Portland-area bus ridership rise mirrors nation

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PORTLAND — Public bus systems in greater Portland are seeing significant ridership increases in 2012 after several years of stagnant use, mirroring a national trend.

In Portland, Greater Portland Transit District ridership through May was up 3.56 percent over the first five months of 2012, METRO General Manager David Redlefsen said. Last year, METRO provided a total of 1.4 million rides in Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth, and the Maine Mall area of South Portland.

METRO’s Falmouth Flyer service has had increases of between 7 and 11 percent every month this year except March.

The growth is even greater in South Portland, where the South Portland Bus Service has had a record year in fiscal 2012, which still has almost three weeks to go. Ridership totals were 18 percent higher through May than in the first 11 months of the previous year, and it had already topped the totals from 2008, the previous record year.

In February, the South Portland service had about 23,000 riders. The previous February, it had had less than 16,000, and even in record-breaking 2008, there were just over 18,000 riders that month.

Since February, monthly numbers have remained steadily at about 2,000 riders more than in the corresponding period last year. By the end of the fiscal year in June, the South Portland bus system will have seen the highest ridership it has had in at least 16 years, Director Tom Meyers said.

The steady – and in South Portland’s case, dramatic – uptick in passengers comes after several years of mostly stationary numbers in the region. For South Portland, ridership spiked in 2008-2009 as the economy tanked and gas prices soared. The numbers then dropped in fiscal 2010, falling even lower in fiscal 2011.

But the increase in public transit use is a national trend across bus and train systems, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

An APTA report released June 4 said that national public transit ridership rose 5 percent in the first quarter of 2012 to 2.7 billion a trips on trains, subways, and buses around the country.

The largest increases nationwide are for light and heavy rail ridership, at 5.5 and 6.7 percent, respectively. Demand for bus service everywhere is seemingly close behind, with ridership increases of above 4 percent in the largest markets and about 3 percent for populations similar to greater Portland.

That more people are getting on trains and buses to get where they need, or want, to go, is clear. The reason behind it is less so.

“We don’t know (why),” Redlefsen said. “Honest to God, you can’t tell if it’s the fuel prices …”  because ridership rose in 2008 when fuel prices were also very high, he said. “I wish that we could put our hands on it.”

“Maybe (people have) found it a really great way to avoid costs,” Meyers said.

A gradually improving national economy plays a role in some parts of the country.

“In some regions of our nation, the local economy is rebounding and people are commuting to their new jobs by using public transportation,” APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy said in a press release accompanying the organization’s quarterly report.

In Maine, neither Meyers nor Redlefsen were so explicitly generous to the role of economic recovery, but both said their systems have seen gains across all types of paid fares, including single-ride, 10-ride, and monthly passes.

“Most growth in ridership appears to be people who have a choice to ride,” Meyers said. In South Portland, he said, full-price fare sales have increased, as has ridership on routes serving the Southern Maine Community College campus. The college has a program with the bus service to allow students to ride the bus for free; the school reimburses the transit system afterwards.

Meanwhile, sales of passes aimed at segments of the population, like the disabled, that are frequently more dependent on public transportation, and who get discounted fares, have recently gone down, Meyers said.

Ridership may have been depressed in the last few years, not just by riders keeping close watch on their finances, but by faltering transit systems.

After the economic shock of 2008, Meyers said, bus services like South Portland’s  cut their routes and frequency and raised their prices, even though ridership in 2008-2009 was higher than ever before.

“When you would have expected more growth and need, agencies were cutting back,” Meyers said. Customers naturally asked, “‘Why pay more for less?'” Meyers said.

Since then, South Portland has reassessed its service, tweaking routes to match high-demand destinations and schedules to be more realistic, he said. Rising ridership could indicate that the system is regaining the public’s confidence, Meyers said.

Both South Portland and Portland are making stronger efforts to include public transportation in their planning processes. “You have to make a conscious decision that that’s what you want to do,” Meyers said.

The two cities’ respective transit systems hope to continue to improve their services, while not necessarily gearing up to match the frequency of the past. One tactic is using technology to smooth passengers’ experience.

Portland plans to unveil an automated, real-time bus tracking system accessible from any Internet-equipped device this year, Redlefsen said.

As Meyers said, if the bus doesn’t go often, it can at least be reliable.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.