Buses get boost from more passenger demand

By WEI YU

Capital News Service

LANSING – Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation in 2011, 2.3 percent more than the previous year — an upward trend in Michigan as well, the American Public Transportation Association reports.

The association said total bus ridership increased in most of Michigan’s primary cities last year.

However, Sandy Lovell, an accountant at the Office of Passenger Transportation in the Department of Transportation, said ridership in Detroit decreased in 2011.

Except for Detroit, six primary Michigan cities experienced increased ridership: 5.7 percent in Ann Arbor, 6.4 percent in Bay City, 5.8 percent in Lansing, 3.4 percent in Monroe, 10.3 percent in Muskegon Heights and 9.7 percent in Port Huron.

The pattern is continuing this year. For example, January ridership increased 12.2 percent in Grand Rapids and 7.2 percent in both January and February in Ann Arbor, according to the association.

The association credited higher fuel prices and a “recovering economy with more people returning to work”.

However, some Michigan officials, including Laurie Robison, director of marketing at the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) in Lansing, give partial credit to the state’s troubled economy.

“We have seen a continuing growth in our ridership in the first month of 2012. Total system rides in January 2012 was 1,186,610, up 4.4 percent compared to January 2011,” Robison said.

“We can speculate that due to a struggling economy and high unemployment in recent years, coupled with the rising price of gas at the pump, consumers are forced to make cost-saving cuts,” Robison said. “Compared to driving a car and paying for gas, CATA remains an affordable choice for budget-conscious consumers.”

A study by market-research firm EPIC-MRA found that 43 percent of Michigan State University student passengers on CATA and 32 percent of passengers who attend other Lansing-area colleges don’t have a car.

“For those who don’t own a private vehicle, CATA may be the only viable mobility option,” she said.

Higher gas prices and a poor economy also are the main reasons for increased ridership in Bay City, said Jeff Anderson, planning manager at the Bay Metro Transit Authority.

“Our regional road that connect with Saginaw and Midland counties, in particular, is really growing, so that is another contributor to our increasing ridership,” he said.

Anderson said more people are choosing public transportation. They drive their car to a park-and-ride lot and then take a bus to work. “It’s a much cheaper way for commuters as the gas price is $4 per gallon at the pump.

“Although it is too early to tell whether that’s definitively an increase in ridership for this year, we have seen a much steeper increase in the first two months already,” Anderson said.

Mark Jagodzinski, general manager of the Lake Erie Transportation Commission Inc., said the jump in gas prices might be playing a role in increased ridership in Monroe.

“We are working on joint fuel procurement with the road commission in order to buy a larger purchase of fuel so we can get a cheaper cost. We try to handle keeping control on the cost of fuel,” Jagodzinski said.

As for maintaining ridership, the agency continually focuses on a marketing campaign, making sure the public knows its services are available.

“We have to try to make our service on time as much as possible to increase its reliability,” he said.

Jim Wilson, general manager of Blue Water Area Transit in Port Huron, said expanded service hours, low fares, the poor economy and the high price of gas all contribute to rising ridership.

“Improving passenger amenities, such as a new covered transfer center with restrooms and Wi-Fi on the buses, also helps,” Wilson said.

“During the recession, we have not had to cut service, but rather expanded our service hours with job access and reverse commute funding,” he said. “If we have extra money, we would like to add Sunday service.”

As for steep pump gas prices, Wilson said most of its buses run on compressed natural gas.

“Natural gas prices have been relatively stable over the last few years and currently it costs us about $1.38 to produce the equivalent of a gallon of diesel from compressed natural gas,” he said.

© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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