Maine News: Why is Maine’s transit ridership increasing?
Could there be more at play than pain at the gas pump? Maine’s transit insiders say it’s time to look deeper.
By Kathryn Buxton
Gas prices rise to historic levels in 2006-05. Ridership on the state’s fixed route transit services also post large gains. At first glance, the conclusion seems obvious: High gas prices have created a new wave of riders hoping to save more of their hard earned money. Yet transit insiders say the roots of this transit revolution go much deeper — to changing philosophies in how transit services are operated and marketed to the communities that stand to benefit most.
“Yes, ridership is going up, but I don’t know if it has anything to do with fuel prices,” said Marsha Bennett of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, the planning entity that manages the Lewiston-Auburn’s City- Link transit service. In FY 2006, the service carried approximately 215,000 riders, an increase of 8 percent over 2005. Bennett said it is a shift in the system’s philosophy, more than anything that has fueled its recent growth. “We made it more customer-friendly so people would have more direct links,” she said.
Case in point is the 17 percent increase CityLink experienced between 2004 and 2005. That was when CityLink started to retool some of its operations, lengthening its hours to accommodate the work schedule at area employers. The shift didn’t add any miles to the service, just hours to make it more attractive to local commuters. The service also launched a free downtown shuttle that transports riders between the two cities. Ridership has been particularly high on the shuttle that connects the Hilton Hotel, Central Maine Community College and downtown senior housing complexes. In Bangor, ridership increased on the BAT transit system by more than 10 percent last year (BAT stands for Bangor Area Transit).
Cooper, the senior transit and transportation planner for the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee (BACTS) believes the increase is as much about marketing and community partnerships as it is about gasoline prices. He cites a partnership with the University of Maine begun in 2000.
The university pays the BAT a flat fee and, in exchange, students and staff can ride the BAT throughout the school year fare free and the University gets much needed relief from on its overburdened parking facilities. “That’s been one of our big success stories. As a single program, that part of our ridership is certainly increasing,” said Cooper. He said university ridership — those students and staff using their “MaineCards” to board the bus — grew by a phenomenal 25 percent from 2005 to 2006 from 57,924 riders to 72,206. Meanwhile ridership on other routes in the system has grown “more gently.” The system carried approximately 715,632 riders last year compared to 643,608 during the previous 12- month period.
He said that gas prices may be playing somewhat of a role, in that parents seeking economies now don’t send their student to school with a car. In 2003, the program expanded to include MaineCard fare-free riders systemwide. Cooper said there is anecdotal evidence that the expansion has attracted more cost-conscious student riders who now can live further from the school where rents are lower.
In Portland, the state’s largest and most heavily used transit system, METRO, annually carries more than 1.3 million passengers. Ridership on METRO grew by 1.5 percent last year. October 2006 was the system’s biggest month in more than 15 years with 128,565 riders. Peter Cavanaugh, the system’s acting director, expects that recent changes will continue to win new riders in the coming months. METRO inaugurated a fleet of 13 “clean fuel” buses that run on compressed natural gas and those new buses are immensely popular. This fall, METRO was marketing the service heavily to students at area colleges. METRO also launched a fall 2006 program offering fare-free travel to middle and high school students, a program they are considering extending into 2007.
Cavanaugh said that METRO is building a new Dowtown Transportation Center in Portland that will serve as a hub and enclosed waiting area for passengers. Providing a better customer experience and better service was the aim of the new center.
When it comes down to it, Cavanaugh sees the growth of METRO and like that of other Maine’s transit providers — dependent on each service’s willingness to remain flexible and constantly looking at how they can find new ways fill changing transportation demands in their regions. “It’s all about customer service and marketing,” said Cavanaugh.