Given the alternative, this is a great problem to have. At Metro Transit our ridership in 2008 — at 81.8 million — was our highest in 27 years. And we have seen a ridership increase of 17.4 percent over the last four years.
Ridership growth at this rate presents some challenges, which motivated us to ensure that we are delivering our service as efficiently as possible and that we are serving the most markets and the most customers with the limited service resources available.
Technology has played a big role in our approach to this challenge.
We made an investment in 2004 to purchase and implement GIRO’s scheduling and operations software package HASTUS. As a result of the efficiencies in scheduling and dispatch of service and the impact on overall operator labor costs, we have been able to deliver more service with the same number of operators. We reduced unproductive time, increased the amount of platform time on each run and reevaluated our extraboard needs. While we have seen some increase in overtime wages, the overall impact on efficiency has been remarkable. We have reduced our payroll-to-platform ratio from 1.20 in 2004 to 1.15 in 2008. On an inflation-adjusted basis, our operating expenses per revenue hour dropped by 6.5 percent during that period.
We have carefully monitored ridership on all of our routes. On those route segments with declining or stagnant ridership, we trimmed frequency and span of service to match customer demand. We reinvested those savings on routes with growing ridership to meet the demand, always with an eye to maximizing productivity. Through this harvest-and-reinvest approach, we have eliminated low productivity service and used those savings to beef up the best performing routes.
Here again our strategic investment in technology and process improvements over the past several years is paying off. Schedule analysis staff members have at their fingers a wealth of information to make the right decisions about service. Automatic vehicle location technology on all buses allows us to fine tune schedules to remove unnecessary running time. Automatic passenger counters on a quarter of our buses provide detailed information on ridership patterns by trip and stop. Bus operators and field supervisors also utilize a computer-based operating conditions report to alert us to problems with routes, schedules and customer overloads. Quality information and good communication are at the heart of our efforts to ensure we are deploying our service as effectively as possible.
Another technology that is starting to pay big dividends is our investment in smartcard fare collection. Metro Transit’s GoTo card system, which was fully deployed in 2007, not only has provided many benefits from a revenue collection perspective, but it has also led to much faster boarding speeds. Traditional cash and magnetic farecards require five to six seconds of boarding time; GoTo cards boardings take just two seconds each.
The improvement in boarding speed is especially evident at the University of Minnesota where more than 40 percent of students carry UPass GoTo cards. Ridership on routes serving the university grew by 30 percent last year. In the past, this heavy loading would cause serious problems with on-time performance and require extra resources to maintain service quality. With GoTo cards, the loads are still there, but the buses are running on time.
Taken together these technology investments have resulted in one additional boarding per revenue hour — from 35 to 36 between 2005 and 2008 — and an 18-cent reduction in operating expenses per revenue trip — from $3.39 to $3.21 — during the same period.
Bring on more ridership.
Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Dramatically increased ridership (regardless of financial position) presents a fantastic opportunity for our industry to develop lifelong riders and, in doing so, create vibrant communities and protect our fragile environment.
Like most transit agencies, Capital Metro’s ridership skyrocketed last spring when gasoline prices crept toward $4 per gallon, and many in our community turned to public transit. Riders began filling up Capital Metro buses, and week after week, we experienced double-digit ridership gains, a significant increase in calls to the customer service center, and increased traffic on our Web site.
Here’s our list of “do’s” and “don’ts” based on what we learned last summer and how we are preparing now for the next spike in ridership, particularly given the economic outlook.
1. Do what you can to meet the immediate need. We used daily data from automatic passenger counters, farebox data and transit checkers, in addition to customer feedback, to identify the routes experiencing the most dramatic ridership gains: the commuter routes from outlying park-and-ride lots into downtown. Some routes were experiencing crush loads, and we inserted an additional trip or trips and assigned standby buses to handle overflow on the busiest routes during peak hours.
2. Don’t forget customer service. When ridership surged, so did call volume in the customer service center. To alleviate the burden, we revamped and made more prominent our “how to ride” section of the Web site. We also reached out to new riders at shopping malls and outside major office buildings with personalized demos using our online trip planner. The goal was to acclimate new riders to the experience so that they became repeat riders (and also so they wouldn’t hold the line up trying to board).
In addition to ensuring first-time riders have a good first experience, managing expectations is important for all riders. We developed interior bus placards to communicate, “It’s really OK to stand on the bus.” It’s reasonable to expect that during peak hours, buses will be full and some riders may have to stand, but that idea represents a major shift in thinking for many riders who have become accustomed to having their pick of seats on most routes.
3. Maximize your “bang for the buck” with good planning. Capital Metro has initiated a comprehensive operational analysis of our bus service that will guide our priorities for the next 10 years. Among many factors to be studied over the next six months is a transit competitiveness index, which will identify which areas are most conducive to transit. This kind of comprehensive planning has not been conducted in Austin in many years, so the resulting recommendations may have profound implications for our service map as we streamline routes to best meet current and future demand for service on a limited budget.
4. Don’t be afraid to try something new. We’re exploring a few new ideas that might assist with both revenue generation and the ability to manage increased ridership. A variable pricing structure that allowed us to charge a premium fare during peak hours would both generate more revenue and also shift some ridership from peak hours to non-peak hours. Likewise, what would happen if we began charging for parking at our park-and-rides? We could increase revenue and in a few instances, shift some ridership from the premium commuter routes that serve those facilities to regular local routes.
Manager’s Forum goes to the front lines of the transit industry to get feedback on different topics relevant to passenger transportation — and we want to hear from you! If you have an idea for discussion or would like to voice your opinion, please contact Leah Harnack at (920)563-6388 Ext.1535 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.