(Aug. 16, 2019) Members of the Ocean City Transportation Committee scratched their heads during a meeting on Tuesday, as they attempted to understand why bus and tram ridership numbers were down this July and the first 11 days of August.
“[In] August, the ridership is overall down by five percent compared to last year,” Transit Manager Mark Rickards said.
Rickards did point out that the number was slightly skewed because they were comparing by dates rather than days of the week.
Last year, there were two Saturdays compared to this year’s two Sundays. The former is the busiest day of the week, while the latter is the slowest.
Furthermore, although there was an overall decrease in ridership, there was 45 percent increase in ridership during the White Marlin Open this year—from 1,949 riders last year, to 2,832 riders this year.
Councilman Dennis Dare was puzzled by the lower number of riders, as actual deployments were up the first 11 days of August.
Rickards said that the increase in deployment was based on the addition of school bus drivers and also new drivers hired throughout the month of July.
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said, however, that he does not believe deployment and ridership have a direct correlation.
Despite the decrease, Rickards reassured the group that the lower numbers were not indicative of a failing bus system.
“Overall, ridership is still very good,” Rickards said. “We’re very strong [in] Midtown. We have many, many full buses.”
In addition, Rickards said that the bus has been consistently on schedule, with buses taking no longer than 10 minutes between each stop.
Mayor Rick Meehan, however, wanted to see the timing of the buses separated from the daytime shift and the evening shift, as there is an increase in bus demand starting around 6 p.m.
He said that while the buses at night look full, this was because there were not enough drivers to accommodate all of the riders.
Rickards disagreed, but Meehan continued to stress the need for more deployments.
“So 6 p.m. to midnight is the time period that we need to concentrate on having maximum deployment and that means all ships filled, which we haven’t been able to do all summer,” Meehan said.
Councilman Tony DeLuca said the group needed to pay extra attention to bus ridership during the strategic planning meeting in October.
“If it’s not deployment, and it’s not this and it’s not that, we’re down. We’re down, and everything else is up. Down is … down is just not good, so we need to focus on it and see what possible solutions there are,” he said.
One solution that was discussed was articulating buses.
While deployment rates have been steady if not slightly increased this year, the real issue lies with the number of drivers that can be deployed.
In a twist of irony, a booming economy led to a decrease in drivers.
“The economy is cranking so well [with a] CDL license you could go grab a job wherever you want right now,” he said.
Typically, the town aims to hire 155 drivers for the summer season. This year, they had 117.
Rather than scrambling for solutions to get more drivers, Adkins said the town needed to work smarter and get the technology that would allow transportation to efficiently use its drivers, regardless of numbers.
This is where the articulating buses come back into play. The articulating (accordian-style) bus is able to hold twice the number of people that a standard bus can.
Also down this season is tram ridership, although revenue has increased, as y Adkins and his team had predicted the previous year.
Nonetheless, the increase in revenue was not as high as they had originally projected.
“When we did the FY20 projects, we projected a 10 percent loss in ridership, but an 18 percent increase in revenue,” Adkins said. “We are not tracking in that direction right now … we achieved a 9.65 percent increase.”
Once again, Meehan attributed this to lack of deployment
“We got behind in deployments early on,” Meehan said. “We just need to have maximum deployments out there at all times … We were overconfident with our staffing issues in the beginning of the summer and I think we are paying for it.”
DeLuca suggested that perhaps the decrease in ridership, which was around 13 percent, was related to the fare, but Meehan strongly disagreed.
“I don’t believe that at all,” Meehan said. “I watch the trams … and I have yet to see an empty tram at night. They are full … I don’t think the fare has affected tram ridership at all.”
To remedy the issue, Adkins said he wanted to conduct an exit survey with the tram drivers and see what they believe caused the dip in ridership.
“Those nighttime trams are full … they are full, so we need to accommodate,” Meehan said.