About 22,000 fewer riders have taken Santa Barbara’s downtown shuttle this year to date as they did the same time a year ago, reflecting a sustained downward trend caused by lower gas prices, higher shuttle fares, and perhaps diminished interest in downtown Santa Barbara by visitors and local shoppers. The real drop began in 2013 shortly after shuttle fares jumped from 25 cents a ride to 50 cents. Typically the impact of fare increases on ridership is short-lived, but not so for the shuttle. While most bus service targets those referred to by transportation planners as “transit dependent” — meaning too young or too poor to own their own car — the shuttle targets downtown visitors and shoppers with time and money to spend.
Ten years ago, Santa Barbara’s fleet of electric-powered shuttles provided 525,000 trips; last year that number was down to 371,182. Despite the less-than-encouraging trend, Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) has commissioned 14 new shuttles, soon to come off the assembly lines. The new models will be somewhat longer, accommodate more people, and will have a longer battery life. They’ll be able to travel nearly twice as many miles before requiring a recharge. The existing fleet is 25 years old.
One issue confronting the shuttle service is congestion; MTD reports that the average round-trip — down State Street from Sola Street to Cabrillo Boulevard and back — used to range from 30-35 minutes; now it takes 45. For would-be passengers wondering how long it will take for the next bus to arrive, MTD will unveil its new smartphone app this August, enabling anyone to determine where the bus is in “real time” and when it will show up. This app will not be available system-wide and is not exclusive to the shuttle. The issue of congestion-related delays is likewise system-wide, especially due to increased traffic at the Storke and Hollister exchange.