Commuters VS. Vacationers

Anecdotally, tourists are probably pretty easy to spot.

They’re the folks with oversized cameras around their necks. They’re the folks carrying overstuffed, matched luggage. They’re the folks who are probably dressed just a shade improperly for the local weather.

And they’re the folks who are probably checking the stops and schedules obsessively and asking the most questions about where they’re heading.

Scientifically, tourists are a bit more difficult to peg down. None of the mass transit agencies reached for this article had hard numbers on the population or percentage of riders who were on their trains and buses merely for pleasure, instead of using them as a way to get to and from work.

VIA Metropolitan Transit serves San Antonio with roughly 450 buses, including 19 streetcars, however, they don’t track rider types.
“VIA does not track ridership based on type of rider, and previous rider surveys have not asked this question,” says Priscilla Ingle, vice president of public affairs. “However, since San Antonio has a large tourism market, we realize that many of our riders are most likely tourists.”

“I don’t know that we have hard data that tells us what share of our riders are tourists,” says Robert Smith, assistant vice president of service, planning and scheduling for DART in Dallas. “It’s not a large part of our ridership. We do have certain special event periods, the State Fair of Texas probably being the largest, where we have much larger volumes of tourist riders.

“We are in the middle right now of doing a comprehensive study of riders and trip purposes, but we won’t have those results until later in the year,” Smith says. “That may give us a better idea of how [tourists] fit into our daily ridership.”

Even if the numbers aren’t exact, mass transit systems see the tourism market as an important one, one that in many cities represents a thriving, important industry.

“Austin’s tourism continues to grow due to special events and its increasing popularity in the entertainment and real estate industry,” says Misty Whited, public relations specialist with Capital Metro. “Capital Metro sees the influx of people as an opportunity to provide more transit service for a wide variety of visitors.”

Making Financial Sense
The Miami-Dade County Transit system just launched what it calls a 7-day Visitor Passport. The $19 unlimited weekly pass will be sold through city visitor centers.

The weekly pass isn’t much more expensive than the monthly pass per day of use, and it comes with information to woo tourists and other casual riders onto the bus or rail system, Bechdel says.

A special map and brochure comes with the Visitor Passport, which shows the location of about 60 attractions in the Miami Beach, South Beach and downtown areas.

At the $19 price point — locations selling the pass get to keep $3 and $16 goes back to the transit system, public transportation makes financial sense for visitors, Bechdel says.

“To valet a car overnight at a Miami Beach hotel, the average cost is $22 per night,” he says.

On top of that, a visitor who takes their car out to dinner or to other entertainment can expect to spend an additional $15 or more in parking fees, Bechdel says.

While the pass makes financial sense for visitors, it also makes money for those selling it. Nonprofit sellers like the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce welcome center, the Miami Beach Latin Chamber of Commerce welcome center and the Art Deco welcome center will have a potentially risk-free chance for revenue by selling the passes, Bechdel says.

Miami-Dade County Transit wants to capture about 3 percent of the 10 million visitors with the pass, or 300,000 passes sold annually. But, there’s another market that might purchase the pass. Bechdel says workers that live paycheck to paycheck have shown interest in the weekly pass. It only costs $1 more per month than the monthly pass, and it doesn’t create as large of a one-time financial strain during the month.

The transit system will start selling the weekly passes on its Web site in September. And it is exploring the chance to sell the passes through online travel sites like Expedia, Travelocity and, Bechdel says.

Reaching a lot of Visitors at Once
At DART in Dallas, conventions and other big groups visiting town are encouraged to take public transportation through the Convention & Special Event Day Pass. The premium day passes usually sell at $4.50, but are available for $2.50 per rider with groups of 500 or more.
Pass prices continue to fall as group size increases, says Dennis Mochon, DART’s assistant vice president of marketing.

“Most of the major hotels are downtown and the convention center is right on our light rail line so a lot of people find it is a much better way than chartering buses to move people back and forth,” Mochon says.

The DART Rail also serves numerous other attractions including the historic West End of Dallas, the Dallas Zoo and the Dallas Arts District, giving convention goers the option to use public transportation to explore the city after working during the day.

DART, which had about 63 million riders last fiscal year and has 130 bus routes, two light rail lines and other transportation options, sold 43,422 of the special event day passes in its 2006 fiscal year and 46,560 in the 2005 fiscal year for revenues of more than $120,000 each year.

The passes come with a guide to get around Dallas. And, for the largest groups of 5,000 or more Convention & Special Event Passes, DART includes a “Welcome Package” that has custom-printed distribution maps, LED welcome messages on buses and trains, welcome decorations at the convention center station on the first day of the convention, an information booth at the convention to assist with transportation questions and promotion on

Most of those extra riders don’t interfere with daily commuters because conventions tend to start and end at different times than the typical workday, DART officials says.

“Tourists often ride at the very times that commuters do not,” says Smith of DART. “Good balance of service levels can result, with much more evening and weekend travel.”

DART works with Dallas’ visitors bureau, providing collateral materials, meeting with convention coordinators and leading them on rail tours to help sell the convention passes.

A Visual Appeal
In San Antonio, the VIA Metropolitan Transit’s downtown system was created with visitors and tourists in mind, says Priscilla Ingle, vice president of public affairs for the system.

