Even with the uncertainty that comes with an increase in COVID-19 variant cases, it appears most people are sick of being stuck at home. Public transit plays a large role in getting commuters where they need and want to be, and many entities are ensuring their customers are aware of the steps they are taking to be of service to those returning to work and play.
Ups and downs
As the Entertainment Capital of the World, Las Vegas was one of the hardest hit economies during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) experienced a drop in its transit ridership, according to Francis Julien, deputy CEO.
“Like many other communities, the RTC saw a decrease in the local workforce using public transportation to get to work. Southern Nevada also had to cope with the loss of visitors, many of whom use public transit services to move around the famous Las Vegas Strip and beyond. In all, the RTC saw nearly a 50% reduction in ridership,” Julien explains.
Even with COVID-19 restrictions in place and a massive drop in tourism numbers, the RTC provided 56 million essential transit trips on its fixed-route bus system, 1.1. million trips on its paratransit service, and nearly 75,000 rides on its senior and veteran services.
The RTC has seen a steady increase in ridership numbers fueled by the return of tourism to Southern Nevada and the employees who support that industry. Currently, the RTC is serving more than 105,000 riders daily.
Wayne Gensler, VP and COO, bus and paratransit, at Trinity Metro in Fort Worth, Texas, says when comparing June 2021 ridership data with pre-pandemic numbers for weekdays, bus ridership is down 43%. For commuter rail, TEXRail is 25% lower and Trinity Railway Express is 55% lower. ACCESS paratransit is down 34%, while vanpools are down 22%.
However, one area that has continued to do well is Trinity Metro’s ZIPZONE on-demand rideshare program. It was able to add two ZIPZONE service areas during the pandemic with help from the City of Fort Worth, City of Crowley, and the North Central Texas Council of Governments. It also implemented expansions of service areas.
“All of these efforts resulted in an 88% increase,” Gensler says.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) explains that, though ridership dropped nearly 80% at the height of the pandemic last spring to roughly 250,000 average weekday rides, this year it continues to gradually increase as Chicagoans return to their routines. Since January 2021, CTA ridership has jumped more than 55%, to about four million rides a week.
Throughout the pandemic, TransLink provided an essential service for millions of riders in British Columbia, Canada. Currently, ridership is at 50% of pre-pandemic levels.
Throughout the pandemic, transit frequency and service levels remained at or near pre-pandemic levels across the system, and it is now removing capacity restrictions on board vehicles to ensure it can accommodate an increase in demand.
Prepping for a brighter tomorrow
Trinity Metro ridership increases have been occurring as workers are returning to offices or resuming pre-pandemic travel, and as visitors are returning to the city, according to Gensler.
“Our ZIPZONE on-demand rideshare program is proving to be a successful option for passengers to ride within a limited area or to connect to our buses and trains,” he explains.
During the pandemic, the team at Trinity Metro drafted a plan to redesign its entire bus network. It is now called A Better Connection (ABC) because that’s what it will provide customers. The model focuses on a “wait less, walk more” scenario because, based on public feedback received, that’s what was most important to its riders. Developing the plan took more than a year and will launch Sept. 5.
“In the ABC plan, we redesigned the system to shift resources away from low ridership routes. By realigning routes, we will have 45,000 people and 25,000 jobs within a quarter-mile walk of a 15-minute frequency bus route (previously 30 minutes). We also retimed some of those resources to be able to add some late night and Sunday service for essential frontline workers. We will have 27,000 more people and 23,000 more jobs with later service in the evenings (10 to 11 p.m.) and 26,000 more people and 9,600 more jobs with Sunday service,” Gensler says.
TransLink continued to deliver more than 620,000 boardings every weekday. Even at the lowest point of the pandemic, approximately 75,000 people still relied on transit daily.
The agency has one of the highest ridership retention rates among the 10 busiest systems in Canada and the U.S., retaining 48% of its ridership in 2020 — second only to Los Angeles.
“We continuously monitor customer demand and adjust service quarterly to reflect changes in seasonal travel patterns based on demand from previous years. For example, on June 21, we boosted bus service to warm-weather destinations in anticipation of greater customer demand as COVID-19 restrictions eased,” according to Steve Vanagas, TransLink’s VP, customer communications and public affairs.
