HSR ridership declines as service improves
Downturn of about 435,000 trips last year translates into shortfall of $860,000
So why are thousands of Hamiltonians apparently turning their backs on the bus? Nobody seems to know.
It’s a public transit head scratcher.
Despite significant improvements to Hamilton’s transit service, HSR’s ridership declined by about 435,000 trips last year, representing a revenue shortfall of about $860,000.
The decline comes on the heels of the city adding 75,771 new hours of bus service and the debut of 25 new buses.
It also coincides with the introduction of a new bus terminal at Mohawk College, 46 new transit shelters, the reduction of “pass bys” by full buses, and an uptick in overall reliability.
On top of that, 2016 was the second year in a row that ridership dropped dramatically. In 2015, after a couple of years of welcome gains, it fell by about 391,000.
Ironically, this back-to-back slide happened in the first two years of council’s 10year strategy for growing transit.
Besides the aforementioned enhancements, that strategy also saw the hiring of 50 new HSR employees as part of a long-term goal of fixing problems, expanding routes, and ramping up service in prep for the arrival of the $1 billion light rail system.
So why are thousands of Hamiltonians apparently turning their backs on the bus?
Nobody seems to know. Or at least nobody seems to have a definitive answer. One thing is certain, however: the decline is not unique to Hamilton.
From Toronto to Halifax and from Calgary to Vancouver, bus ridership is either flatlining or declining. The same thing is happening across the United States, sometimes even in the face of costly investments in bus services.
The worrying issue surfaced at last week’s presentation of the 2017 transit budget to Hamilton councillors. That’s hardly surprising since — as per the approved 10-year strategy — the proposed budget includes a request for 26 new employees, five new buses, 34,000 additional operating hours, a 10cent fare increase, and $2.5 million from the tax levy.
Under questioning by councillors, transit director Debbie Dalle Vedove couldn’t point to any one cause for the ridership downturn but noted that fare increases and lower gas prices might be contributing factors.
Cheaper gas suggests, of course, that some people may have gone back to driving their cars instead of riding the bus. But other theories being floated across North America suggest bike share programs and ride-hailing services such as Uber may also be contributing to the stagnation or decline.
In other words, former or potential bus passengers may simply have transitioned to other means of getting around.
Dalle Vedove called the widespread decline a “phenomenon,” which is perplexing transit professionals.
She noted different transit agencies can experience drops at different times, depending on investments, fare hikes, or service clawbacks, but she’s never seen a nationwide drop during her 30-year career.
Former transit director David Dixon warned councillors in 2015 that ridership would likely slump because of fare hikes linked to the 10-year strategy. But clearly the falling off is steeper than expected.
“Regarding ridership, when we addressed the deficiencies it was anticipated that ridership would grow,” said Dalle Vedove.
“However, by adding capacity to reduce pass bys, the result was not a significant increase in ridership but an improvement in our customer experience.”
The customer may be having a better experience, but there’s either fewer of them or they’re taking fewer trips. Where does this leave our cash-strapped council? Holding fire and keeping its options open.
Staff is proposing a 4.1 per cent increase to the transit budget. Tom Jackson, citing this year’s fiscal challenges, asked to also see what a 3 per cent or a 1.8 per cent increase would look like.
Though Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Matthew Green argued for staying the course and taking the long view for transit planning, Jackson’s motion, tellingly, passed without opposition.