By Rachel Parsons
As Culver CityBus approaches its 90th anniversary in March, Culver City transportation officials are balancing declining ridership with the need for further expansion and innovation in an increasingly traffic-choked region.
In the last five years, the award-winning bus system has seen passenger use fall from about 6 million riders annually to around 5.2 million, according to Art Ida, transportation director. Ida acknowledged getting people back on the bus and attracting new riders is not easy.
“Public transit has changed drastically,” he said. “We’re kind of going through a bit of a paradigm shift in public transit and there’s a lot of questions on what our future’s going to look like.”
The department is working on plans for on-demand micro-transit to connect to main fixed routes and designing app technology to enhance customer experience.
Ida said several factors are contributing to the decline in ridership. Car services like Uber and Lyft have taken some passengers away as well as state laws that allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license. The rising cost of housing has impacted the numbers too, and many Culver City residents who traditionally used CityBus have moved out of the area because the cost of living is too high.
Some who have stayed want to see the system catch up technologically with surrounding Los Angeles transit systems. Attorney Marcus Tiggs, longtime Culver City resident and city council candidate, said he would like to see real-time schedule information fed to a phone app similar to Los Angeles Metro’s. Metro buses are equipped with GPS tracking devices that also feed up-to-date information to Google Maps.
Ida said work is in progress for a smartphone app providing real-time data and he wants to see it not only coordinate with other regional transit systems, but also give a rider the location of the nearest bike-share or car-share station.
Other riders said old-fashioned technology would do. Frequent CityBus commuter and Culver City resident Shaun Winton waited at the Washington Fairfax Transit Hub on a recent Saturday where there was no printed schedule posted.
“That kind of technology stuff,” Winton said. “It’s nice and all, but I think like better signage would help … if it had the routes and the times at the bus stop itself [it] would be better than developing new high-tech websites.”
Winton said he can walk to the nearest CityBus stop from his home, but Ida is focused on attracting potential riders who cannot. The department is researching micro-transit to augment fixed-route bus lines. Ida envisions a small-group, on-demand shuttle that effectively pools riders in neighborhoods too far from their nearest stop and gets them to it.
His hope is they become lifetime customers like Janis Austin, a retiree who has been riding CityBus for 60 years.
“I’ve ridden on every line that Culver City has,” she said as she waited on the Line 1 bus. “I think that it’s a local connection and I think it fits the need of the people that are local.”
Ida and the transportation department are up for the continuing challenge of balancing local need with regional growth.
“We understand the level of importance that we have in this community,” he said. “To be able to carry people to go to work, to school, to their doctor’s appointments, and to carry on with their daily lives and to spend time with their family.”
According to Winton, a school teacher, that community ethos permeates the whole team.
“The drivers themselves,” he said. “Always seem to have a real sense that they care about the people they drive … I don’t know why that is, but it feels more like a community on the Culver City bus. I love it.”