January 19, 2009
Dealing with Growing Ridership Despite Tough Economic Times
By Paul Ballard
APTA Bus & Paratransit CEOs Committee
Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority
Last year may have been our country’s toughest economic time since the Great Depression, but for public transit, the new customers kept coming. We all struggled during 2008 to manage skyrocketing ridership as our budgets shrank beneath us. Some of us were ready for growth when fuel prices shot up, and some of us weren’t.
Will we be ready for another new wave of passengers in 2009 or 2010?
Indications are that the current cutback in oil production will drive gasoline prices higher than ever. We’ll again risk outgrowing our ability to provide quality service. Or maybe not: There are several things we can and must do.
First and foremost, we must actively participate in APTA’s legislative initiatives to approve a new surface transportation authorization bill and options for increasing federal funding under the new administration in Washington. That much is obvious.
Locally, we’re working with the Tennessee Public Transportation Association, area Metropolitan Planning Organizations, and elected and appointed officials to develop a steady, reliable source of dedicated funding for public transportation across Tennessee. In addition, at Nashville MTA/RTA, we’ve identified some key operational components that we believe will prepare us for the tidal wave of new passengers we’re likely to see in the coming months.
Here’s our checklist for success, including projects we want to continue as well as some that are already in progress.
* Fast-track fare collection. Last year, we absorbed double-digit ridership increases month after month without having to extend schedules. We accomplished this primarily through increasing our partnerships with businesses willing to pay for employees to ride public transit, and by making it easy for individuals to pay with credit or debit cards. Through our EasyRide partnerships, riders simply swiped their employee ID cards through the farebox, and we billed their employers for the total number of trips. For example, Vanderbilt University faculty, staff, and students took more than 60,000 rides in October, and the university paid with one check at the end of the month. Tennessee state employees are among those enjoying the same benefits, and this month Nashville Electric Service became the most recent addition to the EasyRide program. We’ll be working hard this year to sell EasyRide to as many employers as possible. Two years ago, Nashville MTA began accepting credit and debit cards on all of its revenue vehicles. Suddenly, we appealed to a whole new demographic: potential riders who didn’t know how to use the bus, suffering in silence from fear of the farebox. The familiar MasterCard and Visa logos now greet these riders as they board. Everyone knows how to swipe a credit or debit card, and using them means faster boarding for MTA.
* Regional consolidation. It makes sense for smaller agencies to combine, join with larger agencies, or find new ways to work together to achieve economies of scale and improved passenger convenience. On Dec. 1, 2008, the Nashville MTA assumed management of the RTA. The regional agency is responsible for suburban bus routes, vanpools, and commuter rail. By contracting to use MTA’s management team, RTA instantly acquired expertise in finance, personnel, marketing, and administration that it badly needed but could not otherwise afford. The combination will also facilitate coordination of passenger service between suburban and metro lines and between buses and trains.
* Improved technologies. We can use buses and vans much more efficiently by taking full advantage of new technology in every area. Automatic Vehicle Locators (AVL) are the latest work in progress at MTA. At present, we use AVL for automatic stop announcements. By summer, we expect to take advantage of this global positioning technology to tell us in real time exactly where our buses are and how efficiently our schedules are structured. We will be able to calculate on-time performance with no guesswork. We can identify problems immediately and respond to scheduling issues for a rapidly growing ridership. As another example, our partnerships with employers and introduction of credit cards on all vehicles are possible only through the very latest technology in electronic fareboxes. In this case, the farebox manufacturer helped ease the pain of mastering the technology. The difficult part was negotiating the credit card service to fit the passengers’ needs. We discovered that applying it for practical use was part technology, part sheer determination. As transit managers, we must move beyond our comfort zone to stay a step ahead of customers’ increasing expectations in the future.
* Safety enhancement. The passenger rail industry took some hard shots in 2008, not just in this country, but globally. Recent Congressional action requiring positive train control by 2015 can be turned into a winning formula by restoring public confidence. While much work remains to be done on implementation, this is a good opportunity to reassure the traveling public that public transportation providers are committed to making what is currently the safest mode of transportation even safer.
* Emphasis on Bus Rapid Transit and light rail. Even as demand for public transit grows and budgets tighten, passengers expect miracles for their (taxpayer) money. Anything that zips them past the gridlock of stalled traffic in our busiest urban corridors is sold. We want light rail along corridors of greatest density, or we want light rail to guide development to areas of less density.
Either way, the staggering construction costs of light rail are beyond the means of many metropolitan areas. In some cases, BRT can perhaps pave the way to lay the tracks, eventually. For now, Nashville and many other urban areas will look to BRT as an affordable, practical, and timely way to alleviate congestion. We expect to implement BRT increments, as big or as little as we can fund, starting in 2009.
It’s always difficult to predict how the future will unfold, but these are activities that Nashville and middle Tennessee will pursue in the coming year, no matter what happens. These will be the mainstays of metropolitan transit systems of our size in 2009.