Metrobus ridership dips despite best efforts

Fewer people are riding the 19 Metrobus routes that course through the St. John's area.

Fewer people are riding the 19 Metrobus routes that run through the St. John's area.

A Metrobus study found people took roughly 3.1-million rides on the bus in 2009, down about 50,000 rides from the previous year. And, despite the organization's best efforts the ridership has steadily declined since its peak in 2006.

Metrobus General Manager Judy Powell said the organization's costly challenge is to better serve a growing city that's demanding more frequent buses operating for more hours -- problems that are expensive to fix.

"It's difficult for us to compete with a car," Powell told CBC News.

"Unfortunately we're at a time when our fleet is aging, we need capital investment, diesel fuel costs have increased, and with budget realities at the city you know there's only so much money to go around. So when we have to expand our service to the new areas of the city, we're often moving it from somewhere else so it gets difficult to balance all that."

Still, Metrobus is rolling out new programs. Several bus routes now offer riders wireless internet, and Metrobus's website takes advantage of the transit function of Google Maps to help riders plan their trips.

Powell is also hoping for smaller wins. She said she knows many won't give up driving back and forth to work, but hopes they might take the bus if they have a meeting or lunch downtown during their day.

"People would be surprised, I think, at how efficient that is," Powell said.

In 2007 Metrobus changed its routes in an effort to make them "more direct and efficient." Riders seem pleased with the changes they've seen, Powell said, but in a city with one of the highest rates of new car sales, public transit is struggling.

"We're really facing a changing city and a changing region," Powell said.

Powell said Metrobus is in the midst of a market study, which is expected to be finished in the fall. The results of the study will guide a five-year plan for the city's buses.