These are trying times for transit agencies across the United States, and Sarasota County Area Transit and Manatee County Area Transit are not exceptions. As the accompanying charts show, ridership on both county bus systems was falling despite growing population even before the pandemic, fell more during the pandemic and shows little signs of recovery so far.
This is a real problem when both counties are planning on increasing transit use.
Across the nation in a post-COVID world, transit agencies are facing anemic ridership and spiraling budget deficits. Most agencies face a fiscal cliff next year once supplemental COVID funding ends. For SCAT, the drop in federal funding could be over $5 million, around 40% of annual operating costs, while for MCAT the hit will be smaller but still significant.
Yet, rather than steering their systems in a new direction, both agencies are largely hewing to a strategy of doing more of what hasn’t worked in the past. While there are some commendable experiments with new service offerings, such as the Breeze trolley and dial-a-ride services, more is needed to adjust to new realities.
Without major changes, SCAT and MCAT will either need major increases in local funding or steep service cuts. Local service cuts will harshly effect transit-dependent riders (those without access to a vehicle). Many of these riders have no other way of reaching their employer, leading to lost jobs and economic activity for both them and the local economies. But increasing county budgets for transit comes with major tradeoffs. What other services will have to be cut to free up money to sustain public transit?
Fortunately, there are five actions that SCAT and MCAT can take to increase ridership, reduce financial pain, and improve their long-run sustainability.
FIRST, is fully funding bus service for transit dependent riders. Over the past 30 years, too much focus has been on service for transit-choice riders (those with access to automobiles). This is partly due to both counties’ goals of increasing ridership — you have to attract choice riders if you want to increase the percentage of trips on transit. But very few transit agencies across the nation have found a way to increase choice rider transit use, even with large increases in expenditures.
Instead, agencies need to focus on their core bus customers. The best way to grow ridership is to provide more reliable service that comes more frequently, ideally every 15 minutes. Houston provides a model. Led by transit consultant Jarrett Walker, ridership in Houston grew by up to 20%. The redesign also made the system more fiscally sustainable.
SECOND, transit fares are far below the cost of providing the ride. For transit dependent riders this makes sense, but for choice riders, even the full cost of a bus ride is less than the cost to drive including fuel, depreciation, tolls and parking. In many communities the cost to drive alone is about eight times as much as even a full cost transit fare. So, cost savings don’t really work to attract choice riders, so stop trying. Instead focus on providing appealing, reliable, pleasant service that riders might sometimes choose over driving. Expanding bus passes for students and similar programs focusing on transit-dependent riders will allow continued low fares for those users. Special passes for tourists could be an option as well to help increase their use of buses rather than driving and parking at local attractions.
THIRD, replace low ridership bus routes with paratransit or on-demand rideshare. Not every transit route in Sarasota and Manatee counties has the ridership to justify a 40-foot fixed-route bus. In many cases, variable-route, on-demand transit service is a better option. Sarasota County has Breeze on-demand service, but it could be expanded further. A number of cities have experimented with partnership with ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft and found the cost of providing rides on those services for the same as a bus fare can be a bit less than running a bus service on sparse routes.
FOURTH, contract out bus service. In Europe and Asia and some U.S. cities, bus services are contracted out to national bus transit companies. The two biggest advantages of contracting are more flexible and targeted service and lower costs. Contractor service is evaluated on performance-based criteria and focuses on how happy the service makes customers. Costs are lower because economies of scale eliminate the duplication of many management functions. Contracting brings accountability. If the private entity does not abide by the contract terms, then the public agency can fine the contractor or cancel the contract. If the contractor produces exceptional service, then the public agency can reward it. When the public agency provides the service, there is no incentive to improve service because the agency is not going to punish itself.
FIFTH, make greater use of intelligent transportation systems. There are many ITS features including transit priority for signalized intersections, electronic message boards, sophisticated real-time apps and variable bus information systems. Each of these systems can improve the passenger experience at a minimal cost. For example, traffic signal prioritization has been proven to reduce delays by 20% on bus rapid transit lines. However, many systems only use TSP when they are behind schedule. TSP should be used all the time to keep buses on schedule, not wait until they are behind schedule.
A change in focus based on best practices in public transit could help SCAT and MCAT be more successful at what transit is good at, which is providing mobility for people who don’t have other options. That is a much more solid foundation for the future of transit in the two counties than continuing to hope and dream that people will decide to use transit rather than drive. We’ve been trying that for decades and it hasn’t worked yet.
Baruch Feigenbaum is the Reason Foundation director of transportation policy, and Adrian Moore is the vice president of Reason Foundation. Moore lives in Sarasota.