Bus transit use across Oahu, similar to virtually every other U.S. region, has slumped ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit. But the island’s ridership had a modest boost during last month’s promotion offering free rides to Holo card users.

TheBus saw a 12% ridership increase from Aug. 22 to Aug. 26 compared to the week prior to the promotion, according to a preliminary report from the city’s Department of Transportation Services. The city’s paratransit service, the Handi-Van, saw about an 18% boost.

DTS Director Roger Morton said Friday that he went into last week’s promotion hoping for a ridership increase of around 10% or so. “You always go into these things (wondering), what if you had a party and nobody came?” Morton said. “Looks like it was working.”

Honolulu TheBus travels thru the Ala Moana Shopping Center.
The system saw a weekday average of about 132,700 rides during the promotion, up from about 113,000 rides the previous week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The system saw a weekday average of about 132,700 rides during the promotion. The week prior, that average was 113,000 rides, according to the city report.

“The key is, can we sustain the bump that we had during the promotion?” Morton said.

He and his deputies at DTS have already dismissed cutting fare prices as a means to accomplish that. While the move might generate a short-term bump, they say, it could eventually lead to service cuts and, thus, fewer riders in the long term. The city actually raised fare rates earlier this summer.

Nonetheless, Morton said he’s considering ways to “tinker” with bus fares so that they generate more revenue from visitors instead of locals.

In July, Morton told the City Council that DTS expected the promotion would result in $128,000 in lost fare revenue. Instead, the city wound up losing just $46,000, Morton said. That might be because plenty of visitors without Holo cards were still using the bus, he added.

“This was targeted toward local residents,” Morton said. “One of the reasons we said ‘only Holo card’ was to keep it local.” DTS must provide within 60 days a more detailed and conclusive report to the City Council on how the promotion went.

APTA bus ridership trend
This image from the American Public Transportation Association’s website shows overall U.S. transit ridership trends since Covid started. Ridership aboard TheBus on Oahu has followed the same slow recovery. 

He said the ridership data for this past week following the promotion is still too raw, and they’ll address just how much of the 12% boost was sustained in their council briefing.

The city also saw the typical monthly number of Holo cards issued more than double in August. Some 36,000 of the electronic cards that can be used to ride the bus were issued last month. Typically, the city issues around 14,000 Holo cards a month, according to the DTS preliminary report.

The city is trying to get more Holo cards in circulation so that it can collect better data on ridership and travel trends. Riders will also need Holo cards to use the island’s rail transit system whenever it opens.

Last month, the cards were made available for free during a two-week period. Typically, a new Holo card costs $2.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, which started in 2020, 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 provided by DTS. City transportation officials were concerned about those trips plateauing at around 60% of TheBus’ pre-Covid use prior to their launching the free-fare promotion.

Morton’s aim is for bus ridership to get back to around 150,000 daily trips by March. He said that he asked DTS staff to analyze the routes and areas that attracted more riders during last week’s promotion, but no patterns jumped out at them.

“It was really all over the map,” he said.

Read DTS’ preliminary report here. (The report cites a “$182,000” decline in cash revenue but the department confirmed it should say $128,000.)

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