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Valley bus ridership down amid weak economy, service reductions

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

The Phoenix area is facing the biggest drop in bus ridership in a decade due to service cutbacks, increased ridership on alternatives such as light rail and a lack of money for marketing services to attract new customers, according to public transportation officials across the Valley.

Susan Tierney, a spokeswoman for Valley Metro, says bus ridership is declining in the Phoenix metro area and other cities across the nation due to higher rates of unemployment, a poor housing market and the recovering economy. But some factors unique to this market may have added to the decline, she says.

Government budget cuts have squeezed funding for public transportation across the Valley, which has led to service reductions and fare increases that have compounded the trend of declining ridership, she says.

“We just aren’t bringing in the dollars from sales taxes,” Tierney says. “That’s impacted the revenue we’ve received over the past few years.”

Phoenix lost about 17 percent of its total bus ridership in fiscal 2009, when the number of bus rides dropped to 37 million from 45 million the previous fiscal year. That was a reversal of a trend that saw bus ridership increase by 5 million in fiscal 2008 and 1.5 million in fiscal 2007.

Matt Heil, a spokesman for the Phoenix Public Transit Department, says a 50-cent increase in the one-way bus fare caused some customers to consider other options. Meanwhile, declines in service have made bus schedules less convenient, he says.

The Legislature cut approximately $9 million from Phoenix’s portion of the public transportation fund, Heil says, leaving the agency’s total budget at about $194 million in fiscal 2010. As a result of budget reductions, service expansion is out of the question and the majority of marketing is focused on reaching out to customers about service cuts, Heil says.

“The best marketing tool to use is not one we have,” Heil says, “and that would be more service.”
While transit departments in Phoenix and Mesa reported that they have barely enough money in their budgets to reach out to bus riders about service changes, Tempe is using new forms of marketing, such as social media, to increase ridership.

Tempe’s Transportation Division has begun using websites such as Facebook and Twitter after customers responded overwhelmingly that they would like to receive service information via social media websites, says Sue Taaffe, Tempe community outreach and marketing specialist.

Tempe Transit now has 1,200 Facebook fans and 2,200 followers on Twitter.

Although Tempe has seen about a 20 percent decrease in bus ridership during the past fiscal year, overall ridership on mass transit has actually increased, according to Valley Metro statistics. Tempe riders are using the bus less and are instead switching to alternatives like the light rail and Orbit buses — a free shuttle service for Tempe residents.

Despite Valleywide decreases in bus ridership, Mesa hasn’t seen any significant changes in the numbers of people riding the bus, says Mike James, Mesa transit services director. Fewer people are riding the express buses, but overall bus ridership has been consistent, he says.

James says Mesa has been eliminating bus routes since 2003, and riders have already adjusted. More customers are using new routes, especially the Buzz — a free bus that runs through downtown Mesa — and the Main Street Link, which connects riders with the busiest stations along the light rail.
The Legislature cut about $1.9 million from Mesa’s portion of the public transportation fund, Mesa transit coordinator Julie Howard says.

To counter the ridership losses and lack of money, Valley Metro is working directly with business owners to develop programs that encourage the use of public transportation. The program reaches about 500,000 employees, Tierney of Valley Metro says.

Other outreach programs include attending local events to teach seniors and students how to ride the bus, Tierney says. Valley Metro staff has been reaching out to these groups and others, including refugee groups learning to speak English.

But money is still the most important missing link, Tierney says. Valley Metro will be unable to build out a regional system that incorporates all modes of public transportation and increases ridership unless it receives enough cash to connect all of the municipal routes and offer consistent service.

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