Number of bus riders on the decline in Collier County
Depending on the route and time of day, a Collier Area Transit bus in Collier County can have just a handful of riders on board, or it might be crowded. But since 2013, yearly ridership numbers have been declining.
The steady decrease in riders since 2013 comes after more than 10 years of ridership growth prior to that year.
This downward trend is not unique to Collier County. It is occurring in cities and counties nationwide, causing alarm among transit managers in some major cities. Fluctuations in ridership are tied to gas prices and the economy but are influenced by other factors, too.
The decline has pushed Collier transit managers to re-examine bus routes and understand the needs of riders.
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Ridership in the county, when compared with the county's population, has declined 36 percent since 2013. Those who use Collier's public transit are riding farther. The length of an average trip now exceeds nine miles.
Florida decline two times more severe
In Florida, public transit ridership declines are twice as severe as the national average, according to a 2019 report prepared for the Florida Department of Transportation.
The state’s ridership declines can be attributed in part to a landscape designed for car travel, said Jodi Godfrey, a senior research associate at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research. Godfrey co-authored the FDOT report.
“In general, Florida tends to be a very vehicle-centric state, and I think a lot of that is due to the sprawled nature of our land use,” Godfrey said.
While public transit is the “backbone” of cities like New York City, Chicago and Boston, most Florida cities developed around freight rail lines, not public transportation routes, Godfrey said.
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The sprawl of Collier County makes operating a public transportation system especially difficult, Michelle Arnold, the county’s public transit and neighborhood enhancement director, told county commissioners earlier this year during a transit workshop.
“The challenge that Collier County has is that we have a very large land mass and we’re having to travel greater distances than a lot of our peers. So that adds to our costs for providing service,” Arnold said.
The geographic spread means that Collier Area Transit cannot run buses with the same frequency as denser communities, said Collier Area Transit Manager Omar DeLeon.
Collier Area Transit or CAT, which began in 2001, runs 19 fixed bus routes daily and operates a reservation-only paratransit service for riders with disabilities. Seventy percent of CAT's fixed routes run a bus every 90 minutes. The remaining routes see one bus each hour.
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The lack of frequency is a common complaint among transit riders and a reason some Collier residents say they don’t ride the buses, DeLeon said.
John DiMarco, the chairman of Collier County’s public transit advisory committee, agrees.
“It really doesn’t make it real convenient for the casual rider,” DiMarco said about the bus frequency. “Because, you know, who’s going to stand here and wait an hour-and-a-half for a bus at Mercato?”
Reasons for the ridership drop
A thriving economy has led to increased vehicle ownership in recent years. Owning a vehicle is the “single largest predictor of public transit use,” according to a 2018 article from the University of California, Los Angeles that examines public transit trends.
Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute for Transit Studies, co-authored the study. He said that a small group of frequent riders make up the core of public transit users.
“Very few people make up the most transit trips,” Taylor said.
Even minor changes within this small population of frequent riders can mean big changes in ridership numbers, he said.
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In metropolitan areas, the high cost of driving can make public transportation an attractive alternative for commuters and riders from all backgrounds.
In more vehicle-friendly areas, like Collier County, public transit offers a social service, Taylor said, by providing transportation for people who can’t afford a car or access other transportation options.
Public transportation plays this role throughout the state, Godfrey said.
“Transit is not typically, at least in (Florida), a mode of first choice. It’s typically a mode that’s chosen because a personal vehicle isn’t available,” she said.
Relying on transit each day
Bruce Kennedy, 68, of East Naples, had never ridden a bus in Collier County until his car broke down about 2½ years ago. Without the money to repair or replace it, CAT buses became Kennedy’s only reliable transportation.
Kennedy gets by on monthly social security checks. He works an occasional shift as a fill-in security guard, but the arthritis in his knees and the bus route limits his options.
“Most of the (security guard) posts are off the beaten path, in gated communities or high rises along Gulf Shore Boulevard,” he said. “It would be hard for me to get to them.”
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Kennedy plans his day around the bus schedule, grouping together errands located along the same route.
On a recent day, Kennedy rode the No. 13 bus from a stop in East Naples to the public library downtown. There, he skimmed the latest editions of The New York Times, before settling down at a public computer to research family history.
Kennedy occasionally eyed his watch, keeping tabs on the arrival of the next bus.
When he was ready to leave, Kennedy walked to the bus stop along U.S. 41, caught the No. 11 and headed to the government center. From there, he walked to a nearby Walmart, bought groceries and headed back to the government center hub to catch a bus home.
Kennedy has some ideas about improving bus service and attracting riders.
For example, some stops need better lighting to help ensure that bus drivers see riders waiting at stops in the dark. Lighting would also give riders a sense of safety, he said.
“You shouldn’t have to fear standing at a bus stop and so lights would help a lot in that regard for visibility and for safety,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said that he thinks the county should also extend dispatch and facility hours at the government center stop.
“It only takes two or three bad experiences with the bus service and people will avoid having to use it. They’ll find friends to drive them or other ways to get there,” he added.
DiMarco, the transit committee chairman, is also a frequent bus rider. DiMarco is blind and uses the bus to run errands, get to the grocery store and travel throughout Collier County. He said the county needs to invest in CAT to increase route frequency and promote the service among tourists.
“I think if we build funding up we can get ridership up. It’s still a teenager, this system, and the thing is we’re still growing,” he said.
Last month, Collier County commissioners rejected a CAT proposal to change advertising policy and allow ads on bus exteriors. Exterior advertising could generate an estimated $190,000 to $350,000 annually. The extra money would supplement the county’s transportation budget, potentially allowing for additional routes and longer hours, among other improvements.
Commissioners did approve digital advertising that will generate an estimated $23,000 to $100,000 each year.
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CAT is funded through the county's General Fund, rider fares and federal and state grants. Local funding makes up about 53% of bus operations, based on a 3-year average.
County funding for CAT has remained largely unchanged in recent years and could be to blame for some of the ridership decline, DeLeon said.
"The ridership decline is a symptom of the cutbacks and stagnant service level over the years," he said.
Re-evaluating public transit
With ridership on the decline nationwide, transit managers are re-evaluating the role public transit plays in their communities.
In recent years, CAT has adjusted its fixed routes, using ridership data and public input. Despite the changes, some of the adjusted routes continued to see declines in ridership.
In the next fiscal year, CAT will perform a system analysis and complete a transit development major update to plan for CAT’s future.
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Public transit in Collier County may also turn to new forms of transportation. CAT officials plan to apply for a federal grant that would fund a partnership with a ride-share company. The ride-share would transport riders from home to a bus stop, making public transit an option for people who live farther from CAT bus routes, DeLeon said .
'People still need it'
Every morning and afternoon CAT buses transport more than 100 people from Immokalee to Naples and Marco Island as they commute to and from work.
Sometimes these bus rides are standing-room only, and occasionally there's not enough room for everyone who wants to board, said Michael Tirado, the county's morning road supervisor.
Tirado said he has not noticed the decline in riders. He said many in Collier County rely on public transportation every day.
“Whether there’s a decline or not, people still need it,” Tirado said.
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