OC’s Summer Bus Ridership Drops

OCEAN CITY — Ocean City bus ridership numbers were down slightly this summer, but resort officials aren’t overly concerned with the dip after a remarkable 2015 season set the bar high.

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 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, reduce wait times and expand the number of buses on the street.

All of those initiatives were back in place this year, but the final numbers for the summer months fell just short of those reached last year. It wasn’t for lack of effort, but a variety of factors including the weather conspired to bring the final numbers in slightly lower than last year’s breakout season.

Memorial Day weekend started well with a 12-percent increase in ridership over the four-day holiday. A total of 82,848 people rode the bus on Memorial Day weekend this year, compared to 74,047 in 2015. June is historically one of the biggest months of the summer for the municipal bus system due largely to the high number of young people in town and the Play It Safe program for example, but the numbers dropped this year. Over 700,000 rode the bus in June 2015, compared to just over 680,000 this year, representing a decline of around 3 percent, although much of the early part of the month was wet and dreary.

In July, about 599,000 people rode the municipal bus, compared to nearly 623,000 in July of 2015, representing a decline of nearly 4 percent. In August, the decline was even more pronounced with the numbers dropping from 562,000 in 2015 to 525,000 this year, or about 6 percent.

Labor Day weekend saw the biggest drop, from 63,466 in 2015 to 48,884 this year, representing a decline of 23 percent. However, the big drop can easily be explained by the weather. Labor Day weekend this year was marred by the remnants of Hurricane Hermine and the overall number of visitors to the resort declined significantly.

Of course, there is a correlation between the number of visitors in town and bus ridership numbers, but the modest dip in ridership figures this year didn’t parallel an in-kind drop in the number of people in the resort, according to Councilman Tony DeLuca.

“Any time I see negative numbers month after month, I’m disappointed, especially when room tax and these other indicators are all up,” he said. “Next year, it will be easier to roll over some of these negative numbers.”

There was no real concern when the Transportation Committee reviewed the end-of-summer numbers on Tuesday. Transit Director Mark Rickards said the jury is still out on the end of year numbers and there is ground to be made up during the shoulder months.

“These numbers reflect visitation numbers from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” he said. “We know Ocean City’s season really now extends from Memorial Day to Sunfest. We know September is getting better and October has that potential, too.”

Public Works Director Hal Adkins said the proof is not necessarily in the raw data, but rather the overall performance of the bus system. He said other important factors indicate a successful season for the transit system.

“The deployments were steady, the ridership numbers were good and we maintained great service levels,” he said. “I think overall it was an excellent summer. For one thing, the phone didn’t ring off the hook and we didn’t get flooded with emails. I don’t know of a single complaint.”

However, Adkins said there is always room for improvement and recommended a deeper dive into the marketing strategy for bus system.

“We need to look at what we’re currently doing with advertising,” he said. “We need to see if there is any additional push we can do to get them out of their cars when they’re on the island.”

Improving ridership numbers could be as simple as placing the bus stops in areas most frequented by visitors, according to Mayor Rick Meehan.

“I think we need to take a look at the location of the bus stops,” he said. “Maybe there are places where they could be better located, such as in front of the hotels or areas where there is a big fallout.”

In this era of high technology, there is an app available that tells potential riders just where the next bus is and how long it will likely take to get to them. Making that available in Ocean City has been discussed before, but DeLuca said the time might be right to explore that.

“What’s the next step on the bus app?” he said. “I think that’s something we really need to go after.”

Meehan agreed, saying that should be a priority for the committee during the offseason.

“I think it would create a new interest,” he said. “It could be something to hang our marketing on. We like to have goals at the committee level and I think that needs to be one of our goals for 2017.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

Alternative Text

Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.