The four downtown routes circulate through the central business district and visit many of the attractions that San Antonio is famous for, Ingle says.

The 19 streetcars serving the four routes in the downtown system were created specifically to fit in with the character of downtown San Antonio by Chance Coach, now a division of North American Bus Industries under the Optima brand.

“The nostalgic design of the streetcars themselves are the result of VIA’s desire to implement a unique transportation service for the downtown area,” Ingle says.

The downtown system has an average of 4,214 weekday riders for a yearly total of 1,618,250, according to VIA statistics.

The streetcars were so warmly received that they were marketed throughout the country as the Alamo City Streetcar.

The Big Event
Dallas is home to the largest state fair in the country. Millions of people flock to the State Fair of Texas and related events during a three-week and four-weekend period in September and October.

That’s the only time annually that DART regularly adds expanded service — beefing up the weekday bus route from the end of the light rail line to the fairgrounds and adding special shuttles on the weekends, says Smith, assistant vice president of service, planning and scheduling for DART.

The University of Texas-Oklahoma University football tilt gets fans talking about mass transit options and shuttle schedules on sports fan forums on the Internet.

Austin’s Capital Metro also says it created special event shuttles to some of the most popular events for residents and visitors alike. Those include the South by Southwest Festival, the Austin City Limits Festival, University of Texas football games and holiday festivals.

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) in California will expand bus routes for the second year to better serve passengers heading to the Orange County Fair in July and August.

The weekend-only routes will take passengers from designated stops directly to the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, says Joel Zlotnik, spokesman for the authority.

In May, OCTA launched “a marketing plan to promote ridership on the service,” Zlotnik says. “It will include newspaper ads, door hangers and special graphics on the buses promoting the service with the fair theme.”

OCTA carries more than 200,000 riders each day for more than 68 million riders per year on 81 bus routes.

Other mass transit systems that were contacted for this story didn’t report increasing services significantly for major events.

Get the Word Out
Travelers are savvy and do their homework before going someplace new. Making sure your information is out there for them to find is important, officials say.

Capital Metro in Austin is already part of Google’s Google Transit site, in addition to having a trip planner on its own Web site,

Miami-Dade County Transit is also planning to add its offerings to Google Transit to augment the trip planner on the system’s Web site,

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has made sure it’s the first thing that pops up when an Internet surfer types DART or Dallas transit into the most popular search engine, says Morgan Lyons, senior manager of media relations for DART.

The DART Web site ( will even suggest something for people to do in the Dallas metropolitan area every day.

“We have a special destinations section on the Web site where we list an activity or event every day,” Lyons says.

While the Web is a powerful tool, paper copies of transit information are just as important to the visitor.

“We put a lot of route information, especially the streetcar maps, in many of the hotels downtown, as well as a lot of the popular destinations for tourists,” says Ingle of VIA. “VIA started a route specifically designed to serve several of these destinations, as we call it the Sightseer Special.

Austin also created a special route to take visitors to many of the town’s attractions — the Tour of the Town route.

Maps and the like are equally abundant in Austin.

“Many organizations that provide services to tourists — hotels, restaurants, chamber of commerce, etc. — have our schedule books and maps available,” says Whited, of Capital Metro. “The marketing department also works with special event organizers to provide visitors ample information on our services.”

Special downtown shuttle buses, the kind that might see a large tourist ridership, haven’t been viable in Dallas, says DART.

“Fixed-route transit systems are usually designed and operate more effectively when targeting regular daily customers,” a spokesman for DART says. “Visitor-oriented services often suffer from dramatic drop-offs in ridership outside of the peak travel season.”

Good Old Customer Service
In the end, commuters and tourists are looking for many of the same things — a clean, comfortable ride, good value, friendly customer service and the ability to get where they want to go without problems.

“The challenges in serving both tourists and residents are very similar,” says Misty Whited, with Capital Metro in Austin. “It is important for Capital Metro to make sure our customers and potential customers are aware of the many services we provide and understand how easy and economical it is to use mass transit.”

Capital Metro has 134 bus routes, more than 500 vehicles and has roughly 35 million annual boardings. The Texas capital’s biggest tourism events are the Austin City Limits Music Festival and the Trail of Lights holiday celebration in December.

Obviously, mass transit systems need to keep the regular riders at the foremost of their focus, but serving those folks well can lead to serving visitors well, too.

“Our primary focus is on the commuters who live in our region, but at the same time we maintain routes and rider/customer service information, including Web, printed and telephone-based, that make our services convenient for anyone, including tourists who may not be familiar with our region,” says Geoff Patrick, spokesman for Sound Transit in Seattle.

Keeping regulars comfortable and helping visitors don’t have to be at odds.

“We treat all our riders with equal consideration, but we do realize that tourists probably ask more questions about the transit system and the city in general than regular riders,” says Ingle of VIA in San Antonio.

“Feedback from customers is very important to Capital Metro, whether it is from a regular commuter or an out-of-town visitor,” says Whited. “We can learn a great deal from tourists who use our services because they can give us the perspective of people who are not familiar with the area or our transit system.”

Jim Faber is a freelance writer living in Hilton Head, Va., home to many, many vacationers.