As Bus Ridership Keeps Falling, OC Transit Officials Shift Strategies

THY VO, Voice of OC

Bus riders in some areas of Orange County may see more service cuts this October, after Orange County Transportation Authority officials heard a proposal Monday to cut 12,269 hours of service.

The cuts would come from removing bus trips from 12 routes and eliminating three bus routes to train stations, including bus service to ARTIC, Anaheim’s new transit hub, which officials say will improve productivity by trimming resources from routes with fewer riders and eliminating five buses from the agency’s fleet.

Those hours would be reallocated in February 2018 to improve service along busier routes, although so far officials have no additional details as to which routes will see improved service.

The changes are part of an overall strategy by the agency to cut down on low ridership routes and shift resources to more heavily trafficked parts of the county. The likely cuts are less than one percent of the 1.6 million total bus hours the agency provides.

The agency conducted its largest ever overhaul of bus routes last year, which generally cut service in south county and shifted those resources to busier routes in North and Central OC, where the majority of the system’s riders are concentrated. That strategy appears to be improving ridership along those busy routes and exacerbating ridership declines among those with cuts.

“Hopefully our next phase will focus on improving our productivity,” said board director and Tustin City Councilman Al Murray of the plan to cut more than 12,000 hours and reinvest those resources in other routes. “I think we are starting to make some good strides forward.”

Routes where service was increased in June 2016 saw a 4.2 percent increase in ridership while routes where service was improved in October 2016 saw a 10.4 percent increase, according to March 2017 numbers provided by OCTA.

That strategy however, has hit places like South Orange County, where service was cut the most, particularly hard.

Routes where service was cut in June 2016 saw a 53 percent decline and October 2016 cuts resulted in a 22 percent ridership decline.

But the cuts also reflect the Transportation Authority’s ongoing struggle to cope with falling bus ridership and productivity, which has declined by 19 percent since 2013 despite the fact that the total number of service hours has remained constant.

Overall bus ridership has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2008, the worst decline in bus patronage among Southern California transit agencies.

As a result of lower-than-expected sales tax projections and falling ridership, the bus system currently is operating a $20 million budget deficit.

”At our peak, we were carrying 70 million passengers. This budget assumes a little less than 40 (million),” said finance director Andrew Oftelie at an May 8 budget workshop.

OCTA officials had been prepared to cut 50,000 hours in bus service this coming fiscal year, but they say that’s no longer necessary thanks to a projected $15.2 million cash infusion they are expecting from Governor Jerry Brown’s 12-cent gas tax increase.  

“(Senate Bill) 1 kind of saved the day on this,” Oftelie said, referring to the gas tax bill.

Although Orange County has seen the steepest decline in ridership among Southern California agencies, nearly all major agencies in California are seeing bus ridership drop, except for the San Francisco Municipal bus system.

Orange County officials largely attribute that decline to factors out of their control: the growing number of people getting driver’s licenses (including a bill that allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses), the rising cost of housing that is driving low-income bus riders out of the county and the prevalence of transportation companies like Uber and Lyft.

In Los Angeles, where Metro bus ridership fell 18 percent in April compared with April 2015, officials have acknowledged that bad service might be why people aren’t riding, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Many passengers said in a recent survey of more than 2,000 former Metro bus riders that they no longer ride the bus because buses don’t take them to their destination; that buses didn’t come frequently enough, stopped running too early or required too many transfers, according to the LA Times.

Similar problems emerged in a 2015 market study by OCTA that surveyed 1,200 current and former Orange County bus riders.

According to the 253 former riders surveyed, 70 percent stopped riding the bus because they had access to a car; 80 percent said the bus taking too long was a factor; and 52 percent cited a decrease in the frequency of service.

A State of Transit report by a consultant, Nelson Nygaard, hired by OCTA acknowledged the difficulties of riding a bus in many parts of Orange County where streets are windy and designed to deliver cars to the freeway, rather than make for a pleasant or safe pedestrian experience.

OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson said although the funding from SB1 means the agency will be able to avoid major cuts this year, the agency will continue to make cuts to low-performing routes as part of its overall strategy to make the bus system more sustainable.

