Business & Economy

Orange County busses increasingly empty, and officials want to know why

Orange County busses are declining in popularity.
Orange County busses are declining in popularity.
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As Orange County transportation officials try to figure out why bus ridership has dropped significantly, a recent survey of past riders shows more than half either moved away from the county or got a car.

The Orange County Transportation Authority commissioned the survey, the results of which they discussed Monday, to try to figure out why ridership plummeted 29 percent from 2006-2014. 

Bus riders moving out--and not being replaced--seems to be a key, said Tim McLarney of True North Research, the firm that conducted the survey of more than 1,000 people who had used the buses from 2010 to 2013.

Thirty-six percent said they don’t live in Orange County anymore.

“That’s a big part of the ridership declining puzzle. That helps you understand where your riders have gone," he said.

But amidst an overall population increase in the county, what it doesn't tell officials is why people moving in aren't getting on the bus.

“One could start to spin theories about improvement of the economy, higher wages and salaries. One could talk about the housing market,” he said. “There are lots of things you could sit there and spin off about why the inflow isn’t matching the outflow.”

Without that information, officials are looking to those who remain for answers on how to boost ridership.  

The O.C. Transportation Authority hit a high of 69 million boardings during the fiscal year 2006 - 2007 but it dropped to 48.9 million at the end of June 2014, according to staff report in July.

“Lower service levels and higher fares have contributed to the ridership decline, and the change in employment mix is a large factor as well,” the report stated.

The county transportation authority began cutting bus service in 2008 and increased fares by 20 percent in January 2009. They jumped again in four years later.

The survey also cited travel times as an issue.

O.C. Transportation Authority officials are looking at ways to consolidate stops to shorten bus trips and this summer, they are piloting bus fare discounts for children and teens.

Meanwhile, the survey did find that of the people who still live in Orange County but don’t ride the bus anymore, an overwhelming majority said they have a car now.

“There’s been a dramatic change among former riders in their access to a personal vehicle,” said McLarney.

While he doesn't believe AB 60, the bill that changed in California motor laws to allow certain undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, has significantly influenced the decline in bus ridership, McLarney said it should be watched for future impact.

Orange County isn’t alone in trying to fill their busses. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority revealed in March a five percent decline in ridership on both the agency’s busses and trains since April 2014.