You can pay for TheBus with cash or a Smartrip card. No pennies! Image by the author.

This post is part of an ongoing series about how Prince George’s County could improve TheBus, its public bus system. You can read the previous post here, and the next installment here.

Prince George’s County is looking at ways to improve “TheBus,” its local bus service. Of all the local transit systems inside the Beltway, TheBus has by far the smallest fraction of its operating costs covered by fares, so there is a strong financial incentive to increase ridership and/or raise fares. But first we have to ask: why doesn’t TheBus make more money?

Fares and farebox recovery

TheBus has significantly lower ridership — 13,000 on the average weekday in 2016 compared to 80,000 on Ride On and 30,000 on Fairfax Connector — than bus networks in similarly-sized jurisdictions. This is partly due to the fact that TheBus serves a smaller fraction of local bus routes in Prince George’s because of the county’s heavy reliance on Metrobus for local service.

However, what is concerning is TheBus’s very low farebox recovery ratio, or the ratio between total fare revenue and total operating costs. TheBus’s ratio, 5.9%, is less than half the 15% of Fairfax Connector, and less than a third of the 20% of Ride On, and 23% of DASH. In Arlington County, ART has an even higher farebox recovery ratio of 30%.

Data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database. Image by the author.

Low farebox recovery is concerning for two reasons. First, it indicates that TheBus is not attracting as many riders as other systems do with similar operating costs. Second, since funding for transit is limited, a transit operator that recovers less of its costs with fares can’t afford to run as much service.

The low farebox recovery is partly explained by the fact that TheBus has the lowest fares in the region: $1.25 for a single ride, while DASH charges $1.60 and Ride-On, Fairfax Connector, and ART all charge $2.00.

Seniors ride TheBus for free, while Metrobus, ART, Ride On, and the Fairfax Connector all charge seniors $1. Low fares for TheBus make the regional transit system more equitable and inclusive, which is particularly important given that Prince George’s County residents are poorer on average than those of other jurisdictions, and also that income inequality within the county is similarly extreme.

While Prince George's median income is $78,700, almost exactly the Maryland state median, this wealth is mostly located outside of the Beltway. TheBus largely serves the inner and Beltway-fringe parts of the county where the median income is below the county's overall indicator. Keeping TheBus fares affordable is a valuable and very direct way to improve livability for these residents.

However, low fares are not sufficient to explain the difference in farebox recovery: DASH, which charges a fare only 130% of TheBus’s, has a farebox recovery ratio more than three times that of TheBus. DASH charges no fares on one of its 12 routes, the King Street-Old Town Trolley.

TheBus service is less cost-effective than in other jurisdictions

To avoid complications from differences in fares, we can instead directly compare TheBus’s cost-effectiveness to that of other local bus systems.

As we discussed in a previous post, TheBus costs less for the county to operate than it would cost for it to pay for Metrobus service on the same routes. However, it is the most expensive to operate out of all the bus networks operated by local jurisdictions.

In 2016, it cost $117.81 to provide one vehicle-hour of TheBus service, compared to $107.26 for Ride-On and $112.82 Fairfax Connector. DASH, ART, and the DC Circulator were cheaper to operate, averaging $82/vehicle hour, but shorter routes in smaller jurisdictions are cheaper to operate in general, making comparisons to those systems less fair.

In any case, the contractor that Prince George’s County hires to operate TheBus will be changing from Veolia TransDev to RATP, which will likely result in some changes to its costs.

The cost of providing a vehicle-hour of service isn’t necessarily the best measure of cost-effectiveness for a transit system. The purpose of bus service is to move passengers, not buses, so a more expensive-to-operate bus that carries many more people may still be more cost-effective.

Unfortunately, though, TheBus does even worse by this sort of metric. It costs TheBus an average of $8.50 to transport one passenger, compared to $5.45 for Ride-On, $4.63 for Metrobus, and less than four dollars for DASH, ART, and DC Circulator. Only Fairfax Connector has a higher cost for a passenger trip, $9.06, and its routes almost exclusively serve lower-density areas outside of the Beltway.

Data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database. Passengers are counted as “unlinked trips,” i.e. a transfer counts as a second trip.

This variation in cost is largely due to the fact that TheBus routes are generally lower-ridership than those on other systems. The average TheBus vehicle transports 13.9 passengers each hour it is in service, compared to 24.1 for Ride On, 20.0 for DASH, 21.2 for ART, 24.9 for the DC Circulator, and 32.9 for Metrobus. Only Fairfax Connector, with its outside-the-Beltway routes, serves less passengers per bus-hour, 12.5, than TheBus.

While the fact that it serves lower-density areas than DASH, ART, and the DC Circulator makes it harder for TheBus to achieve their numbers of passengers per bus-hour, Ride On, which serves low-density areas of Montgomery County such as Damascus, Silver Spring, and Bethesda manages similar numbers of passengers per bus-hour.

TheBus’s low number of passengers per bus-hour is a problem for the system’s budget since it makes it more expensive to serve the same number of passengers. It is also a sign that the service provided is insufficient to attract more passengers, and that the system has room for improvement.

How can TheBus improve service quality?

As we’ve watched SafeTrack unfold, we can all see the relationship between service quality and ridership. We encourage Prince George’s County not to use farebox recovery as its primary metric, which makes it tempting to pull on the lever of fares. Instead, we should focus on boosting ridership at current fare levels by improving the frequency and hours of service on higher-ridership routes.

It is still possible to submit your comments on how transportation could be improved in Prince George’s County. In upcoming posts, we will share more ideas for how to improve TheBus.

DW Rowlands is a human geography grad student and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website. They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.