HSR rid­er­ship de­clines as ser­vice im­proves

Down­turn of about 435,000 trips last year trans­lates into short­fall of $860,000

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - AN­DREW DRESCHEL An­drew Dreschel’s com­men­tary ap­pears Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day. adreschel@thes­pec.com 905-526-3495 @An­drewDreschel

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.

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