A Follow-Up on Ridership Recovery

California transit agencies take steps to revamp their services to support ridership recovery.

By Arianna Smith
Managing Editor
Transit California

To address the “fiscal cliff," should California transit agencies cut routes and increase fares?  Or do better, more creative options exist - options that serve existing customers, bring back riders who have left, and even encourage non-transit users to become dedicated riders? 

This spring, California lawmakers, transit agencies, and other stakeholders are exploring ways to reform and transform California’s public transit systems as agencies respond to fiscal emergencies caused by declining revenue, increased costs and the loss of federal emergency funding.

Even as operational funding shortfalls loom for many agencies, transit ridership is slowly recovering from pandemic lows: as of February 2023, California’s ridership has ticked up to 69% statewide – a 4% improvement from just three months earlier. This increase reflects not only the return to pre-pandemic service operation levels, but many agencies’ implementation of ridership recovery solutions.  

Some lawmakers understand that California’s transit systems cannot be allowed to spiral out of existence through service cuts, and that increasing ridership is a key factor in meeting the state’s ambitious goals on climate change and housing. “Transit plays an essential role in California’s daily life and economy,” said Senator Scott Weiner in a recent statement on social media regarding his leadership in advocating for public transit operations funding in the state budget. “Transit isn’t optional. We need to ensure its continued viability.”

“Transit is tied not just to climate, but to mobility, to equity, to public health, and certainly to things like housing,” said Assemblymember Laura Friedman, Chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee, at a recent joint oversight hearing that explored statewide ridership recovery efforts. Friedman said the Committees’ goal is to determine “what [lawmakers] can do hold transit agencies accountable to the customers they serve, while also making changes to ensure that transit is a good option for people who rely on it – not just what they have to do, but that it provides the kind of experience that will get people who have cars to get out of their cars and use transit.” 

Transit agencies across California are working to achieve these goals in both conventional and inventive ways.

One key strategy has been to restore and increase services in regions and on days where demand returned most rapidly. “As the effects of the pandemic waned, we took a measured approach to restoring service, based on demand,” said Darrell E. Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). “We completed a bus restructuring study, so we understood which areas of the county had the highest demand for service. We strategically added back service to serve the riders who need us most. As of now, OCTA’s regular ridership has rebounded to nearly 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels.”

“We’ve found that whenever we improve the speed and frequency of our service, and when we respond to new travel patterns, our ridership goes up,” confirmed Julie Kirschbaum, Director of Transit at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (Muni). “As we restored and added Muni service after the start of the pandemic, we invested in the routes that serve people who rely on transit and need it most. For example, pre-pandemic, the Mission neighborhood received 24% of our total Muni service hours, and now it is up to 30%. In quite a few cases, our routes are seeing ridership that exceeds pre-pandemic levels.” She continued, “[We] increased frequency and re-routed the 22 Fillmore to bring people to their jobs and medical appointments at Mission Bay and now ridership is at 107% pre-pandemic levels on weekdays and 118% on weekends.”  

While implementing the NextGen bus plan to increase the frequency, convenience and safety of its bus transit operations, Los Angeles Metro similarly found that weekday work commutes didn’t account for large shares of riders. “Our core riders are not necessarily the people who ride 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. . . . So we really needed to shift our resources from peak heavy and less in the midday to sort of an all day every day frequent network,” said Conan Cheung, LA Metro’s Chief Operations Officer for Transit Operations. The agency has adjusted bus services and increased ridership accordingly; as a result of updates, at least 1.1 million more jobs are now accessible through 10-minute or better bus service, representing a 350% improvement over the pre-pandemic service structure.

Of all its ridership gains, LA Metro’s weekends have improved most dramatically. “Saturdays have recovered about 86% and Sundays are pretty much at 100%.  So we’ve pretty much rebounded on the weekend,” said Cheung.  As a result of this shift in demand, the agency is directing savings from reduced weekday travel to routes that have fully or nearly fully recovered. “With the increase in remote working, the peak hour, overall travel is lower, so we can take those resources and apply them where we need them, which are midday and on weekends. . . . It’s a win-win because it actually will make us more efficient in terms of costs as well. That’s always a good thing if you can spend less money carrying more people.”

San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is employing strategies to improve the comfort and safety of riders, while also updating the vision for the kinds of trips that potential customers might want and need to take by public transit.  “It’s imperative for us to sharpen our focus on the rider experience and market our service beyond rides related to a work commute,” said Rodd Lee, Assistant General Manager of External Affairs at BART.  “We increased Sunday service during the pandemic and we expanded our efforts to add unarmed safety staff to trains. Additionally, we have doubled the presence of sworn officers on trains to address riders’ safety concerns and quality of life issues. To further improve the rider experience, we’re also boosting the appearance and feel of our system by adding train car scrubbing teams and more deep cleaning teams who will brighten our stations.”

Some agencies have focused on attracting and retaining new riders as an important part of securing long-term ridership stability.  “With the guidance of OCTA’s Board of Directors we chose to do something bold, even as we were still dealing with uncertainties. In Summer 2021, we launched the Youth Ride Free program, and OCTA became the first large transit agency in the region to offer free rides to youth ages 6 to 18,” said Johnson of OCTA. The idea was to encourage new, young riders who might not otherwise try public transportation to access school, libraries, and after-school jobs, with the hope of converting them to dedicated public transit riders. During the first full year of the program, kids and teens took about 2.6 million trips using the pass, which has quickly become a model for other transit systems around the country.

The Legislature, academic researchers, and transit agencies have all repeatedly identified the need for transit to be able to compete with driving timeliness in order to attract and retain riders through greater service reliability. To that end, SF Muni, LA Metro, and many agencies across the state have installed and are currently using hundreds of miles of transit only lanes to reduce traffic congestion and improve on-time performance, and they have plans to install more. “Over the course of last year, we implemented 31 lane miles of bus priority lanes, and we’re planning another 64 lane miles right now. . . . With speed and reliability improvements, you can speed up the system, you make it more consistent . . . you don’t need to schedule as much layover time,” which has the added significant benefit of saving resources, explained Cheung of LA Metro.  

Transit agencies are implementing a wide variety of solutions to address the fiscal cliff while taking into account their regional populations’ needs and preferences. But regardless of the different solutions used, many agencies acknowledge their central role in building communities with a more equitable, climate-adapted future.

“San Francisco needs safe, clean and reliable public transit now more than ever to advance the core values of what it means to live and thrive in the region,” said Kirchbaum of SF Muni.

“Like transit agencies statewide, we see the need for long-term sustainable transit operating financial assistance to meet increased costs, labor needs, and new state mandates related to zero-emission technology conversion and climate goals,” said Johnson of OCTA, summarizing the sentiments of many agencies. “Our efforts to continue expanding our transit services rely heavily on a strong partnership and steady funding from the state.”

The Association continues to advocate for this strong partnership during state budget negotiations in the coming months.

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