OCEAN CITY — Ocean City bus ridership numbers are down slightly during the first six weeks of the full summer season and the number of available drivers has dipped slightly, but there is no connection between the two statistics and resort officials believe the transit system is running more efficiently than ever.
Last year, the resort’s transit system enjoyed one of its best seasons ever thanks to a concerted effort to improve morale of bus drivers and staff and perhaps more importantly improve the public’s confidence in the municipal bus system. It started with a stepped-up driver recruitment campaign and continued with an effort to increase deployment by 20 percent, reducing wait times and expanding the number of buses on the streets.
For example, from a five-year low of just 120 drivers in 2014, the number spiked up to 156 drivers in 2015. This year, the recruitment efforts continued and the town had over 160 hired and vetted through the training process, but for a variety of reasons the total number of drivers available as the summer nears its mid-way point has dropped to 145 as of this week.
“It’s not for a lack of effort,” said Wayne Pryor, who has served as Acting Superintendent of Transportation through the hiring process for a new transit manager. “Twenty-two have fallen out. Some get on the job and decide it isn’t for them, four had to leave with medical issues and some had poor public relations skills. We’re in good shape to finish out the season with a bang and our efforts to recruit drivers will continue in the off-season.”
New Transit Manager Mark Rickards said during Tuesday’s Transportation Committee meeting he brings vast experience in bus driver recruitment and training to the table and used a sports analogy to explain the replacement strategy.
“There is going to be a turnover every year,” he said. “It’s like a football team. Seniors graduate and you need a new recruiting class coming in. I’m excited about that challenge.”
Despite the attrition in the number of drivers available, Pryor said the resort’s transit system is running more smoothly than ever thus far this summer. He explained the deployment schedule has been tweaked to meet peak demand times and eliminate significant down times.
“It’s not having an effect on the deployment schedule,” he said. “We’re staffed properly and we have the right amount of equipment and we’ve had no service level complaints.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said the employment drain was not limited to the city’s transportation department and said the beach patrol and even the police department had hiring challenges this year.
“I would like to see how everybody else did with employment,” he said. “This has been a challenging summer. We have to look and see if it is some kind of structural issue or just an anomaly.”
While the number of drivers is down, so too are the ridership numbers, but there is no rational nexus evident. Pryor said June is historically the biggest month for bus ridership, likely due to the number of young people in town, and this year was no different, but the figures were down slightly in 2016 compared to June 2015. For example, 684,000 rode the bus last June, but that number declined to 680,000 this year.
There were a couple of anomalies in June that contributed to the overall decline. For example, Pryor pointed out in the first three days of June last year, 70,000 people rode the bus compared to just 40,000 over the same period this year, but he said the wet, dreary weather was likely the culprit. Similarly, 58,000 people rode the bus during the Ocean City Air Show last year, but just 47,000 rode during the signature even in June this year.
A similar pattern has developed thus far in July. Through last Sunday, 328,000 people had ridden the bus compared to 342,000 over the first two weeks of July last year. Pryor said the slightly lower ridership numbers were not a reflection of a decline in the lack of service.
“We’re actually running more efficiently,” he said. “We don’t want to haul air. We’re having fewer deployments but more efficient deployments and we’ve had no customer complaints. Some of this is attributed to things out of our control. It’s all about the weather in Ocean City.”
Compared to last year when there was a blanket 20-percent increase in deployment across the board, closer attention is being paid to peak times and demand this year in the interest of efficiency, according to Pryor.
“Last year, the mantra was a 20-percent increase,” he said. “This year, we’re not seeing the need to put out 20 percent more. It’s being run as a business this year. Unless I get complaints, I have to believe we’re meeting the demand. We have to listen to the customers and we’re not hearing anything.”
Councilman and Transportation Committee member Dennis Dare said the proof is in the pudding.
“If you want to see what Wayne is talking about, go up to the north-end transit station,” he said. “We’re not seeing the empty buses stacked up and waiting for deployment. They’re spaced properly and there is a better flow to it.”