Honolulu’s TheBus,” like other public transit systems around the country, continues to endure a sluggish ridership recovery following more than two years of pandemic-related obstacles.

Daily trips aboard the island’s distinct fleet of yellow- and orange-striped buses are at just about 60% of what they were pre-Covid. In recent weeks, the gradual, slight increase in rides that TheBus was seeing appears to have leveled out, according to city transportation leaders.

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“It’s been a slow climb,” Roger Morton, who directs the city’s Department of Transportation Services, said of the push to regain riders aboard the local buses, a near-constant sight across Oahu’s busy street grid. “The worry for me is … it looks like we’ve hit some type of plateau.”

“I just feel an urgency to try to get people back,” he added.

That has Morton and others in his department scrambling to try to boost ridership, even as the system saw a rate hike take effect earlier this month.

They’ve put forth a promotion, pending City Council approval, to make bus service on Oahu free Aug. 22 to 26 for all riders who use a Holo card to access TheBus. Further, they’ll  permanently add 37 additional express bus trips on routes across the island during peak hours, and they’ll roll out a new “Campus Connector” route – dubbed “U1” – in a bid to attract more students who commute into town.

TheBus Route 20 rolls along Kuhio Avenue on its way to the airport. Passengers along the route readied their luggage ready to board the bus to the airport.
TheBus rolls along Kuhio Avenue on its way to the Honolulu airport. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The free bus service over five days would cost an estimated $128,000 in lost fares, Morton told the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Health Committee on Tuesday. Windward-area Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina called the campaign well worth that cost.

What’s not part of the campaign, however, is any reversal of the recent fare increase, which saw single rides go from $2.75 to $3.00, or even a sustained reduction of fares to boost ridership amid such unprecedented circumstances.

Morton and his deputy director, Jon Nouchi, said that such a reduction might provide a slight bump to the number of riders in the short term, but it would also mean less revenue and likely result in some service cuts.

That, they said, could lead to fewer bus riders in the long run.

“It’s more (about) protecting the quality of service that we have,” Nouchi said Wednesday. “We don’t want to be in a position where we have a significant drop off in revenue such that we have to delete a whole bunch of service.”

Riding Fare-Free On The Big Island

In the early weeks of the pandemic, TheBus saw ridership plunge from about 195,000 daily trips to as few as 57,200.

Several weeks ago, ridership was hovering at about 115,000 daily trips, according to figures providing by DTS. Ridership typically dips in the summer when schools and some jobs go on hiatus, Morton said.

During this most recent summer slump, trips have been down to about 107,000 a day, according to the city figures.

Morton said Wednesday that his latest aim is to get the service back to around 150,000 daily trips by March.

It currently costs nearly $223 million a year to operate TheBus, excluding the separate Handi-Van paratransit service, according to DTS. Meanwhile, the system collects roughly $40 million in fares and an additional $112.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, the agency added. The rest of the money comes from the city’s budget.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect figures on budget and revenues based on comments from Morton.

Meanwhile, on the Big Island county officials opted to make the Hele-On public bus service free through 2023. They’re now considering whether to extend that policy through 2025, said John Andoh, general manager of the island’s mass transit agency.

On Thursday, Andoh said he couldn’t share the agency’s internal numbers on what trends they’ve seen in ridership since implementing Hele-On’s free fare. The agency will be reporting those numbers to the island’s City Council next month.

However, the purpose of making it a free fare was specifically to rebuild ridership, he added.

“We needed to reintroduce transit to the island” because for years the service did not meet the demand, Andoh said. Providing free service removes a barrier to low-income residents who weren’t accessing transit via Hele-On, he added.

Morton said he would like to make some further adjustments to Oahu’s fares to better support service aboard TheBus. Specifically, he’d like to make the deeply discounted fares that are offered to low-income riders available to Hawaii residents only.

Morton said that the visitors who can afford to come to Hawaii for an extended period of time should be able to afford regular bus fares as well. The city’s Rate Commission, which reviews proposed fare changes, supports the idea, he added.

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