The CTA has begun to see ridership pick up more significantly in recent months as the city entered the final phases of its re-opening plan.
Rail ridership, which saw a sharper drop during the pandemic than bus ridership, was up 94% in mid-June compared to January, with more than 1.6 million weekly trips.
Since May 1, 2021, CTA ridership has jumped more than 20%, and in the month of June, weekday average ridership was over 600,000 — more than double the ridership at the height of the pandemic. Ridership to and from the Loop — the heart of Chicago’s downtown — has seen the biggest gains of any area of the city, as workers return to the office and residents attend downtown attractions, events, and activities.
“As we did throughout the pandemic, the CTA continues to provide the highest levels of service and is committed to continuing its extensive cleaning and disinfecting program. By operating on a full-service schedule, we have the capacity to accommodate additional riders as Chicagoans slowly resume their previous day-to-day activities, including their daily commutes to and from work,” a representative at the agency states.
Once visitors began to return to Las Vegas in March 2021, the RTC started to see an uptick in transit ridership. As the health and safety of riders remained a priority, it continued to operate under the 14-point safety plan that was developed in response to COVID-19. Part of that plan included innovations, such as a contactless payment option, real-time passenger counts, and an ion air cleaning system.
“Thanks to federal stimulus funding, we restored and enhanced essential public transit service in August of 2021. We were thrilled to expand the transit service area, extend routes, increase frequency, add new routes, and introduce a new microtransit service called RTC-OnDemand. These enhancements provide more equity, connectivity, and accessibility to 185,000 Southern Nevada residents who previously did not have access to transit,” Julien explains.
New Marketing for a new era
TransLink’s focus is on bringing riders back to transit, which means making people feel comfortable enough to come back by ensuring rides are as safe and clean as possible.
In July 2021, it launched its Reconnect campaign to boost transit ridership for the summer. It encourages customers to rediscover their cities and reconnect with the places and people they love through transit. TransLink is partnering with Destination Vancouver to offer transit customers a 25% discount at hundreds of local tours, attractions, and adventures.
“We know the tourism industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and partnering with them not only helps them bounce back but gives customers a chance to rediscover their own backyards,” Vanagas explains.
TransLink has also added an interactive map on its website to help customers plan trips and is touring its brightly colored “Reconnect Bus” to celebrate the return of fairs and festivals. Customers will be able to step inside the bus and learn about what’s new and improved on transit, TransLink’s rigorous cleaning protocols, and how ventilation works on its vehicles.
It recently used the Reconnect Bus at its province’s first ever Mobile Vaccine Bus clinic, where those eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine could hop on board the air-conditioned 60-foot articulated bus and get their shot.
In May 2021, the CTA launched “When You’re Ready, We’re Ready!” (WYRWR), a comprehensive, multi-faceted campaign to promote ridership and tout the importance of public transit. The campaign includes “Refresh & Renew,” an expanded and accelerated program to improve more than 125 rail stations across the system by the end of 2021.
It also introduced a summertime fare promotion, “More Fun, Less Fare,” which offers significant discounts on the most popular multi-ride passes. The passes dropped to $5 for a 1-day; $15 for a 3-day; and $20 for a seven-day.
To help the Southern Nevada economy, the RTC launched the “Try Transit” program, which encourages newly hired or recently rehired employees to take the bus by offering two complimentary seven-day passes. These passes were distributed via area employers to support current transit riders and show those who may have never taken the bus that transit could be an equitable option for their daily commute.
Glenn Miller, director of marketing at Trinity Metro, says a perennial component of public transportation marketing is promoting ridership.
“We always market the convenience, reliability, and cost savings of choosing to ride with us, and we were able to build upon those efforts during the pandemic,” he elaborates. “We knew many segments of the workforce had begun working remotely, so traveling for them became a non-issue. Others may have been concerned about the safety of using public transportation during a pandemic, so we designed a campaign with that in mind and called it ‘Delivering You Safely.’ We focused on sharing news about our intensified cleaning efforts and how protecting our customers was the top priority.”
