Quick Take:

Without students at Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz, ridership has all but evaporated. Students typically make up 60% of the bus system’s riders.

The pandemic has hit Santa Cruz Metro, the county’s public bus system, hard. Between stay-at-home orders, remote work and the absence of college students, buses have been nearly empty for months.

The number of people getting on Metro buses every week is down by nearly 80% compared to this time last year, and revenues were down by $1.3 million as of New Year’s Eve, according to preliminary estimates.

“Ridership is just tanking,” Metro CEO Alex Clifford told the Watsonville City Council last week, as he shared the depressing figures.

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At its lowest point, in April, there were only 7,000 Metro passengers per week, a huge drop from 125,000 rides per week in March 2019. The pattern of ridership on county buses in 2020 closely followed the pattern of the economy: lockdowns meant activity would decrease, and reopening would create an uptick in Metro usage.

“We rode that roller coaster,” Clifford said.

By December, Metro was seeing 10,442 rides per week, and the numbers were starting to tick back up. But that’s far short of where the system expected to be in January 2021.

A big part of the problem is that Metro’s most frequent customer base — students at Cabrillo College, UC Santa Cruz and other educational institutions — has all but evaporated. Students make up 60% of the bus system’s riders, but with schools closed, that reliable base is gone.

“Definitely if UCSC and Cabrillo come back in the fall, we’re going to see an increase overnight in ridership in that area,” said Danielle Glagola, Metro’s marketing, communications and customer service director.

In order to save money without widespread staff cuts, Metro gave bus drivers different shifts and reduced the number of trips it was offering on certain lines. The biggest cuts were to the Highway 17 route, which lost three trips per day on weekdays and two trips per day on weekends, Glagola said.

The agency also received a boost in the form of $21 million in coronavirus relief funding. More funds, about $14.5 million combined, are expected to start coming down soon, Clifford said.

“All of that is going to help us try to ride out the economic downturn that follows with COVID,” he said.

The hope — albeit a very uncertain one — is that by the time Metro runs out of the money in its reserves, the economy will have rebounded or a new aid package will be on its way.

“All of that is an unknown, and that unknown means we have to manage the resources we have very very carefully,” he said.

In the meantime, the transit system has been working to become more modern and tech-savvy to new and returning riders in coming months.

In November, Metro installed smart doorbell-type consoles at transit centers in Watsonville and Santa Cruz to make up for the lack of in-person customer service due to COVID-19. When a rider has a question or concern, they can push a button and connect with a customer service representative virtually. The new system helps “put the personal touch back in,” Glagola said.

By early March, Metro plans to extend route 35 in the San Lorenzo Valley all the way to Santa Cruz, add service back to route 55 (Rio Del Mar) and add four more trips to route 16 (UCSC via Laurel East).

Smarter bus stops are also on the way. In addition to streamlining the look of the bus stops and route maps, Metro will replace some outdated bus shelters by the end of the summer and launch its first mobile ticketing app. Passengers on local routes and Highway 17 Express buses can buy tickets on the app, Splash Pass.

The idea is to have an app that contains useful information on bus routes and schedules, but also allows riders to see how full an incoming bus is — an added bonus in the COVID-19 era. Technology, when combined with plexiglass partitions between rows, daily sanitizing procedures, widespread mask usage and other health protocols, can help make people feel more safe when riding the bus.

“We want people to feel more at home,” Glagola said.

Metro leaders are also considering expanding WiFi access on buses, and creating more contactless payment and ticketing options for riders – another idea that came to the fore during the pandemic.

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Follow Isabella Cueto on: Twitter. Isabella joins the Lookout team as a government accountability reporter, building on her experience covering local government for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.Before...