Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Swift Ridership Exceeds Expectations

By Martin Munguia
Community Transit

Transit ridership is always a sticky subject. You can look at hard numbers, but mode-to-mode comparisons, and sometimes even year-to-year or month-to-month snapshots on the same system can be apples to oranges.

But as we close in on a year of data, we can unequivocably say that Swift has met or exceeded all ridership expectations.

We had forecast that Swift corridor ridership would increase 25 percent in its first year. Considering that ridership on our buses overall has dropped this year, it is impressive that we’ve met this goal. The corridor statistic is important because when we started Swift we eliminated the one-way, peak-hour Route 100. Six months later we reduced frequencies on Route 101. While we knew we’d have people already riding buses on the corridor switch to Swift, we also expected overall ridership to increase.

It certainly did!

Corridor ridership is up about 24 percent since December 2009. If you take the Community Transit routes that run primarily on Highway 99/Evergreen Way/Rucker Avenue, you see that the corridor had about 6,600 passengers per weekday last December. In October 2010 those routes had about 8,200 boardings each weekday.

Swift bus rapid transit service is the reason for that increase. December 2009, the first full month of Swift, saw an average daily ridership of 1,699 passengers. Word was just getting out and we’re sure people still hadn’t figured out the differences between Swift and Route 101 or Everett Transit Route 9.

That changed right away, as January 2010 saw average weekday boardings climb to 2,367 passengers, a 39 percent increase!

Ridership continued to build all year and by October the average daily boardings were about 3,500 passengers. We had hoped to hit 2,500 boardings after the first year, but instead are closer to our four-year goal of 4,000 daily passengers on Swift.

Of course, one would expect the route on which we run the most service to have the greatest ridership, but Swift is also one of our most productive local routes. Our local routes carry about 20 people per bus per hour. In October, Swift carried nearly 25 people per bus per hour, even with more buses running from 5 a.m. to midnight.

Where do people board Swift? While every station has seen good activity, solidly a quarter of all boardings in either direction originate at the terminals of Everett Station and Aurora Village in Shoreline. Northbound, 216th Street by Stevens Hospital, 200th Street near Edmonds Community College and 148th Street are the next most popular boarding stations. Southbound, Casino Road, Pacific Avenue near the county campus and Airport Road are the next highest boarding stations.

What are your Swift impressions? Has Swift changed your travel habits?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Celebrating Swift: One Year Later

Cold, clear mornings marked Swift's first week.
We’ll be posting special blogs in honor of Swift's one-year anniversary this week:
Community Transit launched Swift one year ago today. We were very serious about making Washington State’s first bus rapid transit line work for our customers, but we also wanted to celebrate the culmination of an intense year of station construction and service preparations.

Swift started with a party and a dance on Nov. 29. About 800 people attended the event at the corner of Highway 99 and 196th Street in Lynnwood. Many took their first ride on Swift (Seattle Transit Blog) that evening.

The official first day of Swift service was Monday, Nov. 30, 2009. Dozens of Community Transit employees were out at Swift stations before 5 that morning ready to help passengers. We wanted to make sure people understood how to ride this new service, and we wanted to be there to help with the inevitable bugs of a new system.
  • New ticket machines (that don’t take $1 bills as eagerly as vending machines)
  • New bus dispatch process to keep buses evenly spaced 10 minutes apart over a 17-mile route
  • New Swift drivers pulling up close to the curb at exacting boarding locations (I watched a bus get hung up on a corner at Everett Station {which was so new, we hadn't had time to practice}, but managers patiently helped get the driver unstuck)
  • New interior bike racks (my bike did keel over one morning, and the Swift driver and I both went over to study what had gone wrong. Conclusion: make sure your front tire is centered under the wheel of the rack.)
  • New reasons to use an ORCA regional fare card for faster boarding and transfer credit
After a few days, riders, drivers and staff all knew what they were doing. Workers still hung out at the stations in our Swift scarves, but the biggest question became “where can I buy one of those?”

Sorry, they are still not for sale.

But rides on this great service are just $1.75 for adults. If you haven't tried it yet, what are you waiting for?

