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.