Bend may not have the level of bus service some would like the city to have. It does continue to have something special: For now, it’s free.
And on May 1, which for many readers is today, bus service on Saturday returns. Dial-A-Ride will also offer Saturday and Sunday service. That’s welcome news for people who ride the bus or to anybody who wants to see more use of transit.
But has the pandemic changed the appetite for transit? Will transit be changing with it? It seems likely what people call microtransit will grow.
Traditional, fixed-route buses can still be the right answer in many cases. One example may be the Ride the River Shuttle. That’s used by many people who float the river in Bend. Another is the shuttle out to Lava Butte. Cascades East Transit is proposing an increased fare for the river shuttle from $3 to $4 a day. A fare increase is also proposed for the Lava Butte shuttle from $2 to $3. The board of Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council is scheduled to vote on those next week.
Those proposed increases are in part driven by the pandemic. Oregon Health Authority guidelines mean fewer people can ride on each bus. CET will likely have to run more shuttles with more drivers to meet demand.
Overall ridership for all CET services has been down because of the pandemic — even after CET switched to no-cost bus fares. For instance, total ridership was down 30% year over year comparing March 2020 to March 2021.
We do wonder how much after the pandemic the future needs for transit have been reshaped. Some people will not be returning to work as often. Telecommuting may become more permanent. Many people will still need transit to get to work, get to the store and get to other places they want to go. Microtransit may better suit their needs and provide more flexibility for CET.
Microtransit is more of an on-demand system with smaller vans that can vary service level according to demand or even take people right to their destination. Typically passengers can request rides through apps on their phones. There’s already been some experiments with that in Bend, and CET has more pilots in its planning documents.
People may find it more appealing, as long as the fare is reasonable. It can be an excellent way to meet demand during off-hours or in areas where there is low demand for service. The hourly unit cost can also be lower than a fixed-route bus.
The pandemic may have shifted the need of transit. And more microtransit could better meet the need.