Manager's Forum

Dallas, Texas
Gary Thomas
President/Executive Director
Dallas Area Rapid Transit

Supporting record ridership puts premium on resourcefulness.

When commuters looked for options to $4-a-gallon gasoline, they came to transit in record numbers. Nationwide, trains and buses were filled, park-and-ride lots were jammed, customer service phone lines lit up, transit Web sites had record hits and transit operators paid record prices for fuel — particularly diesel.

Just as commuters scrambled for options, transit operators looked for solutions to the challenges created by this demand spike. Some raised fares, others modified or even cut service and some did both to manage skyrocketing costs. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) modified existing service and added trips when possible. The crunch came as we were taking some light rail vehicles out of service to add new low-floor inserts. While we will get some relief with longer LRVs with more capacity, it’s a two-year project, so hardly a quick fix. Thanks to some aggressive agency-wide belt tightening, we’ve avoided a fare increase for now.

But while it’s easy for us to dwell on our challenges, we have the opportunity to make temporary ridership growth permanent by holding on to customers — both new and veteran. The key to managing these dramatic ridership changes is communicating with staff and customers.

Start with Employees
Front-line employees are the first ones to notice any change in day-to-day operations, good or bad. It was important to empower them with information about what we were doing to manage higher ridership and overcrowded parking lots. We reinforce their role as customer ambassadors. Using employee meetings hosted by executive management and online communication, we encouraged them to share our actions with our customers to make sure they knew we were doing everything possible to take care of them.
We heard our employees’ concerns about the impact of higher prices on their family budgets and the new stresses of record ridership. But we were also encouraged by their commitment to welcome new customers and continue taking care of the regulars on their routes.

Customer Communication is Critical
Daily transit customers have a routine. They take the same vehicle on the same route every day and often want to sit in the same seat. The double-digit influx of new customers disrupted those routines, and our regular customers want to know what we are going to do about it. At the same time, the new transit customer needs to know where to park, what time the bus or train leaves, how much to pay, who to pay, where to sit and when to get off. They’re looking for information and maybe even a little handholding.

Since many of our customers drive to their bus or train facility we needed to start by helping them find parking. We’re building more parking, but that won’t happen overnight. We created special materials, both print and online, to help them find a place to park. We also helped them better plan their commute by reminding them of schedule choices. By simply leaving a little earlier or a little later they could have a less crowded trip. We also found the local news media helpful in delivering this information.

As our customer service calls and Web site traffic revealed, new riders needed to know everything about using DART. Until $4 gasoline they’d frankly never considered transit. We also determined that many of the new customers started looking for information by going online. Working with customer service, our Web developer created a special page for new customers and gave it valuable Web site real estate so it was easy to find. We’re well aware that the rising price of gasoline in the past several months motivated the majority of our new customers to try us. Like most of our customers, they have personal autos and are coming to us because a daily pass is cheaper than a gallon of gasoline. In all of our ongoing external communication, particularly advertising and news media, we’ve continued stressing the economic value of transit compared with the personal car or truck.

Los Alamos, N.M.
Mike Davis
Transit Manager
Atomic City Transit- Los Alamos County

Finish with Employees
If we’re going to keep our customers, we have to give them a great trip. We know we’ll lose some as gasoline prices fall and commuters start adjusting their finances. But as we experienced in late 2005 when we first had $3 gasoline, we can hold on to most of them. That’s where it comes back to us.
We have to continue delivering trips that create connections for the largest number of people safely, efficiently and affordably. That’s how we can have new customers for life.

Atomic City Transit, located in Los Alamos County (approximately 20,000 residents), N.M., began services in October of 2007. Routes were designed around a central transfer location keeping routes as direct as possible and, therefore, competitive with the automobile. Before October 2007, public transportation was provided, at a minimal level, by a non-profit organization dating back to approximately 1980.

Prior to the formation of Atomic City Transit, ridership reached approximately 80,000 annually. It is currently estimated that ridership will reach a quarter of a million by the end of our first full year. Growth in ridership has been especially evident over the past few months. Ridership in May of 2008 was 22,550. In June of 2008, just one month later, ridership reached 39,208. And most recently, ridership reached 47,221 in July. The challenge of ridership almost doubling in one month was difficult especially since Atomic City Transit operates with only a dozen cutaway vehicles — five of which only seat 13 passengers — and a few school buses. The growth has been accommodated by adapting to change on a day-to-day basis using all available resources while at the same time having a long-term phased service improvement plan in place.

The challenge of growing ridership was met by having Atomic City Transit’s Dial-a-Ride service and the fixed-route service work as one seamless system. When Dial-a-Ride customers call for a reservation they are usually informed about the fixed-route service options. Dial-a-Ride ridership has been declining since April. Also, on a few peak hour trips, when a Dial-a-Ride customer was traveling the same route as the fixed route, the Dial-a-Ride vehicle was utilized to back up the fixed-route vehicle to reduce the number of standees. When a Dial-a-Ride vehicle did not have a pickup, they staged at the transit center to assist with fixed-route service as well.

Ridership has also been monitored on a trip-by-trip basis by having drivers call into dispatch when they have standees When customers were not able to board the bus due to overcrowding, resources were moved into place immediately if available. As trends emerged in overcrowded trips, either the bus was changed to a larger size and/or backup buses were added using spare buses. Grab rails were also added to four vehicles, to allow standees better accommodations.

Finally, phased growth has been planned for in theService Plan. The services started with peak-hour service. All-day service was added in December 2007 and upcoming improvements include additional peak-hour service in October 2008. The Transit Service Plan is now being updated and Atomic City Transit is participating in regional planning and funding efforts through the North Central Regional Transit District (NCRTD). Through this regional collaboration, a region-wide ballot initiative will go to the voters this November.

The coming months will be exciting as we continue to strive to be an exemplary transit system encouraged by the community benefits that have been realized.

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 (262) 446.2816 or via email at leah.harnack@cygnusb2b.com.

More Related Information:
Archived Article: Transit Tracking
Mass Transit Buyer’s Guide: Information Systems, Signage
Mass Transit Buyer’s Guide: Intelligent Transportation Systems

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