In 2015, Americans took 10.6 billion trips on public transportation, the third highest annual ridership in over a decade, according to American Public Transportation Association figures. Overall, from 1995-2015, public transit ridership increased by 37 percent, almost double the growth of the overall population.

There are a variety of reasons for this, from increases in technologies to shifting demographics to a societal impulse to return to urban dwelling. Regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that residents want transit – they want it to be fast, convenient, safe and practical.

This poses a challenge for many agencies across the country – both large and small – that are looking to keep up with the times while competing against emerging transit modes. How are public transit agencies across the country remaining relevant while providing a critical public service?

Rebuilding ridership through partnerships: Link Transit, Washington State

Eric West, the marketing coordinator for Link Transit, which serves the rural Chelan and Douglas counties in Washington State, says its bus system experienced record ridership in 2015 – the highest levels since 1999 – which is quite an achievement given the agency’s history.

Prior to 2000, Link Transit was a fare-free system. However, due to mounting costs and eliminating the state motor vehicle excise tax that was dedicated to funding public transit, the agency was forced to implement fares while cutting services. This caused ridership to plummet. 

“Over the past 15 years, it’s been a rebuilding process,” West says. “In 2015, we hit a high mark for the first time since we’ve introduced fares. We broke a record last year.” 

However, this was not easy to do. “The two or three years after [implementing fares] were just survival,” West says. Because of drastic cuts in service, he says the system became far less relevant to “choice riders,” meaning those who have other means of transportation. 

In order to stay solvent, the agency needed to regain that lost relevancy. In 2003, under the direction of a new general manager, West says the agency went through an extensive review process which examined exactly how to do that. “We were really looking at what kind of internal efficiencies we could achieve, and how to make our runs tighter without having as much layover time.”

One of the first things the agency did was to move riders from the paratransit system onto fixed routes. However, this took an extensive travel-training program. Through this program, the agency reached out to the riders of the paratransit system – often those with mental or physical disabilities – and individually walked them through how to take the fixed route service. Often this meant meeting with them one-on-one at Link headquarters, or occasionally sending liaisons out to rider’s homes. “It was a very personal level of training,” West says.

“That was one of the biggest wins for us during that time period,” West says, estimating that they successfully moved 30 to 40 percent of riders off the costly paratransit system while still offering them the high level of service they required. 

Then, due to an uptick in the local economy and the sales tax revenue subsequently generated, in 2007 the system was able to slowly expand, bringing back weekend hours and increasing frequency on heavily trafficked routes. In 2012, the agency began to take a renewed interest in attracting choice ridership.  

To do this, the agency partnered with some of the area’s major employers. The agency made a deal with these private companies to pay an annual fee so that their employees would be able to ride for free. The partnerships worked so well that the program was expanded to the local community college. “These have really opened the market up to people who may not choose to ride,” West says.

These partnerships, West says, have been the catalyst in regaining the ridership lost through the introduction of fares. 

Proactively increasing ridership: Capital District Transportation Authority, upstate New York

For the past five years, the Capital District Transportation Authority (CTDA), which services Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer and Saratoga Counties in Upstate New York, has been seeing consistent ridership growth, going from 13.8 million to just over 17 million - approximately a 25 percent increase - according to the agency’s CEO, Carm Basile. 

While there are many reasons for this increase, Basile says he is most proud of the fact that his agency took a proactive role in creating it. “The reasons [for the increase] are because of what we are doing, much more so than what’s happening around us.”

He explains that there are societal, geographic and economic factors that influence ridership statistics that are often outside of an agency’s control. However, by taking an active stance, public transit agencies can make a tremendous difference in residents’ patronage.

Similarly to Link, over the past seven years, CDTA has been offering what they call universal access agreements. “We negotiate agreements with colleges and universities as well as major employers to buy our services in bulk… so that their ID cards are live on our buses,” Basile says. “[Using their own ID medium] all of their employees have access to our services, and they pay us on a pre-negotiated, per-ride basis.”

However, CDTA is unique in the sense that every employee or student has access to service, regardless of initial interest. “We insist that they not be differentiated,” Basile says, “that all cards be turned on.” He explains that sometimes this is a difficult notion to sell to employers, but it actually makes the most sense for both the employer – who can sell public transit access as an employment perk – and the agency who has access to a deeper ridership pool.

Being a positive, visible presence in the community is also an important factor in boosting ridership, says Basile. “We’ve worked really hard to be part of everything that’s going on in the community, whether it be a festival or a fair or an economic development project,” he says. “Oftentimes people scratch their heads and say ‘why are you guys here?’ but it’s because we’re part of the community.”

Often public transit is maligned with negative stereotypes, but staying out ahead of that and maintaining a positive public presence is tremendously important in attracting new riders and maintaining the ones you have, Basile says.

A third reason for CDTA’s continued success, Basile says, is an almost obsessive focus on updating equipment whenever possible, keeping vehicles safe, clean and comfortable, and making trips as convenient as possible.

