When it comes to ridership, TheBus is heading in the wrong direction.

The system’s numbers have been in steady decline since 2015. This past fiscal year, TheBus logged its second-lowest ridership of the past quarter century, at 62.3 million rides.

The only time ridership was lower during that era? That would be fiscal year 2004 — when Honolulu had a 49-day bus workers strike.

The drop reflects a national trend and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Uber and Lyft are peeling off rides. Local transit officials also point to a decline in tourists using TheBus as they opt to rent more cars. 

Years of rail construction haven’t helped, either. Nor has Oahu’s generally awful congestion — bus drivers have to sit in the same rush-hour hellscapes as the rest of us, hurting the system’s speed and reliability.

“I like it. It think it’s maybe not efficient, but it gets me where I want to go,” University of Hawaii Manoa student Celine Chan told me while waiting for TheBus recently at King and Punchbowl streets. The system could run faster, but “a lot of it is just due to traffic, which can’t be helped,” Chan said.

TheBus along Beretania Street.

TheBus has been steadily losing ridership since 2015, and ridership is currently at some of the lowest levels seen in the past 25 years.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Residents all over this small island struggle to get around as the roads grow even more packed with cars. Given Oahu’s extremely limited space, there’s an especially urgent need to cut down on car trips that carry just one person. 

One bus can carry dozens of people. Unfortunately, we’ve lost 15 million annual bus rides compared to a decade ago.

So, how to reverse course? It’s doable, but it won’t be easy.

The city needs to do more to make TheBus as competitive with driving as possible.

TheBus Versus The Car

When riders choose a bus over a car, it’s a complicated decision that’s not based on any one factor, said Asha Weinstein Agrawal, education director at the San Jose-based Mineta Transportation Institute.

How close will the bus get me to where I need to go? How safe is it? How much does it cost?

And, of course: How long will the ride take? That’s a huge factor.

 

Lowering fares will only go so far to regain riders, Agrawal said.

“Often, transit is so much less convenient than driving that it’s hard to pry them out of their cars with just money,” she said.

But hey, it’s a start, and the city Rate Commission wants to help fill more transit seats.

“We’ve spent so many dollars in building rail and buying the buses — let’s capitalize on the investment,” Chairwoman Cheryl Soon said prior to the commission’s meeting Tuesday. “Let’s get the cars off the road. Let’s get people trying it.”

On Tuesday, Soon proposed that the commission make ridership growth one of its top goals in recommending fare prices, and the other members were receptive to her pitch. 

 

Approaching Aiea Eastbound early morning commute traffic1.

This small island with limited space has an urgent need to cut down on single-occupancy car trips.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

She’s not sure yet what the exact fares should be to boost ridership. Right now, it costs $2.75 for a single-ride fare, although nearly 80% of Honolulu’s bus passengers rely on a monthly pass instead, according to the Department of Transportation Services. The standard monthly pass costs $70.

Wes Frysztacki, the department’s director, told the commission that for every 10% increase in fare, TheBus generally sees a 3% decline in ridership.

He acknowledged, however, that DTS needs to refine its fare-to-ridership modeling. “We need to sharpen that tool,” Frysztacki said.

Some commission members openly mused whether the city should reduce the single-ride fare to $2. 

Frankly, it’s a great idea.

Right now, if you don’t own a bus pass you have to pay the $2.75 fare in cash with exact change. (You can also buy a day pass from the driver for $5.50 in cash.) If the fare’s an even $2, then there’s no need to scrounge for those three quarters or a pile of nickels and dimes every time you want to take a trip.

“Logic would tell you more people would ride it — but how many more I can’t answer you,” Soon offered prior to the meeting.

At Tuesday’s meeting, however, Frysztacki cautioned that DTS watches the bus fares closely, ensuring the department collects enough money to help cover its budget. Currently, the city has a policy for fares to cover between 25% and 30% of TheBus’ operational costs.

“We’re very concerned with how that pencils out,” Frysztacki said of the fare rates.

Service Upgrades Years Overdue

Meanwhile, DTS is looking to take what modest steps it can to help improve TheBus’ performance, hoping to regain at least some of the lost ridership.

The city might designate special bus lanes during certain hours on major Honolulu arteries already dominated by bus traffic, such as King Street. The idea is to help Honolulu’s fleet of about 540 buses move more quickly along their routes, making them more reliable, DTS Deputy Director Jon Nouchi said. 

The move would resemble a pilot program launched earlier year this to help buses move through traffic in downtown Los Angeles.

DTS also might install doors on the buses’ left side to more easily load and unload passengers on one-way streets such as King and Beretania, Nouchi added.

“We are looking … at how we can start to maybe give buses an advantage again,” Nouchi said. “It’s been probably 30 years since we’ve done a transit only treatment in the city,” or looked at ways to really improve the service.

Furthermore, the city needs to finally get its “HOLO Card” system out of the testing phase and into general use as soon as possible. 

Holo smartcard.

City leaders unveiled the future “HOLO” smart card in March 2018 but it’s been in the test phase ever since.

Most major U.S. cities already give their bus riders the option to pay with a smart card, and it’s well past time Honolulu catches up to them. 

The cards are slated to be available for general purchase sometime next year, but that’s as specific as Nouchi could get.

Bus lanes, left-side doors and HOLO smart cards alone aren’t going to bring back all the millions of rides that Honolulu’s buses have been shedding.

Ultimately, Agrawal and other transportation experts say, the best way for riders to flock to public transit — and relieve traffic congestion — is to (gulp!) raise the costs of driving. For example, put a premium on driving during peak hours as London does, and as major U.S. cities such as New York and Los Angeles have seriously considered.

Sure, those London drivers are charged extra. But by reducing even a fraction of the car trips during rush hour they’re rewarded with faster, smoother traffic conditions.

Also, the bus ridership skyrocketed.

Such policies would still be a tough sell in Honolulu, where so many working families commute into town from Oahu’s west side and they already struggle with some of the highest costs of living in the nation.

But short of such dramatic steps, Honolulu can curb the loss in bus ridership with faster service, better prices and easier ways to pay.

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