Santa Monica Lookout
Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus Continues Losing Riders
| By Niki Cervantes
November 8, 2016 -- Santa Monica’s municipal bus system continued to lose riders during the past fiscal year, defying hopes that an infusion of funding would help reverse six years of decline, according to a year-end report for the Big Blue Bus.
Big Blue Bus (BBB) ridership dropped to about 16.5 million passengers at the end of the 2015-2016 fiscal year on July 1, down almost 12 percent from about 18.7 million riders in fiscal year 2014-2015, said Director of Transit Services Edward King.
Officials are hoping to see ridership rise by 6 percent in the first year of Expo Phase II, which opened seven stations from Culver City to downtown Santa Monica on May 20.
But King, in an October 26 report to the City Council, noted that Expo had only been in service a few weeks before the BBB’s fiscal year ended -- not enough time to see if Expo passengers will routinely begin using buses as “first and last mile” transportation to reach their final destinations, as anticipated.
King also said the loss of BBB riders since Expo’s debut was “inevitable” because some riders deserted parallel buses on “traditionally well-performing east-west corridors” to take Metro trains instead.
In addition, there were “broader factors at work” that hurt BBB, as well as public transit use in general, he said. Included are lower gas prices and the rise of new alternate taxi companies, such as Uber and Lyft.
King also cited the passage of Assembly Bill 60, implemented last year, which led to the issuance of 605,000 drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants in California, or nearly half of all licenses granted in 2015.
One of Santa Monica’s biggest employers -- tourism -- relies heavily on immigrant labor. That part of the workforce typically lives outside the city where rents are less expensive and traditionally has relied on mass transportation to reach their jobs.
Like public transportation systems across car-centric Southern California, the BBB has struggled to retain passengers. Santa Monica’s bus system has lost riders every year since 2010, when it peaked at 22,350,252 passengers.
City officials hope the Expo line will reinvigorate the system. The light rail extension into the city is expected to draw a total of 64,000 passengers on an average weekday by 2030.
To integrate with Expo, the BBB created the 2015 “Evolution of Blue,” an overhaul that increased services ten percent by adding 56,000 revenue service hours, 10 new buses, 18 new bus operators and eight additional staff for the expansion.
Increasing basic fees by a quarter, to $1.25, in January was expected to offset some of the cost, generating $1 million in revenue in 2015-2016 and another $2 million in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the BBB said.
The bus system’s overall budgets have been rising, too, jumping from $70,723,756 in the 2015-16 fiscal year to $74,334,194 earmarked for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Last year, the BBB thought it had finally put the brakes on ridership losses, posting a bare 0.3 percent drop.
But King was not discouraged by the new drop in riders.
The “majority of Big Blue Bus routes are expected to see growth in ridership as Expo Phase II matures,” he said in his report to the council.
“LA Metro has announced a doubling of peak rail capacity on Expo in December 2016, bringing more potential BBB riders to the service area, and the total count of rail to bus transfer riders grow each week,” King said.
This was a “year of transformative changes,” King said. “These changes resulted in short term lowered ridership but together they form the basis for an opportunity for long term ridership growth.
"As Los Angeles traffic continues to worsen, BBB sees our role as growing ever more critical.”
The BBB’s biggest drops in ridership were on Rapid 10, the Santa Monica-to-Los Angeles Express, which lost half of its passengers and “may continue to lose more riders as traffic on I-10 continues to deteriorate due to downtown Los Angeles congestion,” King said.
Ridership also slipped due to Expo on Route 7 and Rapid 7 on Pico Boulevard, he said.
The Pico routes lost approximately 15 percent of their ridership, but King said the loss could be “accommodated with minor service adjustments given their high frequency.”
BBB ridership remains strong on Pico, Lincoln, Westwood and Santa Monica Boulevards, traditionally main routes, and second-tier boulevard routes -- Bundy-Centinela and Wilshire Boulevard –- “continue to be robust,” King said.
Performance is “rising” on Route 44 connecting the Santa Monica College Main Campus, Bundy Campus and 17th Street Station, according to the report.
The new routes -- 15, 16, 17, 18, 42 and 43 – “are all building ridership and will require several more months of activity before assessments can be made,” King said.
The BBB’s target is to reach 20,000 riders by 2020.
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