Swift Outreach: A Look Back

By Sue Masel
Community Transit Outreach

Were you one of those people who rode Swift during our first week of service one year ago? If so, you probably met members of our Swift street team in person. If you didn’t get to ride that week, maybe you saw all those people bundled up in their blue and green scarves at the new Swift stations on one of the coldest weeks in years. Swift Street Team members were there to introduce the new system and help make sure everyone’s first ride was as easy and fun as possible.

Two months prior to the launch of Washington’s first bus rapid transit system, we began planning the largest on-the-street effort in Community Transit history. Coordinating 170 people at 26 different stations and onboard buses over a 17 mile corridor from 5 a.m. to midnight was a daunting task. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but we wanted it to be a great success…and it was.

Swift Station outreach staff.
Over 100 Community Transit employees, including a few of our Board of Directors and Citizens Advisory Committee members, took shifts at Swift stations, along with 26 people from the South Snohomish County Chamber of Commerce and two from Senior Services of Snohomish County. Despite the great support from Community Transit staff, we were still short on people so we enlisted help from 28 temporary employees to join us in our street team effort. These temps quickly integrated themselves into the Community Transit family and became some of our finest ambassadors, with many of them even riding Swift to work for their shifts.

Our successful Street Team effort was a great way to introduce Swift to Snohomish County.

Street Teams by the Numbers

9 separate 2-hour training classes for station outreach staff
12 station managers
170 street team members worked 317 shifts
10 degrees and below – the temperature during our three to four hour shifts

Thank you to everyone for helping to make our Swift Street Team effort a huge success.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bus Plus Survey: Seattle and Real-Time Schedules

At the beginning of November, Community Transit received more than 1,000 responses to our survey about bus route information. This information will be used to help improve our rider materials and the way we communicate with our customers. Many people added additional questions or comments. I responded to some in an earlier post.

Bus stop posters in Seattle: One person asked why we took the schedule information off the bus stop at Terrace & 5th. King County Metro Transit prints and posts our information at stops in King County, and we weren’t aware that several of the Community Transit route schedules no longer appear at that stop. So, thanks for mentioning that (we’re working with Metro to get it fixed). If you ever notice a missing schedule poster or other problem at a bus stop, please notify our Customer Information staff and provide the location and stop ID number (on the pole and schedule).

Another person asked why some of the Seattle stop posters list times from stops several blocks earlier in the trip. Again, we send Metro our schedule information and they post it. Community Transit has a practice of posting the estimated arrival times at stops in between our designated timepoints. But Metro’s practice is to list only the official timepoints on stop posters - the same select stops listed in Bus Plus books and on bus driver schedule instructions. So that’s what you get in downtown Seattle.

You can use the “Find Next Bus” feature of our Trip Planner to find the next four estimated arrival times for any stop in King, Pierce or Snohomish counties. Just be aware that the times are estimates, and buses may arrive early.

Or late. Real-time bus information was the most requested feature in all the survey comments. As someone who experienced an afternoon commute home from Seattle last week (one of the days when we used our electronic alerts to warn “I-5 Accident Causing Delays”), I personally understand the demand for knowing when your bus is actually going to show up. The short answer is “We’re working on it.”

Planning and IT staff just returned from a week-long test of our real-time technology, and many issues remain to be resolved in the coming year.

When we’re done, we will feed real-time data to the public via the Web, mobile devices and by telephone (when you call in a stop number). We will have real-time signs at Ash Way Park & Ride, Lynnwood Transit Center, Mountlake Terrace Transit Center and at every Swift Station. Another part of the project is electronic signs on board every bus that will list the next stop as the bus approaches, and audio call-outs of stop names and important landmarks.

In the meantime, the information we have to convey to customers can be limited. Riders often know a bus is late before we do, and our Customer Information and Communications staff often won’t know precisely why or when it will arrive. We are committed to communicating with riders when there are system-wide delays or major reroutes. We also put in special effort when winter weather impacts our service – and I don’t mean rain!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Buy Local for Transit Kickoff

This morning at the Alderwood Mall, Community Transit CEO Joyce Eleanor was joined by Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon and business owners to kickoff the Buy Local for Transit program.

Flanked by the Santa display in the back and Made in Washington store on the side, it was a great beginning to what will hopefully be a long-term effort to convince our riders and all county residents to keep their shopping dollars local. That alone can help our local economy, and help Community Transit.