“Our equipment is new and modern, our cleanliness standards are probably higher than you’re going to find just about anywhere, and we use technology to make the system more comfortable and easy to use,” Basile says. “That’s what you’re supposed to do, but I think it often gets pushed aside.” 

Real time ride information, Basile says, is one technology that has been critically important in keeping riders happy. “Our customer complaints were cut in half almost immediately when real-time information was made available system-wide,” he says. “If you’re not [using these systems], you should be.”

In order to further boost ridership, Basile says his agency is thinking outside of traditional incentives, and trying to integrate ideas from private industry. One potential way to entice new ridership, he thinks, is to partner with local businesses, not to offer employees rides, but to offer discounts for patrons who take public transit for shopping and entertainment.

Similar to a low-tech punch card system, in which every 10th purchase gets a free sandwich, through the use of smart technologies, Basile says riders of public transit could be offered discounts on certain items, encouraging both ridership and patronage. 

“Everyone has had these ideas, but [in the past] the problem was there was no way to track or coordinate them,” Basile says. Now that even bus passes are becoming smart devices, these types of incentivized partnerships are becoming possible. “I really think it’s the openness of our staff and employees to be willing and able to try new things [that has led to our success].”

Ongoing efforts to expand ridership: Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, Georgia

Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) General Manger and CEO Keith Parker stands to receive what proponents are calling a “once in a generation opportunity” – this November voters will decide on a half-penny sales tax increase which would result in a projected revenue of $2.5 billion through 2057. The increased revenue would be a windfall for the transit agency, which at times in its history struggled with finances and issues related to public perception. 

Starting in December 2010, Parker says the agency was struggling to stay afloat. “I came into a pretty tough fiscal situation, with several years of operating at major deficits,” he says. “The agency was on a trajectory of being bankrupt.” He adds that third party auditors estimated that the agency would be insolvent by July 2017. However, through great effort and trying austerity measures, Parker says the system is the most stable it’s been in decades.

“We have been able to find success and instead are at the healthiest financially we’ve been since the [1996 Summer] Olympics,” Parker says. “We have about a quarter of a billion dollars in fiscal reserves when it was predicted to be zero – we’re in very strong shape in that regard.”

However, Parker admits getting to this point wasn’t easy. Public perception of the agency had to change, and it needed to improve its relationships with local, state and federal officials. “We’ve seen some major victories in that regard, Parker says, “including most recently the state awarding us a $30 million grant, which is the biggest investment the state of Georgia has ever made in MARTA.”

In order to get there, Parker says first and foremost MARTA had to concentrate on providing a reliable service that is affordable and takes people where they need to go. This, he says, “is the single biggest thing we have to do in terms of creating new ridership and holding on to existing ridership.” 

During his tenure with MARTA, Parker has sought to improve efficiencies within the system while cutting costs. By proving that MARTA was an efficient, reliable system with sound financial practices to both investors and the community as a whole, slowly the agency was able to turn itself around.

“You have to get the fundamentals right first,” says Parker. “It’s a commitment to safety and overall customer service. You have to offer safe, dignified rides to customers.”

Parker says it’s also important to commit to employees, both in terms of benefits and equipment. When he came onboard at MARTA, he says many of the employees hadn’t received a raise in years, and drivers were operating some of the oldest public transit fleets in the nation – which Parker immediately sought to change. 

Finally, he says, a system’s finances have to be in order. “If you don’t get this right, the other two won’t matter,” Parker says. “Too many systems try to get out in front of themselves and talk about expansion when they don’t have enough money to run their existing services.” Parker attributes MARTA’s success to it’s ability to “live within it’s means,” which turned a projected $33 million deficit into a $9 million surplus in six months.  

By sticking to these fundamental principles, MARTA now stands to reap a windfall of revenue for its hard work and dedication to its riders and employees.

The improvements, Parker says, will fall into three categories, all of which will increase ridership within the system. First, he plans to dramatically improve bus services – this includes expanding routes, upgrading and adding vehicles to the fleet, and extending hours of service. Second, he says the agency is looking to expand rail services, and for the first time introduce light rail systems to the city to connect riders from bus routes to heavy rail. Third, he says the agency is looking to improve its facilities, from train stations to bus shelters. This will make the system more attractive to new riders, and improve the overall customer experience, he says. 

“As transit systems, one of the things we have to continually do a better job on is listening to the public,” Parker says. “The best ideas generally don’t come from a group of executives sitting in an office; the customers quite often know what they need, what they want, and it’s our job to be good listeners and turn that into action.”

Rosemary Sheridan, the vice president of communications and marketing at the American Public Transportation Association, agrees with this sentiment. Every transit agency is unique, she says. An agency’s identity depends on the types of services it provides, its geographic location, the community’s demographic makeup and a variety of other socioeconomic factors. Understanding your customers and their needs, she says, is the most critical factor in serving them well.

“Over the last decade, we’ve seen a much stronger reliance on good market research, on good data,” she says. “[This is how you know] who your rider is and who your potential rider is. That is what drives successful ridership campaigns.” 


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