To accommodate returning college students, Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit is expanding the number of bus routes running through campus this spring.
When many Cornell students left for the winter, TCAT buses operated on a reduced schedule from Nov. 29 through Feb. 6. Now, running on an expanded spring schedule, most buses are equipped with free Wi-Fi with hopes to increase ridership. And, in an effort to fulfill the company’s sustainability commitment, it plans to add seven battery-powered buses to its fleet.
TCAT Assistant General Manager Matt Yarrow said because Cornell students attended most of their classes virtually during the fall semester, TCAT ridership across campus was low, compared to previous semesters.
Routes running directly through campus typically do well when Cornell is in session, according to Yarrow. The fall semester, however, saw significant drops in student ridership on Cornell-oriented routes, compared to city routes taking riders to shopping, health care and residential areas.
While ridership has started to pick up after it dropped by more than 90 percent last March, it is still down by 75 percent of its pre-coronavirus numbers, according to Patty Poist, TCAT communications and marketing manager.
“Ridership has been edging back up,” Poist said. “But it is still too hard to forecast transit demand going forward.”
Because TCAT is not certain of demand this spring, the company has carried out measures to make its bus routes flexible. According to Poist, instead of scheduling additional service in advance, bus operators will remain in contact with dispatchers. If there is a surge in demand, drivers and buses are prepared to go into service if needed.
“Having some degree of flexibility in the fixed-route service we offer helps our riders while ensuring that TCAT uses its resources wisely,” Yarrow said.
Along with low ridership trends and uncertainty in demand this spring, the company is facing what Scot Vanderpool, TCAT general manager, called its biggest challenge yet: customers working from home.
“The current trend of working remotely is one of our biggest concerns coming out of this pandemic,” Vanderpool said. “We have a lot of work to do to get our customers back.”
As the company works to meet its sustainability commitments, TCAT received grants to buy the seven electric buses from Proterra, which will replace some of the company’s older diesel ones, according to Poist.
Customers want to help reduce carbon emissions, Vanderpool said, so knowing that they are riding on a battery-powered bus will add to the customer experience.
“This is a community that will embrace sustainable efforts and support transit,” Vanderpool said. “It’s really community support that brings optimism and tells us that we have a good chance to get back to where we were in 2019.”