PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Public Transit Authority has lost 19% of its bus ridership during the last five years, forcing its leadership to adapt to a shift in public transportation patterns.
The quasi-public agency, which operates 2,800 trips daily, is grappling with falling gas prices, soaring competition from companies such as Uber and updating a bus system while continuing to serve nearly 60,000 people each day.
“People will take the bus when it’s convenient and it gets you from point A to point B on time, and without incident. If it’s not going to work that way, they’re going to find different ways to get there,” RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian told Target 12.
The number of bus rides fell by about 4 million between 2014 and 2018, from 20.5 million to 16.6 million, according to RIPTA.
Transportation experts point to low gas prices as a major contributor to the decline. Gas prices fell below $4 per gallon in 2013 and have remained relatively low ever since, according to GasBuddy.com, which tracks gas prices across the country.
“When gas prices fall, and when they fall to the point where they have, it’s pretty easy to go fill up the car,” Avedisian said. “When it hurts to fill up the car, then you see people looking at other options.”
RIPTA took in more than $100 million in revenue during the 2017-18 fiscal year, including from fares, which are currently $2 per one-way trip and $70 for a monthly pass. Ironically, more people driving actually helps the agency’s bottom line, as a portion of the state’s gas tax goes toward funding the agency’s annual budget.
Still, Rhode Island leaders have made it a priority to get more cars off the roadway. Vehicles are the leading contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions, which the state is trying to reduce to combat climate change.
“The transportation sector in Rhode Island and much of the Northeast is the single-largest and fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gasses and it’s not going to be solved only with electric vehicles,” said John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable economic growth.
The state is also trying to grow jobs, and businesses are increasingly looking at public-transit systems when considering relocating and expanding, Flaherty added.
RIPTA is trying to adapt to these demands and evolve its service to appeal to a more diverse group of riders beyond the estimated 58,000 people who currently take the bus on average each workday.
RIPTA has work to do: about 77% of Rhode Islanders live within a 10-minute walk of the bus stop, but only about 3% use public transit to get to work, he added. The vast majority of commuters — 80% — take a private vehicle.
The agency also faces increasing competition from companies such as Uber and Lyft, which continue to grow in popularity and offer greater flexibility. Within the last couple years, ride-sharing bike and scooter companies – such as Jump Bikes and Bird – have also emerged, adding more competition.
“We see the number of Uber and Lyft trips each year continues to rise,” Avedisian said.
The dynamics are challenging the agency’s ability to balance its budget each year, though determining its financial health depends on where you look.
Budget documents filed by the Raimondo administration report that RIPTA lost $2.7 million during fiscal 2016-17. But its audited financial statements show a much larger loss of $24 million during the same year. A spokesperson said the latter figure includes other line items such as depreciation and post-retirement benefits.
Beyond finances and competition from other modes of transportation, RIPTA is also trying to improve its bus network to help move people around better.
“It’s not easy for me,” said Ernie Turner, a North Providence resident who takes the bus about once a week.
Turner talked with Target 12 in Providence while waiting for a bus at Kennedy Plaza, the center of RIPTA’s bus network.
He owns a car, but said it’s only for emergencies because he recently suffered a stroke, making it challenging to drive.
RIPTA overall does a good job, Turner said, and he likes most of the drivers. But he would take the bus more often if it came more frequently, “because it would be more convenient,” he said.
Turner’s experience is indicative of what many riders struggle with across the system, according to Flaherty.
“We need bus trip times that can compete with auto trip times, are less expensive and more convenient with higher frequency,” he said.
Flaherty, a North Smithfield resident, takes the bus to and from his office in Providence each day, and one of his biggest challenges is making sure he doesn’t miss it. (While talking with Target 12, Flaherty missed his last bus to Woonsocket, where he would have transferred to go home.)
“There are a lot of things that I might like to do, like work late, or go to an event after work,” he said. “I often skip them because getting home is a challenge.”
Avedisian, who took the top job at RIPTA a year ago after nearly two decades as Warwick’s mayor, said his counterparts across state government have been responsive to the needs of the agency.
RIPTA has been working with colleges and universities, along with business owners across the state, to try and identify the transportation needs of their workforce.
Avedisian said he is also focused on diversifying the socioeconomics of RIPTA’s ridership moving forward.
“We are not a social-service agency, we are a transit authority,” he said. “Our question is how we can try to serve everyone’s best interest and not blur the lines there.”
As part of that effort, RIPTA is developing a master plan – called Transit Forward 2040 – with the goal of offering guidance for the overall transportation system during the next 20 years. The R.I. Department of Transportation and the R.I. Division of Statewide Planning are also working on the initiative.
The group is holding meetings across the state, and plans to host a series of public hearings to learn what Rhode Islanders think could work better moving forward.
“We’re willing to innovate in our agency, but we need the input from the public,” Avedisian said.
Also on tap: a single-fare card similar to the MBTA’s Charlie Card, which RIPTA hopes will help modernize the experience for riders.
The convenience of such a card, Avedisian said, could make public transit more attractive. He envisions an individual traveling from Boston to Newport using the commuter rail, bus system and ferry with a single card.
“When we combine all of those things together, and we make it convenient, people will take public transportation,” he said.
A series of recommendations are expected to come out in the master plan this year. Avedisian is hopeful the effort could stop the decline in ridership.
“If our projections are correct, we’ll see it stay stable or grow,” he said.