(TNS) — Leslie Hart has been driving nearly all his life, and on a chilly Friday morning in February, not much has changed for the 80-year-old.
Weekday mornings for the past nine years, Hart has driven 26 miles from his Heltonville home to his job as a Bloomington Public Transportation Corp. bus driver.
Hart, who wears a black baseball cap emblazoned with “Jesus” and is a pastor in Bedford on the weekends, waves to every fellow bus driver he passes as he drives along his favorite designated route, Route 9.
“I drive to try and stay active,” the part-time bus driver said. “I’ve been a driver all my life and I really have liked it. I like working with people.”
Hart is one of 76 drivers with the publicly funded transportation company. On his route, his ridership is made up predominantly of Indiana University students, who help boost Bloomington Transit’s ridership numbers. But ridership as a whole for such public services is on a downward trend.
From 2016 to 2017, Bloomington Transit lost 4.13 percent of its ridership, the sharpest decrease in the past decade. That decrease, however, is better than what most cities are experiencing.
According to annual reports from the Indiana Department of Transportation, Bloomington has the best ridership retention rate compared with other cities’ systems that average more than 1 million miles a year. From 2016 to 2017, Terre Haute ridership decreased nearly 19 percent, South Bend decreased nearly 6 percent and Lafayette decreased 4.42 percent, for example.
“We are in this national trend of declining bus ridership across the country, but we have been insulated from the full shock of the decline,” Bloomington Transit General Manager Lew May said. “We haven’t seen as sharp of a decline across Indiana like in other cities.”
May attributes this insulation to the partnership formed between Bloomington Transit and IU students in fall 2000.
“We really had an unabated ridership growth for almost 30 years,” May said. “There were some years where there were small declines, and it really took off in the early 2000s, and that is attributed to the partnership with the university. That really led to a big ridership increase.”
Through tuition, students pay a transportation fee that allows them to ride any Bloomington Transit bus for free once they show the driver their valid student identification. After the first year of its implementation, ridership increased more than 40 percent.
In recent years, the numbers plateaued, hovering at more than 3.5 million Bloomington riders, and for the past three years, the system has seen a faint, but steady decline.
May attributes decreasing ridership numbers to lower gas prices, higher wages and competitive assisted driving companies such as Lyft and Uber. In his view, those who would normally opt to ride on one of the transit company’s 51 buses are now able to find more private and personalized options.
“All of these things are working together and are having an impact on transit ridership,” he said.
May also attributes the decline to a lack of public economic support.
“Public investment in transit is not growing significantly on the local, state or federal level,” May said. “It’s basically only rising with inflation, and in some cases, not keeping pace. So we are not seeing additional tax dollars being invested in public transportation services, so they are flat and not growing and we are not able to add or improve new services, and that affects our ridership. We don’t have the ability to catch new people.”
In light of this, May says, transit systems are moving forward. Through state legislation for an expanded tax bill for public transportation, innovation in partnering with private transportation groups such as Uber and Lyft, incorporating driverless buses and revisiting route networks, Bloomington Transit has plans as to how to adjust for the future, but is limited by its $9.8 million budget.
“We could find some great ways to use any additional budget authority that might come our way (such as innovation and technology),” May said. “That is a real dream and hope for our organization, and I would love to see that happen.”
©2018 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.