The city of Janesville will replace all 17 of its buses by the end of 2021, giving the fleet a fresh look while improving its fuel efficiency. A new app to be unveiled next year will allow users to track the buses in real time.
These are some snazzy upgrades but don’t confuse them for the future of public transportation. The future is likely to involve fewer buses and greater involvement from the private sector.
Some large cities already are seeing a shift away from public transit, even as new government regulations have tried to handcuff upstart technologies that compete with city buses and subways.
Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft have been blamed for declines in bus ridership. That’s not necessarily true for Janesville, where Uber and Lyft don’t have a large presence, but we’ve not heard yet a good explanation for Janesville bus ridership dropping more than 20% from 443,237 in 2014 to a projected 351,544 this year.
Transit Director Rebecca Smith has said an improving economy is to blame, as low unemployment has allowed more people to afford cars. That’s a reasonable theory, except ridership also fell amid the Great Recession, from 397,756 in 2008 to 338,738 in 2010. Ridership appears to be dropping under both economic scenarios, which is hardly reassuring for Janesville transit.
There’s likely no single explanation for downward ridership trends across the U.S. Buses compete with all sorts of travel options nowadays, including municipal efforts to add more bike lanes to roadways. Some cities also allow bike-sharing and scooter-sharing services, giving people without any vehicle the means to traverse downtown areas, in particular. Such services haven’t reached Janesville, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
Janesville would be wise to begin experimenting with new transportation technologies. Some cities are using vouchers to help low-income people pay for trips via Uber and Lyft. Rather than deploy buses along little-used, costly bus routes, these cities provide vouchers to help people pay for Uber and Lyft rides.
A voucher system might allow Janesville transit to use fewer buses without abandoning customers. We’ve all seen buses rumbling along city streets without anybody or just a few people on board. If there’s a way to get some of these empty buses off the roads without lowering service standards, the city should consider it.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to imagine city employees embracing a voucher system. They’d probably view Uber and Lyft more competitor than partner, with vouchers functioning as free advertising for ride-hailing services. It’s no surprise Smith during an interview with The Gazette expressed little enthusiasm for folding private ride-hailing services into public transit services. She has concerns, for example, about private service’s ability to accommodate people with physical disabilities, which city buses are equipped to do.
Her concerns are legitimate but not a good reason to avoid experimentation. Fans of public transit have nothing to worry about in the short term, but it’s the long term that should worry city officials. If it makes sense someday to take some buses off the road and replace them with more efficient private services, the city shouldn’t hesitate to do so. Declining ridership might leave the city with little choice.