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When it takes 10 minutes to get from your home to your work place by car and an hour to make the same relatively short trip via public transit, there is little incentive to use the public system. That kind of commuting experience demonstrates why the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is losing riders and why it needs to act quickly to attempt to reverse the trend.

Figures recently released by the Federal Transit Administration reveal that from 1993 through 1997, the latest date for which data is available, the number of riders using Metro Bus and Rail dropped by 16.5 percent. That's the third-largest decline among the nation's 50 largest bus systems -- and it should be a cause for concern for both the NFTA and the riders who depend on the buses and rail line to get around.

Certainly, some factors that affect the use of public transportation on the Niagara Frontier are beyond the control of the NFTA. For instance, the area has been losing population as people move to more prosperous regions of the country to find jobs. Obviously, fewer people means fewer potential public-transit users. And our excellent highway and expressway system, coupled with low traffic volume, accommodates fast commutes, making public transit a less desirable option for people who own vehicles.

But there are thousands of residents in Erie and Niagara counties who do not have their own transportation and depend on Metro to get where they need to go. Thousands more, who do own vehicles, would like to take advantage of public transit to save money on commuting costs like gasoline, insurance and parking.

All of them could become more faithful public transportation users if the system was more convenient. That seems to be the area where improvement is needed, and it is reassuring that some of the folks down at the bus and rail company realize that.

Deborah Finn, the NFTA's director of surface transportation, says Metro is about to launch a campaign for more riders by increasing bus trips and improving weekend service on more than a dozen bus routes. Areas receiving improved service will include popular commercial strips like Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst and Tonawanda, Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo and Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls. That will be a step -- or a ride -- in the right direction. It's hard to understand why popular spots like that weren't targeted earlier.

Metro also might consider putting more buses on the streets during peak hours. That has boosted ridership in cities like Cincinnati and Portland, Ore.

But the issue that seems to deserve a lot more attention from Metro is that of efficiency. Schedules may need to be adjusted and routes may need to be realigned to reduce travel time for simple commutes. It should not take an hour on a September day to get from Buffalo to Cheektowaga neighborhoods that are only 10 minutes apart by car.

That's much too long -- an experience rather than a ride to work. No one who has the option of public or private transportation will put up with that. If the NFTA hopes to lure riders, it is going to have to make Metro a lot more appealing.

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