Despite Bus System Overhaul, County Ridership Continues to Fall

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Last year’s overhaul of bus routes by the Orange County Transportation Authority has so far done little to staunch the ongoing decline in ridership countywide, according to a preliminary report presented to the transportation authority’s board Monday.

Dubbed OC Bus 360, the program was a response to a 30-percent decline in ridership from 2008 to 2015. It cut low-performing routes concentrated in South County and shifted those resources toward improving services along more frequented routes in denser, Central County cities.

An early look at ridership numbers since the overhaul shows modest increases to ridership along some routes where service changed last June. But overall, ridership has fallen by nearly 8 percent between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 fiscal years.

In their presentation, transportation authority staff cited external factors as contributing to the decline, such as the increasing cost of housing taking up a larger percentage of household incomes; a steady growth in new driver’s licenses and car registrations and lower unemployment since the recession.

Someone has to earn $25.46 an hour in order to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Orange County, and 64 percent of jobs in the county pay less than that, according to the 2016 Orange County Community Indicators Report.

“It looks like there are external factors that are really overwhelming the changes we’ve made,” said Kurt Brotcke, the agency’s director of strategic planning.

However, while the early numbers don’t look good overall, there are signs that the routes targeted by OC Bus 360 are improving, especially when compared to routes that weren’t changed.

Among the targeted routes, ridership increased by 86 boardings a day, according to the report. Among those where there were no changes, ridership dropped by at total of 6,920 boardings.

While Orange County has seen the largest drops in ridership among Southern California counties, all bus systems have seen declines in recent years.

Between June 2015 and June 2016, Los Angeles County saw a 7.82 percent drop in bus ridership, although that was offset by a 5 percent uptick in riders on light rail, according to an OCTA staff report.

In San Diego, the number of bus boardings fell by 5.86 percent over the same period, while Santa Monica saw the steepest decline, at 13.73 percent.

“When we started experiencing [ridership] declines about 24 to 30 months ago, our neighboring agencies were flat or up. That is no longer the case for them now,” said CEO Darrell Johnson.

The persistent decline, and the subsequent loss of revenue, has sparked a conversation among the board about whether the county’s bus system is sustainable.

In August, the board approved a six-month promotion to reduce the price of daily bus passes from $5 to $4.

Given that such incentives seem to be doing little to stop the decline in ridership, there has been increasing support for other forms of public transportation, like the OC Streetcar in Santa Ana and rideshare vans.

“I’m looking at routes where we have 4,000 riders and higher where there was no service change. The 20 percent day pass discount didn’t move the needle, and that’s a concern to me,” said Director Lori Donchak, a San Clemente city councilwoman. “I would have thought price would be motivating…that’s the essence of what we have to offer.”

Some members of the board, most notably Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, say the problem is the county has not invested enough in buses and that shifting resources to things like the streetcar will put public transportation further out of reach for underserved communities.

Phil Bacerra, a transit advocate and Santa Ana planning commissioner, argues that a successful transit system would be a mixture of rail and bus services.

“They’re shuffling around resources, they’re not necessarily adding new services,” said Bacerra. “Until we have more significant investment in our transit system, we can’t expect ridership to increase.”

More discussion on this issue is certain to come in March, when “State of Transit” report is expected to come before the board.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Transportation Authority Board approved a fare increase for disabled bus riders who use the ACCESS service for long trips. The fare increase was recommended by staff, but the board rejected it. The article also misstated the title of CEO Darrell Johnson.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • Jose Manuel Castrejon

    They cut bus routes and neutered bus routes that arent 57, 43 or 64. The only good thing that came out of the past change is the merger of the 51 and 145 and even then it takes at least an hour for one. Not to mention they are increasing fares on 200 routes making it even less viable.

  • Well let’s see, just off the top of my head, the combination of having cut routes AND the fact that certain routes run 10-20 minutes late (assuming the bus shows up at all) may contribute to low ridership. Secondly, NO_ONE who has access to private transportation in Orange County rides the bus. It is bottom of the barrel transpo when you have no other choice.

    OCTA is unreliable and god help you if you need to go from Laguna Hills to Santa Ana which necessitates a minimum of a four (4) bus transfer. Oh and ALL service on the south side of the 5/405 fwy stops at 6pm. The only time the bus runs past 6pm is New Year’s Eve when OCTA is sure to blast on social media the free ride home for the drunks too blitzed to drive. Also no weekend service. So if you happen to have a job and you can’t get to the stop before 5pm and/or you work on weekends well then I hope you have a backup plan.

    OCTA bus is substandard and completely unreliable. No one who is making the decisions at the top has ever ridden a bus in his/her adult life BUT_FOR the highly publicized on social media express routes to Angels/Ducks games. Apparently the executive board missed the memo that those express bus riders are not the core ridership that keeps the gravy train rolling.

    Stop cutting routes and raising prices and hire drivers that are NOT psychotic & passive-aggressive and maybe ridership will increase? Just a thought.

  • panzerzeke

    “They’re shuffling around resources, they’re not necessarily adding new services,” said Bacerra. “Until we have more significant investment in our transit system, we can’t expect ridership to increase.”

    Root of the problem. If you cut routes, even low performing ones, there is still going to be a ridership drop. Being more efficient is always welcome, but you need a network of good of service to make easy to get to around the entire county, not just on major corridors. Riverside Transit Agency, how has seen significant increases in service hours,(increased frequencies as well as EXTRA new buses for new service, not just for replacement) has also seen record ridership.

  • LFOldTimer

    California has issued over 800,000 driver’s licenses to illegal foreigners.

    That might be a big factor in the drop in ridership.

    After Trump mandates E-Verify you’ll see empty busses everywhere. Maybe the county could sell them to tour bus companies

    I guess the foreigners could use their California DL’s in their countries of origin as photo ID. Not a total waste.

    • Your statements are so spectacularly ignorant that I don’t even know where to start a retort. Actually, you’re not worth my effort. Go bloviate elsewhere with your fairy tales and obfuscations. Illegal immigration has zero to do with bus ridership.

      • LFOldTimer

        The Register reported that the illegal population in OC is 313,000 – about 10% of the population, doofus. Since poor people are generally the ones who disproportionately use the public transit system – and since illegals generally live in poverty – it stands to reason that illegals would disproportionately ride the busses.

        Let that logic seep through your eyes and into your cranium.

  • Stephen Masek

    Why on Earth should we taxpayers who will never ride a bus be paying for them? Close it down. If a private company wants to run busses that would be fine.

    • Jonathan Volzke

      Well, the basic theory is that transportation is a system. IF people ride buses, then they’re not driving cars on the streets, which you do presumably do use. So they being on buses makes your experience more efficient. Systems work; they fail when we start removing supporting parts and then wondering why the overall effort doesn’t work.

    • panzerzeke

      Tax payers would appreciate transit if it were disappear. You’d also be surprised about how many precious cars transit takes off the streets and make your driving commute better. Anyway, Just this last holiday break, I went to Dallas TX. My father stayed in a town on the southern side with zero transit service. One lady who owns a restaurant has to personally pick up some of her employees who don’t have cars if the weather is bad. One man has to bike 5 miles or constantly ask for rides to go to work at Sonic due to his previous DUI. Everyone I’ve talked to fed up with the lack of transit service.

      • Stephen Masek

        Ah, so that explains why I see so many empty, or almost empty, OCTA busses. If there is sufficient demand, a private company may provide bus service. Just do not make those of us who will never ride a bus pay for them.