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Why are fewer people riding buses? Local transit officials are seeking solutions

Cedar Rapids saw a rise after overhauling routes, updating buses

An Iowa City Transit bus (from left) sits at a stop behind a University of Iowa CAMBUS bus on Washington Street in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
An Iowa City Transit bus (from left) sits at a stop behind a University of Iowa CAMBUS bus on Washington Street in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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It’s becoming a common theme for many local bus services: fewer people in seats.

In Johnson County, fixed-route services provided by Iowa City, Coralville and the University of Iowa’s Cambus all have seen individual ridership fall between 17 percent and 22 percent over the last five years.

“Ridership is the indication of the value of service — how much it’s needed — so it starts to make you question the design of your service. Do we need to reevaluate? Do we need to adjust?” said Brian McClatchy, Cambus manager with University of Iowa Parking and Transportation.

With a multijurisdictional transit study soon kicking off, updates to routes, stops or bus frequency could be on the horizon. Officials say any changes could help boost ridership numbers — something already noticed in Cedar Rapids following a recent overhaul of the city’s transit system.

A downward trend

In fiscal year 2014, Cambus saw more than 4.7 million riders. Last year, that number fell to less than 3.7 million.

Over the same span, Iowa City ridership fell from about 1.8 million riders to less than 1.5 million.

Coralville ridership fell from about 590,000 riders in fiscal year 2014 to about 460,000 passengers last year.

What’s more, ridership numbers are expected to continue dropping into the near future for all three services, according to a draft of the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County’s Transportation Improvement Plan for fiscal years 2020 to 2023.

Eastern Iowa transit providers aren’t alone in their ridership quandary. Nationwide ridership on all modes of transit peaked in 2014 at more than 10.4 billion people, but has since dropped to a little more than 9.6 billion last year, according to the National Transit Database.

Whether it’s low gas prices, the growing popularity of ride hailing services or the ever-expanding network of bike trails, state and local officials say there are multiple factors keeping riders off the bus.

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“I don’t think there’s any one single thing we can point to,” said Vicky Robrock, Coralville director of parking and transportation. “I think it’s many things aligning right now.”

In addition, season-long traffic disruptions caused by a handful of major road projects in the Corridor in recent years also could have made some wary to ride the bus. McClatchy said some of those riders could return on their own.

“It just takes awhile to build that back up,” he said.

A financial concern

Ridership declines also can impact a transportation budget. The university’s Cambus service is unique, as it does not charge riders a fare, but in Iowa City, for example, fares amount to almost 28 percent of the city’s transit fund revenue.

“Ridership declines mean less revenues from fares, with the same system costs therefore the deficit needs to be made up by other means,” Darian Nagle-Gamm, director of Iowa City transportation services, said in an email. “At a certain threshold however it becomes financially infeasible to run a system with declining ridership without service level reductions.”

What’s more, a 2018 Congressional Research Service report on trends in public transit ridership notes that, while fares attribute to about 26 percent of the average public transit service’s revenue, federal funds make up another 18 percent. The remainder of a service’s budget consists of state and local dollars, according to the report.

The report notes that more than three-quarters of federal public transit funding is “distributed by a set of formulas that are tenuously related to ridership.”

Brent Paulsen, research and technology manager with the Iowa Department of Transportation, said local entities are encouraged to take a look at their overall service if ridership is dropping.

“Every transit system is encouraged to look for efficiencies. Routes that are underperforming, they should evaluate those and see if they are candidates for an adjustment in service,” Paulsen said.

Updates can increase ridership

According to a February report by public transit advocacy group TransitCenter, which utilizes data from the National Transit Database, seven of the 35 regions with the highest transit use in 2018 saw a growth in annual ridership. The remaining 28 saw ridership drop.

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The report notes that six of those cities experiencing growth either recently updated their bus networks or restructured services to provide more frequency.

“There’s a clear link between growing ridership and overhauling bus service,” according to the report.

Officials in Cedar Rapids have seen firsthand the benefits of updating fixed-route services.

In 2017, following a transit study and complete overhaul of routes, bus stops and times, Cedar Rapids public transit saw ridership increase by about 6 percent in the first four months that followed updates.

After serving less than 1.19 million passengers in fiscal year 2017, the service saw ridership reach nearly 1.27 million riders in fiscal year 2018.

Ridership numbers this year have remained relatively consistent with last year, said Brad DeBrower, Cedar Rapids Transit manager.

DeBrower credited updated routes and services as a key factor in the city’s increased ridership. He added those ridership numbers are expected to be consistent again this year.

“We were able to see numbers bounce back after those changes, and we’re seeing those numbers hold,” he said.

In another effort to update Cedar Rapids Transit, the city last month announced that efforts to replace all fixed-route buses had been completed. The effort to update the city’s fleet began in 2008.

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An evening service — buses currently stop running at about 6 p.m. — could start next year, officials have said.

In Iowa City, work will begin this summer on a transit study encompassing all three regional bus services — focusing on everything from bus routes, schedules, coverage areas, fares and hours of service. Emerging technologies like electric or autonomous vehicles also will be included in the discussion, Nagle-Gamm said.

“The goal is to re-imagine the transit system in such a way that enables ridership to double over the next decade, creating a high-functioning, high-value system that residents and visitors can rely on as a first-stop transportation option,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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