The proposed October 2017 service changes include:

  • Eliminating trips from routes 1, 35, 37, 46, 50, 60, 71, 79, 82, 85, 129 and 143
  • Eliminating routes to the Anaheim Canyon Metrolink Station, Anaheim Amtrak Station (ARTIC), and Laguna Niguel Train Station
  • Eliminating trips on routes 1, 55, 57 and 79 between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. to comply with a curfew by the city of Newport Beach

OCTA staff will return in July with recommendations for which routes will receive service improvements as a result of the October cuts.

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

  • ocrino

    All transportation is being terminated. Even Car shows. Aliso Viejo Mayor, Dave Harrington, and his sidekick, Mike Munzing, have shut down the popular Cars and Coffee.

  • William R. Cousert

    Time to get a bicycle. Fortunately, much of Orange County is mostly flat, with a few exceptions. Traveling in a group? Share an Uber or Lyft ride.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Buses up in Riverside county have charger plugs, to recharge cellphones and tablets. That might be a very nice thing to add to buses, to make them more attractive to commuters.

  • The OCTA board has been cutting service for years even when their own reports show that (along with huge ticket increases) these cuts are what doom the agency. Maybe they should try increasing service rates and routes for awhile to see how that does. They could fund it by making each director bring a sack lunch to the meeting rather than hiring a caterer each time.

  • astar2b

    No bus service to ARTIC ? Now what… ? ? ?

    • LFOldTimer

      It could be worse.

      They could cut off all bus service to the Great Park! lol.

  • LFOldTimer

    How many OCTA management jobs have been cut with all these reduced OCTA hours and services.

    Let me guess: Z-E-R-O!!! lol.

    They can’t pay for the big salaries and pensions so they cut services to the little people to save money while keeping all the fat trough feeders on the payroll.

    Typical failed government.

    • Joel Zlotnik

      The story is correct, in almost 10 years OCTA bus ridership has dropped by about 30 percent and bus service hours have been reduced from 1.9 million hours to 1.6 million hours.

      Here’s some information that should help paint a more complete picture of how we have tackled the trend in dropping ridership.

      Since 2008-09, OCTA’s number of employees has been reduced by 38 percent, from 1,983 down to 1,346.5.

      We have taken a number of additional number steps to cut costs. These are just some of them:

      — Pensions were changed so employees now pay 100 percent of their share of pension costs, with a five-year savings of $17.9 million (savings that are ongoing).
      — We are now contracting out approximately 40 percent of bus service, saving $14.2 million a year.
      — We renegotiated our headquarters building lease, saving $6.5 million over five years.
      — A new contract for ACCESS service for those with disabilities is saving $8.5 million a year.
      — A new contract for natural gas is saving $3.4 million a year.
      — We reduced the size of our fleet and that has a $13 million savings over five years.

      All of these add up to more than $175 million of savings over five years.

      We are working to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the bus system by
      cutting costs, reducing or eliminating unproductive routes and reallocating those bus service hours to where we know there is demand. OCTA is responding to changing demographics, adapting to new market demands, and finding innovative ways to better move people around the county.

      — Joel Zlotnik, OCTA

      • LFOldTimer

        Hey Joel,

        How many line positions (bus drivers, clerks, etc…) have been cut as compared to MANAGEMENT JOBS that pay compensations in SIX FIGURES??

        Give us a percentage of line positions as compared to MANAGEMENT jobs or the SIX-FIGURE compensated jobs.

        And please – no creative math.


        • Joel Zlotnik

          I don’t have the details on each of the 637 jobs that have been reduced but we can look into it. And regarding SB-1, our board did not support the bill; it took no position on the bill.

          • LFOldTimer

            You don’t know what percent of management or your line workers were cut, respectively? That’s odd. Those numbers would roll off the tongue of most spokepersons for large corporations or agencies.

            Your Finance Director and CEO seemed quite pleased with SB1. They said it “saved the day” and would allow OCTA to avoid large cuts this year. Those are high-ranking officials in your Agency.

            Would you please tell them that there are millions of us who AREN’T pleased with a $52 billion dollar tax over 10 years regardless if it “saved the day” for your OCTA???

            Thanks, Joel.