The monthly ridership numbers for Bloomington Transit were again a bright spot for the board of the public transportation agency at its meeting last Tuesday.
September this year was the first time monthly ridership on BT fixed route buses had exceeded 300,000 passengers since the COVID-19 pandemic hit three and a half years ago.
In her report to the board, planning and special projects manager Shelley Strimaitis highlighted the 300,000 rider milestone for ridership recovery.
BT ridership numbers generally reflect the seasonal rhythm of Indiana University’s semester schedule. September and October typically count among the highest ridership months of the year.
Based on data going back to 2000, September ridership for BT first passed the 300,000 mark in 2007, with 306,740 riders that month. From 2007 through 2019, BT’s September ridership was always at least 300,000, with several months exceeding 400,000.
This year, the September ridership of 306,195 nearly matched the 2007 total.
The year-to-date figure for 2023 stands at around 1.7 million rides. Strimaitis said that’s on course to exceed 2 million rides for the year. From 2009 up until the pandemic, BT’s annual ridership has exceeded 3 million rides.
If ridership numbers for the final three months of the year track with last year’s figures, that would bring the 2023 total to around 2.3 million rides. That’s about 70 percent of the total for 2019, the last full pre-pandemic year.
Strimaitis attributed the rebounding numbers to the fact that more students are back in person on the Indiana University campus. Board member Doug Horn drew out the fact that some of the ridership recovery comes from a couple of routes that BT has established under contract with large student-oriented housing developments.
One of those is The Verve on North Walnut Street, which is required under the terms of its zoning approval by the city council to subsidize a route—which is also open to the public to ride. Route 12 was created by BT to serve Verve residents, who don’t pay a fare to board.
The Verve subsidizes the BT service at a rate of $75.33 per bus service hour. For September, ridership on the Route 12 was 17,315 passengers for 250 total hours of service. The 69 riders per hour would have generated $69,000 per hour, if they had all paid the $1 fare to board the bus.
Its 69 riders per hour for September made Route 12, by that metric, the highest performing route in the system, surpassing the other two routes that primarily serve the IU campus. In September, both of the other campus routes, the Route 9 and Route 6, showed about 60 riders per hour.
Key to ridership is having enough drivers to ensure that all the bus runs actually happen. Hiring drivers is “still our weakest link,” BT general manager John Connell told the board last Tuesday. The public transportation agency has 8 vacancies, after hiring a net of 2 drivers in September. Horn called the bus driver hires good news.
Responding to board questions about the challenges that BT sees in hiring bus drivers, Connell said, when drivers leave, they say it has primarily not been a matter of compensation, but rather of work schedule. Connell put it like this: “It hasn’t been an economic issue. It’s been a lifestyle issue.”
Bloomington Transit bus drivers belong to a union, which means that the first choice of route schedules goes to those with the most seniority, Connell said. In the past, new drivers were more willing to just “pay their dues” until they had enough seniority that they could have their choice of routes and schedules. According to Connell, some potential new drivers say they want to come in and work Monday through Friday, and be home by 5:30 p.m.: “We can’t offer that,” Connell said.
Another challenge, Connell said, is that bus drivers sometimes don’t get much respect from passengers. “Bus operators don’t get the same level of respect from the passengers that they got 15-20 years ago,” Connell said. He said that’s true generally in the customer service industry right now. To drive a public bus, “you have to be well equipped to deal with the public,” Connell said.