The number of bus trips provided by the Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) has declined by 1.4 million since 2009 — when the Recession hit bottom and ridership was the highest in the past 10 years. Driving the decline has been an escalation of South Coast rents and the dramatic drop in the price of gas. Since 2012 — when the price of gasoline topped $4 a gallon — ridership shrank by roughly half a million.
MTD’s drop in ridership parallels the challenges confronted by countless transit districts throughout Southern California, though its numbers are less drastic. That’s in large measure because MTD — which carries riders from the western edge of Goleta to Carpinteria — serves a large and growing number of student passengers. In the past 10 years, the number of student riders — from South Coast high schools, junior high schools, City College, and UCSB — jumped by 1.1 million, from 1,787,996 to 2,826,679. Student riders account for roughly 40 percent of MTD’s trips. MTD’s peak year for nonstudent trips was 2009 — with 6,060,823 — but since then, those numbers have plummeted by 1.4 million to 4,660,434.
“It’s quite a slippage,” said General Manager Jerry Estrada, who estimated the number of trips provided over the last six months was 8 percent lower than the previous six months. Ridership, Estrada said, increased during the Recession and has declined after gas prices started to tumble. “It’s pretty much across the board for most transit agencies,” he said. Even so, Estrada said, Santa Barbara remains supportive of mass transit, and MTD ranks in the top five performing mass transit districts in the country for communities with populations less than 200,000.
For the past five months, Estrada and MTD board chair Dave Davis have been eyeballing the numbers, trying to suss out what’s driving the decline. The most obvious answer is the price of gas, now down below $2.50 at many Santa Barbara gas stations. According to one school of speculation, the number of immigrant bus riders declined after the State Legislature passed a bill giving the legal ability to undocumented immigrants to obtain driver licenses. Estrada said the data was not definitive enough to confirm this notion. Regardless, the number of registered vehicles on the South Coast increased by 18,000 since 2012, according MTD planning guru Steve Maas.
Between 2010 and 2014, Maas added, the number of households in the South Coast shrank by 1,437. And the economic makeup of those households also shifted, he said. The number of households with incomes less than $75,000 decreased by 3,547 while those with incomes greater than $75,000 increased by 2,110. In other words, those economically more likely to ride the bus are leaving town in significant numbers while those far less inclined to do so — for the same economic reasons — are increasing.
Even among the student riders, the numbers tell different stories. While UCSB’s collective ridership has gone continuously up, City College’s has not. Since 2012, the campus has posted steady, if modest, declines, reflecting a drop in enrollments. (As a general rule, community college enrollments tend to expand as the economy contracts and vice versa.) Last year, the students associated with English-language schools that have recently sprouted up in Santa Barbara have relied heavily upon MTD to get around, Maas said. Enrollments in those schools, he said, have recently dropped, further driving down MTD’s ridership numbers.
When the MTD board meets next Tuesday morning, these numbers will be dissected. Two weeks after that, the board will find out the financial implications of dropping ridership, and two weeks after that, they will explore what service changes, if any, need to be made in response. Last year, MTD abandoned Line 22, which served the Mission, the Riviera, and Mission Canyon, due to chronically low riderships. At the same time, MTD expanded its service to Isla Vista in response to increased demand by UCSB students, faculty, and staff. UCSB paid the cost for that expansion. MTD is about to start a brand-new line, also increasing service to Isla Vista, UCSB, and Goleta. UCSB is paying the full cost of this new line.