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Ridership Plunges on Santa Monica City Buses as Expo Popularity Soars

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 17, 2018 -- Dashing hopes Expo would lift it from decline, Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus system posted another double-digit drop in ridership last fiscal year, accentuated by a loss of almost a third of riders on routes parallel to light rail line, according to a year-end report.

Total ridership on Santa Monica’s municipal buses sank to about 13.8 million passengers in the 2016-2017 year, according to the December 28 report by Edward King, the City’s director of transit services.

It marks the seventh year of losses for BBB, with ridership plunging 27 percent alone since the 2014-2015 fiscal year, City statistics show.

Ridership in 2015-2016 totaled about 16.6 million, the annual report from that year says ("Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus Continues Losing Riders," November 8, 2016).

The BBB overhauled its routes in advance of the May 2016 debut of Expo in Santa Monica, but King said the bus system lost riders anyway.

“New bus lines perpendicular to the Expo path, put into place to create last mile connections to the Expo stations, gained a ridership base, but those gains were not enough to offset the dramatic losses to BBB’s high frequency east-west lines,” King said in his report to the City Council.

Expo-parallel lines “lost an average of 32 percent of passengers as compared” to the previous year, he said. It happened, he said, almost immediately.

“On BBB legacy lines not impacted by Expo, BBB experienced a roughly 10% year-over-year loss in riders, mirroring the results at other transit authorities across the region,” King wrote.

The result was an overall loss of 12 percent of passengers systemwide compared to the previous year. It was, he said, “a challenging year for Big Blue Bus.”

King noted the last few years have been daunting for bus systems nationwide, as well as other mass transit. The last three years have been especially hard on bus systems in auto-addicted Los Angeles County, he said.

“Changes in demographics, income, automobile affordability, gas prices, and the proliferation of transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, have all contributed to the trend,” his report said.

The BBB’s target is to serve 20 million riders by 2020.

The City has had great hopes for BBB, considering City buses a crucial component of its goal to persuade residents, commuters and visitors to ditch cars for alternative transit -- like buses, Expo, bike riding and walking -- so it can grow without worsening gridlock or causing pollution.

BBB has been infused with funding and been the subject of an extensive advertising campaign to boost ridership.

Expo, meanwhile, has become a major hit, reaching an average of 64,164 passengers daily last July -- a dozen years earlier than targeted ("Expo Line to Santa Monica Marks First Birthday with Big Ridership Boost," May 18, 2017).

King said losses to the bus system as it existed before Expo had been expected, prompting the “Evolution of Blue” overhaul to overcome them.

The BBB added 230 new ADA (disability) accessible bus stops on six new lines that cover 40 directional route miles, most running perpendicular to Expo and connecting to stations on Phase II from Culver City to Santa Monica, King said.

“The new lines were in many cases introducing bus service into neighborhoods and were run infrequently while establishing service,” King’s report said. “The low level of service, combined with the newness of the routes, translated to passenger increases coming very slowly.”

Despite the systemwide losses, ridership remains strong on major corridors such as Pico, Lincoln, Westwood and Santa Monica boulevards, as well as on Bundy-Centinela, Ocean Park and Wilshire, King said.

In addition, indicators show “rising performance” in Route 44, connecting the SMC Main Campus, Bundy Campus and 17th Street Station, and in Route 9 connecting downtown Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades”

The new routes -- 15, 16, 17, 18, 42 and 43 -- “are all slowly building ridership.”

But the losses on routes parallel to Expo were huge, especially on Route 7 and Rapid 7 on Pico Blvd, and Rapid 10, the Santa Monica to Los Angeles Express.

Collectively, those routes lost nearly 1.5 million passengers year- over-year, King said, accounting for 46 percent of the ridership loss systemwide.

“BBB is reexamining the underpinnings of why and how people choose transit, and looking at ways that the equation may have changed,” King said.

“With a focus on better understanding passenger expectations, looking at the new alternatives available, and a new attention to service quality, BBB is exploring ways to attract riders and reverse the recent ridership declines," he said.


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