What ridership, revenue numbers actually tell us about streetcar's performance

CINCINNATI -- "What's the ridership, and what's the revenue?"

That's what Cincinnati City Council's transportation committee chair Amy Murray posed as the critical question her committee needs to keep in sight going forward as Cincinnati's streetcar rolls into its fourth month of operation this week.

It's a reasonable point of view: Part of the city's streetcar operating budget relies on a projected amount of fare revenue per year to remain balanced, and that will continue to be the case moving forward.

But it became clear during Tuesday's committee meeting that one shouldn't mistake Murray's question to mean a one-to-one correlation between how many people ride the streetcar and how much revenue the streetcar generates, nor should fare revenue be considered the primary source of streetcar funding.

In fact, the number of factors that will determine whether or not the streetcar becomes and remains a viable transportation resource for the city center can be at best complicated and at worst mind-boggling.

Are enough people riding it?

As WCPO has previously reported, it's difficult to pair these questions in a clean way.

If total ridership count is a measurement of success or failure, these figures alone paint a mixed picture: According to data compiled by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- which oversees streetcar operations -- the streetcar saw nearly 229,000 rides from its Sept. 9 launch through Oct. 31, which is about 80,000 more than the transit authority expected.

By the same token, November saw a significant shortfall in ridership, with just shy of 50,000 rides recorded. That's about 36,000 rides short of the projections.

 

One explanation for the shortfall is that the ridership projections are old, according to SORTA spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers.

"The original projections for ridership were made by a consultant in 2011, before construction was even really underway," said Sallie Hilvers, spokeswoman for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which oversees streetcar operations.

"Projections are just that, projections, based on trends in other cities and the expertise of the consultant at the time," she told WCPO.

It's a point SORTA Director of Rail Services Paul Grether brought up repeatedly throughout the course of Tuesday's committee hearing.

"Flat ridership projections" -- meaning a static number of rides projected for every weekday and another for every weekend, throughout the entire year -- "are the only tool we have at our disposal with no history," Grether told the committee.

As for fare revenue projections, SORTA data show the streetcar actually exceeded projections for its first two months to the tune of roughly $113,000. September and October brought in approximately $209,000 in fare revenue. Revenue from city parking meters, advertising and sponsorships add another $155,000 in extra revenue.

When calculated with extra expenses incurred as a result of various hardware and software malfunctions upon launch -- particularly snags with the streetcar's ticket-vending machines -- and other unanticipated costs, the streetcar through October saw a net surplus of roughly $81,000.

Fare revenue and ridership counts are measured independently, due to streetcar fares' being time-sensitive -- that is, someone who purchases an hour-long fare for $1 might ride once or three times in that hour. For this reason, revenue projections are based on an average of 62 cents per ride.

READ MORE: 1 month in, 9 things we've learned about streetcar

Fare revenue numbers for November were not yet available, but even if they fall short, Hilvers said she is not worried, given the first two months' surplus.

"That gives us a cushion for the winter months, when ridership might be lower," she said.

Committee member Kevin Flynn said he remains "cautiously optimistic" after seeing the most recent revenue reports, citing the need for City Council to firm up a strategy for a capital reserve attached to the streetcar, in order to plan for unexpected expenses.

Is it a reliable service? 

Numbers aside, the committee was almost unanimous in its agreement that the streetcar needs to offer more reliable service.

Both Murray and committee member Wendell Young cited what they referred to as "numerous emails per day" from streetcar riders reporting delayed service or inaccurate arrival times displayed at streetcar stations. The latter is an issue that has persisted since the streetcar's launch in September.

"We don't want to give people the wrong impression about the streetcar," Young said Tuesday.

Tuesday wasn't the first time committee members have expressed concern over the way would-be passengers perceive the streetcar, as reports of initially high ridership and other positive feedback have been mixed with stories of delays and technical difficulties.

Most recently, streetcar service halted for more than an hour in the heart of Downtown when a two-alarm fire shut down Walnut Street between Sixth and Seventh streets, right along the streetcar route.

The month of November alone saw 44 track blockages, Grether told the committee Tuesday, saying that only a "minority" of those blockages were a result of emergency vehicles responding to an incident along the tracks.

Beyond track blockages, Downtown congestion -- a concern long before the streetcar -- has returned to the conversation with renewed vigor since the streetcar's launch, with as many as four of the approximately 75-foot vehicles moving through the heart of the city during rush hour.

Then there are the reported headaches with the ticket-vending machines and arrival displays, which leaders have boiled down to hardware and software problems, some of which have been addressed, others not.

The arrival displays are probably the biggest problem, currently: Grether said the discrepancies are the result of a software issue, and SORTA is putting pressure on the vendor, real-time location data provider Trapeze Group, to resolve those issues, including exploring -- at Murray's request -- the possibility of recouping damages from Trapeze.

Too soon to tell

Tuesday's committee meeting ended with no clear picture of how the streetcar has fared in its first three months of operation.

It would seem the "too soon to tell" mentality is built into the operations contract itself, which calls for a review of service schedules after six months of operation. 

Hilvers stressed the streetcar's infancy, and the long-term nature of rail projects like this.

"The system is not yet even three months old," she said. "I think seeing how the trends play out, seeing how the community is using the streetcar right now, that's really what we're doing."

Part of this gets to what Grether referred to as the streetcar's lack of ridership history, upon which to base service recommendations and expectations.

COLUMN: 9 takeaways from 2 months of streetcar ridership data

SORTA is also adjusting to a reversal of what ridership projections predicted regarding weekday versus weekend ridership: So far, weekends have outperformed weekdays by wide margins, prompting increased service on Saturdays and Sundays and making some wonder if weekday service should be reduced, a notion that seemed to chafe Vice Mayor and committee member David Mann: "I don't think it's as simple as, 'No one's riding the streetcar at 3 p.m., so let's cut service.'"

Committee member Yvette Simpson asked if SORTA and the city were doing enough to encourage weekday ridership:

Another component is a bit more structural: City Council decided last month that, even without the streetcar's launch, Downtown and Over-the-Rhine were due for a reassessment of their traffic signal patterns. The last time those patterns were studied was more than 20 years ago.

"We're way behind on this," Murray said. Signal reassessments more typically occur every five to 10 years, she said.

Specifically, given the urban core's position between Interstate 75 to the west and Interstate 71 to the east, signal patterns have traditionally favored east-west movement over north-south. The majority of the streetcar's track alignment moves north-south.

But even the traffic signal study didn't come without controversy. When council considered whether or not to approve the study -- which will cost about $300,000 to conduct -- Mayor John Cranley called it "wasteful spending" and suggested that money should be saved for future maintenance and operations costs.

Flynn also mentioned the study Tuesday as an additional expense that obscures the question of the streetcar's financial health.

As far as ridership, Hilvers suspects seasonal streetcar ridership will mirror Cincinnati Metro buses: "In the winter you sometimes see people slack off from riding again, but then once spring hits, my sense is that ridership will probably increase, as it does on the bus side," she said.

"But then again," she added, "we might see people who might have walked a few blocks to lunch Downtown decide to take the streetcar to escape the cold."

Committee member P.G. Sittenfeld agreed, saying he anticipates streetcar trends to mirror those of other service industries.

"I imagine, like at Neon's in OTR, say, January and February might be slow months, and then it could pick up again in March or April," Sittenfeld said.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and development for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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