Connect Transit Bucks Trend With Ridership Increase This Year

Local transit officials say route changes, new shelters, and even an app are all helping drive a significant increase in ridership this year on Bloomington-Normal’s bus system.

Connect Transit ridership rose 7.7 percent in the past seven months, said Isaac Thorne, the transit system’s general manager. That’s in contrast to other transit agencies across the country that have seen ridership fall at least 5 percent during that time, in part because of falling gas prices and the popularity of ride-sharing apps, Thorne said.

The biggest difference-maker, Thorne said, was last year’s restructuring of Connect Transit’s routes, leading to increased frequency of buses. Many routes that had buses only once an hour changed to buses every 30 minutes or less, Thorne said. The Green route—traveling on Main and Center streets between Uptown Normal and downtown Bloomington—now has a bus every 15 minutes on weekdays.

“Frequency matters. Frequency is freedom for people to ride the bus,” Thorne said.

That increase is ridership has accelerated in the past few months. Ridership is up 9.4 percent for the fiscal year that began July 1. Connect Transit is on pace for 2.4 million rides for the year, up from 2.2 million rides last year, Thorne said.

Other factors contributing to the increase in ridership:

  • Additional route adjustments that went into effect this fall, including changes on the Green and Purple lines and the creation of the Silver route on the city’s west side. The Silver route has become popular, Thorne said, with 6,000 rides in October alone.
  • Connect Transit’s app, which delivers real-time tracking for people waiting for their bus, has been downloaded 16,000 times since it launched in August 2016. Users have logged more than 2.5 million sessions during that time.
  • Fifteen new bus shelters have been installed in the past year, including the recent addition of attention-grabbing decals with the Connect Transit logo.

One area where ridership is struggling is near Eastland Mall. In June Connect Transit lost its transfer center on the Eastland Mall property (behind JCPenney and Kohl’s) because the mall is doing redevelopment, Thorne said. Buses are now stopping on Eastland Drive to the south, near Bergner’s, but that change has cut daily riders from around 150 people to 100, Thorne said.

“We might be invited back into the parking lot. We’re not sure at this point. It is having an impact on ridership,” said Thorne, noting they’re waiting to see the impact during the holiday shopping season.

Downtown Transfer Center

Meanwhile, Connect Transit continues to explore the creation of a new transfer center in downtown Bloomington replace the existing Front Street location, which serves 1,300 people daily.

One idea recently proposed by the Downtown Bloomington Task Force is to build a new transfer center as part of a joint project with the Bloomington Public Library. Under the proposal, the aging Market Street garage would be demolished, and a new library-transit project built in its place.

Thorne said the next step for the transit system is to do a feasibility study, looking at properties owned by the City of Bloomington, to determine “where Connect Transit can build a downtown transfer center that can house 10 buses at a time.” The initial work would be done by January, he said.

“The downtown area we’re currently at (on Front Street) just doesn’t have the infrastructure or the amenities to have 1,300 people getting onto the bus there,” Thorne said.

Editor’s note: GLT Program Director Mike McCurdy is chair of the Connect Transit board.

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