Express bus service to Portland plummets by over 60 percent
All forms of transportation usage declined during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but none more so than mass transit. Nationally, there were reports of transit ridership declines of 70 to 80 percent. Clark County’s C-TRAN was not immune to the declines in ridership.
In three years just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a slight increase in C-TRAN bus ridership. That contrasted with federal DOT reports that bus ridership declined 12.9 percent over the past decade while ridership on other modes of travel increased.
Unofficial numbers for 2021 show C-TRAN ridership declined by roughly 400,000 boardings last year to 3.4 million. In 2019 there were 6.2 million boardings, and 3.8 million boardings in 2020. Express bus ridership to Portland plummeted 61 percent from over 1.4 million boardings in 2019 to about 523,000 as people continued working from home.
The Vine bus rapid transit (BRT) service also took a big hit. It had 1.4 million boardings in 2019. The Vine lost 44 percent of its ridership during the pandemic, declining to 816,000 boardings last year. An additional 147,000 were lost last year compared to 2020.
The continued decline in ridership caused the C-TRAN Board of Directors to approve permanent reductions in service levels last summer for the 2022 schedule. Included was consolidation of the cross-river “express” bus service to Portland.
“We’re looking to better match our services to what we’re seeing for rider demand and what we believe rider demand will look like moving forward,” Senior Planner Taylor Eidt said last year. C-TRAN will take a corridor based approach.
On Jan. 1, C-TRAN began a 12-month fare reduction program. “The temporary fare proposal is partially in response to recent sales tax collections exceeding budget projections, as well as additional stimulus funding,” the website says. The reduction lowered the Local fare from $1.80 to $1 per ride for an adult. The Adult Express fare dropped from $3.85 to $2.50 per ride.
In the I-5 corridor, C-TRAN officials combined several routes to provide service to Portland from downtown Vancouver. They also provide separate service to “pill hill” via the Marquam Express.
Transit ridership across the Columbia River is of particular interest as the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program attempts to offer high capacity transit service on the I-5 corridor to Portland. C-TRAN offers the only transit service across the river. Portland’s TriMet offers MAX light rail service to Delta Park. The Yellow line service was in fourth place for ridership of the five light rail service lines.
C-TRAN experienced a 61 percent drop in passenger boardings on its express bus system over the past two years. The agency shared numbers for nine separate routes traveling over the river for the past three years. In 2019, it had 1.4 million boardings which then declined to 555,000 last year.
C-TRAN’s east Vancouver express service from Fishers Landing fell even more. It lost almost 209,000 passenger boardings – a drop of almost 85 percent.
Normally, one person would board twice a day as they traveled to and from their destination. On the surface, the system-wide boarding numbers would seem to indicate approximately 275,000 individuals took round trips last year. But, if they were regular commuters working five days a week and 50 weeks a year, then about 1,100 people were riding the C-TRAN express buses to Portland instead of using cars. Those numbers are for ridership crossing both the Interstate Bridge and the Glenn Jackson Bridge.
Roughly 18 percent of the 2021 ridership was traveling to Delta Park, presumably connecting to the Yellow Line MAX light rail. The 303,000 annual boardings would translate to about 600 people catching light rail daily for round trips to work or business in Portland.
Currently, C-TRAN’s main commuter service on the I-5 corridor is the 105 express bus. It runs every 20 minutes from 5 to 9 a.m., using 13 buses. In the evening, it offers 20-minute service from downtown Portland from 3:20-6 p.m. Generally, hourly service is offered the rest of the day. Separately, express service is offered to ‘pill hill’ hospitals, with the Marquam Hill service on route 190.
To adjust to the changing demand, last summer, C-TRAN’s new microtransit on-demand service uses smaller vehicles and offers point-to-point service in certain areas. Think of it as C-TRAN’s version of Uber or Lyft, where area residents can use their cellphone to make a reservation for pickup in a relatively short period of time.
It is the “implementation of an on demand, point-to-point, shared vehicle transit service with a technology enabled user booking platform, usually in the form of a mobile application,” said Eidt. It will eliminate the current 90-minute reservation window requirement.
C-TRAN also stimulated ridership by offering free bus passes for high school students several years ago, via its Youth Opportunity Passes (YOP) program. The passes are distributed and managed by the representative school districts.
The quantity provided annually has remained consistent since the beginning of the program:
- Evergreen and Vancouver districts: 5,000 each
- Battle Ground: 2,500
- Camas and Washougal: 1,500 each
- Washington State School for the Blind: 50
- Washington School for the Deaf: 50
- Next Success: 25
YOP boardings were 235,000 in 2019. They declined to 89,000 in each of the last two years.
The Education Opportunity Pass (EOP), previously known as BackPASS, is available to students currently attending Clark College or WSU Vancouver and varies depending on enrollment.
Clark College requested 5,495 cards for 2020 and has not made additional requests. Previous years averaged 4,000. WSU Vancouver requested 149 for the 2018-2019 academic year, 109 for 2020-2021, and 95 cards for 2021-2022.
EOP boardings were 5,869 in 2019 and 5,699 in 2020. Ridership jumped significantly in 2021 to almost 20,000 boardings in 2021.
Last fall, C-TRAN broke ground on its second BRT line. The $50 million project will offer BRT service from Clark College near 192nd in east Vancouver, down Mill Plain to downtown. C-TRAN is moving forward with plans for a third BRT system connecting Hazel Dell and Highway 99 to downtown Vancouver.
Additionally, it was just announced that C-TRAN will get $2.7 million in federal funding to replace older buses with newer buses, according to a recent press release.