OCEAN CITY — With municipal bus ridership continuing to trend down, resort officials this week explored possible solutions including finding ways to attract and retain more drivers.
The Transportation Committee on Tuesday explored a three-year comparison of municipal bus ridership numbers and the bad news is the data continues to decline slightly from a peak in 2017. The good news is the department is meeting its goals in terms of wait times and frequency of buses, but the declining numbers — ridership is down around 13% since 2017 — continue to be a concern for committee members.
Transportation Director Mark Rickards told committee members the department has been successful in meeting its frequency objectives through May and the first week of June, which is an important aspect of customer satisfaction with the system.
“We’ve been able to track the buses and look at the frequency in every step of the process,” he said. “Over Memorial Day weekend, we averaged eight-and-a-half minutes and through the first week of June, we’ve consistently been around the 10-minute mark.”
However, the number of deployments is directly related to the number of bus drivers available, which has created challenges for the department. From a peak of around 150 bus drivers in 2017, the department currently has about 108 available heading into the peak season. Operations Manager Steve Bartlett said in addition to the lower number of drivers available, getting them to show up as scheduled continues to be a problem.
“The biggest problem I have is attendance,” he said. “They are seasonal positions filled with a lot of retirees. They’ve spent most of their lives working and missing birthdays and cookouts, so when they decide they aren’t coming in, they don’t come in.”
With the last day of school this week, Bartlett said the cavalry could be coming over the hill in the form of an influx of additional drivers. He said as many as 11 school bus drivers could be added to the ranks this week.
“Luckily, a lot of people are stepping up and we’re covering the shifts,” he said. “This week, we are getting our school bus drivers back and that always helps.”
While the correlation between the number of available drivers and ridership numbers can not be directly quantified, Mayor Rick Meehan said the department cannot let its guard down in terms of recruiting.
“We need to look at different ways to recruit,” he said. “That’s why we set that desired number that high because we know from experience we will have some attrition.”
Bartlett said the department has taken numerous steps to make the position more desirable including, “For the first time ever, we’ve paid for learner’s permits, physicals and driving records, etc. I’m not sure what else we can do.”
Councilman and committee member Tony DeLuca voiced concern about ridership and overcrowded buses relative to the number of drivers available.
“I understand you’re making your headways, but my concern is how many times are the buses full and passing people by,” he said. “If you look at 2017, we’ve continually gone down. That was the target year and we had 150 to 155 drivers. Then we were at 129 last year and 108 this year.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said the wait times are the key indicator, and there is no direct correlation between number of drivers and ridership.
“If we deploy more buses, we can create a better comfort level for the rider,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily increase ridership or revenue.”
DeLuca emphasized most of the key indicators in the resort are trending positively thus far while bus ridership and the number of available drivers continues to trend in the opposite direction.
“All of the metrics in town thus far are positive,” he said. “Food tax is up, sales tax is up, occupancy rates are up. The weather has been great and everything is trending positively, yet bus ridership is down.”
Rickards explained the impact of ride-sharing systems cannot be ignored in terms of ridership numbers.
“Uber and Lyft are definitely taking over the transportation world and it’s not just Ocean City but all over,” he said. “It’s certainly had an effect on our ridership.”
Councilman and committee member Dennis Dare said the numbers indicate only a modest decline and said a broader sample size is needed before jumping to conclusions.
“The trend shows ridership is down about 1%,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not doing something or doing something wrong. There are just less people out there riding the bus. We could have twice as many drivers then we need, but that wouldn’t necessarily increase ridership.”