Santa Monica’s regional transportation system, Big Blue Bus (BBB), is still struggling to bounce back from COVID-19, with annual ridership in fiscal year 2021-22 (July 2021 through June 2022) at 6,312,168. That 6.3 million number is a substantial increase over the previous fiscal year 2020-21 ridership of 5 million passengers, but way down compared to the last substantially pre-pandemic period, fiscal year 2019-20, when 12.5 million riders were recorded. 

“The department was optimistic about reaching service restoration and ridership recovery goals; however, the pandemic and its impacts continued to delay those plans,” according to a new report on BBB ridership and other metrics for the last fiscal year.

Continued ridership issues can be chalked up to three factors, according to the report prepared by BBB Transit Planning and Performance Manager Timothy McCormick: low in-person attendance at Santa Monica College, the COVID-19 omicron variant and a national bus driver shortage.

Ridership

“Fixed route ridership exceeded six million passengers in FY2021-22, despite a dip in the 3rd quarter due to the short-lived COVID-19 Omicron variant surge,” the report stated. “Although ridership increased nearly 26% year-over-year, it remained about half of pre-COVID (FY2018-19) levels.”

The strongest quarter for BBB ridership was Q4, from April through June of this year, when an average of 583,379 passengers rode the network each month. That was up from the lowest quarter of the year, Q1, from July-September 2021, when just 500,021 passengers rode per month.

Efficiency per route

Two UCLA routes made up the best performing routes in the last fiscal year.

The highest-ranked route — the bus route with the highest composite score of the most passengers per revenue hour, lowest operating cost per passenger and highest farebox recovery — is the R12. R12 is the rapid bus to UCLA/Westwood & Overland Ave.

Next-best is Route 1, Main St. & Santa Monica Blvd/UCLA. Then come Route 7 (Pico Blvd.), Route 3 (Lincoln Blvd/LAX) and Route 14 (Bundy Dr. & Centinela Ave.)

At the bottom of the list is Route 16 (Wilshire Blvd./Bundy Dr. – Marina del Rey). Rounding out the bottom performers were Route 5 (Olympic Blvd. – Century City) and routes 41 and 43, both to SMC.

These numbers are reflected in the operating cost per passenger. Of all routes, the costliest to maintain is 16. BBB pays out $35.21 per passenger to operate the bus from Wilshire Blvd./Bundy Dr. – Marina del Rey. On the flip side, the most efficient is R12, at $7.72 per passenger. Systemwide, the average operating cost per passenger is $11.06.

R12 is also the most popular route, averaging 21.9 passengers per vehicle revenue hour. Similarly, the least popular is Route 16, averaging just 4.8 passengers per hour. On average, you can expect to share the bus with about 14 other passengers every time you ride — the average passengers per vehicle revenue hour for the BBB last year was 15.3.

The fleet

Despite pandemic-induced challenges, BBB is on track to transition to a zero-emissions fleet by 2030. What that means now is that many of the current buses are getting up there in age.

“Staff has taken a thoughtful approach to purchasing cost-effective and mature Battery Electric Bus (BEB) technology and infrastructure,” the report stated. “This has necessitated delays in replacing buses that have exceeded their useful life.”

In fiscal year 2018-19, the average age of a bus in circulation was 5.5 years; that has jumped to 8.7 years in fiscal year 2021-22. 

This has resulted in an increase in maintenance calls — “an older fleet demands increased unscheduled maintenance at decreased intervals, which has caused a steady decline in the number of miles between road calls over the last four fiscal years.”

In fiscal year 2018-19, buses would drive an average of 20,129 miles before the need for a maintenance call, or what’s known as a “road call.” This past year, the average number of miles driven between road calls decreased to just 11,065. The good news is, as new, zero-emissions fleet vehicles are purchased, this number is expected to “normalize.”

The future

In his report, McCormick wrote that service restoration is a top priority for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. In addition, BBB was looking forward to extending Route 14 to meet the new Metro K Line rail service to Inglewood (and eventually LAX). 

One of the biggest challenges is the ongoing driver shortage, which the report states BBB is tackling head-on.

“The Santa Monica Department of Transportation management team has been meeting regularly to discuss recruitment and retention best practices, understanding new attitudes towards work, and taking a holistic approach to employee satisfaction,” according to the report. “Initiatives already underway include better schedules for Motor Coach Operators, offering healthier food options on-site, and looking to improve job safety, as well as examining all aspects of the worker experience for ways to improve working conditions.”

emily@smdp.com