The rise and fall of Duluth ridership: possible causes for DTA's stagnant numbers

As gas prices jumped and the nation’s economic situation seemed to be at a stand still, public transportation in cities comparative to Duluth’s size saw an increase from 2008 to 2010. Meanwhile, Duluth’s public transportation ridership decreased. The U-Pass program, instituted for student by local universities to ride the bus for free through fees paid by the schools, were showing increased rates of popularity. Based on the information given by the Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) without the added U-Pass numbers the ridership would have seen more of a dramatic decrease.

Photo Credit: Laura Prosser David Beard

"80,000 Duluthians do less environmental damage when they live close together, huddled against the cold. Our trash and sewage are more effective processed when we live together, rather than dotted across a rural landscape. And our carbon footprint is smaller — we have less far to travel to work, to play, to secure goods. And, we have services like the bus that work even more so to mitigate our environmental damage. That I can laugh and chat with neighbors on the bus is just an added bonus."

In 2008, ridership of the DTA spiked from 2.8 million to 3.2 million. It was a record ridership unseen in the last 10 years.

However, with high unemployment rates and lowering gas prices after the initial spike the DTA’s ridership numbers were no longer on the rise.

If this were to continue, cuts could be made directly to local government aid and public transit. There is a current proposal in effect which calls for a $250,000 to $400,000 cut just to the DTA, regardless of ridership.

“GOP [Republican Party] is threatening to cut local government aid completely and that’s a third of our budget,” said Jackie Halberg, Duluth City Council liaison for Parks and Recreation, the Library and Authorities, in a phone interview. This includes the DTA.

According to Halberg there is a possibility that these cuts could lead to DTA recall of new routes, increased fares and cuts in route frequency, decreasing the already stagnant ridership.

Photo Credit: Laura Prosser Lynne Bell

"I realize that taking the bus keeps us from having to buy another car, gives me time to read, knit, or think, makes me get some exercise, and provides a very good reason for having all the day's work finished on time. I loose a little flexibility in terms of my schedule, but I think the tradeoffs are worth it."

One cause in the fluctuation of the DTA’s ridership is the rise and fall of gas prices. According to the American Public Transportation Association report “Potential Impact of Gasoline Price Increases on U.S Public Transportation Ridership 2011-2012” regular gas prices reached a high of $4 per gallon in 2008.

“With such a tight correlation between gas going up to $4 a gallon and ridership jumps of 10 or 15 percent, in months where that happened, it really was gas prices that caused a spike in Duluth ridership,” said Aaron Bransky, president of the DTA.

Since 2008 ridership of the DTA has been stagnant if not showed slight signs of decreasing. After 2008 the ridership went from 3.2 million to 3 million. A small increment, but when one measures that 20 percent of the DTA ridership comes from the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Student U-Pass program, it becomes a bigger issue.

Photo Credit: Laura Prosser

Chris Anderson

"I ride the bus because every time I don’t have to drive is a gallon of gas saved and a gallon less that we have to pump from the Middle East. I ride the bus because on the bus I’m more a part of the world. If I were in a car my bubble of isolation is complete and the world is just a passing slide show. Whereas on the bus, people from all walks of life cross paths and you witness some of the strangest things."

According to the DTA from 2008 to 2010 Duluth transit ridership had a 1.5 percent decrease in ridership. In contrast, the U-Pass program ridership numbers have been increasing until recently.

In 2009 the U-pass program reached a record high of 516,144 total riders. In 2010 that total number dropped by a 1,000.

Since then, the ridership has reached record monthly highs. The same has been mirrored in the DTA ridership numbers.

“If you have a loss of employment or an economy that is stagnant and fewer people are riding, the increase of U-pass ridership offsets that loss in regular route riders,” Bransky said.

Gas prices and the economic standing of Duluth may be more overriding causes for flat or decreased numbers in ridership despite the offset provided by the U-Pass ridership.

“The economy impacts the ridership and if we stay static at our rate right now I don’t see any increase. If the cuts are passed at the state level for public transit we are going to see a decline in ridership because they are going to have to decrease the routes,” Halberg said. Unlike in 2008 where the spike of gas prices occurred in a matter of months and reached a national average of $4, recent rises have been more gradual.

“The wildcard in all this is the price of gas. For some people the line is drawn with $3, some $4. What we know is that when it gets too expensive to drive people take the bus,” said Virginia Miller, Senior Manager of Media Relations, in a phone interview for the American Public Transportation Association based in Washington, D.C.

In 2008 the prices were considered the highest reported. After 2008, gas prices decreased again and only reached the $3 mark in the end of 2010.

“We know that when gas prices decrease and the economy goes down transit ridership decreases and vice versa,” Miller said.

Gas prices aren’t the only aspect that effect ridership. According to the U.S Census Bureau, 2005-2009 American Community Survey Duluth held an 8.1 percent unemployment rate which was lower compared to the national average unemployment rate of 9.3 percent.

In a city of a population of 84,436 an 8.1 percent unemployment rate has a huge impact. “If people aren’t going to work they aren’t going to ride the bus. It’s vice versa too. If we don’t have public transportation to get people to and from their jobs they are going to have a hard time holding on to them,” Halberg said.

Of those employed in Duluth during the survey, 1,822 people commuted to work using public transportation.

“60 percent of people nationwide use public transportation to go to and from work. With the economic recession we’ve hit record unemployment rates. As people lose their jobs transit ridership goes down,” Miller said.

The Public Transportation Ridership Report Fourth Quarter 2010 supports Miller by showing that nationwide bus ridership had a decrease of 2.36 percent in that year.

So while Duluth ridership from 2008-2010 contrasted the increase in ridership of cities of comparative size. It followed the national trend of overall decreased ridership.

For Duluth, 2011 is already the year of switching trends and following the increase. In both January and February, DTA transit ridership numbers have surpassed those set in 2010. Even so, complications may arise for ridership if local government aid is cut and the DTA is left without government funding.

“We are prepared for cuts but to have them totally cut that local government aid we’d be absolutely devastated,” Halverg said. “We are hoping we can come to a compromise.”

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