I can’t believe it’s been over a month since my last roundup of how COVID-19 (coronavirus) has affected transportation providers in Fresno and the surrounding areas. Time is really moving in strange ways these days. At this point, it’s clear we’ve reached the bottom in terms of service cuts, short of an airline declaring bankruptcy (cough, AA, cough). How quickly service is restored is an open question. Some transit agencies have already said they don’t expect to return to full service until the end of the year. Agencies that rely heavily on rush-hour commuters are going to be the most affected, as some jobs (such as Twitter) may remain remote forever. It will be interesting to see if those agencies restore more off-peak service than peak-service, which would create a flatter utilization of their fleet, and that may end up being a good thing in the long run.
Ten days ago, I decided to make a record of how COVID-19 (coronavirus) has affected transportation providers in Fresno and the surrounding areas – including the Bay Area and LA region. This post is a follow-up, to chronicle what has changed since. I have also added a few agencies I missed last week. It is sort of lucky I waited until today to make this, instead of last Sunday, as a bunch of changes go into effect today!
Fresno Area Express (FAX)
Officially, no changes to the schedule, but the system has been struggling with drivers calling out, as seen in this tweet:
This makes Fresno one of the only transit systems to continue running full service.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few weeks reading a LOT of news about COVID-19 (coronavirus). All the bad news has taken away most of my motivation to write blog articles, and not just because “regular” news is on pause, but because it’s been pretty exhausting. I also figured that because the news has been changing so quickly, there was little reason for me to write. This isn’t like a new trail, where posting two weeks late is still timely. By the time I get around to posting any news, it has likely changed.
That being said, I’m thinking there may be some value in having a static record looking backwards. Because of the volume of news, six months from now, it will be pretty difficult to do a Google search to find exactly what the transportation impacts were. So the goal of this post (and a probable follow up), is to have one place summarizing what the impacts of the virus were on Fresno-area transportation. Here is what the impacts looked like as of March 29, 2020.
A new bill, ” SB 742, Intercity passenger rail services: motor carrier transportation of passengers.” has been signed into law by the Governor that will allow Amtrak to sell bus tickets without a rail component.
Amtrak California operates an extensive “thruway” bus network that provides vital links to cities that don’t have regular rail service. Bakersfield-LA is the most important link, but there are lines all over the state hitting medium and smaller cities without train service.
The catch is, you can only buy a ticket as part of a rail trip. For example, you can buy Fresno-Bakersfield-LA, but you cannot ONLY buy Bakersfield-LA on the bus.
The Amtrak California network map has a gap. The system is made up of three state-supported rail lines, some long-distance rail lines, and a network of buses to connect cities that do not get rail (thruway buses). Many years ago (at least a decade) you could take an Amtrak bus from the Central Valley to San Jose, via Los Banos and Gilroy. Once that bus line was cancelled, Amtrak riders had to take the train all the way up and around the Bay Area.
Greyhound used to provide buses across to San Jose, but they have continued to cut their routes and no longer do so. BoltBus never provided a route like that, but instead of expanding, they cancelled their entire California network. Flixbus only connects Fresno to LA, and Megabus doesn’t serve the Central Valley at all.
First a reminder. Here is what Fresno bus ridership looked like for ten years, from July 2008 to October 2017. Pretty scary. You can read my full analysis here.
Now let us zoom in to the last 2 years. I have highlighted April and May of 2016, 2017, and 2018 to make an easier year-over-year comparison.
Since the status quo was a continuous decline, even stopping that decrease would be a positive. Instead, the system has done better and shows ridership ticking up a notch compared to previous years.
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. You can see that began to increase in 2017 when FAX introduced later hours and increased service on Shaw Avenue in advance of the Q rollout.
This next graph shows ridership plotted against the maximum number of buses FAX runs at a given time (rush hour peak). I like it because it helps highlight how stagnant the system was for so many years. Once again, you can see when the initial FAX-15 rolled out on Shaw and Blackstone in advance of the Q service. This one also helps to show that even with this expansion, FAX used to operate more peak service in the past. Essentially, they cut 3 routes and re-allocated the money to run those buses on other lines during other times of the day, which is why the previous graph does not show a marked decrease.
Of course, I look forward to seeing this data again once we have a few more months to look at. People do not respond immediately to transit improvements. If you bought a car because FAX service wasn’t getting you to work, it is hard to come back, for example. However, as people move and start new jobs, they might take a new look at FAX and realize that the improvements help get them to where they’re going, and at least for the near future, these improvements in service are guaranteed by federal funds.
One question that will surely be brought up: What about gas prices? They have indeed been rising. However, that increase hasn’t yet resulted in improved ridership in the peer cities I track. Modesto and Visalia are pretty flat, and Bakersfield is hard to compare with because they started counting their ridership in a new way in 2017. Across the country, I continue to read stories about how transit ridership is still falling as well.
In conclusion, congratulations FAX, you have discovered that people like better service!
And now in 2018, finally, Fresno’s bus system has real-time bus tracking!
This is incredibly important because it makes riding the bus predictable. No more standing in the heat wondering if your bus is late…or if it came early and you missed it!
As far as I can tell, they haven’t advertised this feature. No press release, nothing on the website. I didn’t even notice it myself, but it was pointed out to me by Joe in the comments. Thanks Joe!
The new Q line, set to open on February 19, 2018, was advertised as having the tech, and fortunately, it appears that the entire system has been outfitted with it.
Right now, the primary way to see the data is on Google Maps. You can check it out on both desktop and mobile. Let’s take a look!
Zoom in to a bus stop and click the bus icon. Then click on any of the buses listed.
It will then open up the bus lines that serve that stop, along with the times for the next buses.
Times in green are live! Times in black are from the schedule.
Compare with these other bus services that stop downtown. They’re all in black, so not live times.
When you set it as part of your route, you will be informed of any delays. As an aside, 51 minutes in bus vs 15 in car. Hm, I wonder why bus ridership is down…
On the phone the screens look a little different, but it’s the same concept to see all the bus times. Find the bus stop, click it, and then this opens up.
You can then click the bus line you want and actually see where the bus currently is. This screen shows the scheduled time and the actual time.
As an aside, note that many other transit agencies are available to help you plan your transit trips. However, not all have their real-time info coordinated with Google. For example, you can find real-time status of Amtrak trains on the Amtrak website (including a map showing current speed), but the times on Google are just the scheduled ones.
Boltbus (and Greyhound) are available too, but the same issue – you have to go to their websites to see if they’re on time or not.
Additionally, the Fresno website mentions a dedicated transit app. Well sadly, the app mentioned on the website is complete garbage. If there were smartphone apps in 1996, they’d probably look like this:
This is insulting.
HOWEVER, upon browsing the store, it appears that a second app was developed, which recently launched! The one with the higher rating is the newer one.
Super confusing, right?
Supposedly, this new app has modern features, including the real-time tracking info.
Unfortunately, it greats you with this:
No thanks.Why do I need to create an account to view the bus schedule? Ridiculous.
The Google Play store does have a screen shot showing that the app supposedly looks like this:
So more like 2010 instead of 1996.
Just stick with Google Maps.