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Despite downtown's boom, NFTA ridership continues to slide

Downtown is booming, young professionals are embracing urban living and public transit, and parking remains scarce at a Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus bursting with new employees.

Yet ridership on Metro Bus and Rail continues to slide. Systemwide ridership dropped from 31.6 million annual commuters in 1992 to 26.3 million this year, a decline that reflects national trends.

“We saw a general erosion of ridership due to economic factors and other factors we don’t understand,” Thomas George, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s director of public transit, said of the most recent declines.

While bus patronage remains relatively steady, Metro Rail ridership has plummeted 42 percent from 8.6 million riders 25 years ago to 4.7 million this year. This is occurring as the NFTA applies for state and federal funding to extend its current 6.4-mile rail line to Amherst.

According to statistics compiled by the American Public Transit Association:

• Buffalo’s light rail ridership declined 19.3 percent in the second quarter of 2017 compared to the same time last year.

• In the same period, overall bus and rail ridership was down 7.3 percent.

• So far this year, bus ridership is down 4.7 percent and rail has declined by almost 10 percent, according to NFTA figures.

Authority officials point to the cyclical nature of public transit ridership and believe conditions are ripe for a rebound, and say the decline in subway riders has proven less precipitous since about 1997. But they acknowledge concern at a time when the system should prove especially attractive.

“It’s a head-scratcher,” George said. “There are all these trends, but no one thing we can put our finger on.”

George said the crowds jamming trains for Buffalo Sabres games and other downtown events remain strong, sustaining overall numbers to some degree. In addition, he thinks the national trend of young people to shun cars and rely on buses and trains occurs here, too, discouraging even further erosion.

And while systemwide ridership spiked to almost 31 million in 2012 due to several factors, it may be settling into a “normal” level of about 26 million with the help of those carless commuters.

“That phenomenon is what helps us stay around a normal 26 million,” George said. “That has bolstered us and keeps us from a steeper decline.”

Buffalo is not alone

Similar declines are occurring nationally, according to the pubic transit association. U.S. transportation agencies recorded a 2.2 percent drop in light rail trips in the second quarter of 2017 compared to the same period last year. Bus trips were off 4.2 percent.

During the same period, upstate bus systems like Albany dropped 1.7 percent, while Rochester dropped 5.5 percent. Neither runs a rail system.

“When you look at other agencies, we feel we are doing well,” George said.

Because of occasional upward spikes in recent years, in between the declines, NFTA officials are waiting for a reliable pattern to develop.

“That’s the big question: Why did we see such a growth in ridership in '12 and '13?” George said. “Are we reaching back to normal levels? Or should we expect '12 and '13 to continue?”

Much of Metro Rail’s difficulties may stem from the huge declines of 2014, when the “Cars on Main Street” project forced single tracking and delays in train frequencies of more than 20 minutes – far more than the current 10-minute headways. Commuters fled the system in droves – recording an almost 27 percent decline from the year before.

Plan for Metro Rail extension to Amherst coming into focus

“We’re equating our ridership loss to that disruption,” George said. “People got discouraged by that and are less likely to take the system.

“Those who use rail are more ‘choice’ riders,” he added. “And choice riders are more likely to move to a different mode.”

Over the past 18 months, the authority has gained back some of its lost riders through a marketing campaign heralding the return of 10-minute headways, said Rob Jones, director of service planning.

Art Guzzetti, APTA’s vice president for policy, said overall trends remain positive over the last two decades. But his Washington-based organization recognizes a definite decline.

“It is widespread; it is everywhere, and there are very few outliers,” he said.

Mundane statistics like the number of people riding buses reflect a host of “broad societal trends,” Guzzetti said, including the concept of “time competitiveness.” Americans now order products from home rather than traveling to stores, get news on their phones, and even work from home.

“If you work just one day a month from home, that’s a 4 percent drop in commutes,” he said.

And if a glut of trucks delivering products ordered online or new ride-sharing vehicles clog traffic, Guzzetti said, commuters get discouraged and the numbers drop. Commuters also no longer face a “binary choice” of driving their car or taking a bus to work.

“Now it’s ‘I really don’t care,’ ” Guzzetti said. “ ‘I just want the best option for that particular trip.’ "

Other factors include a pent-up demand for new cars following the end of the recession, relatively low gasoline prices, and a backlog of about $90 billion in repairs and maintenance needed in the nationwide system.

“Young people may be moving to the cities, but that means the suburbs have changed,” Guzzetti said. “There might be an outward migration of low-income people to the suburbs, and the suburbs are not always equipped to accommodate transit.”

Downtown workers are key

But transit advocates must still entice downtown workers out of their cars, a major objective for Medical Campus officials. Matthew K. Enstice, chief executive officer of the burgeoning complex on the north edge of downtown, has always pointed to estimates of more than 17,000 employees within a few years – without 17,000 places to park.

“Our goal is for people working along Main Street to live around Main Street and use public transit,” he said. “We believe there will be more development along Main Street, and that more people will utilize the transportation system. We’re 100 percent supportive of that.”

The need will become especially apparent in 2018, he said, when more Medical Campus facilities open and more employees arrive. The Medical Campus already promotes NFTA incentives that encourage use of Metro Rail and its Allen-Medical Campus Station, which is incorporated into the ground floor of the soon-to-open University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Enstice maintains that the entire medical complex might never have been possible without Metro Rail and its ability to move thousands of people without using cars.

“It’s a most critical thing to us,” he said. “From our perspective, it’s an asset sitting right there that we need to see thrive.”

NFTA officials see encouraging signs. They point to the November opening of the Oishei Children’s Hospital and the January arrival of the medical school as more reasons to leave cars behind on a campus with limited parking.

“We believe that to be a positive,” George said.

In addition, the new turnstile fare system – similar to the New York City subway – slated for late 2018 should make riding Metro Rail more user-friendly. The urban trend also means more people will live near employment centers like the Medical Campus or near subway stations for an easy commute. And new and direct bus service now serves the Medical Campus, George said.

“We have to target audiences to tell them how easy and available it is, to encourage those ‘choice riders’ and others,” he said. “If you get on a bus and get used to it, you are then so much more comfortable with it.”

The aim of any public transit system should be to offer frequency, reliability and availability, George said.

“If you can do that with a public transit system along with a few add-ons, you’ll be a success,” he said. “All of our customer service surveys point to that, and that we’re doing OK.”

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