An Orange County Transportation Authority bus in Santa Ana. (Photo credit: OCTA)

Things are looking grim for Orange County’s bus system.

“We have a product that we are putting into the marketplace that fewer and fewer people want to purchase and use,” county Transportation Authority CEO Darrell Johnson told a meeting of the board’s executive committee Tuesday.

Since the Great Recession, bus ridership has plummeted and continues to decline.

Californians continue to buy cars.

Uber, Lyft and other ride sharing services pose a new and convenient form of competition.

And low-income commuters – a key demographic for bus transit — are leaving Orange County and California for places where the cost of living is lower.

Taken together, say Orange County Transportation Authority officials, it calls into question the future of the agency’s $300 million bus program.

It’s a dire question that the agency’s board will tackle at a March 27 meeting, when Transportation Authority officials are expected to present a “State of Transit” report framing the agency’s long-term challenges.

OCTA has lost riders faster than any other Southern California transportation agency, with ridership falling by more than 30 percent since 2008.

The number of buses operating at peak hours went from 541 in 2008 to 428 in 2013, a 21 percent decrease, according to data from the National Transit Database. Over that same period, hours of service were cut by 21 percent.

The Transportation Authority also increased fares by 50 cents, from $1.50 to $2.00 a ride, in 2013.

Recently, the agency implemented its OC Bus 360 plan, the largest overhaul in bus routes in its history, shifting service away from low-performing bus routes toward improving service along more popular routes in an effort to rebuild bus ridership.

Transportation Authority officials largely blame their problems on external factors like the increasing cost of housing, a steady growth in new driver’s licenses and car registrations and lower unemployment since the recession.

And ridership problems are being seen nationwide, with transit ridership falling in nearly all of the nation’s top metropolitan areas except three cities, according to Streetsblog USA.

Of the three cities that saw ridership increases, two of them (Seattle and Houston) conducted major, system-wide overhauls of their bus routes.

At the executive board meeting Tuesday, county Supervisor Shawn Nelson said the agency should decide soon what is working and what isn’t, so they can free up money for the most effective programs.

“There are places where buses make sense and there are places where…we’re probably kidding ourselves,” said Nelson.

Most of OCTA’s ridership is concentrated in the central part of the county, with a quarter of all ridership coming from three routes and three-quarters of ridership concentrated among 19 routes.

Given the decline in bus ridership, the Transportation Authority is experimenting with other modes of transportation. In addition to plans for a $300 million streetcar connecting downtown Santa Ana and Garden Grove, the agency has a subsidized vanpool program that allows groups of up to 15 people to carpool to work.

Two-thirds of the people using the vanpool program are commuting from outside of Orange County, according to a staff report.

The agency also is experimenting with the ride-sharing company Lyft in the city of San Clemente, where riders within a certain distance of bus routes that have been cut can receive a subsidy for their trip.

Nelson suggested OCTA work with major employers — such as Kaiser Permanente, California State University, Fullerton and the University of California, Irvine — to incentivize their employees to use Metrolink and other transit services.

“The federal court, state, county court – there’s probably 20,000 plus people” working in Santa Ana’s Civic Center area, said Nelson. “How many people live in the Inland Empire that are near the [train] tracks?”

Board director Al Murray said the agency also needs to conduct a demographic study of the needs of both its riders and potential riders, especially millennials.

“The demographics are changing tremendously…it’s going to have a huge impact on ridership going forward,” said Murray.

Johnson noted that the factors that affect ridership may also be changing, pointing to a graph that shows ridership continues to decline, despite the fact that there have been no service cuts or fare increases since 2013.

Boardings (green line) plummeted between 2012 and 2016, despite the fact that revenue hours (blue line), or service, has improved during that same period of time.

While the reason why ridership rises or falls can vary from one bus system to the next, Kirk Hovenkotter of the New York-based foundation TransitCenter said most bus agencies sought to increase their service hours to boost ridership after the recession.

“It doesn’t look like Orange County tried to do that. Even as OCTA did their Bus 360 plan there was no additional service hours,” Hovenkotter said in a telephone interview.

In 2013, OCTA put back some of the service hours cut after the recession, but it also raised fares by 50 cents.

The decline in riders could be due to the increase in vehicle revenue hours, or the number of hours buses are operating, compared to miles traveled, said Jon Orcutt, the communications director for TransitCenter.

“Meaning, buses are running slower in 2016 than they were in 2012,” Orcutt said. “The service is slower than it was five years ago – it’s not as attractive of a product.”

The graph above, created by TransitCenter based on data from the National Transit Database, shows a greater increase in the number of hours buses are running (in red) compared to the miles traveled.

How passengers board buses and pay their fare can also significantly affect fare times.

According to a white paper by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, or NACTO, the time it takes for a bus to load and unload passengers, or ‘dwell time,’ can constitute up to one third of bus travel time.

The report, which studied seven large North American cities, found that allowing passengers to board through multiple doors and pay their fare off the bus or without interacting with the driver “cut dwell time substantially, leading to more competitive travel times, greater reliability, and growing ridership in every reviewed example.”

OCTA is also still catching up with new technology. The agency implemented a mobile ticketing system in October 2016 that allows riders to buy their fare online and show their driver the ticket on their phone.

Beginning in September, ticket readers will be installed at the front of every bus.

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

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