Despite Bus System Overhaul, County Ridership Continues to Fall

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.