Amid trends, ‘no one thing we can put our fin­ger on’

The Buffalo News - - CON­TIN­UED FROM THE COVER -

cent in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2017 com­pared with the same time last year.

• In the same pe­riod, over­all bus and rail rid­er­ship was down by 7.3 per­cent.

• This year, bus rid­er­ship is down by 4.7 per­cent, and rail has de­clined by al­most 10 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to NFTA fig­ures.

NFTA of­fi­cials point to the cycli­cal na­ture of pub­lic tran­sit rid­er­ship and be­lieve that con­di­tions are ripe for a re­bound. They say the de­cline in sub­way rid­ers has proven less pre­cip­i­tous since about 1997, but they ac­knowl­edge con­cern at a time when the sys­tem should prove es­pe­cially at­trac­tive.

“It’s a head-scratcher,” Ge­orge said. “There are all these trends, but no one thing we can put our fin­ger on.”

Ge­orge said the crowds jam­ming trains for Buf­falo Sabres games and other down­town events re­main strong, sus­tain­ing over­all num­bers to some de­gree. In ad­di­tion, he thinks the na­tional trend of young peo­ple to shun cars and rely on buses and trains oc­curs here, too, dis­cour­ag­ing even fur­ther ero­sion.

And while sys­temwide rid­er­ship spiked to al­most 31 mil­lion in 2012 due to sev­eral fac­tors, it may be set­tling into a “nor­mal” level of about 26 mil­lion with the help of those car­less com­muters.

“That phe­nom­e­non is what helps us stay around a nor­mal 26 mil­lion,” Ge­orge said. “That has bol­stered us and keeps us from a steeper de­cline.”

Look­ing for en­tice­ments

Sim­i­lar de­clines are oc­cur­ring na­tion­ally, ac­cord­ing to APTA. U.S. trans­porta­tion agen­cies recorded a 2.2 per­cent drop in light-rail trips in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2017 com­pared with the same pe­riod last year. Bus trips were off by 4.2 per­cent.

Dur­ing the same pe­riod, up­state bus sys­tems such as Al­bany’s dropped by 1.7 per­cent, while Rochester’s dropped by 5.5 per­cent. Nei­ther city runs a rail sys­tem.

“When you look at other agen­cies, we feel we are do­ing well,” Ge­orge said.

Be­cause of oc­ca­sional spikes in re­cent years, in be­tween the de­clines, NFTA of­fi­cials are wait­ing for a re­li­able pat­tern to de­velop.

“That’s the big ques­tion: Why did we see such a growth in rid­er­ship in ’12 and ’13?” Ge­orge said. “Are we reach­ing back to nor­mal lev­els? Or should we ex­pect ’12 and ’13 to con­tinue?”

Much of Metro Rail’s dif­fi­cul­ties may stem from the huge de­clines of 2014, 35,000,000 30,000,000 25,000,000 20,000,000 15,000,000 10,000,000 5,000,000 when the “Cars on Main Street” project forceds­in­gle­trackingand­de­laysin­train fre­quen­cies of more than 20 min­utes – far more than the cur­rent 10-minute head­ways. Com­muters fled the sys­tem in droves – record­ing an al­most 27 per­cent de­cline from the year be­fore.

“We’re equat­ing our rid­er­ship loss to that dis­rup­tion,” Ge­orge said. “Peo­ple got dis­cour­aged by that and are less likely to take the sys­tem. Those who use rail are more ‘choice’ rid­ers. And choice rid­ers are more likely to move to a dif­fer­ent mode.”

Over the last 18 months, the NFTA has gained back some of its lost rid­ers through a mar­ket­ing cam­paign herald­ing the re­turn of 10-minute head­ways, said Rob Jones, direc­tor of ser­vice plan­ning.

Art Guzzetti, APTA’s vice pres­i­dent for pol­icy, said over­all trends re­main pos­i­tive over the last two decades. But his Wash­ing­ton-based or­ga­ni­za­tion rec­og­nizes a def­i­nite de­cline.

“It is wide­spread; it is ev­ery­where; and there are very few out­liers,” he said.

