By Jamie Coulson and Jeff Batt | firstname.lastname@example.org
Pass by a Sunshine Bus Co. stop in St. Johns County and chances are you’ll see someone waiting for a ride.
And it’s no wonder.
Ridership is on pace to set an all-time record, the latest statistics show.
It doesn’t matter whether gas prices are low or high – ridership has climbed steadily upward every year since 2006.
Riders say they’re grateful for Sunshine Bus Co.
“When my van broke down a few months ago, I took the Sunshine bus and it was so convenient,” said Rosie Redmond, a St. Johns County resident and occasional rider of the bus. “I also love that it costs only 50 cents for seniors.”
When asked why some people take the bus rather than use their own car, she replied, “Cars are way to expensive to upkeep nowadays.”
Sunshine Bus Co. officials say that 277,316 people rode their buses last year. That was higher than any other year in the company’s history and ridership is on pace to break that record this year.
Even now, during the first two months of 2016 when gas prices hit historic lows, ridership continued to increase, said George Hesson, manager of the Sunshine Bus Company, based in St. Augustine.
“There was some fluctuation in ridership in the early years while we obtained more vehicles and expanded and/or changed routes,” he said. “ From 2006 on we have seen steady growth in ridership.”
The company says 46,456 people rode their buses in January and February, 2,772 more riders than the same period in 2015.
“The Sunshine Bus Company serves people without other means of transportation, for one reason or another, or those who are conscious of the environment and those who find it fits their lifestyle,” said Hesson.
“The reality is, there are many more reasons why people use public transportation than just high gas prices,” said Allison Roberts, an associate professor of economics and the head of the Department of Business Administration at Flagler College. “In fact, the cross-price elasticity of gas prices to bus ridership is probably very low, meaning not much of a change in bus use when gas prices fluctuate.”
In 2013, Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation the highest amount of rides in 57 years, according to publictransportation.org. Nearly 400,000 people work in public transportation, a $58 billion industry.
The Sunshine Bus Co. is the main source of public transportation in St. Augustine. The Sunshine Bus makes frequent stops throughout historic downtown and even ventures into the outskirts of Jacksonville.
The service started as a source of transportation for low income or disabled riders, but today people from all walks of life use the buses.
Even if gas prices rise, the company vows to keep the buses running.
“Since the Sunshine Bus system is based on routes and schedules, we must maintain a predictable level of service,” Hesson said. “If we experience extreme volatility in gas prices over time, that will affect the planning and budgeting process,” said Hesson.
Some Flagler College students use the Sunshine Bus to get around town or leave on weekends.
Alexa Epitropoulos, who studied journalism at Flagler College, once rode the bus 40 miles to a job interview near Jacksonville.
It was a laborious process, but she says the experience was eye-opening, driving home the need for public transportation.
“Public transportation is critical, particularly for low-income individuals or even people who don’t have the resources necessary to buy a car,” said Epitropoulos, a reporter at the Jacksonville Business Journal.
Relying on a bus company like Sunshine that is so small and “has to make so many stops, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for someone who is commuting from home to work,” she said. “I think it’s doing the best with the funding it has available, but it really speaks to the problems that public transportation has in a lot of different communities. Public transportation is not a priority, even though it should be.”
The American Public Transportation Association reported in March that people who ride public transportation instead of taking their cars save $9,234 per year. That works out to more than $769 per month, the APTA’s March survey showed.
Gas prices remain low. The national average is just $2.06 per gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. Despite the low cost of gas, some people prefer public transportation.
Sunshine’s ridership has jumped from 70,288 in 2006 to 277,316 in 2015. Company buses had just over 46,000 commuters during the first two months of 2016.
According to Hesson, the transportation system caters to approximately 850 to 950 riders per day taking them to essentially wherever they would like through St. Johns County.
“A key point in this is that public transportation goes beyond operation of the deviated fixed route Sunshine Bus system,” he said. “It also includes the para-transit service we provide to the public.”
On a recent day, a Sunshine bus took Redmond to a Walmart store near her house. “They were very helpful when it came taking me right to my residence, which I feel is so much different than other bus companies,” she said.
The Sunshine Bus Company offers frequent riders a special coin, which takes place of the fare they would pay per ride, and ultimately saves them money at $30 a month for unlimited rides.
Hesson said para-transit service is what makes Sunshine Bus Company essential to thousands of loyal riders, but the service has a cost.
“Para-transit service is door-to-door, generally from a person’s residence to their destination while the deviated fixed route, by its nature is curb-to-curb along a prescribed route and schedule. Para-transit service, while an essential part of the overall system, is more costly to operate than deviated fixed routes. A great deal of thought and effort goes into encouraging as many people as possible to use the Sunshine bus system rather than para-transit. We do this in part by taking into consideration where the more common origin/destination combinations are and routing the Sunshine Bus service accordingly. As a result our statistics show that as Sunshine Bus ridership goes up, para-transit ridership goes down,” said Hesson.
In today’s economy, some people do not earn enough money to buy a car and commute to work. Hesson tries to help those people.
“The majority of our riders are ‘transportation disadvantaged,’ meaning they don’t have a private means of transportation. With that in mind, the price of gas does not affect the number of trips they take. It does, however, affect our operating costs,” said Hesson.
Roberts said she agrees with Redmond, but says there is more to the debate.
“Public transportation is more sensitive to vehicle prices, car insurance rates, persons with licenses revoked, etc. Think about it, if you cannot afford a car, cannot have a driver’s license (due to DUI, physical disability, etc.), have had many accidents or moving violation so you have high insurance rates, etc. … all these drive bus ridership much more than gas prices.”