OC Bus Strategies Questioned Amid Ridership Swings

OCEAN CITY — Resort transportation officials this week debated the correlation between the number of municipal buses on the highway and ridership numbers, but it appears the true answer is likely related to weather and special events.

During an Ocean City Transportation Committee meeting this week, bus ridership numbers for the spring weekends including Springfest were presented and most showed slight declines from last year to this year. Transportation Director Mark Rickards explained March had been the best month recently with bus ridership up 15%, largely because of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade weekend. He said April was down about 5% from last year, but pointed out there were five weekend days of rain during the month. Rickards said bus ridership in May was down about 15% through the first 12 days, but again, rainy weekend weather has contributed to that. For example, the Sunday of Springfest weekend was a complete washout.

Nonetheless, Councilman and committee member Tony DeLuca pointed out the number of buses being deployed was down significantly and questioned if that was the result of not enough drivers or a conscious decision by the department. He said if the latter was true, it seemed to fly in the face of what the town was striving for with deployments.

“The actual deployments during Springfest look like they are down dramatically from last year,” he said. “We’ve always said we wanted deployments equal to or greater then the prior year. When you look at some days, for example, Saturday of Springfest, we were down 26 percent in deployments.”

A look at the figures appears to bear that sentiment out. For example, the number of buses out on Coastal Highway was down during Springfest this year from 75 last year to 60. DeLuca questioned if there was a direct correlation between deployment and ridership numbers.

“It just seems like a lot,” he said. “I know we’re going to talk about recruitment and retaining drivers. Do the lower ridership numbers have anything to do with deployments?”

Rickards explained deployments were just one piece of a larger formula for meeting ridership needs. He said perhaps more important were wait times between buses, goals which the bus system met during Springfest and much of the spring season.

“Not really,” he said. “During Springfest, we ran at eight-minute intervals on Friday and nine-minute intervals on Saturday and Sunday. Last weekend, which was not a big holiday weekend, we were running at around 19 to 20 minutes. There is some correlation between ridership and deployment, but the big number is frequency.”

Councilman and committee member Dennis Dare said the intervals were impressive, but still questioned if more deployment would mean more ridership.

“He made his scheduled intervals for buses,” he said. “The question is would we double ridership if we doubled deployment? I don’t think so, but we had 25% percent less deployment and 25% less ridership, so it does have merit.”

DeLuca suggested a broader look at the all the indicators for ridership.

“Maybe there are some other parameters we need to look at,” he said. “Maybe this just isn’t about intervals.”

Public Works Director Hal Adkins, who oversees the transportation department, said despite the drop in ridership numbers, the system appears to be meeting the demand.

“We’re meeting the frequency numbers,” he said. “Where are the emails and phone calls with complaints? There aren’t any. Where are the problems? They’re simply not out there.”

Rickards pointed to the weather and special events as the main drivers for bus ridership. He used the example of St. Patrick’s Day Parade weekend as an example during which bus ridership numbers set records each day. DeLuca said that was the exception and not the rule during the spring season.

“On St. Paddy’s weekend, we set records every day,” he said. “Maybe we need more parades. New Orleans has something like 58 parades. Seriously though, to consciously say we’re going to deploy 15 less buses on Springfest seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Dare pointed out many residents avoid riding the bus on big special event weekends because of flaws in the bus routes and traffic patterns.

“During the parking task force meetings, the representative from Montego Bay said many residents of that community don’t like to ride the bus during special events because it gets so tied up in traffic,” he said. “We need to fix some of those impediments because the desire it to get more people on the bus and more cars off the highway.”

Dare also cautioned against spiking bus deployments without considering the impact on the budget.

“If you want to increase deployments, something has to happen between the first reading and the second reading of the budget,” he said. “Mark is hitting his intervals the way it is now. If you want to increase deployments, there is a cost associated with that. “

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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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.