Fresno’s Bus Ridership Was Going up Before COVID-19

A transit agency can lose ridership extremely quickly and it can take years to build it back up again. When a bus route is cut, or service is decreased, riders are immediately affected and have to change how they get around. In some cases, that might mean getting a car and never looking back. But when service is added or increased, it can take people months or years to notice. Ask yourself, how often do you look up the schedule for buses you don’t normally ride?

In July 2015, I posted about how Fresno Area Express (FAX) had seen seven full years of ridership declines. Those declines weren’t unexpected, as the city kept cutting routes and service. In March 2018, I followed up by looking at twelve years of data, and the results weren’t pretty. Fortunately, Fresno started adding back some service. Three buses routes received more frequent (15-minute) service. “Night” buses were launched (until 10pm). Service on weekends was improved as well. In July 2018, it looked like these additions were helping FAX turn the corner.

Now we have more data, going all the way up to February 2020. Besides the fact that we don’t have anything more recent, March is expected to show a decline due to the start of stay-at-home orders caused by COVID-19. April ridership will be dismal, even though FAX has maintained full service. We don’t know what May or June will bring, but nobody expects ridership to rebound quickly, which will make this analysis more difficult.

But that’s enough talk. I think this chart speaks for itself:

As clear as day, we can see that the decline in ridership stopped and started to reverse. Summer of 2008 was the high points, and 2016-2017 was the low point.

Surprise! Adding service has led to more riders.

There are various ways to show that increase in service.

This next chart shows ridership plotted against Vehicle Revenue Hours (VRH) since 2005. The higher the VRH, the more time the buses are spending on the road serving customers. The line is choppy, because not every month has the same number of weekdays, which is the bulk of service. You can see that service began to increase in 2017 when FAX introduced later hours and increased service on Blackstone Avenue in advance of the Q rollout.

This is the same thing, but plotted against Vehicle Revenue Miles (VRM). The graphs are very similar because Fresno has simply expanded service along existing routes, instead of adding new routes.

And finally, this next graph shows ridership plotted against the maximum number of buses FAX runs at a given time (rush hour peak). This one is a little clearer because there’s no monthly variation caused by holidays, weekends, shorter months etc. You can clearly see when the more frequent rush hour buses rolled out. Note that expanded night or weekend service won’t show up here, because that will always have less buses running than rush hour.

I also track ridership among different peer systems. These are helpful because they show if Fresno is doing better or worse than average. IE, with COVID-19, we expect ridership to drop for everybody, and there’s nothing anything can do about it. But if one city is seeing increases, and one seeing decreases, clearly there’s a local issue happening.

Unfortunately, it’s good news for Fresno but bad for everybody else.

Visalia bus ridership is on a very scary downward path. And I don’t know why. They shifted some routes around this past January, but that’s not what is causing this.

Things get more complicated with Bakersfield and Modesto. In August 2017 (the red bar line), Bakersfield changed how they count riders, which makes it very hard to look at trends. That giant jump was not a real increase, but just a change for how they did counts.

Modesto has the same problem in July 2018 (red bar), except for them it resulted in much lower numbers coming in. Again, no change in actual riders, just in how they counted. For example, they originally reported 204,915 trips in July 2018, but that was revised to 165,620.

In terms of service levels, I am not seeing any big changes for either system to justify these decreases in riders.

Anyway, Fresno now has all the proof it needs that adding service does lead to more riders. Unfortunately, Fresno just chose poorly in the mayoral elections, and the winner hasn’t said anything positive about transit. As city revenues fall due to COVID-19, will the local leaders repeat what happened in 2009 and start cutting service again? If they do, these ridership numbers will revert back to a continued and extended decline…

4 Replies to “Fresno’s Bus Ridership Was Going up Before COVID-19”

  1. That’s a shame to hear about Visalia, Bakersfield, and Modesto. In the meantime, it looks like we became a regional model for how to increase ridership.

    That’s one thing to hang on to as coronavirus happened. The data supports that FAX was making the right decisions.

    Still, what does everyone think is going to happen now?

    Delayed route improvements? Service cuts? Fare increase?

    1. All of the above Matthew. Trump is no friend of public transit so help from the federal government will be the bare minimum. The city budget just got gutted by COVID-19. More money for FAX isn’t in the cards, not when most of the people who bother to vote want public safety prioritized. The voters will scream if cops are laid off to fund FAX, parks, whatever…

      1. Well, I guess the only positive takeaway the city has from coronavirus is that bike ridership is up, and some people from public works are working to open up streets for people to social distance easier, with at least one street being closed per council district.

        Hopefully, bicycle ridership reaches 2% citywide(has it hit already that already?) for the first time and continues to rise after everything reopens.

        1. i think post covid-19 they may push for a sales tax increase to soften some of the blows to city services. they need to prepare an education campaign for the possible fare increases and tax increases that could be coming due to the loss of revenue. i expect the fare to increase to a $1.50 by this summer.

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