APTA Bus Paratransit Conference, May 16, 2005


05-16-05

APTA Bus Paratransit Conference

Jennifer L. Dorn, Administrator
Federal Transit Administration

Thank you. It is a pleasure to be in Columbus again, and a pleasure to have this opportunity to address this important gathering of bus and paratransit service providers and industry representatives.

Who would have thought that we would be here in May 2005, still waiting for Congress to reauthorize transit legislation that expired in 2003?! As Bill [Millar] and Dick [White] noted, things seem to finally be moving, but we may all have to deal with one more extension before we get a final bill. We’ve certainly had a lot of practice over the last two years with partial apportionments! And I want you to know that FTA will continue to do all it can to ensure that your transit agencies have access to funds if we must deal with yet another extension.

I don’t know how many of you know this, it was three years ago at this conference that I had the opportunity to drive my first bus, and I’ve done it a few times since then. As FTA Administrator, I thought you might like a few tips to pass along about driving buses …. Tip #1: Bus drivers should never wear 4-inch heels. Tip #2: Never apply eye make-up at speeds over 35 miles per hour. And Tip #3: If Bill Millar gets on your bus, always remember to say “GOOD MORNING!”

But, seriously, since I’ve been at FTA, I’ve learned that the best tips always come from you – the people who are the heart and soul of American public transportation…bus and paratransit providers. America depends on you to get to work, get to health care, and get around. Over 60 percent of all transit trips each year are taken on buses -- roughly 6 billion rides a year. And your communities need you more than ever.

As a Nation, we have been investing more and more in America’s bus systems. This investment in new buses is paying off. The average age of the transit bus fleet has fallen by almost two full years over the last ten years – and we know that attractive and reliable buses are important to our riders.

But, we also know that attracting new bus riders takes more than an attractive new bus.

In fact, bus and paratransit systems – especially small systems – are leading the way in developing and implementing innovative ridership programs that are producing terrific results. Nowhere in the public transit family is it easier to see the dividends of a little creativity. The challenge, really, is an entrepreneurial one.

In our fast-paced, “its all about me” world, we need to do even more to reach out to new groups of potential riders, inviting them on board earlier in their lives, and on their terms.

Research has shown that if people ride transit early — as students, or as newcomers in the community, for example -- they are more likely to choose to return to buses later in their lives.

This has important implications for our paratransit systems, which are already feeling tremendous financial strain in trying to meet the demand for service. We need to attract riders to fixed route bus service, before it becomes more difficult for them to adjust to transit. If we do, we may be more successful in helping people delay the use of more expensive paratransit services until it becomes a real necessity for them. Making an investment in new groups of transit riders will pay off in the long term, as well as the short term.

As you know, for the last nine months, FTA has sponsored a special webpage that gives you an opportunity to share and learn about successful ridership initiatives from each other. I’m sure many of you have browsed through them…perhaps looking for a program similar to one you are thinking about, or maybe just to get some new ideas.

Well, we’ve looked carefully at them, too. And, along with other information and ideas we’ve examined, we’ve tried to find patterns and trends. In doing so, three core ideas emerged. To paraphrase a best-seller, I like to think of them as “the three habits of highly successful bus agencies!”

The first habit: Speak to your audience!

While nothing substitutes for reliability and convenience, even the most reliable service will attract more riders if they feel personally invited.

You’ve all heard the research results -- students perceive buses to be uncool; workers who think riding the bus compromises their image as professionals.

Creative, fun marketing can give bus transit a makeover. And successful marketing strategies start with understanding a slice of the community. They zero in on one or two groups of potential bus riders. Then, they find ways to speak to those groups’ interests and perceptions. Speak directly to the audience that you want to attract.

The Utah Transit Authority targeted young professionals, for example, who are looking for deals, and are accustomed to getting “cash back” or “airline miles” when they make a purchase. To attract this demographic, UTA created the “Rider Rewards” program. If you ride a UTA bus or paratransit van on Wednesdays, you get a sheet of $1 coupons that can be spent like cash at participating businesses.

The strategy created a buzz around buses, and resulted in a 10 percent increase in ridership at virtually no cost to the transit agency. At the same time, the Rider Rewards program built a bridge to the business community as a transit partner.

Research also shows that immigrants are more likely to use public transit than the rest of the population. That means that some of you are sitting on a very promising demographic bubble.

Portland, Maine set out to win this population over to buses. The METRO bridged the linguistic and cultural divide by producing a rider’s guide in 14 different languages, ranging from Khmer and Somali to Farsi and Bulgarian. They saw a 3 percent overall ridership increase over two years. It wasn’t a terribly expensive venture, but it has created what will undoubtedly become a lifelong familiarity—and even affection—for bus transit.

But make no mistake. Some of the most important untapped markets of “new” riders are not “new” (as in “young”) or recent immigrants.  They are older individuals, many recently retired, who, if introduced to buses now, are more likely to feel comfortable with fixed route bus service later in their lives.

In Miami-Dade County, they introduced the “Golden Passport” program, which offers free unlimited rides and transit passes to income-eligible seniors. That system has reported an annual increase of over 125,000 riders.

