12 years of FAX ridership – the decline in riders (and service) is real

With the recent launch of the new “Q” bus service in Fresno, many articles have been asking if this will stop the decline in bus ridership. However, I have yet to see any article actually talk about numbers. What has the decline been? How long has it been happening? Well, let’s solve that mystery and dive right in!

I last looked at ridership in July 2015. That post was titled “7 years of decline.” Unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten better.

We begin with the big picture: Ridership by month on Fresno’s bus system, FAX, from July 2005 to December 2017. These numbers are for regular buses only, not including para-transit. Clovis, which operates its own system, is also not included.

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Peak month is not a surprise. Ridership peaked in October 2008 with 1,390,745 bus rides.

That makes a lot of sense: the housing market was crashing, there was major turmoil in Wall Street, unemployment was on its way up (11.1% in October, on its way to 15.4% in February), and gas prices were skyrocketing ($4.64 a gallon in July 2008). People were desperate to save money, and riding the bus was a way to do so. This was true around the country. Additionally, FAX had recently implemented 15-minute service on major lines, thanks to a federal grant.

And then things started heading south. Even though people needed the bus, the city was slashing services left and right because they were broke. They eliminated the highway express routes, decreased service frequency, and eliminated routes 4, 12, 18, and 56. On top of that, they hiked fares.

As the economy started to very, very slowly pick up, ridership continued to fall.

Ridership fell to 803,866 in July 2011, an astonishing decrease of 42% from peak. (Unemployment was 16.2% in Fresno that month)

This past July, unemployment reached 8.6%, similar to the “good old days” of 2006.

FAX ridership July 2017: 570,395. A decline of 59% since the peak. October 2017, the annual high point, was 866,634, below even 2005/

I had no idea it had gotten this bad. Here is what almost 10 years of decline looks like:

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Incidentally, Fresno population in 2008 was 472,949, which increased to 522,053 for 2016.

These next charts show how Fresno cut service. The first is ridership compared with Vehicle Revenue Miles, or distances the buses travel when picking up customers. A smaller number means less buses and/or less routes. The cuts in 1010 are very clear.

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This one is similar, but with Vehicle Hours Traveled, compared with ridership. Same idea, less service, less hours the buses are rolling.

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Neither measure is perfect. For example, if FAX were to send a single bus on a route to San Francisco every day, and it carried one person, the charts would show a huge increase in service hours and miles, but that wouldn’t really be an improvement.

However, it is useful data. You can clearly see the cuts in service Recently, you can see an increase in 2017. This is because the Q route was supposed to be open by 2017, so Fresno started using some of the operating grants to increase service.

Passengers on two of the busiest Fresno transit routes to and from Fresno State will start seeing more frequent weekday bus service starting Monday, just a week before the start of spring-semester classes at the university.

FAX15 is the brand for the city’s new service, on which new buses will run every 15 minutes on portions of Shaw and Cedar avenues from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. FAX stands for Fresno Area Express, the city’s public bus system.

More buses will mean that passengers on the prime sections of two routes won’t have to wait more than 15 minutes for the next bus to come along.

On FAX’s north-south Route 38 along Cedar Avenue, the FAX 15 buses will run between Jensen Avenue and Shaw Avenue, said Brian Marshall, the city’s transportation director.

I like this next chart best. Fresno operates a peak-focused bus system. Until very recently, all bus service ended at 9pm on weekdays – it still ends at 7pm on weekends. 15-minute service is reserved for peak hours. In fact, Fresno is so peak-focused, that even the new Q route, which has been marketed as featuring service every 10 minutes, has just four trips after 9pm (9:22pm, 10:22pm, 11:22pm, 12:22am (PDF))

This shows how many buses Fresno runs at peak period, compared to ridership. Because the system is really focused on peak travel, this is a good proxy for service level.

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Again, you see service increase leading up to 2008, and then drastic cuts to 2011, when the system stagnated. The federal funds coming in 2017 show an improvement, but still less bus service than in 2006.

More specifically:

October 2005: 84 peak buses
October 2006: 90 peak buses
October 2007: 102 peak buses
October 2008: 117 peak buses  (124 in September)
October 2009: 107 peak buses
October 2010: 91 peak buses
October 2011: 80 peak buses

This remained constant until July 2016, and reached 89 buses in May 2017. That is, one less peak bus in 2017 than in 2006.

In a few months, we will see data with the new Q service. This will show a good increase in miles, hours, and peak buses.

Will riders follow? That’s the question.

Incidentally, here’s a look at how other valley cities have been doing, looking at ridership vs peak hour buses as a proxy for service.

Bakersfield is the closest in size, and pattern. Ridership has also declined since a peak in 2008, and service has as well, but only a little bit. That massive drop in 2014? The result of an incredible 5 week strike.2017 shows an improvement, I’m not sure why.

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Modesto is interesting. In 2010, they increased bus service, and saw an increase in bus riders as well, beating the 2008 peak. Unfortunately, it has fallen off a bit since then. The large fall between 2015 and 2016 indicates to me that something changed in their service. Maybe they cut off-peak routes? Or it can be that they moved to a new counting method.

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Visalia is also interesting. I’m not sure why, but until 2015, provided more bus service in the summer than the winter. Also, unlike the other cities, ridership increased from 2010 to 2012, well above 2008. I think part of it is that they added bus tracking in 2011. However like the rest, ridership has fallen since those highs.

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5 Replies to “12 years of FAX ridership – the decline in riders (and service) is real”

  1. Its my honest opinion that the city is very similar in the California state govt…meaning that they just dont care about efficient spending of money and streamlining designs for cost effectiveness. I really believe that city officials only care about the long term benefits of having BRT, an “international’ airport, and HSR to lure other future businesses and or get more grants to ‘improve’ the city. Same philosophy as Jerry Dyer using fear mongering to get the latest grant to support another police state program to further alienate police and the community.

    1. Good point, investment is certainly aimed at prestige projects rather than the stuff people use every day

  2. James, I was curious. Supposedly FAX has a tiny, tiny handful of electric hybrid buses; did you ever have a chance to ride on one of these?

  3. The city doesn’t care if NOBODY rides the bus, because tax payers will foot the bill. Hell the city backtracked on BRT so much that it can be modified back to a regular FAX bus if BRT does really poorly.

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