RTA bus ridership climbs and additional service coming

Hiccups with winter expansion that now appear fixed…but perception lingering?

By Mark Reaman

While admitting they had to deal with a few hiccups with expanding bus service to 41 daily roundtrips this ski season, the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) is confident the service is back on a smooth track and the board agreed last week to expand the daily service this spring, summer and fall. To have regular half hour service throughout the day, the RTA will go from having 28 daily roundtrips to 33. The board also approved an expansion of the video surveillance cameras on the buses to an upgraded system that includes an Artificial Intelligence (AI) component that is meant to improve safety.

January ridership was up 21% over last year with 49,000 passengers recorded for the month, a new record. RTA executive director Scott Truex reported at the RTA board meeting on January 16 that of the 7,000 bus trips this winter, 96% of them were within 10 minutes of being on time, which did not include some January bus trips that were cancelled.

Truex admitted that the RTA had some issues as it ramped up to 41 roundtrips and there was a period in January that was particularly rough. “Things are running much smoother now after the hiccups in January,” he told the board. “We started with a driver shortage and then hired 10 new drivers. That came with some training issues and snowy weather was an issue, but the last few weeks have been pretty good.”

Some of the issues included drivers not running on schedule and even bypassing some regular stops such as Crested Butte South. One driver was seen watching his phone while driving and he was let go immediately. 

“What is frustrating for me as a rider is that I experienced a situation where I was waiting for the bus at Safeway and the Swiftly app indicated the bus was coming, but then it didn’t,” said board member Jason MacMillan. “That made me lose confidence and I have taken the bus a lot less this month. I think ridership would improve even more if there was more confidence.” 

Truex explained some of the training issues and said the Swiftly app that tracks the buses in real time works 99% of the time. 

“We just need to make sure riders are getting accurate information,” MacMillan said. 

“When I tried to call Alpine Express there was no answer.”

“When people have one bad experience, they extrapolate that to the entire system,” said board member Laura Puckett Daniels. “The bus system is mostly great but to Jason’s point, one anecdotal incident can have an impact.”

“Some of this is the perception of reality that is sometimes hard to change for folks,” said Landon Ogilvie, who owns Alpine Express that operates the RTA bus routes. “With logistics, adding volume to anything extrapolates the problems but the problems can be solved. We need to message the wonderful numbers we have in hauling people but inevitably life is going to happen. Snow will happen. The Swiftly app will have problems. There will be human error. But overall things have been great the last few weeks.”

“Acknowledging Jason’s point, I wonder if there are some easy, common-sense solutions to better communication in situations like Jason experienced,” said board member Liz Smith. “Is there a second way to communicate when the app is not working? Maybe using Facebook? It is worth looking into secondary options.”

Puckett Daniels indicated the RTA has to deal with both reality and perception. “We need to get across ways to help people perceive that RTA buses are reliable and on schedule most of the time,” she said. “I’m not sure what the key is but I know I have to plan some flexibility in my day when riding the bus.”

Truex pointed out that passenger reviews submitted through the Transit app are very positive. “People think we’re doing pretty good. And we drive 2,600-plus miles on RTA buses every day which is like driving from here to Nova Scotia,” he said. “As we added buses more people used the service. In 2023 we increased service 25% but ridership went up 31%.”

“There are lots of successes to celebrate,” said MacMillan.

Truex said February numbers show there are more riders per day than in record-setting January.

Spring, summer, fall expansion

The board discussed expanding spring, summer and fall bus service, and Truex highly recommended the move to increase reliability and redundancy. Going from 28 to 33 roundtrips a day will allow for half hour service throughout the day, including the evenings. That will add an estimated $364,000 expense to the 2024 budget.

“Having that regularity of service in the evening is huge. If you miss a bus or for some reason it doesn’t run a route, there is a two-hour wait, so this will be a tremendous help to riders,” explained Truex. “I predict this will help increase ridership.”

“It could also help with drivers getting shifts and providing an opportunity for year-round work,” said RTA chair Janet Farmer.

“We are trying to avoid losing drivers and then having to start over the next winter,” said Truex. 

“It makes it so much easier to ride the bus with better reliability and redundancy,” said Puckett Daniels. “I agree we should expect to see an increase in ridership.”

“It helps the workforce, there are environmental benefits, it is good for staffing and continuity,” agreed Smith. “That helps develop a better bus culture in the valley.”

“The only concern might be that we see some similar hiccups we experienced when we scaled up this winter,” said Puckett Daniels. “We need a smooth transition, and this might help the transition into winter.”

The board unanimously agreed to the increase in service.

AI is watching

As for adding AI, Truex and Ogilvie said that an expanded camera system on RTA buses could improve safety, both in the immediate timeline and with training. Ogilvie explained that his other vehicles use the Samsara system and it has come in handy at several points.

Truex told the board that one of the new drivers was inappropriately using a cell phone while driving and that was videoed by a passenger. That driver was fired. Ogilvie said the new system would indicate in real time if the driver was touching their cell phone and dispatch would be notified immediately.

“It uses AI to pick up things in real time,” Ogilvie said. “It can pick up things as little as drowsy eyes. I was resistant to the product at first, but it works great and I would like to use it on the RTA buses. It picks up unsafe actions.”

“It is a good idea from a safety perspective,” said Truex. “It seems a little ‘big brother,’ so I wanted to bring it to the board.”

Truex said the buses currently have video cameras, but they do not transmit in real time. If someone has a complaint, it takes a lot of time to research the video history.

“I agree the big brother element is a bit of a concern,” said Puckett Daniels.

“The only difference in the system from the current one is the AI and immediacy,” said Truex. “This sounds like it is so much easier than the current video system.”

Smith asked about cost to the RTA and Ogilvie said Alpine would pay for the installation and operating fees. “The cost is incremental to us but from a safety and diagnosis perspective, I can’t put a price on it,” he said. 

The board unanimously agreed to allow its use on RTA buses.

New bike racks to increase capacity 50%!

And finally, the RTA has ordered new bike racks that will increase the number of bike spaces from two to three. The board had hoped for more capacity but Truex said with buses, the racks are limited by safety concerns. Puckett Daniels suggested that the Rady School of Engineering program at Western Colorado University perhaps be given the task to come up with a safe system with more capacity.

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