After two years of drastic changes — forced by the pandemic’s public health restrictions, a steady drop in daily ridership, and a shortage of bus operators — Santa Barbara MTD is still standing and has adapted to thrive in this new normal.
“It’s been a ride, for sure,” MTD Planning and Marketing Manager Hillary Blackerby told the Independent, reflecting on the big changes and what lies ahead with MTD’s New Moves Short Range Transit Plan, a five-year community-driven process that will take a look at how public transit can be more efficient and accessible while still working within the new cutbacks.
“We didn’t want to have to do this, but we had to,” Blackerby said.
MTD recently announced changes to its routes and frequency of stops for a number of major lines, citing a lack of bus drivers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the latest in what has been two years of forced adjustments that began in March 2020, when bus occupancy and ridership plummeted with the lockdowns. Despite the setbacks, Blackerby said that it was never an option to suspend public transit for the hundreds of workers who ride each day. In fact, MTD was one of the first to institute its own mask mandate in May 2020, before state and local governments had enforced the issue.
“We were really proud of that,” she said.
According to the MTD Moves Ahead website, ridership dropped by about 70 percent at its worst, with student ridership taking the biggest hit. “About a third of our riders are students, either K through 12 or at UCSB,” Blackerby said. With schools shut down, the first lines to go were the shuttles and SBCC-centered routes.
When schools opened back up, MTD was faced with a new hurdle of finding enough bus operators to fill the positions of drivers who had retired or left in the past two years. Hiring stalled during the lockdowns when the Department of Motor Vehicles had its own restrictions effectively putting a hold on administering new commercial driver’s license tests. Since new operators could be trained but not licensed, Blackerby said MTD was forced to wait until things opened up.
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Since then, MTD was able to certify its own training and safety officer to administer the behind-the-wheel tests, but applications are still trickling in slowly. “We think those people are out there, but we need to bring them in,” she said.
She described how the agency is in a unique position, processing these forced changes due to a worldwide public health crisis and picking up plans for the future that had been put on hold for two years.
MTD has launched a community-outreach campaign in the past year, surveying the public about who exactly was riding, and what those riders wanted. Using the feedback from the community, it became clear that 70 percent of riders preferred frequency and flexibility, with faster trips to more destinations. In response, MTD adjusted lines 1, 2, 4, and 17 to every 30 minutes throughout the day and extended late-night service until midnight on some lines.
The most popular lines, the 6 and 11, were adjusted to arrive at least every 15 minutes throughout the day, while the college-focused lines 15x, 27, and 28 returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“It’s super complex how all of these are constructed on the back end,” Blackerby said.
Among the biggest changes is the new “micro-transit” on-demand service, The Wave, which would use three new electric vans as a sort of Uber- or Lyft-esque curb-to-curb pickup service, which would cost $3 per ride and could be ordered through a smartphone app.
The idea, Blackerby said, is to provide service to areas that are “unconnected” or “underserved” by current transit lines, specifically areas of Goleta like Trader Joe’s and the neighborhoods off Cathedral Oaks. The program is funded through a grant for one year, but Blackerby said they still need to find drivers for the vans.
For more information on MTD’s New Moves Short Range Transit Plan, visit sbmtd.gov/MTDMovesAhead.