Charlottesville Area Transit experienced a 5.4 percent decline in ridership in fiscal year 2014, according to a new report on the system.
“The economy is picking back up and people have decided to get back in their cars,” said Transit Manager John Jones. “Gasoline is a little bit cheaper.”
In all, CAT provided rides for about 2.3 million passengers between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014. That is down from about 2.4 million in the year before and 2.6 million in 2012.
Overall, ridership is down by 11.5 percent over the past two years.
In January, CAT underwent a major realignment to make bus routes more direct and to create at least one new regional hub. The overall intent is to increase passenger trips by making routes more reliable.
“Right now I am not alarmed because we don’t have a full year of data,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin.
Lena Seville, president of the Transit Riders Association, said one reason ridership is down because of fewer transfers.
“Since the changes in January, more routes have destinations such as grocery stores so that people don’t have to transfer,” Seville said. Passengers are counted as having taken two trips if they switch to another route.
“Before we changed the routes, people that rode routes 4 and 6 had no direct access to a supermarket or any kind of shopping, but now they do,” Jones said.
Three routes now travel to the Willoughby Shopping Center, home of a Food Lion and a CVS. As a result, Jones said, fewer people transfer to Route 7 or Route 10 to get to grocery stores on U.S. 29 or U.S. 250 on Pantops.
Prior to this year’s decline, ridership had been on the increase for several years dating back to 1996. That year saw 679,669 “unlinked trips” according to data from the National Transit Database, which collects information about transit agencies across the country.
In July 2007, the University of Virginia began purchasing rides for students and faculty in one lump payment. That amount has increased from $191,000 in 2007 to $224,900 in the current fiscal year.
The deal also allows city residents to ride University Transit Services buses.
“When we implemented the reciprocal ridership for CAT and UTS, it allowed CAT to reallocate buses that they had dedicated to areas where there is heavy UTS operation,” said Rebecca White, director of parking and transportation at UVa, in an email.
The report does show some positive trends. Ridership on most routes increased from January to June, though ridership on the free trolley declined during that period.
“There’s a logic to why that would happen,” Galvin said. “The student ridership is down when the University of Virginia goes out of session.”
Galvin said she is not alarmed by the decline in ridership, but she hopes that the system ultimately can be expanded to allow more county residents to commute via bus.
“We have to keep the existing system attractive,” Galvin said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction in terms of looking at this regionally.”
Jones said ridership is a primary metric by which the state and federal government will make funding decisions, but he said he is not worried about these declines.
“Both the state and the federal government understand there can be fluctuations in ridership, and what they’ve done is move away from a peer-based comparison to where your performance will be gauged against your own performance,” Jones said.
Jones said making access to buses more convenient will help increase ridership, and he said route changes made in August may help reverse the trend. Cost-neutral changes included increased frequency on several routes.
In February, CAT plans to install a new $558,000 fare box system that will allow people to purchase rides using smart cards and purchase paper-free monthly passes. Jones said the new technology could bring increased ridership.
“It will be more convenient for our agency customers to purchase fares that they can give out to people in need that may not have the ability to purchase a fare,” Jones said
Jones hinted that future changes may add convenience but further reduce ride counts. His staff is modeling a technique called “interlining” where buses alternate between routes.
“Right now, if a bus is on Route 5, it’s on Route 5,” Jones said. “One of the designs may be that the 5 becomes the 11 [at Fashion Square mall] and goes downtown.”
That would mean the passengers wouldn’t be counted twice, but they would have a more seamless journey.
Despite the reduction in passengers, the bus fleet actually increased the number of miles traveled by almost 13 percent.
“We have more buses out there more often and that’s where those increases come in,” Jones said.