And Jackson, Mississippi took the simple but highly effective step of publishing a “Senior Transportation Brochure.” The brochure focuses exclusively on routes of particular interest to seniors, and helps the town’s older but still active population get the most out of the bus system.

Those are just a few ideas from your colleagues for reaching out to specific audiences that may have potential in your community, as well. Let’s talk about habit number two:Using information technology strategically.

The Internet and other electronic technologies have changed our collective expectations. Today, Americans do more and expect more, faster than ever before. We press the “door close” buttons on elevators compulsively, we speed-dial on our telephones, and in most cities we drive cars and talk on the phone at the same time! [Hopefully, we don’t drive our buses and talk on the phone at the same time!] In the most advanced cases of what is now called “hurry sickness,” we set the microwave button to 88 seconds instead of 90 because it is faster to push the same digit twice.

While waiting may always be a part of the commuter experience – in a car or on a bus – commuters appear to be less affected by “hurry sickness” if they simply know how long they will be waiting.

Some of the most successful transit agencies have taken advantage of technology to deliver real time transit information to riders on their palm pilots or cell phones. Others have created web-based trip planners. A great example of this is on our ridership web page. In Ithaca, New York, the local transit agency (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit) added trip planning software to its website in March 2002. The trip planner lets customers select routes and schedules 24 hours a day, 7 days a week based on mode, need for a bike rack, wheel chair accessibility, and traffic conditions. Within one year, fixed route bus ridership increased almost 4 percent.

In Ventura County, California, the Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority (VISTA) has seen real results from adopting new technology. In August 2002, they contracted with NEXTBus on behalf of VISTA and five other municipal transit operators in the county to provide bus tracking and arrival prediction services. Approximately 100 buses have been equipped with tracking equipment. Now, arrival times and related information is provided on electronic signs at 26 transit transfer points and via the internet. The result? Between 2003 and 2004, ridership increased over 15%.P>

Clearly, the strategic use of information technology can be an important tool for attracting new riders – especially among today’s hurried commuters. Our agency found that the third habit of highly effective transit agencies is partnering.

I know that many transit agencies are feeling the strain of increased demand for paratransit service. In 1990, when the American with Disabilities Act was enacted, public transit spent about $443 million on paratransit nationwide, and provided about 40 million trips annually. By 2003, the cost had quadrupled and paratransit service had doubled. Public transit spent $1.8 billion to provide over 80 million trips.

Paratransit service is absolutely necessary – and it is absolutely the right thing to do – but we must work with community partners to be sure that we make the most of all of the transportation services and every transportation dollar that is available.

At FTA, we are committed to doing all that we can to help. The United We Ride program provides resources, tools, and technical assistance to help you on the ground in your community. >At the Federal level, we have made the most of the President’s Executive Order on Human Service Transportation Coordination to bring together all of the Federal departments that have a stake in transportation. We have been working together to find ways to make our programs work better for your communities.

I’m pleased to be able to tell you that, next week, the White House will be releasing the Council’s Report to the President, which responds to the President’s Executive Order. It demonstrates real progress and a solid plan for moving forward to simplify access, remove barriers at the Federal level, and help communities better meet the needs of transportation-disadvantaged individuals.

But you don’t have wait until the Feds have finished all their work to get started in your community. If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to begin the dialogue….Are you working with your potential human service transportation partners? Do you know the director of your State or local Agency on Aging? Do you know the person in charge of rehabilitation services? Have you contacted the Workforce Investment Board?

We have lots of tools available for you to use…from planning guidebooks to best practices ideas. And we even have dedicated United We Ride Ambassadors, who are ready and willing to help you make the most of these opportunities. Take a look on the FTA website, or just give your regional office a call.

We know that many communities are already ahead of the game … like Sweetwater County, Wyoming, where the transit agency serves a sparsely populated area of 10,400 square miles. They have found a way to pool the funding, vehicles, and transportation resources of a variety of health and human service agencies to provide 6,500 trips per month. That’s four times the number of trips provided by all of the agencies before they began their coordinated transportation system – and they are saving taxpayers an astounding $1.6 million dollars a year in transportation costs.

As the Sweetwater example demonstrates, coordinated human service transportation can help a community do more with the resources they have. It is key to boosting ridership and delivering paratransit service above and beyond the ADA requirements.

I would be remiss not to recognize Central Ohio itself as a trailblazer in coordination. This region has pioneered the transportation coordination effort. Before United We Ride was a twinkle in the eye of Washington DC, the Ohio DOT was already encouraging the coordination of federally funded programs in the State. And, last year, Secretary Mineta recognized the State of Ohio with a Human Service Transportation State Leadership Award.

It is clear that throughout the country, buses are on the move. In every community, there are potential new riders — students, immigrant families, seniors, tourists, people concerned about the environment…. They are just waiting for an invitation to ride.

Thank you for all you do every day to make America feel welcome on the bus, and to get everyone wherever life takes us! Have a wonderful conference, and may God bless!