Reardon made the point that this decade Snohomish County has been one of the fastest growing local economies in the nation. We have attracted new industries, and our housing market remains higher than the national average. It will be great if residents now respond to this call to action with their wallets!

To answer a question from the last post on this issue, in 2007 Community Transit collected about $76.5 million from sales taxes; in 2010 we're on track to collect about $62 million. Our forecast for 2011 is not much better as we expect to bring in just under $63 million.

Will Buy Local for Transit make a difference? We can't predict that, but we're hopeful. And if we didn't try we would not be doing the best for our customers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Buy Local for Transit

On Thursday, Community Transit will kick off its Buy Local for Transit program to educate riders and the public about how the local economy impacts transit funding, and to involve them in turning things around.

A news conference will take place at 10 a.m. at Alderwood Mall to announce the program. Community Transit CEO Joyce Eleanor will be joined by Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon and local business owners to tout the benefits of the program. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

The concept is simple. Encouraging transit users and everyone else to do their shopping in Community Transit’s service district can bring more money to the agency. Community Transit’s primary source of funding is a 0.9 percent share of sales tax generated in the communities it serves (9 cents on a $10 purchase). It was the decline in sales tax revenue during the recession that led to the agency's service cut this past June.

Local businesses also benefit as this program drives more customers into their stores. Cities and the county will benefit from the increased taxes and activity this business creates in their jurisdictions.

Community Transit’s service district includes 19 cities and towns as well as much of unincorporated Snohomish County. Notably, it does not include Everett, which has its own transit agency.

While shopping at any store or restaurant in the service district will help Community Transit, a number of businesses will partner with the agency by offering special discounts to Buy Local for Transit customers. A list of those businesses and their offers will be available online. To get the discount, shoppers will need to show either an ORCA regional fare card or an “I Buy Local for Transit” card that can be downloaded at www.communitytransit.org/BuyLocal.

At the news conference on Thursday, 100 I Buy Local for Transit cards will be handed out. The more people who get these cards, the more likely they will be to seek out BLT discounts and shop locally.

Also, Buy Local for Transit offers one of the first non-transit benefits for ORCA card users. Just show your ORCA card at a participating business and you can get a discount that others can’t. If you ride transit and don’t yet have an ORCA card (which saves you money on transfers), here’s one more reason to get your card now!

If you know of a business that would be interested in participating, refer them to www.communitytransit.org/BuyLocal to sign up.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bus Plus Survey: The Good News

Community Transit has a robust list of bus riders and others who subscribe to our electronic alerts system. A week ago Wednesday we sent an email to 5,000 bus route subscribers asking them to take a survey on our schedule and route information. Many thanks to the more than 1,000 people who took the survey. I will try to respond to some of the comments and questions about bus information in a series of posts here.

The comments about route connections and schedule timing will go to our Planning Department, though anyone who asked for additional service might do well to read about our budget challenges. For those concerned about crowded buses, please read my blog post – and contact riders@commtrans.org if it’s a recurring problem. We are looking forward to putting our Double Tall buses into service next year, since they have more seats than articulated buses, thus increasing passenger capacity without increasing operating costs.

This post is going to focus on the good news – things people asked for that we already provide in some way.

List all bus stops: Community Transit buses serve about 1,800 stops in Snohomish and King counties. We list every bus stop by route on our website, and it’s among our most popular pages. We show all the stops in order in one direction, then the other. There’s a link to this page from each individual route schedule on the website as well. From the stop list you can pull up the actual schedule poster that is posted at that stop (provided it is a Community Transit stop vs. King County or Everett). That is a very cool feature if you use the same stop every day and want to know the estimated departures of all the buses that stop there.

When we upgraded our Bus Plus maps a few years ago we considered whether we could show every bus stop on the route maps. We realized that the maps just weren’t detailed enough, and the stops too many, to show effectively. We do have detail maps in Bus Plus (and on the web) of downtown Seattle, University of Washington and the Everett Boeing plant where we show all stops.

