In-Demand Drivers Means On-Demand Buses

Declining ridership, transit driver shortage mean you may have to call ahead to catch the bus in Santa Fe

Billy Gibbons, the legendary guitarist and co-singer of ZZ Top, growls “Have mercy, been waitin’ for the bus all day,” in the band’s hit “Waitin’ for the Bus.” He continues: “Old bus be packed up tight.”

For regular city bus riders in Santa Fe, only part of Gibbons’ lament rings true. More than half of Santa Fe’s bus routes are now running “on-demand” schedules, meaning that while riders may be looking for mercy while they wait, those buses are probably not especially packed.

On a recent blustery morning, Paul Volmer waits with his bike in a section of the Santa Fe Place parking lot that also serves as one of the city’s transit centers. Volmer says he takes the Route 21 bus regularly to the Santa Fe Community College, where he studies film. But it’s sometimes faster to bike the 4 miles when “you take in all the waiting.”

Here’s how it works: After he gets to the bus stop, Volmer calls the city transit department and requests a ride. It’s a lot like requesting a ride from Lyft or Uber, especially since Volmer is often the only passenger, except, unlike with the ride-sharing services, he’s riding alone in a full-sized bus.

“Sometimes I feel guilty,” Volmer tells SFR. “I’m using a whole bus to go back and forth.”

Six of the 10 Santa Fe Trails bus routes posted on the city’s website are at least partially on-demand, which is not likely a surprise to regular riders because they’ve been that way for a while.

Ridership fell when the pandemic began and a number of drivers retired, Thomas Martinez, director of the city’s Transit Division, tells SFR. He says the division also had a “very, very hard time recruiting drivers,” and lower ridership meant nearly empty buses running routes. Martinez would not provide an exact date for when the change took place, noting it was “about a year to a year and a half ago.”

“We needed to make some decisions,” Martinez says “So, we took our lowest ridership routes, and we switched them over to on-demand.”

But, Martinez says, once the division gets to a “workable workforce,” routes will revert back to regularly scheduled routes.

Ridership figures provided by Martinez and analyzed by SFR show the number of riders decreased by more than 50% from 2019 to 2020 and by another 15% in 2021. So far this year, ridership has dropped by about 6% compared to last year. For perspective, there were more than 750,000 riders in 2019 and about 279,000 riders so far this year.

According to a 2021 US Department of Transportation report, ridership across the country has been declining for the past 10 years. But there was a steep dip nationally in 2020 that continued into 2021.

Martinez says the division has 62 “fixed driving positions” filled and another 36 vacant positions. For context, he says the department usually had five to seven open positions prior to the pandemic.

The city’s appointed Transit Advisory Board didn’t have a say in the change to on-demand service—likely because it hasn’t met since the beginning of the pandemic, Marcos Maez, who serves on the panel, tells SFR via email.

“Our hope is to resume our [Transit Advisory Board] meetings as soon as possible; however, we are running into issues with recruiting new members and making quorum,” Maez writes. “Like many areas, the pandemic prompted shifts which meant we lost members.”

Maez says the switch has likely helped many riders—and it’s less expensive than using ride-sharing services.

“The on-demand service provides some riders with easier access to the places they need to be,” Maez says.

Like the City of Santa Fe, the North Central Regional Transit District has partially shifted to on-demand routes, according to the agency’s spokesman, Jim Nagle. The regional agency formerly operated its Turquoise Trail route south out of Santa Fe to Madrid, but now provides that only on-demand

Martinez says Santa Fe public transit riders are growing accustomed to the new, and likely temporary, changes and drivers are making more efficient trips.

“At first, it was a bumpy ride, and then of course, getting people used to doing it took a little bit,” he adds. “But as we go, we get better and better at it.”

For on-demand service on Santa Fe Trails routes 5, 6, 21, 22 and the Musuem Hill route on weekdays and weekends as well as Route 24 and 26 on weekends, contact dispatchers at (505) 955-2001.

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