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Why transit ridership in Michigan is down everywhere except Detroit

A silver line bus in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
John Rothwell
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
A silver line bus in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

When the biggest public transit provider in Grand Rapids raised fares from $1.50 to $1.75 last October, it predicted ridership would fall as a result.  Buses in Grand Rapids are indeed emptier, but not to the degree many expected, and in some cases, no more than they are at other Michigan agencies that left fares untouched. This was the first fare increase in Grand Rapids since 2008.

The Rapid experienced a 4.9% decrease in bus ridership when comparing March 2016 with March 2015, the most recent data available.

“There was a discussion of potential impacts to ridership, but we hadn’t raised fares in almost a decade,” said Jennifer Kalczuk, a spokeswoman for The Rapid, Grand Rapids’ main transit provider. “So we were looking at keeping various funding sources in balance. It was supposed to be 7.2%, based on the national model, and we’re seeing a 4.9% drop.”

Almost all other Michigan transit agencies saw recent ridership declines as well, according to the most recent data from the American Public Transit Association, including a 3.85% decrease experienced by the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority in the final quarter of 2015.

Agencies in Ann Arbor, Bay City, Kalamazoo, Flint, Monroe, Muskegon Heights, and Port Huron also saw declines in fixed-route bus ridership, which many say are a result of lower gas prices reducing the cost of driving.

The Detroit Department of Transportation is the only agency to experience a recent increase, with ridership up 10.26% in the last quarter of 2015 following a service increase and improvements to on-time performance and consistency.

"DDOT has done an excellent job recently of improving the reliability of their service."

“DDOT has done an excellent job recently of improving the reliability of their service,” said Megan Owens, the executive director Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy group in Detroit. “They had some huge problems with not even operating the bus routes that were scheduled. They went from 70% and 80% of their actual routes running up to 99%.”

The AAATA experienced a ridership decrease in 2015's final quarter despite adding service earlier in the year. According to documents from a recent agency board meeting, the AAATA expected ridership to again drop slightly once they further expanded service on May 1. 

Some of the fixed-route ridership decline, AAATA board member Mike Allemang said at last month’s meeting, may have resulted from shifting housing patterns among University of Michigan students and the increased prevalence of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. The student population has moved increasingly close to campus in recent years, according to Allemang, resulting in lower demand for bus service. Among the non-U of M population, he said ridership is up 6%.

Kalczuk said that according to national transit ridership models, the decline in Grand Rapids is likely to be temporary, both because gas prices might not stay at their current level and because data shows fare-driven ridership decreases to be temporary.

The gas-price issue has affected Detroit less to begin with, according to Owens, who said it makes sense that DDOT’s numbers are inconsistent with those of other Michigan cities.

“You do have to remember, Detroit’s in a very different situation,” Owens said. “One-third of Detroit households don’t have a car, so regardless of what gas prices are, many of them are still depending on the bus, if the bus is available, as a good option for getting around.”

Owens said Transportation Riders United Wouldn’t automatically be opposed to a fare increase from DDOT, provided the agency held up its end of the bargain.

“If a fare increase is going to result in a substantive improvement in service, we wouldn’t necessarily be opposed. We’d consider it. But in the past, there’s been pressure to solve budget problems just on the backs of the riders, many of whom can least afford it.”

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