Much has been written about Metro-North’s slow return to “normal” service as commuters ponder a return to their New York City offices. But what matters as much, if not more, is bus ridership within the state.
Pre-COVID busy systems like GBT (Greater Bridgeport Transit) served as many as 15,000 bus riders in communities from Westport to Milford. Recent statistics show 10,000 riders per day, about a 33% drop from pre-COVID.
“We reached 10,000+ boardings on some weekdays this past July. I expect to see that gap partially close as the high schools, universities and colleges resume in-person learning,” says Doug Holcomb, Executive Director of GBT.
CT Transit ridership in Stamford, New Haven and Hartford has equally held up, recently down only 40% compared to Metro-North’s 60% drop.
Why the difference in returning ridership between trains and buses? Because bus riders are much different than train riders.
Most can’t work from home: nurses and blue-collar workers can’t telecommute. And many don’t even have access to cars. (GBT says 90% of all passengers are going to or coming from school or their job.) If the bus doesn’t keep running to get them to work, they can’t get to class or lose their jobs and go on unemployment.
Bus riders are also less affluent. Even though bus fares are only $1.75 (closer to $1 for those with discount passes), that daily expense represents a bigger chunk of their weekly pay compared to “gold coast” residents taking the train. While Metro-North riders enjoy a one-seat ride from their home station to Grand Central, many bus riders must take two or more connecting routes.
In other words, bus service in this state is essential. It keeps service jobs staffed, our hospitals running and cars serviced.
But what will it take to get even more riders back on the bus?
First, they need to feel safe. And here the bus companies are doing a much better job than the railroad both in cleaning and in enforcing recently extended federal and state mask-wearing rules.
“We have only had one reported incidence of refusal (to wear a mask) that resulted in a driver/rider confrontation. We focused on encouragement and outreach – signage, announcements, newsletters, social media, mask giveaways, persuasion. This seems to have worked as well as anything,” says GBT’s Holcomb. “If there’s a group of people who really know we’re in this together, it’s bus riders.”
To encourage their staff to get their vax, GBT held a lottery with prize money. Vaccination rates went way up to 70%. They’re also building service resiliency by keeping the staff healthy and are even hiring new drivers.
As crucial as bus service is, there is a lot of anti-bus prejudice in Connecticut. I regularly see social media posts complaining about “empty buses” driving our roads, often posted by the same people opposed to highway tolls as being too burdensome for the working class.
When Southington was recently considering restoring bus service for the first time since 1969, a local resident wrote a letter to the local paper declaring “Towns that have bus service are towns that frankly have a lesser quality of people.”
Forget about community college students who need their U-Pass to bus to class every day. Or the people who come and clean your home, if you’re so fortunate. Bus riders are what keep the state, literally, moving.
Kudos also to the bus companies’ drivers and technicians who, as Holcomb says “are courageous and dedicated people with a commitment to this community.”
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.