride the bus. Before 2006, the agency did not have a pass program of any kind. Although it did have the farebox hardware to issue and validate passes, it went unused. “If you have to pay every time you get on the bus, you’re not going to do it; it’s a deterrent,” says Kilcoyne.

“When we introduced our new fare structure and Ziptrip program (the new pass program), that’s when we noticed a dramatic [ridership] increase — going from the 0% to 5% range to a 10% to 15% range,” Kilcoyne says. When he arrived at the GBTA in early 2004, ridership was actually dropping and had bottomed out, he says.

The new fare program has also benefited bus operators by streamlining the boarding process, resulting in better on-time performance. “It’s also easier for me to enforce policy now, I have fewer fare disputes,” says Kilcoyne.

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