Adapting to the new normal
One of Trinity Metro’s most successful efforts has been promoting free rides for job seekers. Being cognizant of the fact many people were hurt by job losses during the pandemic and were trying to get back to work, the last thing it wanted users to worry about was having to pay a fare to get to a job interview or career fair.
“We began offering free rides last September and have provided nearly 50,000 trips for job seekers since then. In June alone, we provided 6,023 rides. Anyone seeking a free ride only has to show the bus operator or train conductor an email reflecting a job interview or other documentation that shows career fair information. Given the successful numbers, we have not yet chosen an end date,” Miller says.
The RTC’s Try Transit program has been extremely successful and, as of August 10, 99 local businesses, including all major hotels on the strip, have agreed to participate.
More than 29,800 transit passes have been requested, and at least ten businesses have requested a second batch of tickets.
The goal of Try Transit is to maximize the number of Southern Nevada residents who form new commuting habits around riding transit and cycling.
“So far, we know more than 36,938 transit trips have been taken just through this program,” Julien said.
While it’s a bit too early for TransLink to say what kind of impact the reopening of its province and marketing efforts have had on ridership, it’s seen a slight increase in ridership numbers since marketing initiatives launched in early July 2021.
“We will continue to monitor what kind of sustained growth there has been,” Vanagas says.
The overall response to the programs launched as part of CTA’s WYRWR campaign has been positive and well-received by its ridership. For the CTA, it’s too soon to say the level of impact the campaign has had on ridership levels. It anticipates conducting a rider survey to gain better insights into customers’ experiences post-pandemic.
While ridership is up, it is still well below pre-pandemic levels. The CTA expects to see another uptick in its weekday ridership trends after Labor Day, when students are expected to return to in-person classes and businesses re-open their offices.
“Like transit agencies across the country, the CTA is strongly focused on encouraging riders to return to transit through our ongoing promotions, education, and awareness campaigns,” a representative tells METRO.
What Does Recovery Look Like?
The number of Las Vegas visitors continues to climb, which in turn helps more Southern Nevadans get back to work. As a result, the RTC has seen increases on both its residential and strip routes and has returned to approximately 70% ridership from its pre-pandemic baseline.
“As we continue to navigate the pandemic, our focus will remain on providing safe, accessible, and equitable transit services for both tourists and locals,” Julien says. “To continue providing mobility and strengthening our ridership, I go back to our upcoming service changes that will expand the overall service area, extend routes, increase frequency, and add new routes and services. We hope these improvements will be the foundation for long-term ridership recovery and growth.”
A recent report from the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which provides financial oversight of the Chicago region’s transit agencies, indicates about 80% of transit users who stopped riding during the pandemic plan on returning to the CTA, Metra (commuter rail), and Pace (suburban bus) if COVID-19 concerns diminish.
Years before the pandemic hit, the CTA was already investigating ways to further improve mobility and access to public transit. Despite the pandemic, it continued pursuing ideas and initiatives it was working on pre-pandemic, such as dedicated bus lanes, bus service improvements (i.e. rear-door boarding), launch of Ridership Dashboards, and more. In the last year, it also completely rebuilt its fare payment app, Ventra, allowing it to be more flexible and offer more features, including integration of Chicago’s bike-share program Divvy for multimodal travel throughout Chicago.
Gensler believes ridership will not return to pre-pandemic levels until life returns to normal. Much of Trinity Metro’s ridership is people who commute to and from work. That segment accounts for more than 46% of trip purposes for bus and 67% for rail. If you add in the number of riders who use transit for traveling to and from school, the number increases to 55.5% for bus and 73% for rail.
“We are working with regional agencies to take on the ridership challenges together. The North Central Texas Council of Governments is providing $1 million for Trinity Metro, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and Denton County Transportation Authority to promote our cleaning protocols and offer incentives for choosing public transit,” he explains.
TransLink is optimistic ridership will return to 70 to 90% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022.
“Public transportation was essential before the pandemic, during it, and will be even more critical in return to normal life and the revival of businesses,” says Vanagas. “Public transportation is also one of the most sustainable ways to get around the region and plays a crucial role in meeting our region’s sustainability goals.”