County transportation ridership slowly coming back after taking a hit during pandemic
By Jak Krouse
Essex County Public Transportation bus driver Bonnie Williams would have a lonely job if it wasn’t for the man who moved into Ray Brook.
Scott Lewis, 33, has been working at the Maplefield Convenience store and camping around Lake Placid for about a month. Without a car or an affordable place in town to sleep, he’s been relying on public transportation to do his laundry, grocery shop, connect to Wi-Fi and everything else in between.
“Bonnie and I are the average number of people on the bus,” Lewis said. “We’re close.”
“We are now,” Williams, 59, who has driven the Essex coaches for three years, agreed.
A picture of public transportation
The driver and her passenger are travelers in a moving story about public transit ridership across the Adirondack Park.
Williams navigates from Elizabethtown to Saranac Lake and back three times a day. She picks up Lewis on almost every one of her trips to take him into Lake Placid. She said that after she drops him off, most of the time it’s just her on the trip back to Elizabethtown.
“I usually get about three passengers a day,” Williams said. “I’ve never had a full bus.”
The Cascade Express costs $2 to ride from Elizabethtown to Saranac or back, that’s cheaper than the gas it would cost for most personal vehicles to travel the 35 miles. Williams said she makes sure to be timely to every stop, clean the bus every day and, of course, collect the fare.
In spite of drivers’ efforts, public transportation systems across the northern Adirondacks have seen fluctuations in ridership over the last few years.
In Essex County, ridership dropped from over 100,000 in 2019 to below 40,000 for 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The total number of riders is starting to rise again and was back up to close to 75,000 in 2022, according to Essex County Transportation Coordinator Doreen Abrahamsen.
Abrahamsen said ridership is increasing, but the pandemic had a lingering effect, particularly on the workers who use the bus.
“I believe that COVID forced people into changing the type of jobs that they look for and the way people get to and from work. People had to find different ways to get where they needed to go,” Abrahamsen said. “I think there’s been somewhat of a shift in what public transit means to people.”
Low county bus ridership in other communities
Clinton County and Franklin County also saw a fall in ridership by more than 50% during the pandemic but both report usage is climbing to pre-COVID numbers. St. Lawrence County has continued to grow, around 46,000 riders in 2019 and almost 100,000 in 2022.
Michelle Quinell-Gayle is community relations director for the Arc Jefferson – St. Lawrence, which owns and operates St. Lawrence County Public Transit. She credits their steady rise in ridership to a series of promotional programs.
She said the buses provide grocery routes which are heavily used by the Amish community to access food. The transportation system partners with local colleges to ferry students to classes and it provides free-ride coupons for the elderly to get to the farmers market. The other counties offer similar promotional and collaborative efforts to support riders.
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Public transportation systems are in a constant battle to balance their resources and the needs of the riders. While the goal isn’t ridership numbers, Abrahamsen said they do impact how many buses, routes, and subsequently people a department can serve.
Neither Williams nor Lewis wanted to speculate why ridership numbers have charted like a roller coaster course the past few years. But they both agreed that they wished more people would ride the bus, if only to make the trips less lonely.
“I do have a theory on why people don’t ride the bus, but it’s just a theory,” Lewis said as he disembarked outside his campground from his third trip of the day. “I think people worry about what other people think. People see it as, if I ride the bus, I’m lower class. I don’t agree.”
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