Now Reading
City vague on details of streetcar ridership

From the archive: This story is more than 5 years old.

City vague on details of streetcar ridership

  • Streetcars rolling through Downtown were packed Saturday, July 26, as Sun Link offered free rides on the first weekend of operations.
    Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.comStreetcars rolling through Downtown were packed Saturday, July 26, as Sun Link offered free rides on the first weekend of operations.

In the first week of paid ridership, Tucsonans took 28,000 trips aboard the new Sun Link streetcar system. With an average of more than 3,900 riding daily, the system's early ridership is more than the projection of 3,600. 

While it took several requests early this week for the first-week ridership totals to be released, city officials were even more reluctant to discuss how many of those riders were paying members of the general public. The figures released are based on counting every time someone steps on or off a streetcar, including drivers, Sun Link staff and law enforcement.

The number of trips by staff and public employees is "believed to be minimal," city spokeswoman Lane Mandle said Thursday.

"We don't know the real numbers," said City Councilman Steve Kozachik.

Last week, 27,730 riders took a trip on the four-mile streetcar line. Early in the week, ridership was slightly below the forecast average, but an increase Friday through Sunday means the streetcar carried well above the projected number.

In the first four days of paid ridership, nearly 13,000 Tucsonans jumped aboard the new Sun Link streetcar system. Over the system's opening weekend, some 60,000 took advantage of three days of free rides on the four-mile route.

Monday, 3,500 took a ride on the streetcar. Tuesday saw 3,140 riders on the route. On Wednesday, 3,130 rode the streetcar, while 3,200 rode on Thursday. On Friday, 4,900 rode, with 4,630 on Saturday and 5,220 on Sunday.

What's not certain is how many of those trips were paid fares.

While most have reported streetcars that are far from empty, riders have reported several incidents in which Sun Link's on-board fare-validating machines were not functioning. Others have reported troubles with the machines that vend streetcar passes.

Rather than being based on tallied paid fares, ridership numbers are tabulated from data collected by sensors on the streetcars, Mandle said Wednesday.

"The numbers are calculated by sensors at the doorways that count both boarding and alighting passengers," she said in an email.

"These numbers include everyone who boards," Mandle said. The sensors can differentiate between riders boarding and leaving the vehicles, she said.

"It's counting every time a human being passes through the doorway," Kozachik said.

Streetcar riders have reported some streetcars with a number of non-general public riders, in addition to drivers and fare enforcement staff, including a continuing police presence on the route.

"Fares sales are part of a regional fare system which is tracked on a monthly basis so we don't have that data yet," Mandle said.

The number of unpaid riders could be a significant factor in the city's totals.

"Trips" are reportedly calculated from one leg of the streetcar's run, rather than a round trip. If there were four public employees riding on a streetcar (and we've had informal reports of more than that), that would be eight "rides" for a complete round trip. With six streetcars on the route, that could be 48 being made by staff and police every hour. With 15 hours of service daily, that's 720 or more "rides" that aren't being made by the general public. That number could rise if those employees got on or off at mid-route stops.

Even if only an operator and fare enforcement staffer were counted, the tallying system could mean several hundred additional trips reported every day.

"At this point, the number of rides being made by staff, drivers and police is difficult to pinpoint, but is believed to be minimal," Mandle said Thursday.

Each streetcar carries an operator and police officer, with two fare inspectors working each shift, she said.

The reported number of riders don't mean "things went 'ka-ching' in the kiosks" that sell streetcar passes, Kozachik said.

"I don't want to rain on anyone's parade ... Ultimately, things are going to be fine, but we don't know what's accurate yet," said the Midtown Democrat.

Kozachik pointed out that many riders could be using passes already purchased to ride Sun Tran buses.

"And that's fine. We want to have an integrated system, but we can't say how many (streetcar riders) are new riders," he said.

Of course, even if hundreds of trips by public employees are included in the count, thousands of trips by ordinary Tucsonans are being made on the streetcar every day.

Early in the first week, officials said the number of riders were just less than projections, but cautioned that ridership should be judged over time.

"We reached 3,500 for our first day, which we are very pleased with considering the UA is not even in session yet," said Mandle last Tuesday.

City officials had previously estimated that early ridership would be about 3,600 daily.

That forecast of "average daily ridership," provided to the Federal Transit Administration in 2009, covered the first months of operations, not just the first few days.

"Let's talk next Monday and see where we are," city spokesman Mike Graham said last week. Ridership shouldn't be judged by the first days of paid operation, but over time, he said.

While there may still be curiosity-seekers during an early honeymoon period contributing to ridership statistics, officials pointed to other factors that will play into long-term ridership.

With the University of Arizona about to start the fall semester, and weekend events such as 2nd Saturdays attracting thousands Downtown, ridership would likely meet the projections even if the occasional weekday is less than the forecast, Graham said. Also, workers at Downtown businesses may find ways to make the streetcar part of their daily routine.

UA students, faculty and staff are being offered free rides on the streetcar Aug. 15-Sept. 14 if they register online. Fall semester passes are being offered by the university at a 50 percent discount.

Graham noted that widespread reports that the streetcar was projected to have 5,000 daily riders are based on an outdated projection. A ridership estimate of 5,700 daily included UA students being assessed a mandatory fee and given semester streetcar passes. That methodology was dismissed by the FTA and the 3,600 figure was included in the city's 2009 winning TIGER grant application. 

An earlier projection, made in 2006, estimated that ridership would be 4,200 daily in 2020.

A breakdown of how many riders purchased one-way fares, daily or monthly passes wasn't yet available, nor was the amount of operating revenue over the first days, Graham said last week.

"There is no 'break even' number. We are providing a public service. Fare box recovery doesn't cover 100 percent of the operating costs," Graham said.

Fares are $1.50 for a one-way ticket, with $4 daily passes and $42 monthly passes available. Fares and transfers are good on both the Sun Link streetcar and Sun Tran bus system.

While the website for the streetcar, set up by a PR firm, says that the "Tucson Modern Streetcar will be operated by the City of Tucson," the system is operated under a contract by RDMT, the American subsidiary of the state-owned French company that manages the Paris metro. Tucson's line is the company's first U.S. streetcar system, although it operates bus networks around the country.

— 30 —

Best in Internet Exploder