Individual Schedules: Rather than print these ourselves, we make a PDF of every route schedule and map available on our website. Just go to the "Schedules" page and sort by route, or go to an individual route’s schedule page. Printing individual schedules for our buses or outlets would require an entirely new display and distribution system for Community Transit. Our buses operate on a variety of routes each day, so it would be hard to have the right schedule on the right bus. Plus, we know that many people use multiple routes and appreciate having our comprehensive book.

A final note: We are very aware that we conducted this survey primarily online, though we did also get more than 130 paper surveys completed in-person by local bus riders this past week. We are NOT considering the end of printing Bus Plus – even our online audience uses Bus Plus at least as often as our website. Both sources are important to different customers, at different times and for different types of information.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

New Swift Stations Coming Soon

Riders of the Swift bus rapid transit line, as well as drivers on Highway 99 in Snohomish County, are aware that four new Swift stations are under construction.

The four stations in Everett were in the original route plan but were not built because of cost considerations. Now, the City of Everett has received a state regional mobility grant to fund the four stations.

The stations are located on Evergreen Way southbound at Pecks Drive, Evergreen Way northbound at Madison Street, and Highway 99 at 112th Street southbound and northbound.

Ground work on these stations began in late September and the structure of the Madison Street station is going up this week. Steel on the two 112th Street stations will likely go up in the next couple weeks, with the Pecks Drive station coming last.

Crews worked with nearby businesses on the construction schedule. At Pecks, the Value Village asked that the sidewalk not be torn up until after Halloween as that is the busy time for that store. Similarly, the Albertson’s at Madison asked that work be done by Thanksgiving time as they sell Christmas trees in that southwest corner of their parking lot.

Once the structural work on the stations is complete, there is still electrical and communications work to be done. Swift stations each have two cash- and credit card-taking ticket vending machines and two ORCA card readers for quick, off-board fare payment.

The plan is to open the two northbound stations as they’re completed, likely before the end of the year. The southbound stations will be opened later, likely by mid-February. This directional pairing is being done to complete and commission the technological components. The new stations will give riders more stop options and provide more access to the fast and frequent rides on Swift.

All of this news comes at a great time because the one year anniversary of Swift is Nov. 30.

It’s hard to believe that this BRT line has been in existence just one year. By February of this year, Swift became Community Transit’s highest ridership route. The agency’s projection for its first year was a 25 percent increase in ridership from Day One. From 1,500 riders on Nov. 30, 2009, Swift has seen a better than 100 percent jump in ridership as October 2010 saw an average of about 3,500 riders each weekday!

The week of Nov. 29, this blog will feature daily stories about the state’s first bus rapid transit line, commemorating Swift’s first anniversary. Look for new statistics, a look back at the award-winning Swift launch celebration, and previews of what’s to come for BRT in Snohomish County.

We invite your thoughts on Swift as well…

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On Sitting, Standing and Sharing

After my post on improved commuter route productivity – due to fewer buses (and seats) to Seattle and more efficient routing – we received a question about crowded buses at Lynnwood Transit Center around 7 in the morning. Some 40-foot buses are packed, while some larger buses leaving at different times seem only partly full.

Articulated buses are assigned to the trips that have the most passengers most often. That may be hard to judge from the curb – and can be a close call for transit planners as well. A Community Transit planner – who helps identify what size of bus gets assigned to what trip – explains how a similar number of passengers can look very different:

“The seating capacity of a 40-foot bus is roughly 39 people and the seating capacity of a 60-foot articulated bus is 65 people. That means a standing room only load on a 40-footer would only be 60 percent full on an articulated bus. To some observers, a 60 percent full bus could look like a bus that is only half full.”

Community Transit staff did analyze seating capacity and ridership prior to our June service changes, and our goal is for all passengers to have a seat, especially on longer trips (Lynnwood is a comparatively shorter run). As one of the commenters noted, many people take different trips on different days, so ridership has peaks and valleys. That can result in crowded trips at times.

On paper we now have 40 percent more seats than riders at Lynnwood Transit Center, on average. We constantly monitor ridership and can adjust bus assignments. But usually, assigning an artic to a new trip means taking it off another run, so we don’t do that lightly.

This is a tight economy and we don’t have money for excess. That means commuters used to spreading out may need to share a seat – and even stand on rare occasions. If your bus is regularly overcrowded, please let us know.