For the fourth straight year, the number of people riding the bus in Clark County continued to decline.
C-Tran estimated a little over 5.8 million riders boarded buses in 2015 — down from 6.4 million in 2014. In 2010, passenger boardings totaled more than 7 million.
From January through April, ridership was down by 15 percent compared with 2015, from just over 2 million riders to a little more than 1.7 million.
C-Tran officials point to a better economy and cheap fuel as the primary causes of decline. They hope a number of changes, from increased public outreach to sweeping changes in service routes, will reverse the trend. But one academic who studies transportation says C-Tran will be hard-pressed to fight its biggest foe: 70 years of land use policies that have facilitated suburban sprawl in Clark County.
C-Tran spokeswoman Christine Selk said “the easy route” is to blame gas prices and a better economy, but she believes there’s something else at play that C-Tran hasn’t yet figured out. She said improving ridership is one of C-Tran’s prime focuses.
“We view it as one of our number of challenges at the agency,” she said. “It kind of colors and finds its way into every thing we do.”
Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, said cheap gas and a better economy are putting more people behind the wheel, but the main thing working against C-Tran is Clark County’s sprawl.
To illustrate his point, Hallenbeck contrasts the high density of Portland’s Pearl District, where housing and businesses are intermixed and parking is expensive and hard to find, with Clark County, where densities are low, zoning segregates housing areas and business districts, and parking is free.
“(Public transit) makes sense when you live in a dense environment where the distances aren’t far and parking and land is expensive,” he said. “If you are trying to get around Battle Ground and parking is free and there’s nothing near you but a school and a park and going to the grocery store is a 10 minute drive … Looking at that you say ‘What kind of idiot rides a bus?’ ”
In Portland, TriMet passenger boardings are down by about 5.5 percent for the same period. The agency counted 4.67 million boardings for the first quarter of 2016, compared with about 4.95 million in 2015.
On average nationwide, bus ridership was down in the fourth quarter of last year by 2.79 percent, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The biggest drop, 3.85 percent, was in cities with populations between 100,000 and 499,999. C-Tran’s service area falls in that population category.
However, Hallenbeck said the statistics don’t tell the entire story.
“Always beware of average statistics,” he said. “The definition of an average is when your left foot is in a bucket of boiling water and your right foot is in a bucket of ice water. On average, you (should) feel pretty good.”
Attracting more riders
According to C-Tran’s most recent on-board survey, from 2013, 72 percent of C-Tran’s local riders and just 9 percent of Express route riders depended on transit as their main mode of transportation. For everyone else it’s an option to get around. C-Tran is trying to entice more of those by-choice riders by implementing changes to its service routes in September, engaging the public more on social media, and offering free rides on national Dump The Pump Day on June 16 and to and from the Clark County Fair.
Selk said C-Tran didn’t have target numbers in mind when planning the route changes, but instead is focused on reaching underserved areas.
Another way transit agencies can attract new riders, Hallenbeck said, is by offering frequent service with strong amenities such as free wi-fi.
“Many people would rather be on their phone for 20 minutes than drive for 12,” he said.
C-Tran officials also hope the The Vine, the agency’s $53 million bus rapid transit system, will entice new riders when it opens this year. But it remains to be seen whether the high-capacity buses running between Vancouver Mall and downtown will draw new riders or give a more comfortable ride to existing customers.
“I’d hope a project at that scale would see an increase in ridership,” Selk said.