Santa Monica Big Blue Bus system is still reeling from pandemic-induced challenges with average monthly ridership at less than half of its pre-pandemic levels.

In a recent report, BBB said its ridership is at 46 percent of preCovid levels despite restoring service to about 81 percent of its historic maximum. Officials said several projects are in the works to improve the system’s forecast but lingering impacts, such as funding uncertainty and staffing shortages remain.

According to the report, BBB ridership had been rebounding from several years of decline in fiscal year 2019/20. Ridership was up 3 percent year on year but by March of 2020, monthly ridership had plummeted by 73 percent. The system adapted by reducing service, limiting boarding options, suspending fares and increasing hygiene measures.

Safety measures included the installation of tempered glass and metal barriers around drivers, providing personal protection equipment to employees, enhanced bus cleaning procedures, a face covering mandate, and a recommendation for passengers to observe social distancing on board buses.

In recent months, BBB has reinstated fares and brought service levels up. The report said ridership levels correspond to returned service with fewer passengers on the routes that remain at a lower service level.

An exception to that trend is the routes servicing Santa Monica College. Those routes are traditionally among BBB’s most utilized and were some of the first to have service increased, but with SMC remaining largely remote, riders have not returned.

The report said BBB has had to restore service at a rate greater than ridership levels would suggest as riders have new habits and tolerances for transit. Passengers are now less likely to tolerate standing room only rides and when social distancing is restricted by crowding, riders are requesting increased service rather than use a packed bus.

“At the same time, Big Blue Bus’s efforts to restore service further are being hampered by a national shortage of Motor Coach Operators (MCOs),” said the report. “This shortage was exacerbated by sixteen MCO’s opting into the Voluntary Early Separation Incentive Program (VESIP) offered early in the pandemic, and a concurrent suspension of recruitment, which, while short-lived, was nonetheless impactful. The combined impacts of these factors have created a shortage of 45 bus operators as of December 2021.”

In addition to a staffing shortage, the transit system is also facing a funding challenge related to pending litigation involving the U.S. Department of Labor position on the California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act. According to the report, the outcome of that litigation may impact all California transit agencies’ ability to access funds from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act funding, and the American Rescue Plan Act funding or other federal funds.

BBB identified ten ways of improving ridership.

Improving Travel Times at Targeted Corridors — making buses move faster will make service more efficient and appealing. “In addition to the passenger benefit of a faster trip, improving travel times allows Big Blue Bus to run more frequent service on a corridor utilizing the same resources,” said the report.

Fareless entry — BBB has experimented with eliminating cash as a form of payment. The idea drew opposition from some riders who disliked the idea on principle and others who said the method of acquiring a TAP card was too cumbersome for the elderly or riders with disabilities. However, the report said the system had significant benefits.

“Additional findings verify that exclusive use of contactless fares can reduce annual dwell time (time spent sitting while passengers insert cash and coins into the farebox) by about 15,000 hours, which could then be re-invested back into the system in the form of higher service frequencies,” said the report. “Another initial finding suggests an estimated $750,000 savings of annual equipment and maintenance expenses associated with removing the cash fareboxes.”

Free fares — BBB has several free or discounted options for seniors, students or low-income riders.

“Free transit to the student is expected to significantly increase transit use in the K-12 cohort, specifically in middle school and high school,” said the report.

Bus tracking — BBB has partnered with the smartphone app Transit and the company Swiftly to provide better tracking of buses to customers. Equipment has also been installed at stops to provide updates on arriving vehicles.

“All stops also have a text and call-in feature for smart phone users who may not have a data plan so that real time information can be provided to as many riders as possible,” said the report.

Sustainability — Council adopted a goal of transitioning all BBB vehicles to zero-emission options and the system will roll out an additional 18 battery powered buses this year.

“Big Blue Bus is playing its role in the greater effort to reduce carbon emissions by making this transition and remains an attractive transportation option for customers concerned with their impact on the environment,” said the report.

More stops — BBB said there are relatively few transit hubs on the Westside of Los Angeles.

“Big Blue Bus continues to work with stakeholders on getting more bus transit hubs and appropriate terminus facilities in its service area in addition to existing hubs at rail stations,” said the report.

Better stops — The organization will inventory its existing stops including an analysis of accessibility rules.

“Big Blue Bus is planning to conduct a bus stop amenities study to inventory every bus stop in the system to determine which bus stops’ amenities are meeting the agency’s standards,” said the report.

On Demand Transportation — BBB’s on demand system for seniors and people with disabilities will be transitioned to a new vendor.

“MODE is currently operated by a combination of vendors and City departments, which has created inefficiencies and required more staff effort to manage,” said the report.

Safety — In addition to changes related to the spread of the virus, BBB is working to improve safety on the road.

“Big Blue Bus will continue to track and analyze accident and incident data to make decisions on where to invest resources to improve safety,” said the report. “Big Blue Bus is exploring collision detection technologies that alert operators and pedestrians of potential hazards.”

Security — BBB is installing a state of the art surveillance system on buses in addition to new training for drivers.

“Appropriately accommodating passengers with mental illness, or other situational issues such as homelessness continues to be a challenge at Big Blue Bus,” said the report. “In order to maintain a secure and respectful experience for all passengers, Big Blue Bus has introduced “de-escalation” training to assist bus operators in dealing with challenging passengers or conflicts between passengers that may occur. In addition, to ensure buses are secure for customers and operators, Big Blue Bus will continue its partnership with SMPD to patrol buses and high volume stops.”

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...