Mun­dane statis­tics such as the num­ber of peo­ple rid­ing buses re­flect a host of “broad so­ci­etal trends,” Guzzetti said, in­clud­ing the con­cept of “time com­pet­i­tive­ness.” Amer­i­cans now or­der prod­ucts from home rather than trav­el­ing to stores, get news on their phones, and even work from home.

“If you work just one day a month from home, that’s a 4 per­cent drop in com­mutes,” he said.

And if a glut of trucks de­liv­er­ing prod­ucts or­dered on­line or new ride­hail­ing ve­hi­cles clog traf­fic, Guzzetti said, com­muters get dis­cour­aged and the num­bers drop. Com­muters also no longer face a “bi­nary choice” of driv­ing their car or tak­ing a bus to work.

“Now, it’s ‘I re­ally don’t care,’ ” Guzzetti said. “‘I just want the best op­tion for that par­tic­u­lar trip.’ ”

Other fac­tors in­clude a pent-up de­mand for new cars fol­low­ing the end of the re­ces­sion, rel­a­tively low gaso­line prices, and a back­log of about $90 bil­lion in re­pairs and main­te­nance needed in the na­tion­wide sys­tem.

“Young peo­ple may be mov­ing to the cities, but that means the sub­urbs have changed,” Guzzetti said. “There might be an out­ward mi­gra­tion of low­in­come peo­ple to the sub­urbs, and the sub­urbs are not al­ways equipped to ac­com­mo­date tran­sit.”

But tran­sit ad­vo­cates must still en­tice down­town work­ers out of their cars, a ma­jor ob­jec­tive for Med­i­cal Cam­pus of­fi­cials. Matthew K. En­stice, pres­i­dent and CEO of the bur­geon­ing com­plex on the north edge of down­town, has al­ways pointed to es­ti­mates of more than 17,000 em­ploy­ees within a few years – without 17,000 places to park.

“Our goal is for peo­ple work­ing along Main Street to live around Main Street and use pub­lic tran­sit,” he said. “We be­lieve there will be more de­vel­op­ment along Main Street, and that more peo­ple will uti­lize the trans­porta­tion sys­tem. We’re 100 per­cent sup­port­ive of that.”

The need will be be­come es­pe­cially ap­par­ent in 2018, he said, when more Med­i­cal Cam­pus fa­cil­i­ties open and more em­ploy­ees ar­rive. The Med­i­cal Cam­pus al­ready pro­motes NFTA in­cen­tives that en­cour­age use of Metro Rail and its Allen-Med­i­cal Cam­pus Sta­tion, which is in­cor­po­rated into the ground floor of the soon-to-open Univer­sity at Buf­falo’s Ja­cobs School of Medicine and Biomed­i­cal Sciences.

En­stice main­tains that the en­tire med­i­cal com­plex might never have been pos­si­ble without Metro Rail and its abil­ity to move thou­sands of peo­ple without us­ing cars. “It’s a most crit­i­cal thing to us,” he said. “From our perspective, it’s an as­set sit­ting right there that we need to see thrive.”

‘We have to tar­get au­di­ences’

NFTAof­fi­cialsseeen­cour­ag­ingsigns. They point to the Novem­ber open­ing of the John R. Oishei Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal and the Jan­uary ar­rival of the med­i­cal school as more rea­sons to leave cars be­hind on a cam­pus with limited park­ing.

“We be­lieve that to be a pos­i­tive,” Ge­orge said.

In ad­di­tion, the new turn­stile fare sys­tem – sim­i­lar to the New York City sub­way – slated for late 2018 should make rid­ing Metro Rail more user­friendly. The ur­ban trend also means more peo­ple will live near em­ploy­ment cen­ters such as the Med­i­cal Cam­pus or near sub­way sta­tions for an easy com­mute. And new and di­rect bus ser­vice now serves the cam­pus, Ge­orge said.

“We have to tar­get au­di­ences to tell them how easy and avail­able it is, to en­cour­age those ‘choice rid­ers’ and oth­ers,” he said. “If you get on a bus and get used to it, you are then so much more com­fort­able with it.”

The aim of any pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem should be to of­fer fre­quency, re­li­a­bil­ity and avail­abil­ity, Ge­orge said.

“If you can do that with a pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem along with a few ad­dons, you’ll be a suc­cess,” he said.

“All of our cus­tomer ser­vice sur­veys point to that, and that we’re do­ing OK.”

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